Bernard of Clairvaux

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Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090August 21 1153), abbot of Clairvaux, was a highly influential French churchman, theologian and mystic. He was one of the founders of the Cistercian, or Bernardine, monastic order.


  • Experto crede: aliquid amplius invenies in silvis, quam in libris. Ligna et lapides docebunt te, quod a magistris audire non possis.
    • Believe me, you will find more lessons in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters.
    • Epistola CVI, sect. 2; translation from Edward Churton The Early English Church ([1840] 1841) p. 324.
  • Sunt qui scire volunt tantum, ut sciant, et turpis curiositas est.
    • To learn in order to know is scandalous curiosity. (Translation from Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard)
    • Then you have some people who wish to know for the sake of knowing, and that is scandalous curiosity. (Translation from J. Van Herwaarden, Between Saint James and Erasmus: Studies in Late-Medieval Religious Life)
    • Sermones in Cantica XXXVI, Migne PL 183, col. 968-969.
  • Among us on the earth there is His memory; but in the Kingdom of heaven His very Presence. That Presence is the joy of those who have already attained to beatitude; the memory is the comfort of us who are still wayfarers, journeying towards the Fatherland.
    • From, On Loving of God, Paul Halsall trans., Ch. 3
  • Liberavi animam meam.
    • I have freed my soul.
    • Letter to Abbot Suger, Epistles no. 371 (c. 1147)
  • What of the souls already released from their bodies? We believe that they are overwhelmed in that vast sea of eternal light and of luminous eternity
    • From, On Loving of God, Paul Halsall trans., Ch. 11 .
  • I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself,
    as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial
    But if sometimes a poor mortal feels that heavenly joy for a rapturous moment, then this wretched life envies his happiness,
    the malice of daily trifles disturbs him, this body of death weighs him down, the needs of the flesh are imperative,
    the weakness of corruption fails him, and above all brotherly love calls him back to duty.
    Alas! that voice summons him to re-enter his own round of existence; and he must ever cry out lamentably,
    ‘O Lord, I am oppressed: undertake for me’ (Isa. 38.14); and again, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Rom. 7.24).
  • Seeing that the Scripture saith, God has made all for His own glory (Isa. 43.7), surely His creatures ought to conform themselves, as much as they can, to His will. In Him should all our affections center, so that in all things we should seek only to do His will, not to please ourselves. And real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in gaining transient pleasures, but in accomplishing God’s will for us: even as we pray every day: ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6.10). O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any admixture of selfishness, and sweetened by contact with the divine will! To reach this state is to become deified. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red-hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated as to be light itself; so in the saints all human affections melt away by some unspeakable transmutation into the will of God. For how could God be all in all, if anything merely human remained in man? The substance will endure, but in another beauty, a higher power, a greater glory. When will that be? Who will see, who possess it? ‘When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?’ (Ps. 42.2). ‘My heart hath talked of Thee, Seek ye My face: Thy face, Lord, will I seek’ (Ps. 27.8). Lord, thinkest Thou that I, even I shall see Thy holy temple?
    • From, On Loving of God, Paul Halsall trans., Ch. 10
      To lose thyself, as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial
  • Bestia illa de Apocalypsi, cui datum est os loquens blasphemias, et bellum gerere cum sanctis (Apoc. XIII, 5-7), Petri cathedram occupat, tanquam leo paratus ad praedam.
    • That beast of the Apocalypse, to whom is given a mouth speaking blasphemies, and to make war with the saints, is sitting on the throne of Peter, like a lion ready for his prey.
    • To Magister Geoffrey of Loretto (afterwards Archbishop of Bordeaux), Letter 37 ( c. 1131), in Some Letters of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (1904), Dr. Samuel John Eales, trans., John Hodges, London, p. 139. [1]
    • "That beast" to which Bernard refers is antipope Peter Leonis.
  • Non est jam dicere, "Ut populus, sic sacerdos"; quia nec si populus, ut sacerdos.
    • One cannot now say, the priest is as the people, for the truth is that the people are not so bad as the priest.
    • In Conversione S. Pauli, Sermon 1, sect. 3; translation by James Spedding, in The Works of Francis Bacon (1860) vol. 12, p. 134.
    • Ut populus, sic sacerdos is a quotation from Isaiah 24:2.
  • Qui se sibi magistrum constituit, stulto se discipulum subdit.
    • He that will teach himself in school, becomes a scholar to a fool.
    • Epistola LXXXVII, sect. 7; translation from Notes and Queries, 3rd series, vol. 11, p. 192.
  • Vulgo dicitur: Quod non videt oculus, cor non dolet.
    • It is commonly said: What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve.
    • In Festo Omnium Sanctorum, Sermo 5, sect. 5; translation from Scottish Notes and Queries, 1st series, vol. 7, p. 59.
  • Qui me amat, amat et canem meam.
    • Who loves me, loves my dog.
    • In Festo Sancti Michaelis, Sermo 1, sect. 3; translation from Richard Chevenix Trench, Archbishop of Dublin On the Lessons in Proverbs ([1853] 1856) p. 148.
    • Bernard quotes this as being a proverb in common use.
  • Ego addo et de pertinacia Græcorum, qui nobiscum sunt, et nobiscum non sunt, juncti fide, pace divisi, quanquam et in fide ipsa claudicaverint a semitis rectis.
    • I, for one, shall speak about those obstinate Greeks, who are with us and against us, united in faith and divided in peace, though in truth their faith may stray from the straight path.
    • De Consideratione (1149-1152), lib. III (1152), c. I; Book of Considerations, part III, ch. I.
    • "Greeks" refers to the (Eastern) Orthodox Church.
  • "My burden is light," said the blessed Redeemer, a light burden indeed, which carries him that bears it. I have looked through all nature for a resemblance of this, and seem to find a shadow of it in the wings of a bird, which are indeed borne by the creature, and yet support her flight towards heaven.
    The wings of a bird, which are indeed borne by the creature, and yet support her flight towards heaven
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 88.
  • The true measure of loving God is to love Him without measure.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 395.
  • The faith of simplicity is mocked, the secrets of Christ profaned, questions on the highest things are impertinently asked, the Fathers scorned because they were disposed to conciliate rather than solve such problems. Human reason is snatching everything to itself, leaving nothing for faith. It falls upon things which are beyond it...desecrates sacred things more than clarifies them. It does not unlock mysteries and symbols, but tears them asunder; it makes nought of everything to which it cannot gain access and disdains to believe all such things.
    • Reported in Walter Nigg, The Heretics: Heresy Through the Ages (1962) (who cites Adolph Hausrath 1895 as a source)
  • Prostrate, see Thy cross I grasp,
    And Thy pierced feet I clasp;
    Gracious Jesus, spurn me not;
    On me, with compassion fraught,
    Let Thy glances fall.
    Thy cross of agony,
    My Beloved, look on me;
    Turn me wholly unto Thee;
    "Be thou whole," say openly:
    "I forgive thee all."
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 398.
      Turn me wholly unto Thee; "Be thou whole," say openly: "I forgive thee all."
  • Our King [Jesus] is accused of treachery; it is said of him [by the Muslims] that he is not God, but that he falsely pretended to be something he was not.
    • As quoted in Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? : Understanding the Differences between Christianity and Islam (2002) by Timothy George, p. 49
  • Obey your bishop! “Obey those set over you [Heb 13:17],” the teachers of the Church…. I remind you, my dear friends, of what I said when I was with you: do not receive any outside or unknown preacher, unless he be sent by your bishop or preaches with the permission of the pope. For “how shall they preach unless they are sent [Rom 10:15]?”
  • Do what Jesus says,... what he commands through his ministers who are in the Church [see 1 Cor 6:4]. Be subject to his vicars, your leaders, not only those who are gentle and kind, but even those who are overbearing [see 1 Pt 2:18].
  • It’s not as if grace did one half of the work and free choice the other; each does the whole work, in its own peculiar contribution. Grace does the whole work, and so does free choice – with this one qualification: That whereas the whole is done in free choice, so is the whole done of grace.
    • On grace & free choice, chap 14.(de Gratia Et Libero Arbitrio), Daniel O'Donovan, trans., Introduction, Bernard McGinn, Cistercian Publications, 1988, ISBN 0879070706 ISBN 9780879070700 p. 37. (Note: Fr. Harry J. McSorley, C.S.P. Commenting on this teaching of Bernard, states: "We are indebted to Bernard of Clairvaux … for the clarification that grace and free will are not related as partial causes - which would be a false synergism - but as total causes of the act of justification, each on its own proper plane. Bernard maintains the Catholic-Augustinian tradition by insisting that man's natural freedom (liberum arbitrium) remains even after the fall. It is a wretched, but nonetheless integral free will. This natural freedom of the will, possessed by the just and sinners alike, enables us to will, but not to will what is good. It is grace alone that gives us good will." Luther, Right or Wrong, (1969), Newman Press / Augsburg Publishing House, p. 133.
  • I rejoiced so greatly when I heard of your answer in the case of some who seemed to be filled with extravagant ambition
    for the office of legate, and to hope for it with impudence, even more than I can say. And not only I but all who love your name rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Moreover, when I read your letter written in the cause of the Church of Rodez,
    then was my mouth filled with laughter and my tongue with joy. Such things as these are worthy of your Apostleship, they honour the highest See, they are just what is becoming to the Bishop of the world. Whence, also, I bow my knees to the Author of your unique Primacy...
    In truth, you have been raised to this chair for the fall and rising again of many.
    • Bernard to Pope Eugene III, letter 240:1, A.D. 1146, concerning the election of a certain unworthy bishop at the Church of Rodez (see letter 328). In The Life and works of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, John Mabillon, Samuel J. Eales, Volume 2, p. 705.
  • Look at those detractors. Look at those dogs. They ridicule us for baptizing infants, praying for the dead, and asking the prayers of the saints. They lose no time in cutting Christ off from all kinds of people to both sexes, young and old, living and dead. They put infants outside the sphere of grace because they are too young to receive it, and those who are full grown because they find difficulty in preserving chastity. They deprive the dead of the help of the living, and rob the living of the prayers of the saints because they have died. God forbid! The Lord will not forsake his people who are as the sands of the sea, nor will he who redeemed all be content with a few, and those heretics....

Quotes about Bernard[edit]

  • It is difficult now to look back across the centuries and appreciate the tremendous impact of his personality on all who knew him. The fire of his eloquence has been quenched in the written words that survive. As a theologian and a controversialist he now appears rigid and a little crude and unkind. But from the day in 1115 when, at the age of twenty-five, he was appointed Abbot of Clairvaux, till his death nearly forty years later he was the dominant influence in the religious and political life of western Europe.
    • Steven Runciman, in The History of the Crusades ([1951-4] 1971) vol. 2, p. 252.
  • There were some men whose genius and virtues would have adorned any age. Among these was... Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), whose pen was to control Christendom for a generation, and whose sainthood shines through all ages, was in the nursery when the soldiers of the cross started for the East. There were noble women, too. Bernard owed much of his talent and virtue to his mother, Aletta, whose memory is the imperishable ornament of womanhood. ...The intellectuality of this period exercised itself almost entirely with theological and religious subjects. Men in seclusion elaborated and defended existing church doctrines and gave pious flight to their imaginations. But of literature as such there was none; even the Troubadours had not begun to rhyme the Provencal tongue. The hot breath of the crusades themselves forced the debris of the Latin to send out its first flowers of poesy.
  • From the days of Charlemagne it had been the custom to signalize entrance upon manhood by buckling about the loins the sword, the investment with "virile arms." The church, in hopeless inability to check the universal passion for fight, sought only to direct it to the suppression of ecclesiastical enemies. ...Bernard, without dispute the holiest man of the twelfth century, offered no excuse or palliation for his harangue to the faithful. "Let them kill the enemy or die. To submit to die for Christ, or to cause one of His enemies to die, is naught but glory."
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 23
  • The church steadily compacted its power about thrones and people. The authority of the Papacy was especially augmented in this period by its temporary success against a movement whose ultimate triumph was destined to cost the Roman Church its dominance of Christendom, viz., the impulse towards liberal thought. The standard-bearer of this essential Protestantism was Abelard. This astute reasoner placed the human judgment, when guided by correct scholarship, above all traditional authority. The popularity of his teaching was a serious menace to the doctrines of the church, so far as these rested upon the dictation of the popes. The consternation of ecclesiastics was voiced by Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux who declared, in his appeal to Pope Innocent II: "These books of Abelard are flying abroad over all the world; they no longer shun the light; they find their way into castles and cities; they pass from land to land, from one people to another. A new gospel is promulgated, a new faith is preached. Disputations are held on virtue and vice not according to Christian morality, on the sacraments of the church not according to the rule of faith, on the mystery of the Trinity not with simplicity and soberness. This huge Goliath, with his armor-bearer, Arnold of Brescia, defies the armies of the Lord to battle." The Goliath fell, but by no pebble from the sling of a David.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., pp.162-163
  • Bernard was justly reputed the greatest mind of the age. He hesitated to enter into a learned controversy with Abelard, but smote him with a thunderbolt of excommunication, which he secured from the hands of the occupant of the Vatican throne.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 163
      That Presence is the joy of those who have already attained to beatitude; the memory is the comfort of us who are still wayfarers, journeying towards the Fatherland
  • It was while the papal territory in Italy was... occupied by the adherents of Arnold that the second crusade [1145–1149] was inaugurated. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, was its chief inspirer, both in counsel with the leaders of Europe and with his voice as its popular herald. High above generals and scholars, beyond kings, emperors, and popes, this man stands in the gaze of history. His repute for wisdom and sanctity was extended by miracles accredited to his converse with Heaven. Believed to be above earthly ambition, he commanded and rebuked with a celestial authority. Papal electors came to consult the monk before they announced their judgment as to who should be Pope, and when on the throne, the Pope consulted the monk before he ventured to set the seal of his infallibility to his own utterances. Bernard's humility may have been great Godward, but it was not of the sort to lead him to decline the solemn sovereignty of men's minds and wills.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 164
  • When Henry I of England hesitated to acknowledge Innocent II, Bernard's choice for Pope, on the ground that he was not the rightful occupant of the holy see, the monk exclaimed, "Answer thou for thy other sins; let this be on my head."
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 164
  • When Lothaire of Germany demanded of the Holy Father the renewal of the right of imperial investitures, the saint threw his spell about the emperor and left him submissive at the feet of the pontiff.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., pp.164
  • When Louis VII of France, in his rage against Thibaut, Count of Champagne, carried devastation through the count's domains and burned the church of Vitry, with thirteen hundred of its citizens who had there taken refuge against his vengeance, Bernard openly rebuked the king, and with such effect that the monarch proposed, as a self-inflicted penance, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there to wipe out his guilt in the blood of Moslems. In this purpose of Louis VII originated the second crusade.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., pp.164-165
      As a bar of iron, heated red-hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated as to be light itself; so in the saints all human affections melt away by some unspeakable transmutation into the will of God
  • Pope Honorius delegated Bernard to preach throughout France and Germany the renewal of the holy war. Drawn as much by the fame of the monk as by the mandates of the king and the Pope, a vast assembly of prelates and nobles gathered at Vézelay in Burgundy. A large platform was erected on a hill outside the city. King and monk stood together, representing the combined will of earth and heaven. The enthusiasm of the assembly of Clermont in 1095, when Peter the Hermit and Urban II launched the first crusade, was matched by the holy fervor inspired by Bernard as he cried, "O ye who listen to me! Hasten to appease the anger of heaven, but no longer implore its goodness by vain complaints. Clothe yourselves in sackcloth, but also cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers. The din of arms, the danger, the labors, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance." As in the olden scene, the cry "Deus vult! Deus vult!" rolled over the fields, and was echoed by the voice of the orator: "Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood."
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., pp.166-167
  • The king set the example by prostrating himself at the feet of the monk and receiving from his hands the badge of the cross. "The cross! the cross!" was the response of thousands who crowded about the platform. Queen Eleanor imitated her husband and was followed by such a host of nobles bishops and knights that Bernard tore his garments into strips to supply the enthusiasts with the insignia of their new devotion. Similar scenes were enacted throughout France wherever the saint appeared. Eye witnesses do not hesitate to tell of miracles wrought by his hands emblazoning his mission with the seals of heaven.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 167
  • Not distrustful of the king, but credulous of the heavenly mission of Bernard, the multitude, including the most noted warriors, called for the monk to become their military leader. Only the intervention of the Holy Father, who declared that it was sufficient for the saint to be the trumpet of Heaven without wielding the sword, allayed the universal demand.
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 169
  • St. Bernard said of Henry, "He comes of the devil and to the devil he shall return."
    • James Meeker Ludlow, ibid., p. 201
  • Before a vast assembly in 1097 Pope Urban II said: "If you must have blood, bathe your hands In the blood of infidels. ...soldiers of hell become soldiers of the living God." Whereupon the multitude shouted: "It Is the will of God." Bernard, the holiest man of his century, cried out: "...Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood." In 1188 the Pope ordered prayers against the Saracens to be said daily.

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