Today is a very special feast day to me
The 20th of August is the memoria of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot and prominent figure of the Cistercian Order in the 12th century. Thus, in the liturgy for today we’ll hear mention of him, and will read from part of his sermons if you observe the Office of Readings.
He’s also the first saint I ever asked the intercession of during my conversion.
A Brief Introduction to St. Bernard
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was born around Dijon, France, in 1090. According to the Divine Office, he joined the Cistercian monastery at Cîteaux in 1111.¹ He was a charismatic personality, but also quite the paradoxical one.
In a work called the Vita Prima, it is noted of St. Bernard how he had a passion for evangelism and bringing souls to the Lord by preaching the Gospel, yet widely proclaimed that the monastic should remain in his cell and live a life of contemplation and prayer.
Additionally, the Prima talks about what an eloquent orator Bernard could be² but also keenly aware of the burden his words could put on those around him too.
One of the Bernard's biographers, William of Saint-Thierry, notes
The chief of his cares was the saving of many souls, a care known to have possessed his heart so intensely from the moment of his conversion to the present day that he seems to feel a maternal love for all mankind. This gave rise to an acute inner conflict where desire and humility were at odds...For love gave birth to confidence, while humility came to check it.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is also the author³ of the famous Memorare prayer for asking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.⁴
But more so than all of this, I consider St. Bernard of Clairvaux to be a friend. And I think today might be a good time to tell you why.
I’ve always had problems getting over to sleep and staying at rest once I’m there. Over the years we’ve tried many solutions to it, and as such I’ve developed a bit of a routine when I can’t sleep to try and help me get over.
- I generally avoid screens where possible.
- I’ll make a small cup of tea.⁵
- I’ll try and read a book or some other activity that needs focus, to tire the mind out.
It’s worked well for the most part over the years to help me stay settled when I’m not sleeping. That was until last June.
I had an appointment⁶ the following morning and either through stress, excitement, or some mixture of the two I couldn’t sleep. It was about 2am at this point, so I was on my third cycle of doing the routine after failed attempts to gain respite.⁷
A couple of weeks before all this, however, I had started RCIA⁸
We had just covered the Communion of Saints in my last class. Yet while I had in faith accepted the teaching, I hadn’t yet realised that I could actually practice it in my real everyday moments.
As St. Teresa of Calcutta said:
The longest journey in the world is from our heart to our head.
The book I was reading on the night was a collection of 12th century monastic writings⁹, which primarily focused on the Cistercian order at the time. Here I was reading all about this Saint Bernard character and not realising that I could ask for his intercession about my current situation!
In a moment of clarity about this cognitive dissonance between my belief and behaviour I realised what an opportunity lay before me.
I recognised what I was reading was the life of a saint, that I related to him on many levels, and it was part of my faith that I could ask his prayers that I could sleep. I had now the moment where my belief could become behaviour.
That said, I did entirely forget the “standard” formula of asking for saintly intercession.
Maybe that was due to the lack of sleep, maybe a bit of nerves from my old Protestant ideological framework, or just a newness to the practice, but my prayer came out fumbled and a tad unsure if I was doing this properly.
“St. Bernard, if you could pray to the Lord that I can sleep soon, that’d be great.” I still remember awkwardly mumbling out loud in my little prayer corner.
Job done, I suppose.
I stayed up reading a bit more for another 15ish minutes just to make sure I had done my routine fully before retiring. What followed was what I still consider the best sleep I’ve ever had.
It was deep, dreamless, but refreshing. I awoke with a clear head and a lot of morning energy ready for the day ahead, a feeling I’ve rarely felt since. In fact, the rest was so amazing the first thing I said to myself as I got up was “That was a great sleep.”
No sooner had I said it did I remembered the night’s prayer
I took to heart that St. Bernard had prayed for me in my moment of anxiety at sleep-deprivation, and that God had answered us both.
As the letter of St. James says:
The prayer of a righteous person¹⁰ has great power as it is working.
— James 5:16 ESV-CE
And for awhile that was it.
I shipped of to Scotland a couple of months later for the formation year I’ve previously mentioned. I mentioned the story of the night from time to time, but overall didn’t think much more about it.
I did continue to ask St. Bernard’s intercession, however, and developed a devotion to a few other saints as well.
The Stained Glass
Then arrived our Christmas break at home for a couple of weeks during the programme. It had been a good return visit, but I found it quite difficult in some aspects.
I’ve always been prone to heavy self-deprecation, too, so that wasn’t helping much.
It was in this that I found myself waiting for confession at my local parish church, just before I was heading back to Scotland. It was an oddly sunny January day to be travelling on which helped me appreciate the surrounding architechture more.
It’s a beautiful church, built in the 1800s with a nice bell tower. Around the side walls are gorgeous stained glass windows depicting different saints who I’m since told were viewed as important to the parish for some reason or other.
While I was in the line moping a bit about the things that had been bothering me, a bright sun-beam hit through one of the adjacent stained glass windows.
It feels movie-like, in hindsight, as I turned to look at the new light-source.
And there on display in a window installed before I had ever set foot in any kind of church, let alone this one, was St. Bernard of Clairvaux depicted preaching.
Real friends are always there when you feel low to remind you of their continued support. In this moment, I felt like the Lord was reminding me of my heavenly friends whose prayers are pointing me to Jesus and his mercy when I’m too stuck in my own head to look at Him myself.
I became a bit more chipper seeing St. Bernard, my friend, beside me. I had a good confession and felt restored on the road back to Scotland for the rest of the day.
On the feast of a friend
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who for the joy that is set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV-CE
So today, on the feast of my friend St. Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot and doctor of the Church, I’m here to encourage you.
In moments where the struggle is real, allow the Church Triumphant to pray for you, and point you to the Lord who has won the final victory for us, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us.
If you struggle with concepts like these, I know how you feel and I’ve been there.
But you can trust the witness of the Church throughout history to guide and teach you in ways to grow in the spiritual life in community, heavenly and earthly, instead of walking the road alone.
Find friends, pray for them and ask their prayers for you. In this way we will carry each other's burdens on the road to glory.
To close, I want to leave you with a couple of quotes from my dear friend.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, pray for us!
The Lord does not work miracles through men like me as a sign of their greater holiness, but to inspire greater love and holiness in others.¹¹
Therefore when you feel weighed down by apathy, luke-warmness and fatigue, do not yield to cowardice or cease to study spiritual truths, but look for the hand of the one who can help you, begging like the bride, to be drawn, until finally, under the influence of grace, you feel again the vigorous pulse of life. Then you will run and shout out: "I run the way of your commandments since you have enlarged my heart.”¹²
- Notably, after convincing all of his brothers and many of his friends to join him!
- So much so that Theophilus Reynauld dubbed him the “Honey-sweet” preacher, which has stayed in various forms throughout time.
- As far as I can see this is undisputed, though I’m sure someone else knows more about that than I.
- For those unfamiliar with the prayer it goes as follows:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.
- Preferably decaf depending on time!
- For what I can’t remember for the life of me these days.
- No tea this time though.
- We had received permission to start it out of the usual cycle due to COVID and other factors surrounding my conversion.
- I promise I’m not as boring as my posts make me sound!
- And I certainly wasn’t the righteous one in this dynamic. I’m quite irksome without proper sleep.
- From the Vita Prima, which we mentioned earlier.
- From St. Bernard’s 21st sermon on the Song of Songs.