Bernard of Clairvaux to the Abbots*

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[* Cuadernos Monásticos 70-71 (1984) 381-391]


ernard of Clairvaux O.Cist., (1090- †20 August 1153) wrote the guide “On consideration” for Pope Eugene III, an outline of the Rule for the Knights Templar, and summarised the duties of bishops, but he did not write a manual for abbots, although numerous times he referred to them and their obligations in his writings. Piecing together these references we will acquire an imposing picture on the foundation of abbots according to St. Bernard. His teachings ingeniously complement those of St. Benedict and also evinces a positive perspective of the first generations of cistercians, at a time when the role and office of the abbot underwent considerable reforms (for example in Cluny) or where totally abolished (among the Carthusians), which offers a extraordinary and contemporary interpretation, not only to the Cistercians of the 20th century, but “mutatis mutandis” to all those who discharge authority, over their jurisdiction and prudent exercise.

Bernard distinguished the abbots as vicars of Christ and the apostles. So he addressed them with titles such as: His Holiness, His Greatness, Reverend, Powerful, etc. However such titles were a bête noire to him which he feared and rejected, feeling uncomfortable when addressed to him in such a manner. Since being called “father” (abbot) or “lord” (abbot) is not in any way an honorific, but a burden that entails precarious responsibilities. In his own words: “there is only one father, the Heavenly Father, for that reason and taking into account our common origin and human condition, we are all brothers and companions in servitude”.

That being so the abbot is not so much a father but an equal, a self-sacrificing brother, a faithful co-worker, a partner. He must be, of course, imbued with affection like a father, but he should not aspire to the prerogatives of a patriarch, since his function is not one of domination but of encouragement, for example providing support and strength to his brothers. And this taking into account that the monks are, in general, good people, who do not need the tutelage of a father, while he, the abbot, can not do without their support.

St. Bernard hoped that a future abbot would have spent a sufficient period of time in the Order, acquiring abundant virtues and merit, and if he did not have them, he would have to procure them expeditiously. A candidate guilty of serious transgression should not be excluded as such, but should be allowed to spend some time in healthy penance, allowing him to recompose his conscience before accepting the care of others. Bernard also warned that young people chosen for office tend to evade regular discipline more than discharging what actually corresponds to their new responsibilities. Then, before accepting the abbatial position, the candidate should review his past and be sure of his present strength, and especially his knowledge and experience in the management of the spiritual life of others. Since a shepherd in charge of the welfare of his flock should be healthier and stronger than his sheep, it would be shameful if he were inferior to his monks in virtue. He should be a comfort for everyone, and should not seek solace in others.

This examination of conscience should reveal a sequence of specific gifts that indicate his will and competence to fulfil his role according to God’s will.

Bernard made a general list of prerequisites: personal holiness, humility, altruism, zeal and discretion. On one occasion he spoke of even more detailed qualifications: a candidate must be imbued with a spirit of compunction that will lead him to fight habits that are routinely entrenched. Zeal or fervour will give you a cheerful aspect, since our God is a God of mercy. As an expert in fasting, vigils and mortifications, you must know the proper food for the body. As a man of prayer, what is the necessary complement of diet, he will remain averse to the senses and thus be more pleasing in the eyes of God. Sated with such food and drink, it will become intrinsic to rest in contemplation and the vision of God. Finally, his fervour, prudence and firmness must be based on love, which he must receive from Love itself, God. (In practical terms it is a good choice if approved by the good and rejected by the wicked).

The above implies that the future efficiency of the candidate depends on how he manages to keep his own soul in good order.

That he must be a good guardian of himself is clear from the very nature of his function, since he is responsible for the salvation of all those entrusted to him and must render an account to God for them. If he is deficient in any way, he will not be able to contribute what he owes to those in his charge and he would also greatly displease God. Therefore he must be able to control himself, in order to know how to treat and guide others since everything that is allowed is not always the most profitable.

He must take care that he has been chosen by his brothers, not to take care of himself, but to be their guide, and he must fight hard to emulate those in his charge, making their virtues his own and fulfilling in advance that he ordain his people.

From this it can be deduced that the abbatial office does not confer a privileged “status” to the person chosen by the brothers, since he is not an abbot he will not dress in splendid clothes or use layers of luxury, nor will he surround himself with a court of subjects. There is no reason for you to change your bed of straw for another with ornaments or mattresses of colours and imported coverages, nor will your office require special ornaments – goblets or candlesticks of gold or silver – or different cloths, since the election of an abbot does not inaugurate them as lords of castles or princes of territories, but custodians of monasteries and shepherds of souls.

Accordingly, the abbot is not placed above his monks, but at the head of them. He never ceases to be a monk, since he has also made his vows as such. The truth is that the vocation makes the monk, while the abbot is only “product” of necessity. Since he remains a monk, the abbot continues with his vow of obedience. The greater your position, the greater your need for humility. If he were his own master would be subject to a fool. He will be able to preside, command and expect obedience from his monks only if he is, in turn, obedient. Therefore, it would be abhorrent that he himself fails to do what he commands others or demands obedience from his monks while disobeying his own superiors. Refusing obedience to his superiors, not getting along with his peers or not being willing to serve the least of the needs of his monks would invalidate his prelature accordingly.

Above all the abbot must obey the Rule of St. Benedict; he is not above or outside, but under that Rule. This means that he cannot follow his own will, nor manipulate the Rule at will in order to achieve his own desires.

You should not play with the Rule but follow it and fulfil it in all its details. Fulfilling his mandates, he will also obey the traditions of the Fathers and submit to the authority of the local bishop.

Last but not least, he must take care of his role within his vocation as a monk, respecting the wishes of his brothers gathered in Chapter and observing the laws of his Order.

Regarding the obedience that the monks owe to their abbot, Bernard stressed that the brothers do not promise blind obedience, but obedience as specified in the Rule. The monk makes his profession before the abbot, but not at his will, and his vow of stability does not imply a blind subjection to the abbot. Of course the abbot will be obeyed in everything, but only in the context of the monastic profession, and the work of the abbot is to pave and not hinder such compliance.

Consequently, he should not disapprove of what the monk promised in his vows nor demand more than promised.

The monastic profession is very similar to a contract that involves mutual obligations: the monk makes a vow of obedience to the abbot as specified in the Rule, the abbot promises to faithfully care for his professed and both agree to fulfil this common pact with firm resolve.


Consequently, the office of abbot is of service. As St. Bernard expressed it: domination is forbidden, what is necessary is the ministry, such is the teaching of the apostles. The abbot is simply another Joseph who takes the place of the Bridegroom; although called father he is only an administrator, a distributor (of justice), a guardian, who displays the affection and not the power of a father. He must not dominate his sheep but keep the wolves from the flock and take them to safe pastures. He must stop the wolves, not dominate his sheep despotically. He has been charged with nourishing, not oppressing his flock. For this reason he will try not to overwhelm or subjugate his monks, but, rather, to submit himself to the exhausting task of guiding them to their salvation.

He is not “superior” in the literal sense of the word but the “superior in charge of his well-being”, for example; responsible for cultivating their virtues and eradicating their vices. Then, he must provide rather than preside, he must stimulate rather than oppress his monks, on the road to perfection.

Immediately after his election the abbot receives the vow of obedience from his monks, in other words, he assumes the care of his brothers. As their pastor, he should not seek his own welfare or honours in the world, nor administer his monks according to his own preferences or the selfish inclinations of those, but strive to please God and serve their souls. Consequently, he must nourish them with the mind, the word and by action, that is, with prayers, with healthy exhortations and by good examples. His administration will include the services of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, that is, work, prayer and sacrifice. Denying himself, he will be everything to everyone, offering himself generously to the deficient as well as to the advantaged. He will praise and congratulate, forgive the repentant, raise the lazy, repress the reckless, comfort the weak and help all to persevere on the path that leads to salvation.

Since this responsibility includes the duty to instruct his monks on how to advance and persevere on the path of salvation, he will have to be instructed to be prudent in these matters, since his office will be sterile if he, the abbot, did not have such knowledge. Of course he will not present his own teachings which would make him guilty of pride, but he will speak with words of Divine Eloquence, with virtue and spiritual life.

But even so, this knowledge is insufficient: it would be rather an obstacle if it were not sustained by a virtuous life; a good example, the ability to observe oneself, and the ability to learn from oneself and others. Because an abbot must fulfil what he preaches, he must know and act, he must teach by example. His teaching will be effective, if it is transmitted not only with words but with acts, his own rather than those of others, and if he remains aware that the fact of possessing this knowledge is not the fruit of his own work but a gift from God. Aware of this, he will see himself, not as a teacher, but as a prophet who teaches how to exterminate vices, as an evangelist who nurtures and teaches with word and example and, above all, with prayer.

Being the guardian of the city, the abbot must be a strong man and, if necessary, a good fighter. He will have to strengthen his defences to avoid any damage or malfunction, and will have to expel intruders.

He has the duty to be the watchful custodian of his monks, so that before the temptations of the devil they keep their strength, do not lose courage, and are not defeated. If he is a strong man, he will expertly detect the deceptions of the devil and will quickly repel his attacks.

In the execution of his responsibilities he must also administer discipline, correct manners, foresee deficiencies and deal with all kinds of transgressions. However, he must never act as a mere administrator of discipline but must see himself as a doctor who prepares a remedy, rather than someone who applies a sanction, to his sick herd. He is a doctor, not a gentleman; a father, not a judge; a comforter, not an avenger. Using the rod  against the wolves, he will direct his sheep with his crozier [staff]: stimulating more than forcing, in order to lead the wayward and order the rebel. Reserve the blows for the wolves.

Consequently, he will proceed with the loving care of a mother and, like a father, he will act without severity, indignation or contempt both in his manner of speaking and in his countenance.

Avoiding all kinds of deception, he should be careful and guided only by affection. His mercy shall prevail over his justice. In this way his discipline will be paternal, not tyrannical: he will use kindness, he will abolish severity and punishment, he will offer instead the tenderness of his heart. According to the needs of the individual, he will approach the suffering brother with simplicity and love, with gentleness, salutary reprimands, private reprimands, public exhortations or disapprovals, and with that even more effective: his own prayers and the prayers of his community. Remembering that a friend’s rebuke is better than the kiss of an enemy, his words should have the nuance of a worried friend or a prudent father who does not want to increase the burden of his suffering son.

If in spite of such efforts the guilty remains obstinate, it will be necessary to use far stronger remedies: harsh words and even corporal punishment, because nothing will be so hard that it does not yield to something harder than it. If this had no effect, the abbot would not have no other course but to expel the culprit, because one rotten apple could contaminate your entire community.

To promote the welfare of his brothers, the abbot must also attend to the temporal affairs and goods of the monastery; He has the obligation to ensure its conservation and maintenance, and to preserve, protect and increase its possessions. But in the fulfilment of such tasks the abbot must not fall into pettiness or lose himself in trifles. Under no pretext should he allow himself an attachment to money, since the person who counts his money every day or asks for continuous justification of trifles, will fall prey to the fever of suspicion.

Of course, an abbot does not need money so he must treat it as if he did not have it, and spend it, not according to his fantasies, but in meeting the real needs. Money, which is not good or bad in itself, is reprehensible if it is misused, accumulated or squandered without meaning. Then, far from honouring Christ, he would create addicts surrendered Mammon.

The abbot should, therefore, be concerned about important matters and so, by handling the temporary affairs of the monastery, he will always place the welfare of souls above any other occupation. While striving to repair buildings and improve the monastery’s possessions, he will devote most of his time to moral reforms, and leave the details of temporary administration to his associates.

These associates or assistants should preferably be elderly people, not so much in years as in personality, that is, brothers who love the abbot and are well tested in their religious life. The more they help you, the greater your benefit will be. If they are good people, they will benefit more than anyone, but if they are not, it will be he who loses the most, since good people, stained by evil, are always dangerous.

In his wisdom, Saint Bernard wished the abbot to work on everything with advisors, as ordered by the Rule of Saint Benedict. The abbot had to listen to the opinions of his brothers before making a decision, because once an operation started, it would sometimes be difficult to belatedly undo it. Nor should he hesitate to renounce a decision he had taken on his own, if the brothers meeting in Council had reservations about it.

According to this, Bernard allowed his brothers to direct him and admitted, without reservations, that he had overly trusted his own criteria. He was convinced that all would consent to decisions taken through such consultations and that the authority of the abbot, which according to the Rule should always prevail, would not only be sustained but strengthened in that process.

This shows that the abbatial office has its risks and dangers. According to Bernard, a higher-level occupation is not automatically a risk-free occupation. Just as it is true that there are some ranks and places of honour within the Church, these do not justify any rejoicing in their achievement, but rather they must be a source of fear, given the danger of pride and the possibility of failure, which would lead to the failure of many.

The traps of the trade

Bernard described the “deplorable behaviour” of some abbots in great detail: some assume a solemn aspect, but act with levity; others display great authority, but their stability is precarious. Others have a splendid manner of preaching, but works slothfully, they converse a lot and proffer little. They constantly defend their dignity, yet do not worry about their own sanctity. They think only of power and do not fear God. They are permissive with themselves, but punish others with great severity. In their arbitrariness they order one thing first and then its opposite. They argue expertly in palaces and courts, but they have little regard for the laws of God. They act like princes of castles and forget that they are parents of monks. They appear as the Husband, but they are mere guardians. They are greedy for money, but they stop making profit on what is really appertains to them. They present themselves with gold and bubbles yet steal from the poor what belongs to them. They emptied the purses of their subjects, but have not emptied them of their vices. They rationale the pontifical insignia for themselves, and forget that St. Benedict gave his monks the twelve degrees of humility. They expect obedience from their monks, but are not willing to obey their bishop; They even seek to be exempted from this, through an expensive gift. They are more interested in power than in justice, and with independence move outside of the watchful eye of the Supreme Shepherd, and in this way prove that they are not monks because they refuse to be one who is obligated by obedience.

Some abbots excuse their lack of action by explaining that they are new to the trade and therefore lack experience. Bernard condemned this false humility by reminding such abbots that his is a ministry of generosity. An abbot is a debtor. Discarding sterile fears and false humility, you must give, give immediately and give without reservations.

Needless to say, it is important that an abbot knows how to deal with flatterers, because if he listens to them he will be more disappointed with himself than with those who do so. You must avoid them because they are superficial, insincere and overlapping detractors of the truth; their flattery could deceive you, their praise will not make you a better person nor his reproaches condemn you.

Nevertheless, they do not seek out the person but his possessions; They give words and extract gifts. Although they cleverly intend to make petitions of a general nature, yet always look for something well defined for their own benefit. And although they offer honey and oil with sweetness, they are poisonous and deadly, they should be treated like scorpions: without fearing their heads but taking care of the stingers of their tail. (An abbot should not tolerate even a well-meaning compliment, but ask his monks to judge his actions).

Considering such experiences, Bernard had to consider what attitude a monk should take with an abbot unworthy of such an office: should he stay in the monastery and be consumed by bitterness and malice, or should he seek peace elsewhere, for example, being transferred to another monastery and thus break your vow of stability? Bernard articulates in response the general principle that the monk must obey not “simpliciter”, but as specified in the Rule and by his profession. As a result, when an abbot orders “vice Dei” anything pleasing to God must be taken even from the unworthy superiors as God must be obeyed, because of Him from whom emanates all authority and power a monk in this condition should stay in his monastery and follow the mandate of the Gospel when he refers to the scribes and Pharisees: what they tell you to do but do not imitate their actions, or do what they say but not what they do, but if there is conflict, if an abbot orders something bad or omits something good, then the safest and best thing is not to offend God, obeying such orders disobeys God and subverts the correct order, leaving aside the supreme good to fulfil something unworthy or inferior. Finally the really sinful things or injurious acts cannot be legitimately ordered, therefore not fulfilling them does not violate the law of obedience.

The issue of choosing abbots for a limited time was not originated in the twelfth century; It is a more modern occurrence. But a large number of abbots, among them Cistercians, resigned their office in Bernard’s time for various reasons. Some reasons were apparently valid and important: to retire to the “desert,” to seek a life of greater poverty, to prepare for death. Others wanted to join Clairvaux under their charismatic leader, or driven by the fervour of the crusade had felt the need to move to the Holy Land. Others were also promoted to ecclesiastical office, the episcopate or the cardinalate. Finally some, overwhelmed by the magnitude of their responsibilities, did not feel capable of the responsibility. Bernard saw these incidents as an escape of their duties that would lead to serious consequences. He saw this as a cruel desertion of his brothers, as a rejection of burdens and responsibilities, and a preference for their own interests at the expense of what had been entrusted to them. A vineyard without a keeper will be exposed to wild beasts. A renunciate abbot is like a tree uprooted, with his exposed roots will not produce fruit, and if he has made a hasty decision it will adversely affect him for the rest of his life, since he may have yielded to the devil who tends to suggest something today and something different in the morning. To renounce is, moreover, an act of disobedience, since the thought of submitting to another master is simply false humility. Even the renunciation of his office to prepare better for his death is nothing more than an abandonment of his duty. The abbot who abandons his function also damages his Order, devastates his monastery and sets a harmful precedent for others. Therefore he must remain with his chosen “Wife”, his monastery and his brothers, there he will find what he really needs: peace and serenity of spirit.

In accordance with the above, Bernard insisted that the function of abbot only ceased upon his death or dismissal, in case he was not beneficial or profitable in the performance of his office.

Bernard measured the duty term of an abbot not in years but in the utility that he could lend to his brothers, a surprisingly modern day boy’s belief that he shared with the first Cistercians.

In spite of their misgivings, the abbots renounced their office and Bernard did not stop advising them on how old superiors should return to be disciples. He advised them to lead a simple life among their brothers, to be obedient to young and old as ordered by the Rule, and to treat everyone with humility and kindness, not expecting honours or preferences in consideration of their former state but to remain even more humble than any of the brothers.

From these reflections and thoughts, San Bernardo came to the conclusion that the office of abbot, although sublime, is not simple. The patrimony of an abbot is not glory or wealth, as some may think, but the cross of Christ and a host of obligations.

An abbot must work more than others and, in human terms, be satisfied with much less than others. Furthermore, he will never be able to complete all his projects, but he must leave achievements to his successors. If the magnitude of his duties discourages him, he will find strength in the certainty that he is working in the vineyard of the Lord, continuing the works of the prophets and the apostles and always being assisted by divine grace. You should also always think about the reward and blessings that await you. Since abbots and shepherds are friends of the Husband or to quote Saint Bernard, as he corrected himself: “No, I said too little, they are sponsi amicissimi”.


As previous investigations have shown, the statements of Saint Bernard in regard to the abbots are truly of a broad nature. The Abbot of Clairvaux spoke not only about the qualities, duties and responsibilities of the abbots, but also about their burdens and temptations as well as their resources and rewards. As he always had to work on real situations, his ideas are eminently practical. Bernard did not love pure abstraction, rather in his discourses he showed how to live. And he stressed that the abbatial office is of service and ministry, and a task totally dedicated to the care and healing of souls, through word, example and prayer.

Obviously, Bernard did not pioneer new teachings: Saint Benedict had already exhorted that the abbot of a monastery should not be an independent hierarch but a “representative” of Christ at the service of his brothers. As Christ must be a good shepherd, a doctor who helps to recover health, a faithful administrator of the appurtenances of God.

Avoiding all oppressiveness or imposition, should not seek the reward of “praeesse” but the joys of “prodesse”, for example, help your brothers to advance along the path of salvation of the Gospel.

With his genius Bernard showed how the image of an abbot delineated by Saint Benedict, should be understood in all its aspects and dimensions. In this way he provided a much-needed lesson not only to his contemporaries, but also to the moral strength of his teachings to all the monks of the twentieth century.

Translation from Spanish to English by: Fr. Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB – Eremo Santa Maria, Cantuariensis.

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