Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Scripture Readings: Sir 39:1-6; Phil 3:17-4:1; Jn 17:20-26
Sometimes I hear people say that they never hear a sermon about hell anymore. Well, today is your lucky day. This homily is about St. Bernard’s teaching on hell.
When St. Bernard entered the monastery he persuaded thirty relatives and friends to come with him. Two years later he was the founder and first abbot of Clairvaux. Under his leadership the community grew to over seven hundred monks and lay brothers. By the time St. Bernard died he had founded sixty-eight new monasteries. What a great saint!
His writings continue to guide us through the serpentine ways of sin to the kingdom of God. One day when I was reading his Sermon 16 on the Song of Songs I was hit between the eyes with his description of hell. This is what he writes:
“I dread the thought of hell, … Terror unnerves me at… the immense fires … I am terrified of the fangs of the monster of hell, the pit that swallows up sinners, where demons roar as they devour. I recoil in horror from the gnawing worm … the rolling fires, the smoke and sulphurous mist … I fear the encroaching vastness of the dark. Who will turn my … eyes into a spring of tears to avoid that weeping and gnashing of teeth, the unyielding shackles … that burn and never consume.” Elsewhere he writes, “Let us go down into hell alive … so that after death we may escape it” (Misc. Sermons # 12).
Some time ago I was talking with another monk about hell. He didn’t believe anyone was in hell, everyone is saved. I hope it’s true, that hell is empty, and we have nothing to fear. But St. Benedict refers to hell seven times in the Holy Rule we profess. Three times he tells us to be in dread of hell, and once, in Ch. 7 On Humility, he urges us to meditate on how hell burns those who despise God. Clearly, he doesn’t believe hell is empty.
In St. Bernard’s Sermon on Psalm 90, he comments on the warning of Jesus to, “Fear him who … has power to cast into hell” (Lk 12:5). St. Bernard writes, “I warn you whom to fear … do you want to know [who] that is? It is you, and your own iniquity.”
St. Bernard keeps returning to his fear of hell. In his sermon “On the Five Stores of Spiritual Traffic,” he describes hell as, “The land of affliction, … of living death, with raging fires and … eternal confusion, guilty consciences, and awful devilish faces. Again he repeats, “Let us go down alive into hell so that after death we may escape it.”
In his treatise on “Conversion” St. Bernard writes, “This very body which [the sinner] now lays aside he will take up again not to do penance, but to suffer penalty … his sin will be eternally punished yet never purged, his body will be in constant torment without ever being consumed.” St. Bernard and St. Benedict acquired their fear of hell from Jesus. Home is a place where you knock and they have to let you in. But in the gospels we read about people for whom heaven is not their home. They find the door locked. They knock and cry out, “Lord, open the door for us.” The householder replies, “I don’t know where you come from … away from me you evil doers.” Jesus always affirmed the existence of devils and people in hell. Six times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “There they will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Yet, St. Bernard teaches that it’s easy to avoid the pains of hell by asking forgiveness. Why, then, does anyone die unforgiven? He says it’s because of stubbornness in something sinful. Commenting on psalm 90, St. Bernard describes hardening of the heart, denying sinfulness rather than confessing. A hardened heart has no fear of God or hell. It’s a lot easier to persist in sin if the reality of people in hell is denied altogether.
Why have so many people been inspired by St. Bernard to holiness of life? Perhaps it’s because he really believed and warned us so often about the pains of hell, but also that God will be merciful if we are not stubborn but keep confessing our sinfulness and asking forgiveness.
Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Scripture Readings: Sir 39:1-6; Phil 3:17-4:1; Jn 17:20-26
About nine hundred years ago, in the year 1100, the first Crusaders were celebrating the capture of Jerusalem from the Saracens, and St. Bernard was a bright ten year old boy who sometimes fell asleep in Church. During one of his ecclesial naps he saw a vision of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It enkindled within him a burning love for the humanity of Christ. Ever since then monks have been imitating St. Bernard, if not his mystical experiences, at least his dozing off in Church. When Bernard was 16 his mother suddenly died. In his grief he began to focus on what endures, namely, the heavenly Jerusalem. His success as a monk and abbot is astonishing.
At the age of 23 he entered the new monastery of Citeaux, persuading thirty relatives and friends to come with him. Two years later he became the founder and abbot of Clairvaux. Under his leadership the community grew to over seven hundred monks and brothers. By the time St. Bernard died, the Order had expanded from one monastery to 345 communities. Almost half of them were due to Bernard’s influence, and 68 were foundations from his own abbey. Yet, when Bernard describes himself he doesn’t point out his successes but his failings. He writes, “I can teach only what I know myself. I cannot describe the way up because I am more used to falling down.“
Although he was an advisor of Popes, reconciler of kings, a miracle worker, an eloquent preacher, a brilliant thinker, a founder of communities, a shepherd of souls, master of the written word, a man of God and the man of his century he said of himself, “I am nothing more than a rustic, more used to the hoe than to speeches and business.” Really? Was Bernard home long enough to work in the fields with a hoe? Or, was he like one of our former candidates who said he couldn’t work in the garden? When Br. Placid asked, “Why not?” the candidate replied, “Because I’m an intellectual.” So, Br. Placid pointed to the abbey and said, “Go back to the house.“
Toward the end of his life St. Bernard writes, “I, a monk, have sins that are securely hidden, overshadowed by the name and habit of a monk,” (Ser. 55, Song). He was so conscious of his failings that he even feared the coming of the Christ at death. He writes, “I dread his appearance because I lack credentials.” Is there any truth to his protestations? St. Bernard taught that humility is truth. Was he being truthful?
When Bernard became abbot at the age of twenty-five, he was sent with twelve monks to make a new foundation. They went to a place called the valley of Wormwood, appropriately named—his disciples decided—because Bernard’s standards were so lofty and his zeal so excessive that his monks began to lose heart. But their humility in accepting correction and admitting their weaknesses finally made Bernard realize that he was the proud-one compared to them, and that his words were a stumbling block rather than a genuine help. Learning from his mistakes Bernard became kind and compassionate. The monks took heart and grew in fervor. Soon they changed the name of the valley from Wormwood to Clairvaux, the clear, bright valley, the valley of light.
Bernard’s kindness to his monks was not matched by kindness to himself. During his early years as abbot, Bernard so mortified his body by fasting that he came close to death. But with the help of William of St. Thierry, Bernard slowly recovered and a year later resumed his duties. Even then, his fits of vomiting were so frequent that a pail had to be put next to his choir stall. Finally his monks had enough, and Bernard had to stay out of choir. No wonder he felt, “I lack credentials.”
The two occupations that most troubled Bernard were his involvement in civil affairs—because they took him outside the monastery—and his preaching of the Second Crusade which ended in disaster. St. Bernard writes, “May my monstrous life, my bitter conscience, move you to pity. I am neither cleric nor layman. I have kept the habit of a monk, but I have long ago abandoned the life,” (188.2).
When Pope Eugene III pressed Bernard to promote the Second Crusade he obediently responded with his great power of persuasion. He was so successful in winning men to become crusaders that he was all the more blamed when they failed miserably. A cloud settled over his reputation. People complained he had led the army to slaughter by his preaching without himself ever leaving the country. It was a heavy weight on his heart. So, he writes, “I dread [Christ’s] appearance because I lack credentials.” There is a profound truth here. St. Bernard took no credits, but all the blame. He is a striking example of St. Benedict’s rule: “To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself. But to recognize that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself,” (RB 4:42-43). May we imitate Bernard’s willingness to admit his failings. Because, like him, we do not know the way up, we are more used to falling down, and to falling asleep in church!
Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
[Scripture Readings: Sir 39:1-6; Eph 3:14-19; Jn 17:20-26 ]
One of the criticisms leveled at the Church these days is that it is too clerical. Clericalism is turning out to be a bad word. It probably means different things to different people. To my mind when it is used in a negative sense it stands for an elite group of clerics who live in a closed world where only the ordained function and where the laity have no place.
However it was not always considered a bad word. Take Ben Sirach for example. He is said to have been a sage who lived in Jerusalem and who was thoroughly imbued with love for the law, the priesthood, the temple and divine worship. Nothing wrong with this but he does seem to be partial to his own group. Our first reading is made up of six verses praising the sage or scribe and we of course apply them to St. Bernard. But if you look at the context of these verses we see that Ben Sirach is contrasting the sage with other occupations such as farmers, engravers, black smiths, and potters. All necessary craftsmen for a city but listen to this, “How can he become learned who guides the plow, who guides the ox and urges on the bullock” (Ch.38:24). By contrast the sage devotes all his time to the study of the law and the ways of wisdom, it is a full time endeavor. He even goes so far to say, “Whoever is free from toil can become a wise man” (Ch. 38:24). After describing the craftsmen and extolling the scribe Sirach begins a section entitled, “Praise of God the Creator. So we have work, study and prayer the very substance of our Cistercian life.
To say Bernard was a sage, a man of wisdom is true but as a Cistercian he also worked with his hands and prayed the Office. He was in a word a monk. How much he worked with his hands I don’t know because he became an abbot after only three years at Citeaux!
I think we all realize Bernard was no ordinary monk. He was so gifted that his chapter talks and homilies still inspire us even after a thousand years, or do they? His biographer, William of St.Thierry, has this to say in a chapter entitled, Bernard’s Relations with His Monks, “When he spoke to his community about the things of the spirit and the formation of souls in the ways of God, his hearers understood scarcely a word he said” (Ch. 10 Life). This could still be true.
Bernard might have been a mystic but he was also a realist. He saw he was losing the monks in his chapter talks so he was thinking of adopting another approach — perhaps have community dialogs rather than chapter talks! He was worried about all this and William tells us, “In the peace and quiet of his soul he decided to wait for the Lord in his mercy to reveal to him his will in this matter” Sure enough a few nights later he had a dream or a vision of a boy who stood beside him and told him to speak whatever came into his mind and that would be the Holy Spirit speaking through him. The chapter closes with the words, “And so it was that Bernard learned how to live with ordinary human beings and to bear with the things they are wont to do”. Maybe this is what Bernard can teach us, how to live with each other. After all we are the ordinary human beings who carry on the tradition of the ordinary monks who lived with St. Bernard. His words of wisdom and their example of life are still in the air of any modern day Cistercian monastery.
We may not be great students of his works but we are students of the life he explained so well—the life of work, study and prayer, which leads to union with God and the salvation of the world. We can do no better than the sage who is the model for St. Bernard who “opened his lips in prayer to ask pardon for his sins” (Sirach 39:6).
Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
[Scripture Readings: Sir 39:6-11; Phil 3:17-4:1; Jn 17:20-26 ]
In our day and age we are used to politicians selling themselves. “If I am elected I will lower taxes, get more jobs, just look at my record I did this and this and this.” We take it all with a grain of salt. We have been so lied to by politicians that we distrust them all. Because of this we tend to distrust anyone who brags about himself. It is not really polite to brag about you, but most of us do it anyway, sometimes in a very subtle manner. Jesus tells the story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One, a Pharisee, who bragged about himself and all the good he did, the other, a publican, simply beat his breast and asked for mercy. Bernard tells us self knowledge is the first step to growth in the spiritual life. To have a true self estimation is a mark of humility.
This boils down to the fact that there are two main ways people can know us: what others say about us and what we say about ourselves. Jesus knew the Pharisee was probably padding his good works or at least if he did them all he did them for the wrong reasons. On the other hand the Publican was humble, sincere and truthful. He had a good heart and true insight into himself.
Now let us follow this train of thought with regards to St. Bernard. What do others say about him and what does he say about himself? If we look at what other say we can be overwhelmed. It is all found in his biography called the Vita Prima. There he seemed to be bigger than life, traveling all over Europe, drawing big crowds wherever he goes, counseling Popes, performing miracles, preaching crusades, founding sixty-eight monasteries in his lifetime. Even his own monks couldn’t resist the temptation to exaggerate. One of my favorite stories is when the community saw the need to enlarge the monastery because of all the new vocations. The Prior came up with the idea to move to a new location down by the river, which they ended up doing. For most abbots’ this would have been a major project, but in the context of all Bernard was doing it was small potatoes. To get him interested in the project was another matter. I quote: “The house council were not infrequently obliged to bring such necessary matters to Bernard’s attention, for he was inclined to overlook them so true was it that his conversation was in heaven. Occasionally, then they had to force him to come down to earth for a while to discuss business” sounds like our council meetings!. Now if St. Bernard said the above about himself he wouldn’t have the word saint before his name.
What does he say about himself? In all his sermons and chapter talks and letters, he says very little about himself. If he exaggerates it is usually in the direction of the publican. He says a lot more about Jesus, Mary, and the Saints than he does about himself. This tells us a lot, however. He shares his experience of God with us; he opens his soul, his most intimate inner life in a way we can trust. In this way he helps us know ourselves, our inner life, our soul. We do not have to read everything he ever wrote. Little passages here and there can speak to us. A paragraph, a sentence, even a phrase can find an echo in our hearts.
As a young monk I ran across a quote from his famous Marian sermon where Mary is compared to the Star of the Sea. The refrain, Respice Stella, Voca Maria look to the star, call upon Mary, is used like a mantra. When my days were dark the refrain proved true for me. Mary was leading me like a star. Another quotation that I like is one that comes from Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs:
The Word is a Spirit
The soul is a spirit
And they have a language
By which they are present to each other. Homily 45:7
Bernard knew this language and he can teach it to us. Bernard knew the transformation Paul speaks of in the second reading when he says God will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of his glorified body. We all know our lowly body and we are all being schooled into knowing our glorified body. Bernard is a wonderful teacher in this school.