The Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, by Filippino Lippi, is displayed at Badia Fiorentina Church in Florence, Italy. zatletic/AdobeStock

Lessons from the Sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

What the Cistercian monk and doctor of the Church can teach us about the Blessed Mother

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was a Cistercian monk and founder of the Abbey of Clairvaux in France. Although a monk, he became active in the ecclesial affairs of the Church during the 12th century. He defended the Jews from persecutions, helped establish the Order of Templars and intervened in support of Pope Innocent II (1130-43) against the claims of the antipope Anacletus II. He is best known, however, for his preaching and writings, and he is known as “Doctor Mellifluus” because his love for Jesus flowed from his mouth like honey. He is also known as “the last of the Fathers” because he favored a theology steeped in Scripture, liturgy and contemplation, and he resisted the new dialectical theology promoted by the logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142).

Canonized in 1174 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1830, St. Bernard is recognized for his holiness and great learning. As a mystical writer, he placed great emphasis on the knowledge of God gained by an intimate love for Jesus. His love for Jesus was complemented by his great affection and devotion to the Blessed Mother. For St. Bernard, the greatness of Mary was rooted in her exalted status as the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He once said that if we realize whose Mother she is, we would understand that we “cannot admire her enough” (Super missus est I, 7, PL 183, 59 D). This is the origin of the saying “De Maria numquam satis,” which is attributed to St. Bernard by many, including Pope Pius XII (cf. his letter, Multiples et fécondes, June 30, 1950). The devotion of St. Bernard to the Virgin Mary was so well-known that Dante chose St. Bernard to sing the heavenly praises of Mary in Canto 33 of his Paradiso, speaking of her as “humble and more exalted than any creature.”

St. Bernard’s devotion to Mary, found mostly in his sermons, have made their way into papal writings and the Liturgy of the Hours. Although he did not affirm Mary’s Immaculate Conception, his sermons provide support for a number of important Marian themes, of which four are most prominent: (1) the centrality of Mary in salvation history; (2) Mary’s compassionate union with Christ in his suffering; (3) Mary’s universal mediation of grace; and (4) the need to turn to Mary in times of danger or need.

Centrality of Mary in Salvation History

Because of Mary’s divine motherhood, she is at the center of salvation history. St. Bernard recognizes Mary as “the star of the sea,” because, just as a star emits its rays without losing its brightness, Mary gave birth without losing the brightness of her virginity: “She, therefore, is that noble star risen from Jacob, whose ray gives light to the world” (Sermo I in Assumptione I; PL 183, 415).

Even more important than Mary’s virginity is her humility. As St. Bernard writes: “Very desirable is the virtue of virginity, yet humility is more necessary. … One can be saved without virginity, but without humility salvation is utterly impossible. … The virginity even of Mary would have no value in his eyes apart from her humility” (First Sermon on the Glories of the Virgin Mother).

For St. Bernard, it was fitting that God restore the human race after the Fall with the cooperation of both a man and a woman: “It is true, most dearly beloved, that the first man and the first woman did us grievous harm, but thanks be to God! — by another Man and another Woman all that has been lost has been restored to us, not without the addition of abundant grace. … It seemed more congruous that as both sexes contributed to the ruin of our race, so both should have a part in the work of reparation” (Sermon for the Sunday within the Octave of the Annunciation).

According to the great abbot of Clairvaux, God needed Mary to give her free assent to his plan of salvation. The whole world, therefore, waited with great anticipation for her assent to the invitation of the angel to become the Mother of the Word Incarnate. In a passage that is included in the Office of Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent, St. Bernard describes this anticipation in dramatic fashion:

“You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

“The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response, we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. … Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. … Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word” (Homily 4, 8-9: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 [1966], 53-54).

This beautiful passage anticipates the words of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) who says: “Through the Annunciation, the consent of the Virgin, in the place of all human nature, was awaited” (Summa Theologiae III, q. 30, a.1).

It also anticipates the teaching of Leo XIII who states that God “did not accomplish his design without adding there the free consent of the elect Mother” (encyclical Octobri mense, September 22, 1891).

Union with Christ in Suffering

Stations of the Cross
Jesus’ body is removed from the cross, the 13th Station of the Cross, as displayed at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Oberstaufen, Germany. zatletic/AdobeStock

St. Bernard not only saw Mary as active in the redemption of the world by her fiat at the Annunciation; he also saw her as sharing in Christ’s Passion on Calvary. Of course, he recognized Christ as the Redeemer, but he saw the Blessed Virgin playing an active role in offering her Son to the Father and in sharing in his passion. In reference to the prophecy of Simeon that “and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35), the great abbot writes: “O Blessed Mother, truly a sword has pierced your soul. Besides, if it did not pierce your soul, it would not pierce the flesh of your Son. And indeed, after your Son Jesus (who belongs to everyone but is your Son particularly) gave up his life, the cruel lance did not touch his soul at all, though it opened up his side (not sparing one already dead, whom it could not harm). No, it pierced your soul instead. … Therefore, a violent pain pierced your soul, so that we speak of you as more than a martyr. I am sure that, for you, what you felt in sharing your Son’s Passion was even worse than the sensation of physical suffering. … If he could die in the body, why could she not die with him in her heart? It was charity, greater than that of any man, that made [Christ die], and it was also charity that made Mary die with him in her heart, and, after that charity, no charity like it ever was” (Sermo infra Octavam Assumptionis 14–15; PL 183, 437–438).

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Enduring Treasury

The Marian devotion of St. Bernard provides an enduring treasury for the Church. Recent popes have affirmed the centrality of Mary in the mystery of salvation, her compassionate union with Christ in suffering, her mediation of grace, and the need to turn to her in times of need. During the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis and many conferences of bishops have made acts of consecration and entrustment to her. This is because they know that in times of distress and uncertainty the Virgin Mary, like a good mother, never ceases to care for the children of her Son, who are also her children.

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St. Bernard not only describes Mary suffering with Jesus, but he also sees her offering her Son to the Father during the Presentation in the Temple: “O hallowed Virgin, offer thy Son: and present anew to the Lord this fruit of your womb. Offer for our reconciliation this Victim, holy and pleasing to God. With joy, God the Father will receive this oblation, this Victim of infinite value” (Sermo 3 de Purificatione Beatae Mariae; PL 183, 370).

Universal Mediation of Grace

The abbot of Clairvaux recognized Jesus as the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tm 2:5), and he also recognized that God had no absolute need for Mary’s mediation. He was aware, though, that the divinity of Christ could instill fear and awe in human beings, so he said: “Do you want to have an advocate in the Son’s presence too? If so, then turn to Mary” (Homily for the Feast of Mary’s Nativity, De aquaeductu, No. 7; PL 183, 441C). Bernard believed God could communicate his grace without the mediation of Mary, but he wished to communicate his grace to us through Mary as an aqueduct of grace (cf. De aquaeductu, No. 4; PL 183:440). Because our divine adoption is due to the Incarnation in which Mary played an active part, so the grace merited by the Incarnation includes her active role in distribution.

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Doctor Mellifluus

So great was his confidence in her most powerful intercession, that he did not hesitate to write: “It is the will of God that we should have nothing which has not passed through the hands of Mary.” Likewise: “Such is the will of God, Who would have us obtain everything through the hands of Mary.”

Pope Pius XII, encyclical on St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Last of the Fathers, No. 30.

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Thus he writes, “Let us venerate Mary with every fiber of our being, from the deepest part of our heart, because this is the will of him who wished us to receive everything through Mary” (De aquaeductu 7; Pl 183, 441 B).

St. Bernard’s description of Mary as the “aqueduct of grace” finds support in St. Pius X’s 1904 encyclical Ad diem illum laetissimum. His statement that God has wished us to receive everything through Mary is cited in Leo XIII’s 1894 encyclical, Iucunda semper; in Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Ingravescentibus malis; and in Pius XII’s 1953 encyclical, Doctor Mellifluus, commemorating the 800th anniversary of the death of St. Bernard.

In Times of Danger or Need

Two great medieval prayers have been attributed to St. Bernard: the Salve Regina and the Memorare. Today, the Salve Regina is believed to have been more likely composed by either Hermann the Lame, a monk of Reichenau (1013–54) or Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy (d. 1098). Some scholars today also question whether the Memorare was written by St. Bernard, but the sentiments expressed in this prayer are found in this statement: “O Blessed Virgin, if there be anyone who recalls that he has called on you in necessity and that you were not there to help him, let him not speak of your mercy” (Sermo 4 in Assumptione 8; PL 183, 428D). St. Bernard, though, was absolutely certain that the Blessed Mother comes to the assistance of her children who call on her in need. In another memorable homily, he writes:

“In danger, in distress, in uncertainty, think of Mary, call upon Mary. She never leaves your lips, she never departs from your heart; and so that you may obtain the help of her prayers, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot falter; if you pray to her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot err. If she sustains you, you will not stumble; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, you will never grow weary; if she shows you favor, you will attain your goal” (Hom II super Missus Est, 17; PL 183, 70–71).

ROBERT FASTIGGI, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

 
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