Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saint Bernard: 800+ Years of Witness to God's Love

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux died on August 20, 1153. That's 863 years ago if my arithmetic is correct. Yet he left a mark on Christian history that remains fresh and vital even today, his feast day on the Roman calendar.

Bernard de Fontaines-les-Dijon was a young nobleman who left all his wealth to join a radical new monastic movement. The movement was trying to recover the ancient Benedictine tradition of living in prayer and solitude, in poverty and by the work of their own hands.

These radical monks dwelt in the wild marshland of a place called Citeaux (from the word for cistern), near the border between medieval France and Burgundy. They were ragged and unknown when Bernard first came to them, but they were dedicated to living by the original rule of Saint Benedict. They had gone to work clearing and draining the swamp, and building a humble dwelling place to worship and pray and labor. In and through Bernard, these small seeds planted by the founding monks bore a remarkable fruit.

Though he was not the founder of the great religious order that came to be known as the Cistercians, Bernard's presence, his dedication, his wisdom, and above all his radiant holiness were fundamental to the order's explosive growth in the 12th century. He became counselor to popes and kings, peacemaker, preacher, teacher, and guide along the paths of Christian life.

His sermons, letters, and commentaries remain classics. No one since Saint Augustine had spoken so profoundly and so eloquently about the love of God, and the grace by which He enables us to love Him.

And thus he continues to speak to us today:

If one seeks for God's claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us.
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.
I know that my God is not merely the bounteous bestower of my life, the generous provider for all my needs, the pitiful consoler of all my sorrows, the wise guide of my course: He is far more than all that. He saves me with an abundant deliverance. He is my eternal preserver, the portion of my inheritance, my glory.
Therefore what reward shall I give unto the Lord for all the benefits which He has given me? In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. 
He is all that I need, all that I long for.

"My God and my help,
I will love You for Your great goodness;
not so much as I might, surely,
but as much as I can.
I cannot love You as You deserve to be loved,
for I cannot love You more
than my own feebleness permits.
I will love You more when You deem me worthy
to receive greater capacity for loving,
yet never so perfectly as You deserve of me."