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Sunday, 19 August 2012

Second part of the mini-series on St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Can you imagine in the cold and damp monastery of Clairvaux, in the refectory or monastery church, St. Bernard reading to his monks an exposition of The Song of Songs? I wonder at his audacity as well as his mystic insights. What must the monks have thought of his intense descriptions of the Love of Christ for each soul of the monk there in the twilight?

One of the sermons, Number 20, is called the "Three Qualities of Love". I would like to share part of this beautiful meditation with you. The saint begins with the realization that we are all called to love God and that we all fall short of doing this. But, this monk is on fire with real love.

Turn toward yourself, O God, this little that you have granted me to be; take from this miserable life, I beg you, the years that remain. In place of all that I lost in my evil way of living, O God, do not refuse a humble and penitent heart. My days have lengthened like a shadow and passed without fruits I cannot bring them back, but let it please you at least if I offer them to you in the bitterness of my soul. As for wisdom -- my every desire and intention is before you -- if there were any in me, I would keep it for you. But, God, you know my stupidity, unless perhaps it is wisdom for me to recognize it, and even this is your gift. Grant me more; not that I am ungrateful for this small gift, but that I am eager for what is lacking. For all these things, and as much as I am able, I love you.

He continues referring to the fact that Christ's suffering in His Passion is the great sign of His Love given freely.

As St John said: "Not that we had loved him, but that he first loved us." He loved us even before we existed, and in addition he loved us when we resisted him. According to the witness of St Paul: "Even when we were still his enemies we were reconciled to God through the blood of his Son." If he had not loved his enemies, he could not have had any friends, just as he would have had no one to love if he had not loved those who were not.

St. Bernard gives his monks and us three qualities of love: the first is that it is tender or sweet. We do not use this word so much in 2012. Tenderness means sweetness, a kindness and an appropriate compassion. Christ taking on our humanity in the Incarnation is the sign of sweet love for St. Bernard. Because of the Incarnation, men and women can have a loving relationship with Christ. Bernard calls Christ his Friend. But, He is also Lover. The tender concern of a lover is a sign of love.

The second is wisdom, like the wisdom with God has given us in Confirmation and perfected in prayer and fasting, as well as practising virtues. But it is also the wisdom of God to allow Christ to suffer and die for us. In the plan of God, the Passion is necessary. Bernard sees this, of course, as love and zeal.

The third characteristic of love is strength. We see this in the psalms, which the monks say and said then, daily. Love is as strong as death. Bernard writes:

He is the one who conquered all things, even death, and tricked the serpent, the seducer of the world, with a holy deception. He was more prudent than the one, more powerful than the other. He took to himself a true body but only the likeness of sin, giving a sweet consolation to weak men in the one and in the other hiding a trap to deceive the devil. To reconcile us to the Father he bravely suffered death and conquered it, pouring out his blood as the price of our redemption. His divine majesty would not have sought me in chains unless he had loved me so tenderly, but he added wisdom to his affection by which he deceived the serpent. Then he added patience with which to appease his divine Father who had been offended...So love the Lord your God with the full and deep affection of your heart, love him with your mind wholly awake and discreet, love him with all your strength, so much so that you would not even fear to die for love of him. As it is written: "For love is strong as death, jealousy is bitter as hell." Your affection for your Lord Jesus should be both tender and intimate, to oppose the sweet enticements of sensual life. Sweetness conquers sweetness as one nail drives out another. No less than this keep him as a strong light for your mind and a guide for your intellect, not only to avoid the deceits of heresy and to preserve the purity of your faith from their seductions, but also that you might carefully avoid an indiscreet and excessive vehemence in your conversation. Let your love be strong and constant, neither yielding to fear nor cowering at hard work. Let us love affectionately, discreetly, intensely. We know that the love of the heart, which we have said is affectionate, is sweet indeed, but liable to be led astray if it lacks the love of the soul. And the love of the soul is wise indeed, but fragile without that love which is called the love of strength.

We are all called to an intimate relationship with Christ, either through celibacy or marriage. Let us not be afraid of love. I like to think of myself in that cold chapter house listening to the warm words of the saint, looking out at the stones and grass, knowing that I, too, can return that Love for Love.

to be continued....