AUGUST 20, 2000 FEAST OF ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX: HOMILY

IF ANYONE WISHES TO FOLLOW ME, LET HIM DENY HIMSELF AND TAKE UP HIS CROSS AND FOLLOW ME. (Mt. 16: 24) These words of our Lord rarely found a fuller hearing than St. Bernard gave them. If he took our Lord’s teaching so earnestly as to make it the guide for his life, it was because he had opened his heart in love to the Lord and made that love the motive force of his life. WHOLLY IS HE (JESUS) TO BE LOVED BY ME THROUGH WHOM I EXIST, LIVE AND HAVE WISDOM. With these words St. Bernard begins one of his stirring Sermons on the Canticle (XX.1 PL 183: 867A), after first citing a verse from St. Paul: "Whoever does not love the Lord Jesus, let him be anathema." As we celebrate St. Bernard’s feast today, the topic of love expressed with such ardor and boldness offers us a view into his heart and so opens up one of the broadest of perspectives for appreciating his contribution to the traditions of our Cistercian Order. Bernard, for very sound reasons, was named a Doctor of the Church; already in his life time he was considered not only the Master of the Order’s spirituality, but a teacher for all monks and indeed for the whole Church. His vision was too broad to be confined within the limits of a single Order, or country or age, for he was truly a gifted contemplative whose love extended to the Whole Christ. He has deservedly been called homo ecclesiasticus, a man of the church. Bernard, through his loving contemplation of the crucified and risen Savior, came to see all things in the light of God’s redemptive activity in the whole world.

As we immediately appreciate upon reading the first paragraph of this sermon there is nothing hesitant in Bernard’s style. His personality was bold, optimistic, assertive, ever advancing into new vistas of the spirit, he energized a whole generation of Christians in the service of the Gospel. He recognized this himself, revealing his own dispositions and character indirectly in this sermon whose theme is the various kinds of love.

Learn to love tenderly, to love prudently, to love courageously. . . . Let zeal have nothing tepid, let it not lack discretion, let it not be timid (Sermones in Cantica XX.4 PL 183: 867).

His optimism is revealed here in the conviction that such love can indeed be learned, and he sets about teaching it precisely through a careful analysis of the qualities of the various kinds of love and its degrees. His unfailingly determined and confident attitude is also well expressed in a letter he wrote to a fellow abbot:

What good is it to follow Christ if it happens that you do not catch up with him? That is why St. Paul said "So run that you lay hold (1Cor 9: 24)."... And so if to progress is to run, the one who ceases to progress, ceases to run. Where you cease to run, then, you begin to fall back. Thus it is clear that to fail to progress is to lose out (Epistola CCLIV. 4 PL 182: 461 B,C).

The abbot explains what he means by running when he asks for growth in love. He understands that nothing contributes more to its increase that consideration of our Lord’s passion.

Above all, I say, O good Jesus, it is the chalice which you drank, the work of our redemption, that has made you lovable to me. This altogether easily claims all our love for itself (Sermones in Cantica XX.2 [Madrid: B.A.C., 1987] 278.

At the center of Cistercian spirituality as developed by the abbot of Clairvaux, is the unquenchable flame of a love that is at once human and divine for it is directed to God living and present in the human nature of his son. St. Bernard sought to communicate his love for our Savior by sharing it with others. And to share it more effectively he strove to live it ever more purely and intensely and then to understand it more fully. We know that he devoted much effort to this labor of the heart, seeking to see clearly the hidden features of true love as it grew in purity and strength. He knew that to describe love accurately in its workings and expression in all its concrete forms and development is to stimulate in others the desire to possess it and make it one’s own. He knew how subtle an art it is to love wisely as well as affectionately, to love spiritually as well as humanly and what formidable obstacles we meet in attempting to arrive at true love, worthy of our divine Lord. He was convinced that writing about love in its varied forms and stages and manifestations is a way of propagating it in others as well as in oneself and assisted the seeker in the search.

We can best honor the memory of Bernard of Clairvaux by assimilating his teaching on the love of our Savior. That requires that we read and meditate his writings and strive to adapt them to our own personal needs and attractions. May the grace of this Eucharist assure for each of us the light and courage to carry on this labor of love until we arrive at the fullness of possession in the kingdom of the Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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