20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
St Bernard can often strike us as one of those saints who are more to be admired than imitated. But the liturgy will not let us dismiss him so easily. In the second reading, it is as if St Bernard were saying to us, “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters. Bernard’s rule of life was simply the Cistercian way, and he gives what is probably the best short description of the Cistercian life when he wrote in one of his letters:
“Our Ordo, our observance, is to be under a master, under an abbot; under a rule, under discipline. Our Ordo is the practice of silence, exercise in fasting, vigils, prayers; manual labor. But above all it is to hold to the more excellent way, which is love, and indeed to progress in all these things from day to day, and to persevere in them until the last day”.
Bernard is here sharing his own experience of the Cistercian life with us, and from first to last, it is a way of love. Our monasteries are schools of love, our constitution is a charter of charity. For St Bernard as for any Cistercian, love is both the goal – because God is love – and the way to the goal. The Cistercian life is a kind of incarnate answer to Jesus’ prayer to the Father in today’s Gospel: “that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them”.
Because our monasteries are schools of love, there is a sense in which love is a learning experience, something which comes to us from outside and forms us interiorly. St Bernard is very clear as to what this Source is, and it is the same for us as it was for him. In one of his Sermons on the Song of Songs, he addresses his monks and says to them:
“Every soul among you who is seeking God should know that you have been anticipated by him, and have been sought by him before you began to seek him….You seek the Word, but you have been previously sought by the Word”.
The first step in the way of love is already a mutual exchange of love, and it is in this exchange that God reveals himself. He reveals himself in the measure in which we love him, not according to our intelligence, or how much theology we may have studied. Bernard himself was not a systematic theologian like the later scholastics, but he had a profound knowledge of God based on his experience as a monk. He “prayed, and prudence was given him; he pleaded, and the spirit of Wisdom came to him”.
Bernard’s wisdom and understanding of God did not come from intellectual efforts on his part, or from his intellectual gifts. It came from his prayer life, and from the Holy Spirit moving within him. In Bernard’s experience, it was the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, who first came to him and gradually sanctified him, day by day, uniting him with the Word of the Father.
The other side of this is something that Bernard also learned by experience in the school of love. God’s love for us is continual, and if we monks are faithful to our vow of conversion, our response also has to be continual. In another of his sermons on the Song of Songs, St Bernard tells us what this response should be:
“Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul”, he says, “love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return, however unequal it may be”. The vow of conversion is a vow to grow in love from day to day. So long as we continually make efforts, as Bernard did, then we are fulfilling our vow. Our failings are not an obstacle to responding to God’s continual love for us. The real obstacle is putting up with our defects and making no effort to get rid of them.
Bernard was not like that. He never gave up trying and wanting to try, even though he knew that he could never respond infinitely to God’s infinite love. “It is true that the creature loves less because she is less”, he said. “But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given”.
In this Eucharist, each of us will be sought and visited by the Word, who comes to us under the appearances of bread and wine. It is the same Word who came to Bernard and called us to the school of love. Let us welcome him into our inmost being and respond, this day, to his intense and purifying love. And may our desire for him not end with death, but be rekindled by the sight of him who is the eternal joy of Bernard and of all the saints.