A Sermon for Sunday: St. Bernard of Clairvaux/Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost; Revd Dr Robert Wilson

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux/Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost  

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as commemorating the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. St. Bernard was born at Fontaines, a castle near Dijon in 1090. Though the son of a Burgundian noble he desired to renounce the worldly status of his family and enter the religious life. He entered the newly founded monastery at Citeaux, which was founded by St. Robert and St. Stephen Harding on the strictest interpretation of the Benedictine rule, later known as Cistercian. His family and friends had decided to dissuade him from this course, but such was St. Bernard’s influence over them that he managed to persuade four of his brothers as well as an uncle to join him. In total he induced thirty one men to follow him. It became clear to the abbot of Citeaux, St. Stephen Harding, that St. Bernard was a natural leader. After three years he was sent to establish a new monastery in the diocese at Langres in Champagne. They initially struggled in the harsh environment. St. Bernard was excessively severe in his discipline. He later recognised this fault and the monastery began to flourish. The name of the place was changed to Clairvaux. It proved to be a pioneering venture that others soon followed elsewhere, and the Cistercian order grew very rapidly. Though St. Bernard was naturally more inclined to the life of contemplation than the life of action his natural gifts of leadership led to his advice being actively sought in the wider Church. In the disputed papal election of 1130 St. Bernard intervened strongly on the side of the ultimately successful candidate, Innocent II, and was present at the Second Lateran Council. He was a close friend of St. Malachy of Armagh, and this helped to establish the Cistercian order in Ireland. A disciple of St. Bernard, Eugenius III, eventually himself became Pope and greatly benefited from St. Bernard’s advice. In 1144, after the Seljuk Turks had captured Edessa. Pope Eugenius commissioned St. Bernard to preach a Second Crusade. Unfortunately, the Crusade proved a disaster and entirely failed to regain the ground that had been lost. St. Bernard had tried to unite the peaceful austerity of the monastic life with the militaristic aims of the Crusaders, but they simply could not be harmonised in practice. He failed to realise that promoting violence was ultimately self defeating, and the Crusade was a failure even in worldly terms. Though some of his causes may have been misguided, his preaching has certainly stood the test of time and his sermons are often used in the Breviary. His discourses on the Song of Songs are justly revered as a model for preachers. His austerities led him to suffer from ill health for much of his life and he died on this day in 1153.  

Why did the Cistercian interpretation of the Benedictine rule take hold so quickly under the influence of St. Bernard? At the time of the first foundation in Citeaux, the Cluniac order was the most prominent. This emphasised the importance of well endowed monasteries and elaborate ceremonies. The liturgy as celebrated at Cluny was magnificent, but the monks were pillars of the established order and it was all very different from the original ideals of St. Benedict, which had sought a balance between the life of prayer and manual labour. The new foundation at Citeaux was designed to restore that balance which the Cluniac order had lost. Whereas at Cluny the liturgical life essentially displaced the life of work for the monks, at Citeaux the life of manual labour was seen as just as important as liturgical prayer. St. Benedict had famously said that idleness is the enemy of the soul. The Cistercians therefore sought remote locations where the land was uncultivated. Rather than relying on rents and endowments they cultivated the land themselves. Their architecture was plain and simple, since they believed that elaborate church furnishings were a distraction from the life of prayer. They developed the use of lay brothers. These were employed by the monastery to work on the land and had some religious obligations without being monks in the full sense. They enabled the Cistercian monastery to be self sufficient. The Cistercians had in effect a workforce of their own and did not therefore need to rely on rents, endowments and benefactors. The original Benedictine monasteries had all been self governing with no central authority. By contrast, the Cluniacs were all dependencies of the abbey at Cluny. The Cistercians sought to achieve a balance between the localism of the Benedictines and centralism of the Cluniacs. Cistercian monasteries were self governing on Benedictine lines, but they also had a strong central authority that had overall responsibility for the order. There was a system of reporting to the central authority and of regular visitations to individual monasteries. This meant that if an individual monastery were struggling the central authority could intervene to support it. Resources were not wasted on costly church furnishings, but used to invest in the growth of the order. The Cistercians had essentially captured a new market, and consequently spread very rapidly throughout the twelfth century. It was not until the thirteenth century that the friars replaced them as the great pioneers of the age.  

The paradox of the Cistercian order is that although they were determined to be unworldly they proved very successful in economic terms. They sought remote locations to be away from the world and deliberately avoided any luxury and ostentation. This meant that in the expanding economy of twelfth century Europe they effectively captured a new market by occupying and cultivating land which others did not want. They were a self governing, autonomous organisation that had their own workforce (the lay brothers) and so did not have to rely on rents and endowments from others. They also had a system for supporting monasteries that were struggling by using the economic gains the order had made to subsidise them. They combined spiritual power (the life of prayer) with economic efficiency.  

It is important to emphasise this point today because we often see people who seek to withdraw from the world and enter the religious life as abandoning their responsibilities to society. They are seen as people who are not contributing to the economic growth of a society. The Cistercian order shows how in the past exactly the opposite was sometimes the case. The religious life and economic  progress often went hand in hand. Much of the pioneering work in cultivating unoccupied land in twelfth century Europe was done by the Cistercian order. Rather than being enemies of economic progress, the Cistercians were a crucial dynamic force that drove it.  

The life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux illustrates the importance of the principle of withdrawal from the world in order to be more fully involved in it. St. Bernard had desired to leave behind the world of the military aristocracy that he had been brought up with. Though he was naturally drawn to the life of contemplation rather than the life of action his advice was actively sought and he was very influential in worldly terms. He could preach sermons that are high expressions of mystical piety, but also engineer the growth of a new religious order that proved the most dynamic in terms of economic enterprise at the time.  

Let us pray that we will be enabled to follow this example in our own time and place.      

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