In 1109 the Cistercian Monastery at Citeaux admitted Bernard, a nineteen year-old lover of literature. Then, four years later, that Cistercian foundation sent Bernard to found another Cistercian monastery, and for it he found a valley of such clear air that its monks referred to it as Clairvaux.
Writing from Clairvaux, Bernard awakened the Middle Ages to a love for Mary the Mother of Jesus. That love had been so personal to him that from childhood it had inspired him to mine the Old Testament for symbols of Mary, such as the Morning Star, the Tower of Ivory, and the Ark of the Covenant.
Surprisingly, this lover of solitude became the religious hero of many worldly men and women who made Bernard’s sayings their own. All over Europe people were echoing Bernard in sayings like these:
“Hell is full of good intentions.”
“Nothing can damage me the way I damage myself.”
“When religion brought forth Wealth, that daughter of hers devoured her.”
“We find rest in those we love if we provide a resting place for them.”
At age thirty-eight, Bernard was called from the monastery to act as secretary to the Second Lateran Council. At forty-nine, he was given the task of choosing the rightful pope between two claimants. When the abbot of Cluny became jealous of Bernard’s great success, Bernard won that man over by exhibiting a sincere admiration for what he was accomplishing at Cluny.
Bernard was forty when St. Malachy, the primate of Ireland, on a journey to Rome stopped over at Clairvaux. Malachy found his heart so warmed by the friendship Bernard offered him, that on his arrival in Rome, he asked, but was refused, permission to lay aside his duties in Ireland so that he might return to Clairvaux.
There is an old story about St. Barnard and a man laboring in his field. Bernard was riding up through the foothills to give a retreat to the monks of an isolated monastery, when the man halted his mowing to admire Bernard’s horse.
“That’s a beautiful horse, Reverend Father,” the man said.Noticing the horse for the first time, Bernard agreed. “Yes, it is a beauty, isn’t it?”The man went on. “You’ve got it easy, riding that wonderful mount, with no hard work, and nothing to do but pray. How easy can it get?”
“But, wait, Sir,” Bernard said, “Prayer is very hard work.”
The man said, “There’s no way it can be as hard as what I’m at all day.”
Bernard made a proposal. “I’ll tell you, sir, if you can pray the Our Father through to the end without letting another thought interfere, I’ll give you this horse.”
Delighted, the man began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed-say, do I get the saddle too?”