Thursday 18 January 2024

Saint Bernard and His Friend Saint Malachy - Alice Curtayne

Mary Aikenhead
Foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity
Alice Curtayne
Anthonian Press

I discovered the works of Alice Curtayne in 2018. Since then I have been able to track down and read volumes by her a total of 28 times. I absolutely love her works. Her writings are a treasure-trove of Irish history and culture; both historically and up to the middle of the last century. With tracking down this volume thanks to a friend in Ireland, I now have all her works. And still have a few to go. But back to this volume.

The description on the back of this volume states:

“In this able miniature life of the great St. Bernard, Alice Curtayne shows how the man who deliberately renounced his noble rank and property for the austere obscurity of the Cistercian rule, became the greatest figure of his century, that acknowledged oracle of Europe, the peace-maker of kings, the counsellor of popes.

Mothers hid their sons from his captivating eloquence, and when he entered Citeaux he persuaded not only his brothers, but all his immediate friends and relatives – an amazing thirty in all - to embrace the life of the cloister with him.

The second part recounts his remarkable friendship with St. Malachy, Primate of Armagh - "one of the most beautiful in Christian annals" - whose conception of a Clairvaux in Ireland was realised with the foundation of Mellifont.

"Not only did he possess in himself in an extraordinary degree the gifts of devotion and sanctity, but he also illustrated the Universal Church of God with the light of his faith and of his learning."
Pope Alexander II on St. Bernard”

This volume is a reprint of a 1954 edition which is a reprint of Saint Bernard Abbot of Clairvaux Doctor of the Church, published by The Anthonian Press in 1931.Because of the change of title I was unaware it was the same volume until I started reading. I highlighted numerous passages while rereading this edition of this book, some of them are:

“CLAIRVAUX, MELLIFONT, MELLERAY, ROSCREA: those four lovely place-names enshrine an epic. So great a story lies behind them that prose is inadequate for its record. And a pamphlet of the present dimensions would seem to make the prose medium still more unworthy of such a theme. To write it is like attempting a pencil sketch of a glorious landscape in Spring. Something, indeed, of the living beauty may be captured in the drawing, but such a dim wisp as would seem to make the enterprise one of the most forlorn.”

“Yet there were many in Burgundy who knew of the lives led by those monks, poor and hidden though Citeaux was. Of those who were drawn to the ideal, the greatest in rank and power was the young nobleman, Bernard. Son of a lord, and thereby member of the ruling class, he appeared destined, like his elder brothers, to follow the profession of arms. Bernard also, as became his position, had received the best education his period and country could offer. At school he had distinguished himself by a taste for literature and poetry. Unexpectedly, at the age of twenty-two, this nobleman became conscious of an imperious religious vocation, and he turned away with aversion from life in the world.”

“Already, at the age of twenty-three, Bernard was displaying gifts that soared far above the average. He had eloquence and a most irresistible power of attraction. Thus he persuaded not his brothers only, but all his immediate relatives and friends, to the amazing number of thirty, to enter Citeaux with him, and on the same day.”

“It was then a novel spectacle that astonished the Burgundian countryside on a Spring morning, in the year 1112 -  one of those unforgettable scenes in history- thirty-one young men of the first families in the land setting out together to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer, manual labour, and silence. But it was a gesture that of course turned the thoughts of all the youth of France to the cloister.”

“Bernard submitted without apparent difficulty to the strict rule of Citeaux, which enjoined a literal observance of the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. In his new environment his gifts began to display themselves in a manner that amazed his associates.”

“In Bernard's subsequent history there is even an element of comedy, divine comedy perhaps. He had abandoned the world, but the world refused to be abandoned by him. Again and again remorselessly it was to suck him back into its vortex.”

“He had chosen a life of prayer, a life that was all prayer, and the world strove with all its might to deny him even the minimum of prayer. Austerity, manual labour, and complete selfmastery were among the simple things of his seeking; but he was compelled instead to associate with men who were the slaves of luxury, if not of vice. He detested the atmosphere of all courts, whether royal or pontifical, yet he had to breathe their distasteful air for long periods at a time, and until the end of his life.”

“He who had deliberately aspired to complete obscurity, became the greatest figure of his century, the director of European thought, the peace-maker between rulers, the admonisher of kings, the counsellor of Popes. Of so rare a kind was Bernard's power over men.”

“The youth of France were naturally inspired to follow generously the example of the thirty Burgundian nobles. A year after the admittance of these into Citeaux, the number of postulants had become so great that a second house had to be founded at La Ferte. The year following, a third house had to be founded at Pontigny, and in the third year, that is, 1115, Bernard founded Clairvaux in a valley on the left bank of the Aube, in the present diocese of Troyes in Champagne. He was made Abbot of Clairvaux, which then became the most illustrious of the Cistercian foundations.”

“It would be impossible within the space of the present booklet to relate all Bernard's activities, but his three main enterprises must be told in order to convey some idea of his towering importance in European life. These were: his healing of schism in the Church; the episode of his duel with Abelard ; and his preaching of the Crusade.”

“Meanwhile Bernard's fame persistently increased, and disciples flocked to him at Clairvaux in numbers that threatened to become overpowering. Three years after its founding, Clairvaux was so crowded that it became necessary to establish a filiation in the monastery of the Three Fountains in Chalons; the following year another house had to be founded in Fontenay; and two years later yet another at Foigny. After that Bernard began to send his evergrowing army of monks into Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, Italy, England, and even Ireland.”

“His monastic foundations increased to a total that is nearly as incredible as his written output. During his forty years as a Cistercian, he founded one hundred and sixty-three monasteries all over Europe, directing and largely organising himself this chain of religious houses. These increased to the number of three hundred and forty-three before his death.”

“This is the Saint Bernard enshrined so lovingly in Irish hearts through his friendship with Saint Malachy, the contemporary Primate of Armagh. The story of this friendship is one of the most beautiful in Christian annals. It was but natural, one thinks, that Malachy should love Bernard, for all men succumbed to that extraordinary power. But it is Bernard's boundless admiration and depth of affection for Malachy which gives us pause; this is one of the most grateful things that history has to tell us. Bernard was intimately acquainted with every great soul, and with every personage of importance in the Europe of his day. That our Irish saint so held his attention is therefore deeply significant. Moreover, Bernard was happily not satisfied with a transient expression of that love; to give it full satisfaction he wrote the life of Malachy, in which he recorded for all time, in flaming and unforgettable phrases, the warmth of his affection for the Irishman.”

“Malachy, at the time of his first meeting with Bernard, had resigned the Primacy of Armagh in favour of a life of seclusion, which, of course, he was never permitted to enjoy. He was on his way to Rome to solicit from the Pope confirmation of his work in Ireland, when he stopped on his way to visit the famous Abbey of Clairvaux. This was then at the very height of its fame, and no less than seven hundred disciples of Bernard were drawn up in rank for the reception of Malachy. To the Irish Saint, this monastery and the mode of life lived in it, seemed a very heaven on earth. This, he at once concluded, was what he had been obscurely groping for in his search for remote retreats in Ireland. He longed with all his weary heart to doff the burden of office, (though not then Primate, he was still Bishop) and spend the remainder of his life as a Cistercian.”

“On his way home, Malachy again turned in at Clairvaux. And this time he resolved that if he could not spend the remainder of his days in this sweet and hallowed spot, the next best thing was to bring Clairvaux to Ireland. For this purpose he entrusted four of his companions to Bernard to be trained by him in the Cistercian observance. Of these four, the only name known to us is that of Saint Christian O'Conarchy.”

“After Malachy's return to Ireland the two Saints corresponded, of necessity, about the foundation of a Clairvaux in Ireland. Saint Bernard trained his four Gaelic disciples for two years, and then he sent them back to their country, accompanied by nine Frenchmen, to form the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.”

“Thus Mellifont was the realisation of Malachy's dream of a Clairvaux in Ireland. Even the buildings erected at Mellifont under the direction of the French monks were an exact replica of Clairvaux. It was Saint Bernard's express wish that Clairvaux should serve as a model. And Clairvaux was most faithfully copied at Mellifont, even down to the detail of four semi-circular chapels in line with the High Altar in the church.”

“The Papal Legate from Ireland was but a few days in Clairvaux when he felt a mortal sickness descend upon him. As it was his dearest wish to die in this monastery, he believed his prayer was about to be answered, and he declared his death imminent. Such was his appearance of health, but especially his “buoyant expression,” that the monks could not credit his prophecy. But it was fulfilled, and Saint Malachy died in the arms of Bernard, on the Feast of All Souls, 1148. In seeking to die in the arms of his friend, Malachy had all unwittingly been seeking an immortality in record too.”

This was a wonderful little booklet to read. And every time I track down one of Curtayne’s works, I wish that they were all back in print. Thankfully Cluny Media has been working on that and has reprinted 6 of her works and one she contributed to. If you get the chance to read this I strongly encourage you to do so. 

This version of this book was very hard to track down. I could only find one copy at a University Library in Ireland. One of the other editions of the book was easier to track down in fact I laid my hands on two copies to give one away. It is a good edition of a great book. Nice clean typeset. And easy to read. I can easily recommend this volume no matter which edition you track down.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2024 Catholic Reading Plan!

Books and Booklets by Alice Curtayne:
A Recall to Dante
Francis Ledwidge: A Life of the Poet
Lough Derg: St. Patrick's Purgatory
Patrick Sarsfield
Saint Anthony of Padua
St. Bernard Doctor of The Church 1933

Books Edited by Alice Curtayne:
The Complete works of Francis Ledwidge

Books Translated by Alice Curtayne:
Labours in the Vineyard by Giovanni Papin

Books Contributed to by Alice Curtayne:

Croagh Patrick  Alice Curtayne

Saint Patrick Apostle of Ireland Alice Curtayne

Mary Aikenhead - Alice Curtayne

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