As we immediately appreciate upon reading the first paragraph of this sermon there is nothing hesitant in Bernards style. His personality was bold, optimistic, assertive, ever advancing into new vistas of the spirit, he energized a whole generation of Christians in the service of the Gospel. He recognized this himself, revealing his own dispositions and character indirectly in this sermon whose theme is the various kinds of love.
Learn to love tenderly, to love prudently, to love courageously. . . . Let zeal have nothing tepid, let it not lack discretion, let it not be timid (Sermones in Cantica XX.4 PL 183: 867).
His optimism is revealed here in the conviction that such love can indeed be learned, and he sets about teaching it precisely through a careful analysis of the qualities of the various kinds of love and its degrees. His unfailingly determined and confident attitude is also well expressed in a letter he wrote to a fellow abbot:
What good is it to follow Christ if it happens that you do not catch up with him? That is why St. Paul said "So run that you lay hold (1Cor 9: 24)."... And so if to progress is to run, the one who ceases to progress, ceases to run. Where you cease to run, then, you begin to fall back. Thus it is clear that to fail to progress is to lose out (Epistola CCLIV. 4 PL 182: 461 B,C).
The abbot explains what he means by running when he asks for growth in love. He understands that nothing contributes more to its increase that consideration of our Lords passion.
Above all, I say, O good Jesus, it is the chalice which you drank, the work of our redemption, that has made you lovable to me. This altogether easily claims all our love for itself (Sermones in Cantica XX.2 [Madrid: B.A.C., 1987] 278.
At the center of Cistercian spirituality as developed by the abbot of Clairvaux, is the unquenchable flame of a love that is at once human and divine for it is directed to God living and present in the human nature of his son. St. Bernard sought to communicate his love for our Savior by sharing it with others. And to share it more effectively he strove to live it ever more purely and intensely and then to understand it more fully. We know that he devoted much effort to this labor of the heart, seeking to see clearly the hidden features of true love as it grew in purity and strength. He knew that to describe love accurately in its workings and expression in all its concrete forms and development is to stimulate in others the desire to possess it and make it ones own. He knew how subtle an art it is to love wisely as well as affectionately, to love spiritually as well as humanly and what formidable obstacles we meet in attempting to arrive at true love, worthy of our divine Lord. He was convinced that writing about love in its varied forms and stages and manifestations is a way of propagating it in others as well as in oneself and assisted the seeker in the search.
We can best honor the memory of Bernard of Clairvaux by assimilating his teaching on the love of our Savior. That requires that we read and meditate his writings and strive to adapt them to our own personal needs and attractions. May the grace of this Eucharist assure for each of us the light and courage to carry on this labor of love until we arrive at the fullness of possession in the kingdom of the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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