A Summons to Courage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Aug 21, 2019
Community in Mission
Those who would preach the gospel of a crucified and risen Messiah must have great courage, for though the gospel that contains consoling messages, it also contains much that is contrary to the directions and desires of popular culture and human sinfulness. This applies not only to clergy but to parents, catechists, and all who are leaders in the Church, family, and community.
If we must have courage it follows that we must be encouraged. To be encouraged means to be summoned to courage by affirmation, good example, and—when necessary—by rebuke and warning.
Yesterday was the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and so it is fitting that we review a magnificent example of exhortation and the summons to courage, taken from one of his sermons. His words are shown in bold, while my comments appear in red. Recall that while his words were directed toward his fellow priests and brothers, who had the task of preaching and teaching, they can just as easily be applied to parents and all who lead in the Church and in the community.
We read in the gospel that when the Lord was teaching his disciples and urged them to share in his passion by the mystery of eating his body, some said: This is a hard saying, and from that time they no longer followed him. When he asked the disciples whether they also wished to go away, they replied: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation.
Those who reject Jesus’ message do not necessarily do so because they believe it is wrong or even because it is too hard; His words are often rejected on account of worldliness and the desire to be pleased on our own terms. St. Bernard calls this “pathetic consolation.”
Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path.
Preachers must persevere with urgency, realizing that many are walking toward Hell. Because we love them, we must risk their wrath—even their revenge—and call them back lest they perish.
Finally, he says: For forty years I have been close to this generation, and I said: They have always been faint-hearted.
Dead bodies float downstream. One must be alive to resist the current, to run without wearying, to be strong and not give way. Too many who preach, teach, and lead are weak and faint of heart. We must be strong and persevere despite opposition, setbacks, misunderstandings, and trials. Even if we err by being too harsh or too weak, or if we stumble along the way, we must not allow this to hinder our godly course to proclaim the gospel with strong hearts. Every day we must draw upon new strength and swim against the current.
You also read in another psalm: God has spoken once. Once, indeed, because forever. His is a single, uninterrupted utterance, because it is continuous and unending.
The Word of God does not change; neither can our doctrines nor our adherence to what God has said once and for all.
He calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.
We must call to the truth of the gospel those who have strayed. We must speak to their hearts and appeal to their consciences, where God’s voice echoes—whether they admit it or not. Deep down they know God is right.
You see, my brothers, how the prophet admonishes us for our advantage: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. You can read almost the same words in the gospel and in the prophet. For in the gospel the Lord says: My sheep hear my voice. And in the psalm blessed David says: You are his people (meaning, of course, the Lord’s) and the sheep of his pasture. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me.
I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle.
Amen! To your battle stations! Stand up and be a witness for the Lord! Keep watch for the people of God!
Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses.
The battle is the Lord’s, but we are His soldiers.