On a long road trip, have you ever played the riddle game “What do these three things have in common?” For instance, what does a beehive, a rooster, and a barbershop have in common? Combs. What do checks, an awful television series, and stamps have in common? They can all be canceled. What do ballet, glass, and bedroom have in common? They are all types of slippers.
So, here’s another riddle for you: What do Lectio Divina, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the hymn Jesus the Very Thought of Thee all have in common?
If you guessed Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, you are correct.
“Saint Who of where?” you might ask.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, France, who died on this day in 1153, was a monk, writer, preacher, leader, reformer, abbot, mystic, and peacemaker. Born to noble parents, he was renowned among religious leaders in the often dire and dark days of the Middle Ages, known as “Doctor Mellifluous,” due to his poetic prose and prayers along with his eloquent sermons centered always on Christ. His infectious love of Jesus and his superb leadership aided the Cistercian movement’s European spread. In Switzerland, another monk, hospice, and mountain pass took on the same well-loved monk’s moniker. You may be familiar with the dogs they breed: St. Bernards.
Throughout his life, this mystical, merry monk invited Christ’s followers to the romance of being the beloved of the Lover Jesus. He reignited the flame of Lectio Divina, Latin for sacred reading, as he believed it to be vital to intimacy with Christ as one interacted with Scripture, the Living Word of God. The ancient rhythm which St. Bernard encouraged 12th century Cistercian (Trappist) monks to return to included moving through Scripture with these steps: read (Lectio), meditate (Meditatio), pray (Oratio), and contemplate (Contemplatio). It is still a practice we engage in these days to live into the life of the Word of God.
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded and Jesus the Very Thought of Thee are only a few of the hymns attributed to St. Bernard while his contemplative manner is noted at the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy. His writings and sermons may not make our top ten best-seller list but they do contain many nuggets worth pondering, some of which you may have encountered previously.
In reflecting on the Song of Songs, on which he wrote prolifically: “You would not seek Him or love Him unless you had first been sought and loved.”
Speaking of his own experience with Jesus, “You ask then how I knew he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced? He is life and power, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased. So he has begun to pluck our and destroy, to build up and to plant, to water dry places and illuminate dark ones, to open what was closed and to warm what was cold, to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth, so that my soul my bless the Lord, and all that is within me may praise his holy name…”
And on exploring love of God: “You ask me, ‘Why should God be loved?’ I answer: the reason for loving God is God himself.”
Also apparently attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux is this well-known quote: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
As we end our thoughts on St. Bernard, whose feast day is August 20th, I’ll end with this query: What do these three things have in common: honey, music, and a shout of joy?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains it this way, “Jesus is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, and a shout of joy in the heart.”
What things might you have in common with St. Bernard of Clairvaux? How might you celebrate the gift of his life?
Resources on St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
On the Love of God – St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Msgr. Charles J. Dollen, Editor
Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation – Kenneth Boa
Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read – Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, Editors
Christian Teaching on the Practice of Prayer: From the Early Church to the Present – Lorraine Kisley, Editor
Devotional Classics – Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, Editors
All the Saints Adore Thee: Insight From Christian Classics – Bruce Shelley
The Way of the Mystics: Ancient Wisdom for Experiencing God Today – John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey
Honey and Salt: Selected Spiritual Writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, Editors