Solemnity of St. Bernard

Scripture Readings:  Sir 39: 6-11; Phil 3: 17- 4: l; Jn 17: 20-26.

In our Gospel, Jesus says he prays for those who will believe in me through their words.  This passage reminded me of an address by Sr. Thea Bowman which we recently heard in our refectory (Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman).  She had told her audience: I want you to remember the people who taught you faith and hope and love and joy; people who taught you to love yourself and to believe in yourself. …Those who gave you a transcendent vision of a God who is one… And so, we get in touch and know what we are talking about.

We often forget that we learned from others the most important lessons of life, that we learned to hope and pray and trust from others who opened their lives to us.  We learned to believe through the words and lives of others who were in touch with an often-hidden reality that gave meaning to the confusing and fragmented events of life.  We trusted them because they knew what they were talking about.  Their wisdom had been honed in meeting the challenges of their experience.  This wisdom was embodied in their lives so that they could say, Be imitators of me.  Others could believe in Christ through their words.  Sr. Thea is right in re-grounding us those experiences in which faith and acceptance are born.

We remain learners in the unfinished business of life and seek to be in touch with those who know what they are talking about.  They are the ones in touch with themselves, with others, and with God.  May they all be one.

Saints (whether canonized or not) are people worthy of our attention.  They manifest an intensity and seriousness that makes them radically different in the midst of the ordinary and commonplace.  They are in touch with a center of love and energy that can no longer be contained or obscured.   They can no longer be complete without yielding to a vision of wholeness and holiness that has taken over their lives.  They meditate on his mysteries.  Their lives are re-centered around a new creative force which becomes the only explanation for their lives.

Today’s Gospel allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation among  the persons of the Trinity.  It is so dense and compact that it can almost paralyze us as we try to grasp its meaning.  That they may all be one as you are, Father, in me and I in you, that they may also be in us…. I have given them the glory you gave me…. That you loved them as you love me.  The Gospel is not a proposition or thesis. It is a Proclamation which makes real what it declares.  It is not an unrealizable wish, but a revelation of what is.  This is a new center available to anyone willing to live with the intensity and seriousness, with the simplicity and purity of heart that the Gospel needs if it is to be understood with the Spirit’s wisdom.

St. Bernard is a man who is not just a superb and eloquent author.  He is a man who knows what he is talking about, whose writings demonstrate a life and experience in touch with the mysteries and love of God.  He writes from his experience and can address those who allow their own experiences to be  open to the transformation of the Spirit.  Bernard releases the spirit through the word and he helps us to believe in ourselves as worthy of God’s attention, love, and touch.

The obstacles he describes to this experience are ignorance, weakness, and willfulness.  The unity, glory, and love proclaimed in the Gospel are the gifts of grace which transform us as we let them be the new center of our lives.




Solemnity of St. Bernard

[Scripture Readings: Sir 39:6-11; Eph 3:14-19; Jn 17:20-26]

In his Rule St. Benedict gives two instances where the local bishop should be called into the monastery to set things right: one is when a visiting priest monk is causing trouble and the other is when an improper abbatial election. Since St. Benedict's time and probably before that, it is not unheard of that a whole community or even a single monk will notify the Bishop when they think something is wrong and the abbot is not doing anything about it or, God forbid, he is the cause of it!

This happened, believe it or not, to St. Bernard not once but twice. The first time the local Bishop, William, imposed himself on Bernard by going to the General Chapter at Citeaux and requested that Bernard be put under obedience to him for one year. He did this because Bernard was not eating properly. Then later the whole community became suspicious of Bernard's daily chapter talks because, the text says, “He gave more consideration to the body than to the soul.” Now even though they had a saint for a leader they strayed off course by believing that anything that gave pleasure to the body was bad for the soul. They complained to the Bishop about this and he set them straight.

We are not told what exactly Bernard was saying that made the community suspicious but I doubt if it had anything to do with the pleasure of food and drink since Bernard himself needed the intervention of the Bishop to set him straight on this point. We can only guess what disturbed them but since they were becoming extreme in the direction of angelism then anything sensual would upset them. Bernard was very fond of sensual imagery. He gave 89 chapter talks on the Canticle of Canticles the most sensual book of the Bible. He also loved poetic phrases. His sermon on Mary the Star of the Sea is a poem in itself. He called Mary our sweetness and hope; he loved water images, stream and springs and fountains. I wonder did he name some of his daughter houses or other Cistercian monasteries. His own abbey of Clairvaux means valley of light. Then there is Aiguebelle, beautiful water, Mellifont, fountain of honey.

The Clairvaux monks were misguided but not all wrong. They did want heart work, soul work but they did not want to get it through the body. The Bishop corrected them and Bernard, thank God, continued to give them food for their souls. Spiritual teaching is not meant to impart information it is meant to awaken the listener to his own spirit, his own heart, his soul. Teaching like this does have a bodily component but it ends in the spirit. Here is how St. Augustine explains it. He says when he wants to share with your heart what is already in his heart he uses words so that the word in his heart may find a place in your heart. “The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound brought to you is now in your heart and yet it is still also in mine.” (Breviary, Sunday, Third Week of Advent) This is how St. Bernard shared what was in his heart with his monks. This is how St. Paul taught when he says in today's second reading, “May God strengthen with power through his Spirit your inner self and may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, rooted and grounded in love … may know the love of Christ that surpassed knowledge” (Eph. 3: 16-17).

St. Bernard and our Cistercian Fathers saw the monastery as a school of love where they taught the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. This is knowledge that comes through love and can be learned in no other way. It is knowledge that is opened to the child like, the little ones. Bernard's words are addressed to the inner self and come from his heart to our heart as Augustine said.

By choosing today's Gospel passage for St. Bernard it is as if the words of Jesus are spoken to Bernard, “I have made known to Bernard your name and will continue to make it known through him that the love with which you loved me may be in him and I in him” (Jn.17:26). Like the scribes of old this is the law that Bernard poured over and studied, the law of love.

Solemnity of St. Bernard

[Scripture Readings: Sir 39:6-11; Eph 3:14-19; Jn 17:20-26]

The three reading chosen for today’s feast were first written down or spoken with a specific audience in mind. They stand on their own and have meaning of themselves. Ben Sirach was a sage who lived in Jerusalem about 200 B.C. Paul wrote his epistle to the Christians at Ephesus between 61 and 63 A.D., or so scholars think. The Gospel we just heard is set in the context of a discourse Jesus gave to his disciples at his Last Supper.

Yet each of these reading transcends the time and place of their composition. Each reading has an application for every Christian who hears them proclaimed in Church or reads them privately for meditation. Today we approach these reading in a very special way. We superimpose upon them the life of St. Bernard and hopefully they will reveal to us some insights into his life and the life of his followers—the modern day Cistercians.

We begin our discovery with the reading from Sirach. It is taken from a section entitled, “Vocation of the Craftsman and Scribe”. Sirach describes the work of the farmer, the blacksmith, the engraver and the potter. He concludes that without these craftsmen no city could be lived in. This brings us to the verses about the scribe which are applied to St. Bernard. They begin, “how different the man who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High. His care is to seek the Lord, his maker… to open his lips in prayer.” (Sir. 39). Sirach is implying that the sage is as necessary to the life of the city, for the well being of its citizens, as the farmer, blacksmith and potter. I like to see in this organization of the city a first glimmer of the need for contemplatives in society. A healthy city needs the active craftsmen and the contemplative scribes.

St. Bernard was a sage in the tradition of Ben Sirach. His knowledge and wisdom was sought after by Popes and Kings, not because he was the smartest man of his times but because he evidenced closeness to God. Bernard used to tell Pope Eugene to be the first to drink from his own well. In other words find the wisdom in your own heart. Bernard himself did this by meditating on the Scriptures and living the richness of monastic life. He along with his Cistercian brethren separated themselves from the city and by so doing were able to see deeply into the wounds of their society and point the way to healing in doing so they helped us all to achieve the goal of life—happiness now and salvation forever.

By asking himself frequently, “Bernard why did you come to the monastery”, he was able to focus his energy on the one thing necessary and answer the question that the Psalmist asked of God, “What is man that you care for him”. Bernard knew that the emptiness that at the center of our being is a longing for God. To be fully alive is to be in touch with this longing and to know who to fill it with the fullness of God.

As we continue our journey we come to St. Paul and his letter to the Ephesians. The section chosen for our feast is a broad application of today’s Gospel. Jesus prays that the love that the father has for him may be in all his followers, “so that the love of the Father may live in them and I may live in them”. Then St. Paul prays that we may all grasp fully this love, the breath of it and length and height and the depth of Christ’s love. In other words all the dimensions of the mystery of Christ living in each of us.

This is the heart of our life. We don’t need any intermediary to help us out here. It is between each soul and Jesus. Or is it? Jesus begins his discourse by saying, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their words”. Applied to today’s feast that means St. Bernard. He can help us deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ hidden for all ages and now revealed.

We are not living at Clairvaux or in the 12th century. Yet we are living basically the same schedule St. Bernard lived; we are meditating on the same Scriptures he did and celebrating the same Liturgy. Maybe like the rich young man in the Gospel we should ask what more should we do? St. Bernard might say let go of your attachments and let the love in your heart awaken. Study my life and writings yes, but only in so far as they strengthen you inwardly through the working of the Holy Spirit; only in so far as they help you know all dimensions of Christ love for you. Be you not me. I can help you help yourself to discover who you are in Christ. I can help you experience the love that surpasses all knowledge so that you may attain the fullness of God himself.