Old Saints | New Times

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.

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O Clavis David or Missus Est?

Today puts me in a quandary. Do I write about the day’s O antiphon or follow monastic tradition by commenting on the day’s gospel in what is known as a Missus Est because it focuses on the words, ‘An angel was sent from God’? Or can we have something of both?

Today’s O antiphon is

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is impossible to sing that antiphon without thinking of St Bernard’s words in a Missus Est written nearly nine hundred years ago. He addresses Our Lady, daughter of David’s royal line, urging her to give the waiting angel her consent to what God asks of her, to give the word which will give us the Word made flesh. He pictures all creation on its knees before her, including Adam and those imprisoned in darkness and the shadow of death.

I think we can identify with all those on the fringes with Adam, as it were, whose faith is sometimes wobbly, whose lives are sometimes messy but who are sure (most of the time) of this: our need for a Saviour. We are reminded today of both our fragility and our glory as human beings. Mary gave her consent to be the Mother of God in a moment of unequalled faith. Had she not done so, we would be in darkness still.  Jesus is the one and only Key, but his Mother provides the lock and wards that allow the Key to work.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Challenge of St Bernard

Challenge is fashionable. We talk about a ‘challenging situation’ and mean one that we find difficult. I have not the slightest hesitation in describing St Bernard as ‘challenging’. It was, after all, his sermons that transformed my own academic study into a personal quest for God in the monastic way of life. But he is challenging in other ways.

He wrote like an angel, especially when he was angry (which was often). His Latin is as near to French prose as anything  I know, and there are times when he manages to say nothing and say it very brilliantly as most French writers do (no racist slur there). He was beastly to Abelard (who actually wasn’t very nice and certainly no romantic)  and he is usually condemned for preaching the Second Crusade, yet Bernard was kind to Jews at a time when no one was kind to Jews. Indeed, in the early fourteenth century we find a rabbi in Cologne recalling the help and protection afforded by the abbot of Clairvaux, so at least his reputation for good survived him (he died in 1153) instead of being interred with his bones, as is often the case. He had a great love of family and inspired lasting affection in those who knew him, yet he was not exempt from criticism. I rather like Cardinal Haimeric’s put-down, when he thought Bernard had been meddling in matters above him, ‘It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.’ But I like even better the response Bernard made, which disarmed Haimeric and showed the true monk, ‘Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.’

Bernard has been called a protestant avant la lettre because he did not hold the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and because his understanding of  justification was often quoted by Calvin in his exposition of the sola fide principle. ‘Our words are ours, their ends none of our own.’ Bernard is scarcely to be blamed for any interpretation put upon his words in after centuries. No one could really accuse him of lacking orthodoxy. In his lyrical writing on the Blessed Virgin Mary, he himself admits that he sometimes runs on a little too far. Pius XII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church and called him the ‘last of the Fathers’, but perhaps his best memorial is the fact that his name has become synonymous with the Order he did so much to foster. He was involved in the foundation of no fewer than 163 monasteries in his lifetime. At his death, the Cistercians, the first true Order in the Church, numbered 343 communities. Even today, in Spain, you will hear the Cistercians referred to as ‘los bernardos’. It is a fitting epithet.

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