Bernard of Clairvaux & Roger of Taize

While most people likely first think of Dijon as a brand of most excellent European mustard, I first think of Dijon as the birthplace of one of Europe’s most excellent Christians, Bernard, born in Dijon, the largest town in Burgundy, France. Bernard was born in 1090 into an aristocratic home of seven children. He began to study the Bible as teenager at the collegiate church of Saint Vorles in Chatillon-sur-Seine. At age 22, in 1112, Bernard entered the newly formed Cistercian Monastery near Dijon, in Citeaux, France, along with 30 friends and relatives, including four of his brothers and two uncles. Just 14 years earlier, a newly formed monastery had been founded in 1098 at Citeaux (only 20 miles from Dijon where Bernard was born), an abbey which would become the mother-house of the new Order of Cistercians, a reform movement within the wider Benedictine family of monasteries. Just three years after entering Citeaux Abbey as a novice monk, in June 1115, Bernard was chosen by Abbot Stephen Harding to plant a new Cistercian Abbey at Clairvaux, France. He was 25 years of age.

Design of a Monastery

Though these photos are from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Philibert in Tournus, also in Burgundy, France (an hour drive south of Citeaux Abbey and several hours drive south of Clairvaux), the design of this abbey pictured, built in the 10th century, is very similar to what would have been found at Citeaux and Clairvaux in the time of Bernard. Cistercian and Benedictine abbeys all include this common design: a church sanctuary where monks gather for worship seven times a day; a cloister garden surrounded by a cloister walk where monks memorize Scripture by walking as they recite; clusters of surrounding building linked to the church, buildings which house a refectory (dining hall), kitchen, dormitory, scriptorium (room where Scripture and other ancient manuscripts were copied), workshops, and other activities necessary to the daily life of a Benedictine or Cistercian monk. Within their first ten years Bernard and the  monks of Clairvaux birthed three new monasteries at Three Fountains (1118), Fontenay (1119) and Foigny (1121). Today, this movement would be like a church of 50 people welcoming in 30 new members; then within three years, sending out their most energetic and intelligent leader along with 12 others to plant a new church in a neighboring county; then that newly planted church attracts many new members and decides within their first decade as a newly formed church to plant three new churches in other neighboring counties. Continue this reproduction rate for another 150 years, and you discover the Church has multiplied hundreds and hundreds of times, winning thousands upon thousands for Christ, and also making a major influence for Christ across an entire continent. Within a century and a half, by the year 1250, the Cistercian monks had planted 650 Cistercian abbeys all across Europe, from Poland in the east, to Spain in the south, to northern England; one of the fastest expansions of Christianity in the history of the church. Much of this fast spread of the Christian faith is due to the spiritual influence of St. Bernard. One such Cistercian Abbey we visited in Burgundy was Clos du Vougeot, in Vougeot, Burgundy, France, just 15 miles south of Dijon, home of the vineyard and wine cellars of Citeaux Abbey.

Clos du Vougeot

On September 14, 2015, as we drove through Burgundy, we visited Clos du Vougeot, a Cistercian monastery and vineyard dating back to the time of Bernard, who often preached and wrote of the spiritual life in winegrower’s terms. This medieval abbey still sits like an island among a sea of vineyards along the gentle slopes of the Cote du Or, the fertile grape-growing region of Burgundy where Bernard grew up. What attracted people to join the new Cistercian movement of faith in Christ back in the early 12th century? A life of pure-hearted, prayerful devotion to Jesus Christ lived daily in community with others, like a beautiful, fruitful vineyard, is attractive to many. Cistercians follow the Rule of St. Benedict daily, committing their lives to three life-long vows: daily conversion to Christ within community, stability to Christ and to the Community of faith, and obedience to Christ through spiritual leaders within the Community of faith. To this day, the daily life of a Cistercian monk is a beautiful balance of daily community prayer/worship, daily prayerful study of God’s Word, and daily work (except on Sunday). Bernard’s work as Abbot of Clairvaux involved the spiritual care and guidance of each monk, as well as the pastoral care of the monastic community. In addition to his pastoral care as abbot, Bernard was also an excellent preacher, teacher, and theologian. One of his favorite books of the Bible is the Song of Solomon, with a series of 86 of Bernard’s sermons still in print, sermons devoted to expositions from this beautiful book on the intimate life of Christ the Bridegroom with His Bride, the Church. Bernard also dedicated time weekly for letter writing, with hundreds of his letters still in print, letters most often dedicated to the spiritual guidance of souls, including letters to kings, popes, bishops, aristocrats, as well as everyday people struggling for guidance or spiritual encouragement. Bernard also got caught up in politics of his nation and across the European continent, including giving his strong support for the disastrous Second Crusade in 1146, for which he later repented. On the positive side, through his amazing spiritual influence, Bernard helped to heal a great schism within the highest leadership of the Church, he helped to bring his contemporary Benedictine, St. Hildegard and her writings to European-wide acceptance and approval, and helped to promote the spread of the Gospel of Christ across the European continent, in multiple languages and nations.

Bernard and Vineyards

Here are a few examples from Bernard’s preaching from the Bible book of the Song of Solomon relating to vineyards and wine: “In a spiritual sense, we understand the vineyards to be the churches, to be the peoples who are believers, as the Prophet did when he said: ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel’ . . . . In prayer one drinks the wine that gladdens a man’s heart, the intoxicating wine of the Spirit that downs all memory of the pleasures of the flesh. It drenches anew the arid recesses of the conscience, stimulates digestion of the meats of good works, fills the faculties of the soul with a robust faith, a solid hope, a love that is living and true; it enriches all the actions of our life . . . . ‘Wine,’ says Scripture, ‘gladdens the heart of man’ . . . . So it abounds with the wine that inspires joy rather than debauchery, wine full of the pleasure that is never licentious. This is the wine that gladdens man’s heart, the wine that even the angels drink with gladness. In their thirst for men’s salvation they rejoice in the conversion and repentance of sinners. Sinners’ tears are wine to them; their sorrow has the flavor of grace, the relish of pardon, the delight of reconciliation, the wholesomeness of returning innocence, the gratification of a peaceful conscience . . . . Here I speak of souls as vineyards. If you approve of this interpretation may we not consequently and appropriately call faith the vine, the virtues the branches, good works the cluster of grapes, and devotion the wine. Without the vine there is no wine; without faith there is no virtue. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ . . . . His life is his vineyard. And the just man’s vineyard is good, or rather the just man is a good vineyard; his virtue is like the vine, his deeds like the branches, his wine the witness of his conscience, his tongue the wine-press. . . . Love is the wine that gladdens man’s heart.’ Perfect love casts out fear’, and what was water becomes wine, to the praise and glory of the Church’s bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is above all things God, blessed for ever. Amen. (Bernard of Clairvaux; from Sermons on the Song of Songs).

Brother Roger and the Taize Community

Bernard’s vision and legacy continues to live on today in the remarkable spread of the Gospel of Christ through the Taize Community, begun in 1949 by Roger Schutz. The Taize Community is located in the southern Burgundian village of Taize, a few hours drive south of Citeaux. Like Bernard at age 25, so Brother Roger, son of a Swiss Protestant Pastor, at the age of 25, and began to live a simple life of daily prayer and service to others out of love for Christ, gathering a new Christian community in the village of Taize. 2015 is the 100th anniversary of Brother Roger’s birth, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Taize Community in 1949, and the tenth year since Brother Roger was killed by a mentally ill person during a Sunday morning service of worship at Taize. Our first pilgrimage to Taize, in September, 2005, was just weeks after this tragic event. “Coming to Taize means being welcomed by a community that has been inspired by two aims: to seek communion with God through prayer and to be a leaven of peace and trust in the midst of the human family. Through common prayer, singing, silence and personal meditation, a stay in Taize can help us rediscover the presence of God in our lives and an inner peace, a reason for living or new impetus” (from Taize brochure handed to us when we were first welcomed into the community). During our three days at the Taize Community in 2015, about 500 pilgrims gathered daily for worship, prayer, and study of God’s Word. Most of these were young people under the age of 30 from all over the world. Today, the Taize Community consists of around 100 brothers from over 20 countries (including Protestants, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox followers of Christ), along with about 50 long-term volunteers who help with daily work of hospitality. Through the summer months, the Taize Community welcomes thousands of pilgrims per week. We were told that during one week in August, 2015, the Taize Community hosted 6000 spiritual pilgrims. Most who come to Taize come for a full week of prayer and study. During a typical day at Taize, people gather with the white-robed brothers of Taize three times daily in the Church of Reconciliation for morning prayer (8:15am), midday prayer (12:20pm) and evening prayer (8:30pm). Taize worship services consist mainly in singing Scripture and prayer songs, in a variety of languages including French, English, German, Latin and Spanish among others. Songs are accompanied by either piano or organ. Scripture verses are read aloud during each service, again in several languages. During each service, there is a period of five minutes of silence for quiet meditation upon Christ and upon the Word of God. People gather every morning at 10am in small groups according to language to discuss Bible passages and to apply Scripture to their daily lives. “With prayer three times a day, reflection on the wellsprings of faith and work for others, a week in Taize allows us to think over our everyday life in light of the Gospel” (from Taize welcome brochure). Over the seven and a half decades since the Taize Community was founded, this way of pilgrimage of the heart has profoundly influenced the lives of millions around the world. Just as in the fruitful time of St. Bernard and the Burgundian monks a thousand years ago, the Taize Community continues to influence a whole new generation of spiritual pilgrims and seekers, bearing eternal fruit for the Gospel of Christ.