Around 500 AD, Benedict of Nursia abandoned a collapsing Rome devoted especially to Venus (false goddess of sex) and Bacchus (false god of consumption). He chose instead to pursue simple living, centered on Jesus Christ, in a cave about 50 miles (80 km) east of the city. Finding his example inspiring, others joined him. He eventually founded a monastic community known as the Benedictines. They recently celebrated their 1500th anniversary.
After 600 years of existence, the widely respected Benedictine order had changed dramatically in character from its humble beginnings. Monasteries had grown wealthy from donations by pilgrims and rich nobles. They had acquired larger buildings, more elaborate sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and more complex chanting. Monks had long since abandoned their need for and commitment to manual labor.
In response, a small group of Benedictine monks founded a new monastery at Citeaux (1098)—about 14 miles (23 km) south of Dijon (Gaul). There they wanted to restore the earlier simplicity and rigor of their order by returning to a stricter observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict. This reform movement eventually separated from the Benedictines and became known as the Order of Cistercians.
Though born into a noble Burgundian family, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) chose to become a monk and at the age of 22 joined these stricter Benedictine monks at Citeaux. Within three years (1115), the abbot there sent Bernard and a small group of monks to start a new Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux. Under Bernard’s leadership, over 340 Cistercian monasteries were established all over Latin Christendom before his death almost 40 years later.
Through his forceful personality and able leadership, Bernard became the most powerful person in Latin Christendom. Through his influence, the Latin Church approved the founding of the Knights Templar at the Council of Troyes (1129).
Yet even Bernard did not stride from victory to victory. He might have used his significant influence to help heal Peter Abelard rather than to crush him (1141). He also did much to promote the call for a second crusade and suffered humiliation following its disastrous failure (1149).
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