St Bernard of Clairvaux (*1090 +1153) whom we commemorate today was born near Dijon, in France, in 1090, of a noble family. In 1112 he joined the new monastery at Cîteaux. This had been founded fourteen years before, in a bid to reject the laxity and riches of the Benedictine Order (as exemplified by great monasteries such as Cluny) and to return to a primitive poverty and austerity of life. Bernard arrived at Cîteaux with four of his five brothers and two dozen friends. Within three years he had been sent out to found a new monastery at Clairvaux (valley of light), in Champagne, where he remained abbot for the rest of his life. By the time of his death, the Cistercian Order had grown from one house to 343, of which 68 were daughter houses of Clairvaux itself.
Bernard was a man of great holiness and wisdom, and although he was often in very poor health, he was active in many of the great public debates of the time. He strongly opposed the luxurious lives of some of the clergy, and fought against the persecution of the Jews. He was also a prolific writer, of an inspiring rather than a technical kind. He was renown for his devotion to Our Lady and wrote the Memorare prayer.
I attended a pro-life conference back in 1999 and took away a line from one of the talks that is likely to remain forever with me: Our created purpose is to give and receive love. In today’s Office of Readings, we have a homily by St Bernard about the primacy of love at the deepest level of our lives and which gives meaning to our existence. The excerpts may need to be read more than once to be fully understood.
He says: “Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love.” [Love is innately appealing like beauty.]
Next he speaks about love as a giving and a receiving, like the water that circulates within a fountain: “Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it.” [The ultimate source of love is God.]
Love is the fundamental currency that allows persons to give and receive between each other. This also pertains to the relationship between God and ourselves: “Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him.” Something of this is echoed in one of Jesus’ last words from the Cross: ‘I thirst’. The whole reason for Jesus’ coming down from heaven and everything that happened afterwards in his human life – most specially his Passion and Death – was to reveal God’s love for us and to effect our redemption by the sacrifice of Calvary.
St Bernard asks if we can be acceptable to God because our inferior capacity to love in this marriage covenant between God and humanity? “What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to die just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love? No. It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?”