To many people today’s feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux will not mean very much. He is just one more medieval saint whose name appears in the Universal Calendar. A short note mentioning that he was a gifted writer and preacher responsible for the spread of the Cistercian ideal and the foundation of many monasteries makes him sound as dull as ditchwater. We turn aside to someone or something we deem more ‘relevant’. If we are interested in monastic history, we may recall the story of his bringing 29 prospective postulants with him when he became a Cistercian, thus saving the order from dying, his dispute with Abelard, his political involvement and perhaps his championing of scripture studies and the simplicity in architecture and music we associate with the Cistercians. We may even remember that in the fourteenth century his name was honoured by a rabbi in Cologne as one who had defended Jews at a time when most Christians were hostile. Those who have actually read his sermons and letters will probably have a different picture of him as a man of God, one who knew what prayer was and whose love of the Lord was intensely personal. That said, he still remains a difficult saint for many people today. He is remote and it seems nothing will bring him closer. Or will it?
My own admiration for St Bernard is no secret (he appears in a number of posts in this blog, for example) and one of the things I love him for is his anger. Read his letters. Bernard knew how to handle incandescent rage but in such a way that one feels the world was better for it. It pours forth from him as cleansing fire, devouring every falsity or feigned excuse in its path. Bernard’s anger is glorious, there is no other word for it. And today, when one looks at any site on the internet or dips into social media of any kind, one can see how different his anger is from the childish petulance we so often display — the endless negative criticism, the profanity that is too lazy to find words to express its thought, the sheer vapidity of our ‘debate’. I would therefore argue that St Bernard is very much a saint for our times, very relevant to today: the angry man who was not angry, the saint who was not a cypher. Would it be too much to hope that seeking to learn from him how to handle our own anger we might be led upon that most monastic of paths, the one that desires to be empty of anger and all negative passions that we may become full of God? One of Bernard’s best-known treatises is his meditation on the degrees of humility in the Rule of St Benedict which, characteristically, he turns round as a treatise on pride. Paradox lies at the heart of Christianity. Life comes out of death. New wisdom is drawn from old wells, and St Bernard’s is very deep indeed.