St Bernard of Clairvaux

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Cistercian monk and abbot of Clairvaux, St Bernard was born in 1090 near Dijon in Burgundy. As a young man he was known for his charm, wit, eloquence and learning. At the age of 22, together with 32 companions, including four of his brothers, he became a monk at a poverty-stricken reformed monastery at Citeaux.

After a few years probation, he was made abbot of a new foundation at Clairvaux. At first, he was too strict on the community but, when he realised this, he gave up preaching and concentrated on improving the food (sometimes it had been barley bread and boiled beech leaves).

Although he belonged to an order that practised exclusion from the world, St Bernard was very involved in church affairs and became one of the most charismatic and influential personalities for the cause of reform.

He was argumentative and attacked many scholars - particularly Peter Abelard and Gilbert de la Poree - for their views. Perhaps his greatest failure was his enthusiastic promotion of the Second Crusade which ended in disaster. He managed to bring an end to the Jewish pogroms in the Rhineland.

St Bernard's character is best seen in his writings. The most simply written and popular is his treatise on the Love of God which is a spiritual classic. He also fostered devotion to the human nature of Jesus Christ and to the Blessed Virgin.

His influence on monasticism was deep and lasting. On the one hand he encouraged monks to devote themselves to mystical prayer, but he also reorganised the order to become involved in many social and economic causes, which led to an enormous expansion of lay brothers.

By the time he died, on this day in 1153, there were more than 400 Cistercian houses all over Europe with over 50 in England and Wales. At Clairvaux alone, there were 700 monks.

St Bernard was canonised in 1174 and made a Doctor of the Church in 1830.