August 20th we remember St. Bernard, a spiritual teacher who never goes out of date and a major figure in the renewal of the church in the 12th century.
The image of Jesus communing with Bernard from a painting from 16th century Florence captures the spirituality of the saint. Bernard was attracted to the humanity of Christ, especially his love shown on Calvary. In this scene, Jesus bends down to Bernard to embrace him. The nails cannot hold him from loving the one kneeling before him. Christ’s love is stronger than the images of death, pictured beneath the cross. That has to be the City of Florence in the background. Christ’s love in never confined to one person or age or place.
Bernard lived in “an age of love”, which saw Jesus reaching out to humanity, not primarily humanity crippled by sin, but humanity as his beloved. It’s not surprising that Bernard’s sermons on “The Song of Songs” is considered his greatest work. “The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks nothing in return but faithful love. Let the beloved, then, love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?… It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given.”
Bernard was a leader in the 11th century Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism which emphasized simplicity of life and devotion to the humanity of Christ. He became a monk at the monastery of Clairvaux in 1112, and then its abbot. By the time of his death in 1153 the order numbered 339 monasteries throughout Europe.
Growth of the Cistercians was due to their support of church reform initiated by Pope Gregory VII, who enlisted monastic orders in his crucial efforts for reforming the papacy. Bernard played an important part in the Gregorian reform as advisor to popes, bishops and secular leaders.
He was a tireless writer whose letters and sermons inspired Christians throughout Europe. He was a healer whose presence drew crowds of people seeking healing. He was a powerful voice promoting the Crusades to rescue the Holy Land..
Here is how he advises we approach God::
“The first involves humbling ourselves before God: “Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved. And again, Lord, have mercy on me; heal my soul because I have sinned against you.
Then, leaving sorrow and ourselves behind, it’s time to “abide rather in the Spirit of God with great delight. No longer do we consider what is the will of God for us, but rather what it is in itself.
Under the guidance of the Spirit who gazes into the deep things of God, let us reflect how gracious the Lord is and how good he is in himself. Let us join the Prophet in praying that we may see the Lord’s will and frequent not our own hearts but the Lord’s temple; and let us also say, My soul is humbled within me, therefore I shall be mindful of you.
These two stages sum up the whole of the spiritual life: when we contemplate ourselves we are troubled, but our sadness saves us and brings us to contemplate God. That contemplation in turn gives us the consolation of the joy of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplating ourselves brings fear and humility; contemplating God brings us hope and love.”
“Jesus, what made you so small? Love.”
Lord God, you made Saint Bernard burn with zeal for your house, and gave him grace to enkindle and enlighten others in your Church.Grant that by his prayer we may be filled with the same spirit and always live as children of the light.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.
Some audio readings of St Bernard’s works: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21152