St. Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, in a numerous, moderately comfortable family. As a youth, he spent himself in the study of the so-called liberal arts — especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics — at the school of the canons of the church of St. Vorles, in Chatillon-sur-Seine, and he slowly matured his decision to enter the religious life. The Vespers Magnificat Antiphon hails St. Bernard of Clairvaux as an “eminent preacher of the Virgin Mother’s glory.” His preaching has earned him other tributes within the Church, such as the “Marian Doctor” and the “Troubadour of Mary.” High Marian praise, Bernard’s Marian corpus comprises roughly 3 ½ percent of his total writings, including his most popular Marian homily Missus Est, or In Praise of the Virgin Mother.
According to St. Bernard and St. Bonaventure, we have three steps to climb in order to go to God: the first one, the closest and the one most suited to our capacity, is Mary, our Mediatrix of intercession; the second one is Jesus Christ, our Mediator of Redemption; and the third one is God the Father. St. Bernard shows us the sure and firm way. He tells us that "it is through Mary that Jesus came to us, and it is through her that we must go to Him. Mary is our Mother, she who receives the divine light and moderates it to adapt it to our small capacity. She is so charitable that she does not turn away any of those who ask for her intercession, no matter how sinful they may be; for, as the Saints say, "it has never been said, since the world began, that anyone had recourse to the Blessed Virgin with confidence and perseverance, and was turned away." She is so powerful that she has never been refused in her requests; she only has to go to her Son to pray to Him: He receives and He grants at once; and He is always won over by the loving prayers of His most dear Mother.
Bernard has no doubts: “per Mariam ad Iesum,” through Mary we are led to Jesus. He attests clearly to Mary’s subordination to Jesus, according to the principles of traditional Mariology. But the body of the sermon also documents the privileged place of the Virgin in the economy of salvation, in reference to the very singular participation of the Mother (compassio) in the sacrifice of the Son. It is no accident that, a century and a half after Bernard’s death, Dante Alighieri, in the last canto of the Divine Comedy, puts on the lips of the “Mellifluous Doctor” the sublime prayer to Mary: “Virgin Mary, daughter of your Son,/ humble and higher than a creature,/ fixed end of eternal counsel, …” (Paradiso 33, vv. 1ss.).
“In danger, in anguish, in uncertainty,” he says, “think of Mary, call on Mary. May she never be far from your lips, from your heart; and thus, you will be able to obtain the help of her prayer, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot go astray; if you pray to her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot be mistaken. If she sustains you, you cannot fall; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, do not tire; if she is propitious to you, you will reach the goal…” (Hom. II super “Missus est,” 17: PL 183, 70-71).
St. Bernard of Clairvaux composed the famous prayer to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary known as The Memorare. As the tradition states; on Christmas Eve in the year 1146, St. Bernard received a triumphant welcome into the city of Speyer. The German Emperor and the Bishop conducted him into the great German cathedral and down the main aisle in solemn procession, while the choir joyfully sang the beautiful “Salve Regina” (“Hail, Holy Queen”). The fifty-six-year-old Saint no doubt remembered that unforgettable Christmas Eve vision of his boyhood; and then, recalling all the marvelous graces and joys which Mary had given him, and through him to countless others during all those years, as the choir finished with the words “… show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” St. Bernard cried out in a transport of love and gratitude, genuflecting at each aspiration: “O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary!”
He taught that Mary was only one mode of birth that was worthy of God, and that was to be born of a Virgin. Equally, who could come from a Virgin birth except God himself? The maker of mankind, if he was to be made man and destined to be born of man, would have to choose, to create a mother whom he knew to be worthy of him, who he knew would be pleasing to him. It was his will that she should be a virgin, so that he could proceed from an unstained body, stainless, to purify mankind of its stains. It was his will that she should be meek and humble of heart, since he was to become the outstanding example of these virtues, so necessary for the health of humanity. He granted childbirth to her, having first inspired her vow of virginity and filled her with the virtue of humility.
To put it another way, how could the Angel have addressed her as full of grace if any, even a little, of these virtues had been present in her already and not given to her by grace? It was given to her to be made holy. She, who was to conceive and give birth to the Holy of holies, was made holy in body by the gift of virginity and holy in mind by the gift of humility. Adorned with the jewels of such virtues and radiant in both mind and body, the royal Virgin’s beauty draws the attention of the citizens of heaven itself, and its King is filled with desire for her and sends his messenger to her from on high. The Angel was sent to the Virgin, it says. A virgin in body and a virgin in mind, a virgin by her own choice, a virgin, as the Apostle describes her, holy in mind and body. Not someone just now found by chance, but chosen from the beginning of time, foreseen and prepared by the Most High, waited upon by the angels, prefigured by the patriarchs, preached by the prophets. (Roman Office of Readings for Tuesday of the 20th Week of Ordinary Time.)
St. Bernard died on August 20, 1153, at the age of sixty-three. His feast day on the Roman calendar is August 20. St. Bernard was declared a doctor of the church in 1830 and was extolled in 1953 as doctor mellifluus in an encyclical of Pope Pius XII. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is the patron saint of candlemakers.