Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard has long been one of my favorite saints. He seemed to achieve an excellent balance among the different aspects of his life: contemplative prayer, service to others, preaching and teaching, scholarly study in theology, healing schism and reforming the Church, and writing. And the twelfth century was no picnic when it came to Church politics and intrigue, yet Bernard rose far above the fray, seeking God rather than pleasing people. (Something I certainly need to learn to do far better in my own life!)

Today's Saint of the Day e-mail from states:

Man of the century! Woman of the century! You see such terms applied to so many today—“golfer of the century,” “composer of the century,” “right tackle of the century”—that the line no longer has any punch. But the “man of the twelfth century,” without doubt or controversy, has to be Bernard of Clairvaux. Adviser of popes, preacher of the Second Crusade, defender of the faith, healer of a schism, reformer of a monastic Order, Scripture scholar, theologian and eloquent preacher: any one of these titles would distinguish an ordinary man. Yet Bernard was all of these—and he still retained a burning desire to return to the hidden monastic life of his younger days.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux. His five brothers, two uncles and some 30 young friends followed him into the monastery. Within four years a dying community had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, though more on himself than others. A slight breakdown of health taught him to be more patient and understanding. The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

His ability as arbitrator and counselor became widely known. More and more he was lured away from the monastery to settle long-standing disputes. On several of these occasions he apparently stepped on some sensitive toes in Rome. Bernard was completely dedicated to the primacy of the Roman See. But to a letter of warning from Rome he replied that the good fathers in Rome had enough to do to keep the Church in one piece. If any matters arose that warranted their interest, he would be the first to let them know.

Shortly thereafter it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope.

The Holy See prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe. His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured. The ideals of the men and their leaders, however, were not those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster.

Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade. This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came August 20, 1153.

Bernard’s life in the Church was more active than we can imagine possible today. His efforts produced far-reaching results. But he knew that they would have availed little without the many hours of prayer and contemplation that brought him strength and heavenly direction.

Yet my favorite thing about Bernard isn't his place in church history, nor his stellar theology, nor his establishment of a holy order. No, it's a hymn, one that is dear to my heart; I especially like the version performed by the group 4Him:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred head, what glory, what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! 'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

You may listen to an mp3 of the above hymn plus read more about the hymn here: The Center for Church Music: Songs and Hymns

So as we prepare for worshiping our Lord Christ tomorrow morning, may we prepare our hearts through the help of His Holy Spirit to be like Bernard's: focused, thoughtful, contemplative, worshipful, loving. And may we echo the final line of St. Bernard's most famous hymn in our own lives: "Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee." Amen.

Meditating on the life of Bernard this day,

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