During this month when the Church in Australia calls us to reflect more deeply on the idea of our ‘vocation’, I would like to focus on the vocational call and life of one particular man.
You may be surprised to learn he was not a Dominican.
Well, not officially.
But I like to think that St Bernard of Clairvaux – monk, saint, doctor of the Church, whose feast we celebrate this month – is in some sense an honorary member of the Order of Preachers that was founded several decades after his death.
After all, he is known as the ‘mellifluous doctor’ for the sweet, honeyed words that poured from his lips while preaching.
And, in addition to that wonderful title, there is the fact that when I was a postulant in Adelaide a former provincial living in the priory at the time claimed that ‘every good Dominican is a Cistercian at heart.’
Given that my spiritual director of the past half-decade has been a Trappist and the fact that I have a treasured relic of St Bernard resting on my desk before me as I write these words, it is a sentiment with which I am obviously inclined to agree.
So, I am entirely within my rights as a Dominican to take St Bernard as an exemplar for a reflection on our Christian vocation.
The line from scripture often associated with the following of Christ, vocations generally and religious life in particular, is this: ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mt 19:21)
Well, St Bernard of Clairvaux did that.
He decided as a young man that he was going to enter religious life – he was going to seek that path of perfection.
He sought to follow Christ.
And he was such a compelling personality, so filled with fervour, that in communicating this decision to his friends and relatives he convinced many of them to do the same.
When he arrived at the monastery of Cîteaux in the year 1113 and knocked on the door, there were thirty of his friends, relatives and brothers behind him, also seeking admission to the monastery.
It would be tempting for me to now launch upon an extended excursus of St Bernard’s extraordinary life.
He was an advisor to Popes and Kings.
He preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay in 1146 with such fervour that the crowd surged forward and quickly exhausted the supply of white, cloth crosses that had been prepared for those willing to take up the call – so Bernard took off his voluminous Cistercian robe and started hacking into it, in order to make more crosses.
This is the man who wrote the religious rule for the Knights Templar.
He was prodigious in his output of writing and sermons, all of which are not only profound, but eminently readable: his ‘Sermons on the Song of Songs’ were my bedside reading for eighteen months some years ago.
But I will resist the temptation to write a survey of his many achievements.
Because I feel it is Bernard’s search, our search, for perfection – for God – that best encapsulates his life.
Bernard was a seeker – he sought that treasure in heaven to which the gospel refers. He sought to follow Christ.
Whenever people ask me what I ‘do’ as a religious, I have found that the response ‘I serve as an eschatological sign’ is not as compelling as I had otherwise hoped.
So, in imitation of Bernard, I have taken to saying, ‘I am a seeker.’
In those moving sermons delivered to his fellow monks in the twelfth century St Bernard at one point remarks with great poignancy: ‘I used to seek with a hard and frozen heart Him whom my soul wished to love.’ (Sermon XVI)
This search for perfection, for Christ, characterised everything Bernard did, said and wrote.
It is the golden thread that runs throughout his whole life.
One of Bernard’s students in the monastery eventually became Pope – Eugene III, the first Cistercian Pope – and Eugene, new to the role, asked his former teacher for advice on how to best exercise his authority as Supreme Pontiff, as Chief Shepherd of the Universal Church.
In response, St Bernard wrote a short work which has become a classic of the tradition – De Consideratione, ‘On Consideration’.
It is a masterful treatise; full of edifying advice on how to exercise leadership in a Christian context.
Benedict XVI recommended it as compulsory reading for everyone in the Church.
But I have always been tremendously moved by the fact that, at the very end of those four short books – having written marvellous, penetrating things – Bernard concludes: ‘He must still be sought who has not yet sufficiently been found and who cannot be sought too much; but He is perhaps more worthily sought and more easily found by prayer than by discussion. Therefore, let this be the end of the book but not the end of the search.’
As religious, we are forever seeking the way, the truth, the life, the light, that is Christ.
And Bernard continued that search, continued seeking Christ, even into the grave.
When the bones of the saint were examined in 1855 there was found amongst them a wooden tablet, faced with parchment, upon which were inscribed the still legible words, ‘Fasciculus myrrhae dilectus meus mihi, inter ubera mea commorabitur’ (A little bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he shall abide between my breasts).
The tablet upon which these words were written had a hook attached.
The natural inference is that this tablet and those words hung in the saint’s cell and, after his death and perhaps in response to his own express wish, it had been laid upon his breast.
This would be perfectly in keeping with the way that Bernard lived his vocation; the way he lived the entirety of his Christian and religious life.
Years earlier, when commenting on Psalm 104 – ‘Seek His face evermore’ – St Bernard had written: ‘The psalmist implies, it seems to me, that even after God has been found He shall not cease to be sought.’
With that in mind, let this be the end of the article, but not the end of our search.