Jesus, the very thought of Thee, With sweetness fills my breast; But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest.

This hymn, sung for nearly 1,000 years, is attributed to a puzzling man in France named Bernard, a deeply spiritual Christian who advanced a militant Christianity.

Bernard seemed destined for a promising secular career until as a youth he turned toward Christ and persuaded more than two dozen of his friends to give themselves to celibacy and to the monastery of Citeaux. He soon became the most famous figure there and was sent to found a similar institution at Clairvaux.

The monastery of Clairvaux became his headquarters, and he seldom left it; but his influence radiated from its walls like spokes of a wheel. During his lifetime, he founded 70 more monasteries and oversaw 90 others. He loved the Scripture and became deeply acquainted with its teachings; but he loved the sword almost as much. He advanced monastic military orders—communities of knights and men-at-arms living under monastic discipline committed to the defense of church and faith. He wrote the rule book for the Knights Templar and inspired German military orders that forcibly Christianized parts of Europe. He envisioned the Second Crusade and persuaded Pope Eugene, his former pupil, to authorize it. And when it ended in disaster, Bernard commented, “It is better that they blame me than God.”

Many Christians today do blame Bernard. He was a fighter who battled the devil in his own life by rigid disciplines; and heresy by asserting orthodoxy at every stop; and paganism by preaching with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other; and Muslims by sending Europe’s finest on an ill-fated crusade. He didn’t give up his battles until August 20, 1153, when at age 63 he departed—“Thy face to see and in Thy presence rest.” We question his judgment, but we still sing his song. And we remember his life every August 20, the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

One of Jesus’ followers pulled out a sword. He struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. But Jesus told him, “Put your sword away.” (Matthew 26:51,52a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). August 20.

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