Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thoughts on Saint Bernard's Day

Today is the Feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. A feast such as this reminds me of how far the Missouri Synod has come. Despite its tendency to kill good ideas by means of committees, one of the blessings of the modern Missouri Synod is that saints such as Bernard are now recognized in official liturgical books. At the same time, I would lovingly offer a point or two of criticism on Missouri’s commemoration of Saint Bernard.

Too often the Lutheran Service Book follows the Roman Church’s Novus Ordo dating of feasts, which sometimes means moving feasts several months away from their traditional place. In the case of Saint Bernard LSB did not do that, probably because the Roman Church didn’t move it either. Yet one cannot help notice that LSB does move the feast from its traditional date, by exactly one day. Saint Bernard’s commemoration is to be found in LSB at 19 August. I cannot claim to know with certainty what the rationale was for this decision. Let me suggest, however, that the editors probably had a well thought out and reasonable argument for this. It may have been in part a historical argument. The rationale for many of the revised dating of feasts on the part of the Roman Church’s Novus Ordo, and those churches that followed the pattern of the Novus Ordo, was the desire to correct things, and celebrate these saints’ days on more accurate dates. In some cases, a feast’s dating is changed in order to move it from what it was marking for centuries, like Chrysostom’s bones being triumphantly brought back to Constantinople, to the date of his death. In some cases modern scholarship has determined that traditional dating of a saint’s death was off by a day or two, and fixes it. The latter may be what the makers of LSB were up to with the change of St. Bernard’s day, since they moved it precisely one day. I must say, though, that I have seen several theories as to the exact date of Bernard’s death. Some say that he died on 21 August, many still say he died on the 20th. This raises the question as to the advisability and wisdom of moving such a long standing feast from its traditional date, in the absence of consensus. I give them enough credit to assume that they didn’t merely move it up one day in order to make room for the new commemoration of Samuel on the 20th. Surely some bright Missouri Synod STM or PhD student in the good favor of the right department head hasn’t come up with scholarship that proves that Samuel, the great judge and patriarch of the Old Testament, died on the 20th of August, and therefore must displace Saint Bernard.

Be that as it may, let us use this question of the date of Bernard’s death, whenever it was, as a diving board from which to lead into a brief word on the year, and manner, of his death. The reader, especially the LSB loyalist, will forgive me for assuming in the comments that follow, that Bernard died on 20 August. Early in 1153, despite the fact that he knew himself to be getting weaker, and could sense death approaching, he agreed to a request by the bishop of Trier go and mediate between quarreling groups in Lorraine. He was sixty three at this time. At this point he surely starts to remind the Lutheran reader of Martin Luther, who about four hundred years later would also mediate between quarreling factions in the sixty third, and last, year of his life, a year when weakness and illness would finally catch up with him. Bernard returned to his monastery in Clairvaux having convinced the parties to agree to peace. Then, in July, he learned that his dear friend and former student, Pope Eugenius III, had died. With this, especially after the death of his friend and fellow abbot, Suger, a year or so earlier, he knew that an era had come to an end. By mid August the Abbot knew his days to be few. He occupied his time much as he had occupied most of his time for decades, in prayer with his brothers. With his brothers gathered around him, he received the Sacrament, and gave words of counsel, and on the 20th of the month, he fell asleep in Christ, with Whom he had so long dwelt by Word and Sacrament, and with Whom he yearned to be, and Whom he long desired to contemplate face to face. He received Christ his reward. Unfortunately, his bodily remains were not allowed to rest at home at the abbey in Clairvaux permanently, for in 1792 the French government dissolved the monasteries, and Bernard’s remains were transferred to the cathedral at Troyes.

Returning to the LSB’s treatment of St. Bernard, note that he is commemorated as “Hymnwriter and Theologian.” I respectfully wonder out loud why the departure from the traditional liturgical designation of Bernard as “Abbot, Confessor, and Doctor.” Aside from the fact that this is one of several instances where LSB employs new and sometimes very particular designations (such as hymnwriter, or kantor, or myrrhbearers) perhaps the chief thing I notice that is unusual here is the avoidance of naming him a Doctor (Why is Luther called a Doctor, which he surely is, but not Bernard?), and the unmistakable avoidance of naming Bernard an Abbot. In fact, it brings up the interesting fact that, unless I missed something, the LSB avoids calling anyone on its commemoration calendar a Virgin or Abbot. The modern Missouri Synod might have its “concerns” about monasticism, but why finesse away what was a major aspect of the lives of so many of these saints?

In fact, it was precisely from within the context of the ongoing life of the monastic discipline of the Divine Office, praying the psalms, day in and day out, and relentlessly pursuing the ongoing discipline of reading the Scriptures, lectio continua, as well as the meditation on the Word via lectio divina, that Bernard, and other great theologians, like Luther, came to such rich insights on the Word, and produced such profound writings for the Church.

As a minor note, I must correct the Synod's biographical note, in which Bernard is claimed to be a “leader in Christian Europe in the first half of the 11th century A.D.,” ( ) when of course he was a leader of the 12th century.

I cannot now go into all of Bernard’s writings and life, though they are so important that I cannot not discuss them to some degree at some point. Remarkably soon after his earthly life ended, namely, 21 years later, in 1174, he was declared a saint by Pope Alexander III. In 1830 Pope Pius VIII finally declared him to be what the Church knew he was even during his lifetime, a Doctor of the Church. And though Saint John of Damascus is usually considered the last of the Fathers of the Church, Bernard has been given the honorary title of “Last of the Fathers.” He is called Doctor Mellifluus because of the sweet eloquence of his teaching and preaching, especially on the Incarnation and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Bryce P Wandrey said...

Very interesting post Latif. Great information and thought provoking assessments.

Brian P Westgate said...

Perhaps LSB doesn't use the title "Doctor" because it is a late addition to the rite. Did Luther or Melanchthon call him a Doktor of the Church in their writings, whether confessional or not? Chemnitz? Gerhard? If so, then certainly the title is valid, and I think it is.
Not often that you get 2 BPW's in a row commenting on a blog!

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

You raise an interesting hypothesis, but it leaves unexplained why LSB would refer to Luther as a doctor, and none of the other doctors of the Church that are in the LSB list.