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May 3, 2004

Even More Precious Blood Saints

This one is on St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux
Cistercian abbot and doctor of the church

It is fitting that we conclude this year's series of reflections on saints with Bernard of Clairvaux. Since it was in 1830 that Bernard was made a doctor of the church by Pope Pius VIII, we can be sure that his life and work were much studied and discussed in Rome during Saint Gaspar's time. Four of Gaspar's eleven circular letters either quote Bernard directly or employ passages from Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs. Throughout his life, Saint Gaspar drew from the well of Bernard's reflections on God's love and the mystery of the Incarnation. Gaspar's devotion to Mary, Help of Christians echoes Bernard's homilies for her feasts. Gaspar drew from Bernard's example and his advice to those who desire to know Christ. Our founder's emphasis on prayer and meditation as central in the life of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood shows the influence of Bernard's writings. Action flows from nourishment received in prayer and contemplation. Missionaries must be mystics, too. Too often, in focusing on our identity as members of an Institute of Apostolic Life, we say simply, "We are not monks." This is true, but it also helps us avoid this central aspect of our founding. For St. Gaspar we were called to be "apostles out in the field, (and) Carthusians at home."(1)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard was born in France, near Dijon in the Duchy of Burgundy, around 1090. His father Tescelin Sorrel was lord of the castle of Fontaines and his mother Aleth was also of noble birth. His two older brothers were trained as soldiers, but his parents hoped Bernard would be a scholar or lawyer. He was at first educated at home, and when he was nine years old, sent to the renowned college at Chatillon-sur-Seine. At this school, directed by the Canons of Saint-Vorles, Bernard was a diligent student. He excelled at literature, out of a desire to undertake the study of Sacred Scripture, but he also enjoyed writing poetry. As a student, Bernard was also known for his devotion and virtue. When he was 19 years old, his mother Aleth died, which deeply affected Bernard and led the young nobleman into a period of prayerful and serious discernment. He resolved to enter the monastery of Citeaux. This monastery, which was close to Bernard's birthplace, had been founded in 1098 by a group of monks eager to restore the Rule of Saint Benedict in all its rigor and vigor, under the leadership of Saint Robert of Molesme.

When Bernard entered he brought a group of about 30 companions-four of his brothers, an uncle, and about 25 other young nobles. Bernard's dedication to prayer and mortification were exemplary. Just as in St. Gaspar's experience, the community began to grow quickly. Three years after he entered Citeaux, Bernard was sent, along with 12 other monks, to found a new house in a place called Valle d'Absinthe, which means the valley of bitterness. On June 25, 1115, Bernard named the foundation Claire Vallee, valley of light-Clairvaux. Bernard was ordained and installed as abbot by William of Champeaux, the bishop of Chalons-sur-Marne, a life-long friend and fellow theologian. The way of life-spartan surroundings, prayer, silence, simple diet, manual labor-that Bernard directed at Clairvaux was even more austere than that of Citeaux. Bernard's reputation for holiness and the power of his preaching drew many people to Clairvaux. Whenever Clairvaux became too crowded, bands of monks were sent out to found new houses. During Bernard's lifetime, over 60 Cistercian houses were founded from Clairvaux alone.

As the Cistercian form of monastic life spread, communication between the monasteries and unity in their rule became important. In 1119, the first general chapter of the community was held. Though he had been a monk for less than ten years, Bernard's reflections on the revival of monastic life were influential. Saint Stephen Harding drafted the Charter of Charity, the statutes regulating the Cistercian way of life and maintaining the connections between all the monasteries and Citeaux. At the invitation of his friend William of Saint-Thierry, abbot of another Benedictine house, Bernard wrote a defense of the Cistercian way of life, called the Apology. Because of his reputation, his abilities as a preacher, and his wisdom and leadership, Bernard was often called away from Clairvaux. He served as secretary at the Council of Troyes in 1128, which was called by Pope Honorius II due to a number of problems and disputes affecting the life of the church in France. At the invitation of his friend, Pope Eugene, Bernard was called upon to preach on behalf of the Crusades. The results were not what Pope Eugene or Bernard hoped or intended.

Although he was an advisor to popes and kings, Bernard was first of all a monk, devoted to contemplation. In his writings for monks, he constantly reminds us that all who seek to serve the Lord must first know the Lord in prayer and contemplation. Bernard's devotion to the humanity of Christ was the seed that led to the flowering of a whole new movement in lay spirituality, the "devotio moderna," which spread throughout northern Europe.

Like St. Gaspar

Like Saint Gaspar, Bernard was concerned with the renewal of the church. He wrote several major treatises on monastic and priestly life-The Steps of Humility and Pride and On the Conversion of Clerics and On the Conduct and Duties of Bishops. Near the end of his life, Bernard composed the Book of Consideration, which urges popes to make piety the center of their lives, not their temporal power and responsibilities. Like Saint Gaspar, Bernard had a number of friends who made important contributions to the renewal of the life of the church. William of Champeaux, who ordained him, was a professor of theology at Notre Dame in Paris, and the founder of the cloister of Saint Victor. The writings of the canons of Saint Victor reflect a theology similar to Bernard's centered on the love of God. William of Saint-Thierry was a Benedictine abbot, who was eager to leave that position to live as a simple Cistercian monk. Like Saint Gaspar, Saint Bernard devoted a great deal of effort to preaching. Bernard's homilies pay careful attention to the Old Testament roots of the mysteries fully revealed in the New Testament. His methods for studying scripture involve prayer and contemplation as well as careful reading. Saint Bernard listens to the scriptures, and invites us to listen, for the call to conversion and action. We are fortunate to have many of his sermons for the feasts of the liturgical year and of Mary, but the fairest flowers in the garden of his preaching are the 86 sermons on the Song of Songs. It is these sermons that we see often reflected in the writing of St. Gaspar. So we shall close with two statements of St. Gaspar reflecting this influence:

"He opened up for us in his most sacred wounds four founts, as St. Bernard says: a fount of mercy, a fount of peace, a fount of devotion, a fount of love and summons all to quench their thirst there" (2)

"St. Bernard asked his monks: My children, for what purpose are we in the monastery? Meditate on this question yourselves and closely examine what brought you to the Society. The purpose must be the welfare of your soul. This, in a few words, says it all."(3)

(1) St. Gaspar in Letter 1040 to Fr. Luigi Locatelli, January 24, 1825, Stokes of the Pen 2
(2) St. Gaspar, from the "Scritti Spirituali, Volume 1, trans by Fr. Ray Cera, CPPS "Most Precious Blood, Volume 18, p. 503 504"
(3) St. Gaspar, Second Circular Letter

Posted by Fr. Jeffrey Keyes, C.PP.S. at May 3, 2004 1:41 PM

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