St Bernard of Clairvaux – a simple, holy and prayerful life

St Bernard of Clairvaux | feast day August 20th

Bernard was born in 1191 near Dijon in Burgundy. His family were wealthy and had great social standing. Bernard is said to have been a shy boy but he also became known  as studious and meditative. With the advantages of his birth and upbringing it was expected that he would make a career with status and wealth as its motive but under the influence of his mother, who was granted visions about his future, he became attracted to a very different way of life. He became a monk and entered the Cistercian monastery at Cîteaux. Here he followed a life of simplicity, holiness and prayer which he combined with a deep ministry towards others.

As he became more drawn to the spirituality of the Cistercian Order, he felt called to spread the Cistercian influence and way to God and it is thought that he founded over 150 new monasteries all over Europe. He spread the vision of God’s love in Christ Jesus and became renowned as a preacher of God’s Word. Martin Luther was to say of him:
Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently.’

His spiritual renewal of the church also spilled over into the world in general because he knew that the spiritual side of our lives involves us in being influential in the way society is shaped. The more involved Christians are in the world, including working for change and seeking to influence Governments to a greater integrity and honesty which leads to everyone working for the common good, the more our society becomes God-centred.

For All the Saints’ (prayers and readings for Saints’ Days published by the Anglican Church in Canada) puts it this way:
“He used his influence to renew in his own age the ageless thirst for that love which is above all other loves which God ‘has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

In his writings he expanded on his understanding of this love. In his Treatise On the Love of God, Bernard wrote:

“God deserves of us all our love which knows no bounds. This is the first thing to understand. The reason is because God was the first to love. God, who is so great, loves us so much; he loves us freely, poor pathetic worthless creatures though we be. This is which is why I insist that our love for God should know no bounds. And since love given to God is given to the One who is infinite and without boundary, what measure or boundary could we make anyway .…. the reason, then, for our loving God is God. He is the initiator of our love and its final goal.”

In order to help us to enjoy that, Bernard wrote a number of poems, some of which were translated from the Latin and set to music. Many of us will know St Bernard without realizing it. There is a strong belief (though not totally agreed) that the hymn O Sacred Head, sore wounded  is by him and certainly, the hymn, Jesus the very thought of thee, (translated from the Latin by Edward Caswell ) is from a poem by St Bernard. It is sung to a number of tunes though the most usual is St Agnes by John Bacchus Dykes. Today we sing 4 or 5 verses but the original Latin poem “Jesu dulcis memoria” had 50 verses! Caswell selected verses 1-4 and verse 40. There is a beautiful rendition on YouTube sung by Brigham Young University and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. (dated 2013)

Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.

No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
nor can the memory find,
a sweeter sound than Jesus’ Name,
the Saviour of mankind.

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art:
how good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but who love him know.

Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
in thee be all our glory now,
and through eternity.

Bernard of Clairvaux
trans. Edward Caswall, 1849
St. Agnes | Metzler’s Redhead | St. Botolph Bawley | Windsor (Rhythmic) | Dalehurst   CM

Bernard of Clairvaux lived deeply within the love of God and his journey to heaven and the Lord he loved was on 20th August 1153.

Almighty and everlasting God,
You kindled the flame of your love
in the heart of your servant Bernard,
so that he became a shining light
in the midst of your Church.
Kindle in us such faith ,
that by deeds of love
we may show forth the light of Christ
and rouse this present age to desire your perfect beauty;
through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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