© 2016 Saint Bernard's Episcopal Church,

an Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New Jersey

The Rev. Beth Rauen Sciaino, Priest-in-charge

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Saint Bernard's has been the name of our parish since the consecration of the church building in the late 1890s.

 

Early architectural drawings reveal that we might have become a patronage of Saint Mark the Evangelist, using the name of the older Episcopal mission in Basking Ridge (1850s).  This plan was changed, however, and the title was adopted that matched the wider community. So Bernardsville itself seems to have swayed the new church in the direction of the great saint of France whose influence on western Christianity has been so profound.

Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153)

Saint Bernard was born in Burgundy, France, in or about the year 1090. His family was of the lower nobility and he received an effective education, especially evident in his later career as a writer and as a successful political negotiator. 

 

In his early 20s he decided upon the life of prayer and set about to join the newly founded Cistercian monastery at Citeaux, not far from his birthplace in Burgundy. The Cistercian brotherhood was a movement of reform within the monastic communities of Europe that sought to embrace a more faithful observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict (d. c. 540), who was and is considered the father of western monasticism.

 

It is telling of Bernard's personality that his vocational decision was not to produce merely a singular result. His personal influence upon his immediate family and friends was such that he arrived at the door of Citeaux with about 30 companions, brothers and friends who had determined to join him in the religious life. At the same time, historians have described him as "timid and retiring". As such, he seems to have possessed a gentle charm and a quiet charisma that worked wonders upon those whom he encountered. 

It is also telling that Bernard chose to join the smallest, poorest and most recently founded house of prayer in a fledgling order. Many far greater monasteries were prominent throughout France at the time and would have gladly received so well prepared a novice.

Within a few years, at the age of 25, Bernard was sent by his superior Stephen Harding to become master of the Cistercian house at Clairvaux in Champagne. He and about a dozen companions took up residence there, and he was henceforth to be known as Bernard of Clairvaux. 

 

In the years after 1115, Bernard blossomed as a monastic leader, preacher, writer, spiritual guide, and political counselor. From his mid-20s until his death in 1153, he exerted an influence on the spiritual, ecclesiastical and political life of Europe like few others of his generation. As one scholar has put it: "Europe was his parish." Committed to the life of prayer and to the stricter observance of the Benedictine Rule, Bernard was grounded in the contemplative life. Yet he was also a person of indefatigable drive and was passionately committed to involvement in the wider issues of his day, especially those of church politics, including its related national and international outcomes.

He seemed continually to seek and constantly to find a balance between the interior life of prayer, reflection and writing, on the one hand, and the outward life of preaching, teaching, travel and political work, on the other, in a deep spirituality of amor dei, the love of God. This biblical and theological theme is amply evident in his writings, as well as in the contours of his life. 

 

Bernard was a reconciler of conflicts and moved with ease among the bishops, princes and popes of his age. He once described himself as "a sort of modern chimera, neither a clergy person nor a lay person." He viewed his monastic brothers and sisters as "warriors of peace," devoted as they were to the life of prayer, to the ideal of evangelical poverty, and to charitable works of mercy. 

 

He also championed political causes out of loyalty to those he knew and respected and from whom he sensed a commitment to the principles for which they stood. A protégé of his at Clairvaux eventually rose to the office of Pope, Eugenius III. Others became cardinals, bishops, missioners and saints. 

 

Bernard showed a marked antipathy to theologians whom he perceived as hurtful to the wider Church and to the cause of reform, particularly the famous Abelard. He nurtured little sympathy for the monasteries of Cluny, the houses of a rival reformist movement. In all these cases, and others, he became outspoken.

 

His greatest political blunder was to preach the Second Crusade (post 1145), proposing a new ideal of militant intervention in the affairs of the Mid East. The campaign of Louis of France and Conrad of Germany ended in disaster, first in their defeat by the Turks as they marched to the east and then by their failure before the unyielding walls of Damascus. Bernard and his monks were disgraced by so publicly a misplaced loyalty, although the resilient abbot surely lived to pray another day.

His most interesting contribution to European history, from a thoroughly modern, popular point of view, was his limited but foundational role in creating the Order of the Knights Templar. This monastic militia figured highly in Umberto Eco's international bestseller Foucault's Pendulum and in Dan Brown's more recent The DaVinci Code.

 

Perhaps Bernard's greatest gift to posterity is the corpus of his writings, penned in an elegant and polished Latin prose, reflecting his classical education. He composed treatises, sermons, letters, and scriptural commentaries that have endured the test of time and continue to offer insight and spiritual renewal to readers today. Most of his major works have been translated into English, as well as into a variety of other languages.

 

Bernard died on August 20, 1153, not greatly advanced in years. By all accounts he was exhausted from his travels and political work, commitments that repeatedly drew him away from his cloister into the wider world. It is estimated that over his lifetime 800 to 900 members had been under his pastoral care in the house of prayer at Clairvaux. He also was a key figure in the founding of 68 other Cistercian monasteries over a period of 35 years. 

 

In the Anglican-Episcopal Calendar of the Church Year, as well as in the Roman, Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, 1153, is celebrated on August 20, the day of his passing. In the ecclesiastical Latin heritage he bears the title doctor mellifluus, the teacher of sweetly flowing words.