Thursday, August 20, 2009

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux


The Church celebrates on 20 August each year the feast of Saint Bernard, the great abbot of Clairvaux. Eight and a half centuries ago, 856 years to be exact, Bernard fell asleep in Christ, his Sacred Head and Lord. And to this day Bernard remains for us a father, a brother, a guide, and a doctor of the faith.

Before I go any further, however, the time frame of Bernard's life reminds me of a criticism I must level at the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's online commemorations biography of Saint Bernard. It is embarrassing that Saint Bernard is placed, by that resource, in the first half of the 11th century. Of course it is not malicious; it is probably not even ignorant; most likely a mere typo. Sloppy and embarrassing nonetheless.

While we're there, perhaps just another comment or two. 1. Though the biographical blurb does admit the monastic nature of Bernard's life, it is highly unusual and curious that he is called, at the top, not Abbot and Doctor. That's no good. That would be to call him what the Church has always called him. We can't have that. That would also be to admit right up front that one can live a legitimate, even saintly, life as a monk. Instead, we now officially commemorate Saint Bernard for the two things Lutherans can apparently relate to, Hymnwriter and Theologian.

2. Is there any explanation for moving Bernard's feast away from its traditional date, 20 August? Not even Rome, with all the changes that constitute the Novus Ordo, moved Bernard's Day. So the Missouri Synod moved it one day, to the 19th, and has placed on the 20th a commemoration of the great Old Testament Patriarch, Samuel. I would also like to see an explanation for this.

But I digress. I would like, in the brief words I can spare here today, to suggest that Saint Bernard was one of the greatest men of the 12th century, a century of great men. He was probably the greatest. I would suggest that he is not merely a historical curiosity, but is for us today a living father, brother, and teacher. I also suggest that the best way to learn to appreciate Saint Bernard is 1. to read his corpus of writings, including several hundred sermons, letters, and several treatises, and 2. to study the lively world of his own Sitz im Leben. It is a life worthy of a historical novel, and of a Hollywood motion picture. Finally, I suggest to pastors that Bernard's memory is best served when it serves the cause of the Gospel, and that happens when we actually keep his feast, by Word and Sacrament.

I haven't even begun to get into his life here, because I don't want to pick one aspect of it over another, but I must say that in many ways his life and Luther's seem to mirror each other. Separated by four centuries and very differing cultures (the mellifluous flavor of Bernard's style seems almost antithetical to the German taste of Luther's Saxony), they nonetheless are linked in many ways. They shared a similar, though not identical, rigorous monastic training. They both had a deep love and mastery of the praying of the Psalms. They both had a great theological strength and boldness. Both were bold, for example, to address the pope with words of fraternal counsel, one with the authority of an abbot and monastic theologian, the other with the authority of a doctor of scripture and monastic theologian. Both were profoundly influential in their respective centuries. Both had theological and political enemies. Both are unfairly blamed for violent tragedies, the Second Crusade on the one hand, and the Peasants' Revolt on the other. And both lived sixty three years in this world, then fell asleep, one in 1153, the other in 1546.

May Bernard's legacy and memory be renewed among us, and may God fulfil in our time the words of Sirach, "Nations shall shew forth his wisdom, and the congregation shall declare his praise."

4 comments:

Past Elder said...

I wonder too what was served by moving his feast from the traditional day of his death, once upon a time considered one's heavenly birthday, to anything else. But they went along with relocating St Monica too, so the LSB remains for me a modern rather than traditional work.

I like your parallels between Bernard and Luther, though the latter, like myself, was not so much a fan of monks, particularly in that in some circles it is Peter of Bruys, against whom he preached, who is seen as a forerunner of Luther.

As to his being a hymnwriter, I wonder why we amp that up too: his devotion was heavily Marian, he did not write the Salve mundi salutari which is the basis of Gerhardt's O Sacred Head, often attributed to him but dates from about 300 years after his death, and he didn't write the Salve Regina either, that was Hermannus Contractus, another Benedictine.

In a lot of ways, our carrying on about this stuff reminds me of 12 year olds talking about sex: a little information, a little hearsay, and no experience.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I like the way you think, Terry.

John said...

Good Deacon,

The blue on green is quite difficult to read, as least for us with older eyes, and I enjoying reading your posts.

Pax tecum,
Fr. John W. Beerg

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks for the comment, Father John. I will reevaluate the color scheme.