Homily for the Memorialof St. Bernard
Aug. 20, 2016
Holy Cross Parish Council, Champaign, Ill.
Fr. Dave asked me to preach for at least 30 minutes, but I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint him; I don’t think this will be longer than 20 minutes.
“O God, you made the Abbot St. Bernard a man consumed with zeal for your house and a light shining and burning in your Church” (Collect).
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153, was the ecclesiastical giant of the 12th century, Europe’s citizen of the century, if you will.
(St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome)
He isn’t to be confused with St. Bernard of Menthon (†1081), who lived about a century earlier and founded monasteries and hospices in the Alpine passes between France and Italy that offered hospitality to travelers. This St. Bernard’s followers later bred those big dogs that carry his name, and they really did assist distressed winter travelers.
Our St. Bernard came from a small village in east central France near Dijon. His family was minor nobility, and they’d not have minded if he’d joined one of the old, well-established Benedictine monasteries. But they were shocked when, around age 21—the year isn’t known precisely—Bernard decided to join a new monastery (founded 1098) that was experimenting with a reform of the Benedictine tradition. This monastery was in a nearby place called Citeaux; its name seems to derive from a word meaning “reeds”—in other words, the place was a swamp. And the monastery was struggling, even tho its early abbots were saints. When Bernard arrived, the abbot was an Englishman, St. Stephen Harding (†1134). Bernard didn’t show up alone but came with 30 other young men, including 4 of his brothers, other relatives, and friends. He should be the patron saint of vocation directors!
And suddenly, Citeaux began to flourish. When the monastery became crowded, Abbot Stephen started sending out groups of monks to found daughter houses—which is the way things work with the monastic orders. So the Cistercian Order—the monks of Citeaux—was born, and it thrives to this day, including a 17th-century reformed branch, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists (because the reform began at the monastery at La Trappe, France).
St. Stephen designated Bernard in 1115 to lead one band of monks to establish a new monastery. Think about it: he’d been at Citeaux no more than 5 years, and perhaps as little as 3 years, and he was just 25 years old! (George Rogers Clark was 24 when he captured Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes, and thus the entire Northwest Territory, for the United States during the American Revolution. The young are capable of great things when they have proper motivation and support.)
So Bernard and his group settled in a place called Vallée d’Absinthe, the Valley of Wormwood in northeastern France. That wasn’t a place belonging to a henchman of the Dark Lord (Harry Potter’s nemesis) but, nevertheless, apparently wasn’t a very friendly place. In the Middle Ages, new monasteries tended to be established in places that no one wanted as farmland or a center of trade or military defense; rather, in swamps, deserts, or other wilderness areas.
Bernard proved to be an effective leader of his monks. Benedict XVI says, “Bernard firmly recalled the need for a sober and measured life, at table as in clothing and monastic buildings, and recommended the support and care of the poor.” Soon enuf the monastery became known as Clairvaux, “the Valley of Light.” Hence 2 allusions to light in our collect today. It grew, and soon was founding its own daughter houses.
Besides that, over the course of the next generation Bernard became renowned as a preacher, letter writer (he answered everyone, high or low, who wrote to him), author of theological treatises, mediator of disputes both civil and ecclesiastical (including one involving an antipope), and a man widely consulted for his wisdom, prudence, and learning. One of his best known works is a commentary on the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, a mystical image of the marriage relationship between God and humanity, between Christ and the Church. Here’s a sample from that commentary, from the Office of Readings in the breviary today:
Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it. Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him. (LOH 4:1333)
He defended the Church’s doctrine against several heresies of the day, including the major heresy, the Cathars or Albigensians, who held that there were 2 gods, one good and the other evil—a variation of the Manichean heresy that St. Augustine dealt with, if you’re familiar with his life. These 2 gods are, supposedly, battling each other for control of the universe, and human salvation consists of aligning oneself with the good god by liberating oneself as far as possible from any contamination with evil, starting with the material world of sex, food, and other forms of pleasure. When you think about it, this constitutes an assault on our Creator. Bernard defended the Jews against the violence that broke out sporadically against them out of ignorance, prejudice, and avarice. At the request of the Pope in the 1140s, he preached a crusade against the Turks, who were conquering western Asia; the 2nd Crusade was a disaster, thanks to infighting among its leaders and the un-Christian behavior of its participants.
All this is the background for the collect’s describing the saint as “a man consumed with zeal for [God’s] house and a light shining and burning in [his] Church.”
In his writing and preaching St. Bernard defended the Church’s traditional way of doing theology, relying entirely on the Sacred Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. He opposed a new approach just getting underway in some abbeys and schools (the great medieval universities like Bologna , Oxford , and Paris  were just being set up). This new approach, while continuing to use the Bible and the Fathers, mixed in the natural sciences and philosophy as well—pagan thought like that of Plato and Aristotle, and even the Muslim thought of Arab scholars (most of Spain was still under the control of the Moors, and North Africa wasn’t far away). This new approach eventually did take hold in the universities during the 13th century and became known as Scholasticism, the theology of the schools, and its proponents then included St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure. But that was a century in the future, and in Bernard’s time it was widely regarded as suspect, a dangerous innovation. Bernard stuck to the tried and true—the Scriptures and the Fathers—and so has himself been called “the last of the Fathers” (that in fact is the title of a fine little biography of him written by Thomas Merton, who was a Cistercian).
In his later years, one of Bernard’s pupils was elected Pope—it was in 1145, and the Pope took the name Eugene III. Bernard wrote a treatise for him called the Book on Consideration, full of advice, Benedict XVI says, on how to be a good Pope, and still useful reading, he says. It also contains a theology of the Church (ecclesiology) and of Christ (Christology), all rooted in contemplation of the Trinity—who is to be sought, 1st of all, in prayer.
The key to all of Bernard’s teaching is Jesus. I quote Pope Benedict again: “Jesus alone—Bernard insists …--is ‘honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart. The title Doctor Mellifluus [honey-flowing], attributed to Bernard by tradition, stems precisely from this; indeed, his praise of Jesus Christ ‘flowed like honey.’ … the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘All food of the soul is dry’ he professed, ‘unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savor for me unless I have read Jesus in it’”—that’s a quotation from his commentary on the Song of Songs. Benedict continues: “For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus; it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship, and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him, and to follow him more and more.”
Where shall we look for Jesus? Where shall we find him who is the Light of the World, who transformed the Valley of Wormwood into the Valley of Light? What was the source of the light that Bernard brought to his monks, to the Church, and to all who read or study his life? There are 3 sources that lead us to Jesus: the Scriptures, the Fathers, and prayer.
“The Fathers”—the Fathers of the Church—is a title you’ve heard but you probably don’t know its meaning. It refers, in the words of one reference book, to “those early figures whose teaching … is considered the foundation of orthodox Christian doctrine.” These Fathers stretch in time from the beginning of the 2d century (St. Ignatius of Antioch) to 7th- and 8th-century figures like St. Isidore of Seville and Bede the Venerable—or, as already noted, even to St. Bernard. They include theological giants like St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Leo the Great. Of course, not a great many people read the Fathers these days, but if you’d like a digestible taste, you could look at the selections from their writings in the Liturgy of the Hours, aka the Breviary. You can also find a few of their works like Augustine’s Confessions readily available in bookstores or libraries. If you really want to get into them, there are 2 magnificent series being produced since the 1950s, Paulist Press’s Ancient Christian Writers and CUA’s Fathers of the Church. As it happens, the Jane Addams Bookstore on Neil St. has on sale an old collection, probably expensive, called The Ante-Nicene Fathers, i.e., the Fathers who wrote before the Council of Nicea in 325.
Much more accessible to us are the other 2 sources, Scripture and prayer. Fr. Dave and I didn’t consult about what we’d say this morning, but I’m going to use the same quote from the Letter to the Hebrews: “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (4:12). Jesus, the Light of the World, wants to penetrate into our hearts and souls, our minds and our wills, thru his Word, and so to transform us from sinners into saints in order that we may, as the collect says, “walk always as children of light.” Thus we say in an antiphon from today’s Morning Prayer: “Blessed Bernard, your life, flooded by the splendor of the divine Word, illumines the Church with the light of true faith and doctrine” (LOH 4:1335). Thru us the Creator who said, “Let there be light,” and overcame the chaotic darkness “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1-3) expects us, filled with the life and light of Christ, to transform the chaos of social and cultural and political world in which we live; like Bernard, to be “consumed with zeal of [God’s] house”—his house of the parish, the wider Church, the world itself.
So, brothers and sisters, it’s essential, it’s imperative, that we read the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles too, which is full of the earliest preaching of the Gospel. This is where we meet Jesus Christ, get to know him, become familiar with him, and thru the inexorable power of the penetrating Word of God become more Christ-like in our minds, hearts, and actions.
The 2d—also essential—way by which we come to know Jesus Christ is prayer. We can, of course, pray without the Scriptures, and it’s surely good for us to pray in any way we’re comfortable with, to pray directly from our hearts. But the Church’s most familiar prayers are Scripture-based: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Angelus, even the Creed. Our reading of the Scriptures should lead us to prayer in our own words, even in silence: prayer of praise, prayer of contrition, prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of petition, depending upon the particular text and our particular situation. If the Scriptures are truly exposing us to God, they’ll naturally unite us more closely to him like 2 lovers growing closer together, talking to each other or just enjoying each other’s presence—contemplating each other.
I’ll conclude with another assessment from Pope Benedict: “Saint Bernard, solidly grounded on the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation, by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming an empty intellectual exercise and losing their credibility. . . . Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that man seeks God better and finds him more easily ‘in prayer than in discussion.’”