« Prev To the Reader Next »


This selection of S. Bernard's letters has been made in the hope that it may find its way into the hands of many to whom the volumes of the greater collection are unknown, or are for one reason or another inaccessible. The letters of great and good men give us information about them which can be derived from no other source. “As the eyes are to the other bodily senses,” says the editor of S. Augustine's correspondence, “so are the letters of illustrious men in numberless ways more wonderful than all their other works. In them, as in the mirror of the human eyes, appear the personal qualities, passions, virtues, and vices of the individual. Just as no one can better show himself to the life than in his letters, so nowhere can he be better known” than in them. This is true of the letters of every saint, as well as of every man of affairs; and the peculiar value and charm of such collections of letters is almost universally acknowledged.

S. Bernard's unique position in the Church in his day, and the widespread authority he possessed, no less than his acknowledged place among the spiritual writers of all ages, tend to make his correspondence peculiarly interesting, as revealing in a more intimate way than any of his more formal writings, the characteristic vi qualifications and virtues, which won for him the great position he held so long during the middle ages. His learning and judgment no doubt fully appear in his tracts, treatises, and sermons; but in the private letters that were intended only for the eye of the recipient, the reader can get a deeper insight into the man and the saint, and learn more fully, because more naturally, his real qualities. In them appear his prudence and zeal, his love of truth and piety, the warmth of his human affections and his natural eloquence with more genuine truth than, say, in his commentary on The Canticle of Canticles, his Mystical Vine, or his Treatise against Abelard.

“It sometimes happens,” says the editor above quoted, “that in writing about themselves, the saints immoderately exaggerate their bad qualities; or disparage their good more than is just. When another, however, writes about them, he is unable properly to penetrate the interior qualities of their soul; or if he can, is unable properly to express his knowledge for the benefit of others. But in their letters writers display themselves spontaneously, and paint themselves in their natural colours.” Nature, locality, occasion, and persons are produced before the mind of the reader even when the writer had no conscious design of doing so, and this in so clear a manner “that any careful reader may, in these letters of our author, look into his face and soul as if he were close at hand.”

For the benefit of those readers of this little volume who may not have access to any full account of S. Bernard's career, it may be useful to give here a brief viioutline of his life. The Saint was born in the year 1091 in the village of Fontaine, in the province of Burgundy. He received a good education in his youth, and from the first displayed the best Christian dispositions. At the age of three-and-twenty he determined to dedicate his life to God in the cloister; and made choice of Citeaux, a monastery then under the fervent direction of S. Stephen Harding and which S. Robert had founded only a few years previously from Molêsmes. Bernard took with him to Citeaux thirty companions, and from this refuge he was sent two years later, in 1115, to be Abbot of Clairvaux, the first offshoot of the future great religious congregation of Cistercians which had its centre at Citeaux.

The former solitude of Clairvaux soon became peopled under S. Bernard with men who were attracted by the Saint's great personality and some 700 novices are said to have sat at his feet to learn the science of the saints. He himself lived to see one of his disciples upon the throne of S. Peter, six more become cardinals, and over thirty bishops in various sees of the Christian world. He acquired, in a truly marvellous way, the general esteem and confidence of bishops, nobles, and peoples. For a considerable period there was no ecclesiastical matter of any importance, no difference to be composed, and no religious enterprise upon which he was not consulted. It was with his assistance, or it may be said by the authority of his name, that Innocent II. was recognised in the Church as Pontiff, and that Victor voluntarily abdicated the position of anti-pope. From 1131 to 1138 S. Bernard was constantly at work healing the schism. At the Council of Sens in 1140 he confounded viiiAbelard by his learning and secured his condemnation. In 1148 he preached the Crusade, the partial failure of which he subsequently attributed to the sins of the Crusaders.

During all this time he lived as a true monk in the face of the world, and so many wonders and miracles were worked by him, or through his instrumentality, that he became commonly known as the Thaumaturgus of the West. During his lifetime he founded 160 monasteries in various parts of the western world, and he died at the age of sixty-three on 20th August 1153.

A word may now be allowed about S. Bernard's literary style, of which we have evidence in the two volumes of his “Letters,” translated and published by Dr. Eales, a selection from which is made in this small volume. He writes always in a lively and pleasant way: his thoughts are exalted and are expressed in a manner, full of unction ; whilst tender, he is by no means wanting in strength, and at times he is vehement in defence of the truth or when it is necessary to carry conviction to the mind of him with whom he is corresponding. His diction is saturated, so to speak, with Holy Scripture; and he constantly makes use of texts taken from the Bible, and still more frequently of Biblical expressions interwoven into his own language. His favourites among the Fathers are S. Ambrose and S. Augustine, and he follows their teachings and opinions as conclusive arguments for the truth.

S. Bernard in the midst of all his labours found time for writing a great many letters. Four hundred and eighty-two of these, some of considerable length, have been preserved, and are to be found printed in ixthe great collections of the Saint's works. From these, as given to English readers in the faithful and easy translation made by the late Dr. Eales, sixty-six are selected as samples in the present volume. Where all is so excellent and so really fascinating the task of selection was not difficult, and mainly consisted in the unwelcome process of exclusion. The reason why one should be taken and another left was not always obvious, and beyond choosing all the letters which in any way had something to do with England, and one or two characteristic specimens, such as No. II.: “To the monk Adam,” or No. LX. on “the Heresies of Peter Abelard,” with the preceding note, practically no principle has guided the choice. In the notes it has been thought best, when reference is made to other letters not contained in this volume, to retain the numbers given to the letters in the original volumes. It may, in conclusion, be hoped that some at least may be tempted by these sample letters of a man who had to play so great a part in the first half of the twelfth century, to desire to become further acquainted with him in the larger collections of his writings.


Athenæum Club,

All Saints’ Day, 1903.

« Prev To the Reader Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection