20th Tuesday in Ordinary Time
Solemnity of St. Bernard
The Cistercian liturgy today invites us to think of St Bernard when we hear the words of St Paul to the Philippians in the second reading. When he was only twenty-two, St Bernard gave up his wealth to enter the new monastery of Cîteaux. He must have said something like, “Join with others in being imitators of me” because he took with him several of his brothers, his father, and about thirty young men, the elite of Burgundian aristocracy.
It is a tribute to our Founders that they recognized the qualities of St Bernard, because it wasn’t long before he was made abbot of Clairvaux, and himself founded a great number of monasteries which gave exceptional renown to the Cistercian Order. The world has rarely seen such a monastic flowering or such a contagious enthusiasm for the cloistered life and its austerities. Christ’s invitation to the rich young man then met with a resounding response and contagious generosity in a period that was somewhat like ours, in that it was confused about the things that really matter. The Cistercians thus became the driving force behind a spiritual renaissance that shed light in a dark age, and they are still beacons of light in our increasingly dark age.
St Bernard himself practiced, in accordance with what he learned at Cîteaux, a strict asceticism in bodily mortification, fidelity to manual labor, and simplicity in divine worship. In reaction against the Benedictines of Cluny, he banished all superfluous ornamentation and displays of wealth, while cherishing whatever contributed to the beauty of the liturgy. He was thus at the beginning of the early Gothic style whose noble simplicity we still admire today, not only in architecture but also in music, and even in the development of a whole new school of Cistercian spirituality. Not only St Bernard but many Cistercian authors have been incorporated in the Office of Readings of the Roman rite.
But in his soul St Bernard paid careful attention to interior realities. He was a contemplative, leading a life of prayer, and especially devoted to the holy humanity of Christ and to the Virgin Mary. Like his fellow monks of Clairvaux, his “citizenship was in heaven”. Like all of them, he was a man of prayer who loved nothing but obscurity and the silence of the cloister. Each of them could have said, in the words of our first reading from the book of Wisdom, “I prayed, and prudence was given me”.
In our own day, it is important to remember how the spiritual descendants of St Bernard describe themselves in our Constitutions: “This Order is a monastic institute wholly ordered to contemplation. The monks dedicate themselves to the worship of God in a hidden life within the monastery under the Rule of St Benedict. They lead a monastic way of life in solitude and silence, in assiduous prayer and joyful penitence”.
Our role in the New Evangelization is described as “fidelity to the monastic way of life, which has its own hidden mode of apostolic fruitfulness”. May St Bernard guide us in remaining true to our vocation.
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