Fr Billy Swan
Bernard was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, into a large and fairly well-to do family. At the age of about 20, he entered Cîteaux, a new monastic foundation that was more flexible in comparison with the ancient and venerable monasteries of the period. A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent to found the monastery of Clairvaux.
Bernard has left the Church a large body of writing that was born of disputes with people like Peter Abelard and groups like the Cathars who drove a wedge between the body and the spirit, describing the former as corrupt and the later as being from God and therefore good. In the same period, the holy Abbot wrote one of his most famous works, the celebrated Sermons on the Song of Songs.
In this work, Bernard's concern is that the Christian might know his/her intimate and vital participation in God's love in Jesus Christ. For Bernard, Jesus alone is "honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart” . In his teaching of the faith, he insisted not just on the proper content of that teaching but on the loving spirit with which it is shared. He clarifies: "All food of the soul is dry", he professed, "unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it" (On the Song of Songs, 15).
For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. This is one of Bernard’s great legacies to the Church – that everything we teach and stand for be shared with a spirit of love and affection for those whom we encounter. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “This is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!”
In the same General Audience, Benedict points to Bernard’s example to all theologians and scholars as a warning against a dry and academic faith that is divorced from a deep and prayerful relationship with God:
“Bernard reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation, by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming an empty intellectual exercise and losing their credibility. Theology refers us back to the knowledge of the Saints, to their intuition of the mysteries of the living God and to their wisdom, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which becomes a reference point for theological thought. Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that humanity seeks God better and finds him more easily in prayer than in discussion. In the end, the truest figure of a theologian and of every evangelizer remains the Apostle John who laid his head on the Teacher's breast” (General Audience, 21st October 2009).
What I like most about this saint who deserves to be better known, is how he applies God’s love as a power that heals and transforms human weakness. He was once asked why so many refuse to turn to God or entertain the possibility of a relationship with him.
“I am certain that they refused because they imagine this kindly disposed God to be harsh and severe this merciful God to be callous and inflexible this loving God to be cruel and oppressive” (Sermon on Song of Songs, 38).
For Bernard, we need have no fear or hesitancy: “What are you afraid of you people of little faith? That he will not pardon your sins? But with his own hands he has nailed them to the cross” (Sermon on Song of Songs 38).
Yet Bernard was a realist. He knew himself to be flawed and in need of the Saviour. Coming before God in prayer was not about seeking a sustained series of spiritual consolations and delights but an encounter with “the truth of our condition in God’s sight”. For this reason, in Sermon 74, Bernard implores the Word to come to him, full of grace and truth:
“I need both of these. I need truth that I may not be able to hide from him and grace that I may not wish to hide. Indeed without both of these, his visitation would not be complete. For the stark reality of truth would be intolerable without grace and the gladness of grace might appear lax and uncontrolled without truth”.
Similarly in one of his earlier sermons on the Song of Songs, he writes: “If you lack self-knowledge you will possess neither the fear of God nor humility” (Sermon 36). In this, Bernard follows St Augustine by teaching that knowing God leads to us knowing ourselves and begins the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ himself.
I conclude this reflection with another gem from St Bernard that speaks to all who have a burning desire to make Christ known and loved and that others might come to believe in him as we have.
“How will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds, for that is the abode of divine mercy” (Sermon of the Song of Songs, 61).