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St. Bernard was mentioned a little way back, when we were speaking of the Cistercian order. But I must now tell you something more specially about him; for Bernard was not only famous for his piety and for his eloquent speech, but by means of these he gained such power and influence that he was able to direct the course of things in the Church in such a way as no other man ever did.
Bernard, then, was born near Dijon, in Burgundy, in the year 1091. His father was a knight; his mother, Aletha, was a very religious woman, who watched carefully over his childhood, and prayed earnestly and often that he might be kept from the dangers of an evil world. As Bernard was passing from boyhood to youth, the good Aletha died. We are told that even to her last breath she joined in the prayers and psalm-singing of the clergy who stood round her bed; and he afterwards fancied that she appeared to him in visions, warning him lest he should run off in pursuit of worldly learning so as to forget the importance of religion above all things.
After a time, Bernard was led to resolve on becoming a monk. But before doing so he contrived to bring his father, his uncle, his five brothers, and his sister to the same mind, and when he asked leave to enter the Cistercian order, it was at the head of a party of more than thirty. It is said that, as they were setting out, the eldest brother saw the youngest at play, and told him that all the family property would now fall to him. "Is it heaven for you, and earth for me?" said the boy; "that is not a fair division;" and he followed Bernard with the rest.
We have seen that, although the Cistercian order had been founded some years, people were afraid to join it because the rule was so strict. But the example of Bernard and his companions had a great effect, and so many others were thus led to enter the order, that the mother-monastery was far too small to hold them. Bernard was chosen to be head of one of the swarms which went forth from Citeaux. The name of his new monastery was Clairvaux, which means "The Bright Valley." When he and his party first settled there, they had to bear terrible hardships. They suffered from cold and from want of clothing. For a time they had to feed on porridge made of beech-leaves; and even when the worst distress was over, the plainness and poverty of their way of living astonished all who saw it.
Bernard himself went so far in mortification that he made himself very ill, and would most likely have died, if a bishop, who was his friend, had not stepped in and taken care of him for a time. Bernard afterwards understood that he had been wrong in carrying things so far; but the people who saw how he had worn himself down by fasting and frequent prayers were willing to let themselves be led to anything that so saintly a man might recommend to them. It was even believed that he had the gift of doing miracles; and this added much to the admiration which he raised wherever he went.
Perhaps there never was a man who had greater influence than Bernard; for, although he did not rise to be anything more than Abbot of Clairvaux, and refused all higher offices, he was able, by the power of his speech and by the fame of his saintliness, to turn kings and princes, popes and emperors, and even whole assemblies of men in any way that he pleased. When two popes had been chosen in opposition to each other, Bernard was able to draw all the chief princes of Christendom into siding with that pope whose cause he had taken up; and when the other pope's successor had been brought so low that he could carry on his claims no longer, he went to Bernard, entreating him to plead for him with the successful pope, Innocent II, and was led by the abbot to throw himself humbly as a penitent at Innocent's feet.
Some years after this, one of Bernard's old pupils was chosen as pope, and took the name of Eugenius II. Eugenius was much under the direction of his old master, and Bernard, like a true friend, wrote a book "On Consideration," which he sent to Eugenius, showing him the chief faults which were in the Roman Church, and earnestly exhorting the pope to reform them.
Bernard was even the chief means of getting up a new crusade. When tidings came from the East that the Christians in those parts had suffered heavy losses (AD 1145), he travelled over a great part of France and along the river Rhine in order to enlist people for the holy war. He gathered meetings, at which he spoke in such a way as to move all hearts, and stirred up his hearers to such an eagerness for crusading that they even tore the clothes off his back in order to divide them into little bits, which might serve as crusaders' badges. And he drew in the emperor Conrad and king Lewis VII of France, besides a number of smaller princes, to join the expedition, although it was so hard to persuade Conrad, that, when at last he was brought over, it was regarded as a miracle.
It had been found, at the time of the first crusade, that many people were disposed to fall on the Jews of their own neighbourhood, as being enemies of Christ no less than the Mahometans of the Holy Land, and the same was repeated now. But Bernard strongly set his face against this kind of cruelty, and was not only the means of saving the lives of many Jews, but brought the chief preacher of the persecution to own with sorrow and shame that he had been utterly wrong.
Although, however, a vast army was raised for the recovery of the Holy Land, and although both the emperor and the French king went at the head of it, nothing came of the crusade except that vast numbers of lives were sacrificed without any gain; and even Bernard's great fame as a saint was not enough to protect him from blame on account of the part which he had taken in getting up this unfortunate attempt.
These were some of the most remarkable things in which Bernard's command over men's minds was shown; and he was able also to get the better of some persons who taught wrong or doubtful opinions, even although they may have been men of sharper wits and of greater learning than himself.
In short, Bernard was the leading man of his age. No doubt he believed many things which we should think superstitious or altogether wrong; and in his conduct we cannot help noticing some tokens of human frailty--especially a jealous love of the power and influence which he had gained. But, although he was not without his defects, we cannot fail to see in him an honest, hearty, and laborious servant of God, and we shall not wish to grudge him the title of saint, which was granted to him by a pope in 1173, and has ever since been commonly attached to his name. Bernard died in 1153.