20th Monday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux
How can contemplative monks respond to the present crisis in the Church? In the same way that any faithful Catholic should respond: by prayer and penance, and by greater fidelity to our own vocation. For Trappists, our model for sanctity is St Bernard, whom we celebrate as a solemnity today. The Collect of the Mass describes him as “filled with the spirit of zeal”. He lived love for God “without measure”. He “prayed, and understanding was given him; he entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to him”. He was completely absorbed in God, and loved him more than health or beauty”. This monk fulfilled his own definition of a holy man: “seen to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using his every gift for the common good”.
In his sermon On Seeking Wisdom, Bernard says, “There are three ways for wisdom or prudence to abound in you: if you confess your sins, if you give thanks and praise, and if what you say is edifying.”
The first way for wisdom to abound in us is if we confess our sins. To do that, we must first recognize that what we have done or failed to do is in fact sinful. St Bernard deals with this first way in his treatise On Grace and Free Will. Because of original sin, our wills have become crooked and perverse, and our freedom has become severely impaired. But grace enables us to confess our sins and turn away from them, and direct our wills to good, not to abusing other people. Only grace can show us where Jesus is in any situation, and to choose always what is good in his sight.
The second way for wisdom to abound is if we give thanks and praise to God, which is a way of loving him. In his treatise On the Love of God, Bernard asks the question why and how God is to be loved, a question which would only occur to someone who puts God first, and not himself. Bernard answers that God is to be loved for himself and “without measure”. We can only love God because God first loved us. Initially our love is self-interested and fleshly, the product of need. But it’s not supposed to remain at that level. If we allow God to work with us, gradually our love is purified and passes from thankfulness for gifts received to love of God’s goodness. It’s only in heaven that love will be perfect, enabling us to love even our own selves for God’s sake. Grace of course works this transformation, but we cooperate by humility.
Finally, the third way for wisdom to abound is if we edify our neighbor by giving good example. We can take St Bernard as our model for this, and study him as the Philippians used to study St Paul. Paul wrote to them to “join with others in being imitators of me, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. For many”, he goes on to say, “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their glory is in their ‘shame’”. Remember that he was writing to his fellow Christians.
In his Letter 144, St Bernard wrote in similar terms to his fellow monks of Clairvaux, when he had to be away from his community. He wrote, “We must be of good cheer for God is with us, and no matter how great the distance which seems to separate us, we can always be united to each other in him. Any of you who are well disposed, humble, reverent, zealous in reading, attentive in prayer, fervent in fraternal charity, can be quite sure that I am not far away from them”.
The same goes for any monk or Catholic of our day. Those who are faithful to the dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church, and persevere in the vocation to which God has called them, can be quite sure that Wisdom is not far away from them. The love with which the Father loved Jesus is in them, and Jesus himself is in them, as he was in St Bernard. May the teachings of St Bernard make us wise, so that we too may burn with love for God’s Word, Jesus Christ, who is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.