homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Feast of Bernard of Clairvaux, August 20, 2014
Today is the feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux, who died on this day in 1153. Bernard was a French monk and layperson who contributed greatly to the reform of monastic life in Western Europe.
In the 10th century, monasticism shifted from encompassing a huge variety of local practices to being a Pope-approved system of institutions modeled after the example of the monastery in Cluny, France. Along with institutionalization came the establishment of celibacy as the norm for clergy, a tradition that continues to this day; a de-emphasis on physical labor as a spiritual practice for monks; and a focus on beautiful liturgy. While almsgiving remained a central feature of monasticism, the Cluniac monasteries also began to shore up wealth for themselves.
It wasn’t long before some saw the need for reform. Bernard and a group of friends founded a new monastic house at Clairvaux in 1115, and Bernard himself went on to found 162 other houses. He developed his own version of the Rule of St. Benedict, and the Pope did approve it. But it was a reformed rule that stressed more manual labor and less wealth. His houses tended to be more rural, away from the heavily traveled highways. And his houses also elected their own abbots, not relying on top-down oversight originating in Rome.
So we might say that Bernard was a conservative innovator. He saw himself as restoring the pure apostolic life, with an emphasis on doing things in common and holding possessions in common, as they did in the early church. Bernard was not a scholastic like other famous theologians of the time. His theology was more intuitive than logical. We know that he debated contentiously with Peter Abelard, whose systematic approach to the faith he disapproved of. Abelard used logic to make all sorts of theological assertions in a hypothetical sense, without the benefit of anybody’s first-hand experience. Bernard felt that Abelard was sacrificing the mysteries of God’s nature in order to have things all figured out. In the words of our reading from Ecclesiasticus, Bernard was “at home with the obscurities of parables.”
Unfortunately from our perspective, Bernard was also heavily in favor of the Crusades. His expression of the faith was militant, and he preached passionately about the need for the Second Crusade in 1147. That crusade was a disaster for the Christians, and the Muslims under Saladin took Jerusalem. Bernard was widely criticized for having supported the crusade, and he died shortly afterwards.
But nobody could say that Bernard didn’t strive to abide in Jesus’ love. For over a decade, he went with very little sleep so that he could write as much as possible. Again, to quote our reading from Scripture, Bernard “set his heart to rise early to seek the Lord who made him, and to petition the Most High.” Truly, his memory has not disappeared, and his name has lived through many generations.
Bernard is a great example of a person who is remembered for acting on his convictions. He saw clearly what he believed to be wrong with the current system—a system that had stood in that form for a couple hundred years—and he set out to change it. But most importantly, he was always listening for what God was calling him to do.
So what might it mean for us to be, as it says in today’s prayer for Bernard, “kindled with the flame of God’s love?” To be “aflame with the spirit of love and discipline?” Love and discipline are words we don’t often pair with each other. But they do pair well. Disciplined love is love that doesn’t rely on mere feelings, but on conviction—we love because love is what we are about. Love is Jesus’ commandment to us, by which we show that we abide in Jesus’ love.
Disciplined love can begin with some of the qualities mentioned in Ecclesiasticus: seeking wisdom, dedicating ourselves to prayer, and traveling outside our comfort zone to learn what life is like for people who seem very different from ourselves. The wisdom we gain from these practices don’t make God love us more, because God already loves us infinitely. But it does help us become more useful. Life takes courage, and as Swiss theologian Karl Barth said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” We are all theologians, seeking wisdom and learning to live in God’s love and to share the good news of it.
So let’s thank Bernard of Clairvaux today for his example: an imperfect person just like all of us, but a man who asked forgiveness for his sins, who sought wisdom, who lived a life of disciplined love, and who chose to abide in the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.