Words on the Word
St Bernard of Clairvaux
I recently finished reading a new biography of St Bernard of Clairvaux by the Austrian historian Peter Dinzelbacher. In his effort to place Bernard in context, the author leaves no stone unturned: his book contains 3,000 footnotes. Having fought my way to the end, I felt rather overwhelmed. The extent of Bernard’s engagements is dizzying. One constantly finds him scurrying from place to place, arbitrating disputes, fighting heresy, whipping up crusading fervour, arranging ecclesiastical appointments, founding monasteries and directing existing foundations, all the while working copious miracles. The sheer range of external activity is not the only difficulty. One is also challenged by some of the positions Bernard adopts. He was a child, after all, of his times, and some of his attitudes can seem to us preposterous, with regard to the compulsion of conscience by violent means, say, or with regard to people of other faiths.
Many have spoken and written of Bernard as ‘the difficult saint’. One can see why. But simply stating this as a proposition doesn’t help much. I am led to think that, to know him, to begin to understand him, a mere catalogue of accomplishments is insufficient. Bernard was difficult, there is no doubt about it: many of his contemporaries make that quite clear. They are at pains to point out, however, that through his sometimes awkward, even violent character, another reality shone forth, a presence so lovely, so sweet, that it was all but irresistible. I love what Isaac of Stella, a great Cistercian Father, says of Bernard in a sermon. Just listen: ‘We saw [in him] a man, but a man who owned something more than what is simply human. His actions and reproaches caused some to murmur; yes, in his absence, what he did, what he said, could seem like a searing burn. However, such peace, such fear of God shone forth from his face, at once lovingly majestic and reverently charitable, such grace poured forth from his lips, that once you were in his presence, you reproached yourself for having reproached him.’
Bernard fought many a fierce battle. The fiercest of them all, perhaps, was against himself. He was by nature a leader of men. He was endowed with real genius. His sensibility was so acute that it left him vulnerable. He carried so much that could enclose him in himself. And yet he was increasingly transparent, as Isaac says, to the presence of God in him. His gift of himself was costly, but he never for a moment went back on it. That is why he is a saint. That is why we are blessed to call him our teacher, our father. Bernard spoke readily, not only of the joy of faith, but also of its trials. In a sermon he likens the Christian’s life in this world to a man who carries a flickering flame through a long, stormy night. The wind blows, the rain lashes down. To keep his flame from going out, he cups it with both hands, focusing all his attention on keeping it safe as he makes slow progress towards the Father’s house. What keeps his courage up is the certainty that he will, as long as he is faithful, arrive there one day. ‘And in that house not made with hands’, Bernard says, ‘there is nothing to fear. No enemy enters that house. No friend leaves it.’
The last remark is characteristic. St Bernard had a life-long charism for friendship. He knew that, in order to serve God, we have need of one another, and that this fellowship of truth-seeking hearts is life’s sweetest gift. On this feast day, let us pray that we ourselves may know St Bernard as a friend. Let us pray that he will guide us to true friendship with Christ, our Lord and Master. And let us pray that this house, which rejoices in his patronage, may be a house of friendship, where the gentle presence of Christ is made palpable and real. Amen.