The early popularity of the Cistercians was due in no small degree to Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was the most influential individual in the religious life of Western Europe of his generation. The first half of the twelfth century was marked by many men eminent in the Latin Church, but in the weight which he carried with his contemporaries Bernard stood head and shoulders above them all.
Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090 about two miles from Dijon and therefore not far from Citeaux. He was of Burgundian noble stock and of devout parents. At their birth his mother dedicated each of her children to God. Frail of physique, charming, from boyhood Bernard was deeply religious. It was probably in 1112, when he was about twenty-two years of age, that Bernard became a monk of Citeaux. With him he brought about thirty friends and relatives, including five of his brothers, who had been won by his ardent persuasiveness. The last remaining brother, the youngest, followed them later. In 1115, at the age of twenty-five, Bernard became abbot of a new foundation, the fourth of the Cistercian houses, at Clairvaux, in a rugged mountain valley near some of his own kinfolk and about a hundred miles from Citeaux. He was to remain head of that house until his death, in 1153.
Combining the qualities of both the mystic and the man of action, Bernard rose fairly steadily to his position of preeminence. As a mystic, his devotion was to the Virgin Mary and especially to Christ. He was moved by the love of Christ and was committed to him not only as God but also as man. He did much to promote a revival of adoration of Jesus in his humanity. This is seen in the hymn which is usually ascribed to him, Jesu, dulcis memoria, portions of which in their English translations are the hymns which begin with the lines "Jesus the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast" and "Jesus thou joy of loving hearts." If not written by Bernard, Jesu, dulcis memoria is akin to his spirit. Humble and yet bold and on occasion caustic, Bernard became the mentor of Western Europe. Eloquent and persuasive as a preacher and orator, he was a major force, as we have seen, in promoting the Second Crusade. He carried on a prodigious correspondence and travelled seemingly incessantly. He was the author of several books. He interested himself in the affairs of the Church at large and was the major influence in healing a schism which had been produced by the nearly simultaneous election of two Popes. In striving to maintain what he deemed orthodoxy, he sought to win heretics by preaching and was a vigorous and persistent critic of Abelard, whom we are to meet later as a leading intellectual figure in Western Europe in the twelfth century. One of his own monks from Clairvaux became Pope. Bernard's great popularity attracted hundreds and possibly thousands to the Cistercian way of life. Largely because of him, the Cistercians became active in reforming and elevating the quality of the Church.
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