Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Saint Bernard

Today is the memorial for Saint Bernard. My earliest association of his name was with the hymn, Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee. As one reflects on the words of this love-poem to Jesus, the strong faith and commitment of this medieval saint is beyond question. The fact that almost all Protestant traditions use this hymn is testimony to its broad and enduring value (but I know of no hymnal that includes all fifteen verses!).

Bernard’s father Tecelin was a knight and vassal of the Duke of Burgundy. Bernard was educated at Chatillon, where he was distinguished by his studious and meditative habits. He entered the monastery of Citeaux (the first Cistercian institution) in 1113. He was well known in Rome, and founded 163 monasteries throughout Europe. Bernard was a man of exceptional piety and spiritual vitality. Martin Luther, 400 years later, called him, “the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.”

The thing that would unsettle some about Bernard — if they knew the details — was his devotion to Mary. He not only wrote passionate lyrics to the Lord Jesus, some of his hymns to Mary express a level of devotion that, to an Evangelical Protestant ear, seem mutually exclusive to commitment to Jesus. Yet to many Catholics the two are natural and even inseparable because Mary is always pointing to her Son.

My own appreciation for Bernard is in his hymns to Jesus. One has been a long-time particular favorite of mine. The following words are a wonderful aid to prayer:

Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.

We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light

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