Tag Archives: St Bernard of Clairvaux

St Bernard of Clairvaux

St BernardI always look forward, for some reason, to the feast day of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Not sure why, but it may have something to do with marking the progress of the summer (just like the Transfiguration and the Assumption does) but also because his youthful calling to serve God in a profound way is a true inspiration.

Of the saint it is said:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

The historians tell us that Bernard, at 22, together with his four  brothers, and 25 friends, joined the relatively new abbey of Citeaux; we also know that his father and another brother joined him.

Early in his monastic life he was called upon to be an abbot founding the Abbey of Clairvaux. In time, his abbey had over 700 monks with 160 daughter houses. Bernard was the one to give the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism its vitality.

His doctrine was clear and straight-forward. His sermons were of the highest quality. His pastoral work included fighting the Albigensian heresy, helping the Second Crusade, ending the schism of anti-Pope Anacletus II, and teaching monks among whom was the future Blessed Pope Eugene III. Bernard was an ardent lover of the Blessed Virgin Mary and called himself “Beatae Mariae cappellane” – the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Chaplain.

Pope Pius VIII called Bernard the “Mellifluous Doctor” for his eloquence and named him a Doctor of the Church

Here is a sermon:

I love because I love, I love that I may love

Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it. Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him.

The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks in return nothing 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?

Rightly then does she give up all other feelings and give herself wholly to love alone; in giving love back, all she can do is to respond to love. And when she has poured out her whole being in love, what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent of that original source? Clearly, lover and Love, soul and Word, bride and Bridegroom, creature and Creator do not flow with the same volume; one might as well equate a thirsty man with the fountain.

What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love? No. 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. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?

Connecting truth and mercy

It can be said, growing in the truth means learning mercy.  The Office of Readings today proposed this reading for the 3rd Sunday of Lent from Saint Bernard, written in 1119, speaks to us particularly in this Year of Mercy.

St Bernard: From the treatise on the Degrees of Humility and Pride

‘Knowledge of the truth comprises three degrees, which I will try to set out as briefly as possible. In the first place we seek truth in ourselves; then we seek it in our neighbour, and last of all we search for truth in its own essential nature. We discover truth in ourselves when we pass judgement on ourselves; we find it in our neighbour when we suffer in sympathy with others; we search out its own nature by contemplation in purity of heart.

Notice not only the number of these degrees, but also their order.  Before we inquire into the nature of truth, Truth itself must first teach us to seek it in our neighbour.  Then we shall understand why, before we find it in our neighbour, we must seek it in ourselves. The sequence of the beatitudes given in the Sermon on the Mount places the merciful before the pure in heart. The merciful are those who are quick to see truth in their neighbour; they reach out to others in compassion and identify with them in love, responding to the joys and sorrows in the lives of others as if they were their own. They make themselves weak with the weak, and burn with indignation when others are led astray.  They are always ready to share the joys of those who rejoice and the sorrows of those who mourn.

Men and women whose inner vision has thus been cleansed by the exercise of charity toward  their neighbour can delight in the contemplation of truth in itself, for it is love of truth which makes them take upon themselves the misfortunes of others. But can people find the truth in their neighbour if they refuse to support their brothers and sisters in this way – if on the contrary they either scoff at their tears or disparage their joys, being insensitive to all feelings but their own?  There is a popular saying which well suits them: A healthy person cannot feel the pains of sickness, nor can one who is well-fed feel the pangs of hunger. The more familiar we are with sickness or hunger, the greater will be our compassion for others who are sick or hungry.

Just as pure truth can only be seen by the pure in heart, so the sufferings of our fellow men and women are more truly felt by hearts that know suffering themselves. However, we cannot sympathise with the wretchedness of others until we first recognise our own. Then we shall understand the feelings of others by what we personally feel, and know how to come to their help.  Such was the example shown by our Saviour, who desired to suffer himself in order that he might learn how to show mercy.  Scripture says of him that he learned the meaning of obedience through what he suffered. In the same way he learned the meaning of mercy. Not that the Lord whose mercy is from age to age was ignorant of mercy’s meaning until then; he knew its nature from all eternity, but he learned it by personal experience during his days on earth.’

Our Lady of Sorrows… the Mother of God with a pierced your heart

Mary of SorrowsFrom a sermon by Saint Bernard, abbot:

The martyrdom of the Virgin is set forth both in the prophecy of Simeon and in the actual story of our Lord’s passion. The holy old man said of the infant Jesus: He has been established as a sign which will be contradicted. He went on to say to Mary: And your own heart will be pierced by a sword.

Truly, O blessed Mother, a sword has pierced your heart. For only by passing through your heart could the sword enter the flesh of your Son. Indeed, after your Jesus—who belongs to everyone, but is especially yours—gave up his life, the cruel spear, which was not withheld from his lifeless body, tore open his side. Clearly it did not touch his soul and could not harm him, but it did pierce your heart. For surely his soul was no longer there, but yours could not be torn away. Thus the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr, since the effect of compassion in you has gone beyond the endurance of physical suffering.

Or were those words, Woman, behold your Son, not more than a word to you, truly piercing your heart, cutting through to the division between soul and spirit? What an exchange! John is given to you in place of Jesus, the servant in place of the Lord, the disciple in place of the master; the son of Zebedee replaces the Son of God, a mere man replaces God himself. How could these words not pierce your most loving heart, when the mere remembrance of them breaks ours, hearts of iron and stone though they are!

Do not be surprised, brothers, that Mary is said to be a martyr in spirit. Let him be surprised who does not remember the words of Paul, that one of the greatest crimes of the Gentiles was that they were without love. That was far from the heart of Mary; let it be far from her servants.

Perhaps someone will say: “Had she not known before that he would not die?” Undoubtedly. “Did she not expect him to rise again at once?” Surely. “And still she grieved over her crucified Son?” Intensely. Who are you and what is the source of your wisdom that you are more surprised at the compassion of Mary than at the passion of Mary’s Son? For if he could die in body, could she not die with him in spirit? He died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.

RESPONSORY

When they came to a place called Calvary, they crucified Jesus there.
– His mother stood beside the cross.

A sword of sorrows pierced her blameless heart.
– His mother stood beside the cross.

O God, who willed
that, when your Son was lifted high on the Cross,
his Mother should stand close by and share his suffering,
grant that your Church,
participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ,
may merit a share in his Resurrection.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
– Amen.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

BernardSaint Bernard of Clairvaux composed the famous prayer to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary known as The Memorare. This year is Bernard’s 900th anniversary!

MEMORARE, O piissima Virgo Maria, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia, tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia, esse derelictum. Ego tali animatus confidentia, ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, curro, ad te venio, coram te gemens peccator assisto. Noli, Mater Verbi, verba mea despicere; sed audi propitia et exaudi. Amen.

REMEMBER, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

Our hope comes through Mary

The Lord has placed in Mary the fullness of all good. So that if there is anything of hope in us, if anything of grace, if anything of salvation, we may rest assured it has overflowed into us from her. With every fiber of our being, every feeling of our hearts, with all affections of our minds, and with all the ardor of our souls let us honor Mary because this is the will of God, who would have us obtain everything through her hands.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 6: For the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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