Discovering Wisdom in the Woods with St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

This reflection was shared at Sacred Saunter Outdoor Eucharist on Saturday August 21, 2021 at Sequoia Park in Eureka CA.

Bernard was the son of a knight and landowner who lived near Dijon, France. He was born in 1090 and given a secular education, but in 1113 he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Citeaux. His family was not pleased with his choice of a monastic life, but he nevertheless persuaded four of his brothers and about twenty-six of his friends to join him. After only three years, the abbot of Citeaux deployed Bernard and a small company of monks to establish a monastery at Clairvaux in 1115. The work at Clairvaux, and the extreme rigors of the Benedictine rule practiced by the Cistercian community, were taxing. Tasked with much, Bernard denied himself sleep to the detriment of his health that he might have time to write letters and sermons. He preached so persuasively that sixty new abbeys were founded, all affiliated with Clairvaux. Famed for the ardor with which he preached love for God “without measure,” he fulfilled his own definition of a holy man: “seen to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using his every gift for the common good.” By 1140, his writings had made him one of the most influential figures in Christendom. His guidance was sought by prelates and princes, drawing him into active participation in all manner of controversy involving the Church, from settling disputes among secular rulers to sorting contentious theological debates. He died in 1153 and among Bernard’s writings are treatises on papal duty, on love, on the veneration of Mary, and a commentary on the Song of Songs. Among well known hymns, he is credited with having written “O sacred head sore wounded” (The Hymnal 1982, #168; #169), “Jesus, the very thought of thee” (#642) and “O Jesus, joy of loving hearts” (#649; #650). He also wrote a letter to an English Cistercian abbot named Aelred of Rievaulx (in York), who is an important saint to me because I was ordained to the priesthood on the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Aelred of Rievaulx. And I want to share with you a “distillation” of the letter Bernard wrote to Aelred because it includes wisdom relevant to our time in these woods…

Dear Brother Aelred, 

The greatest virtue of the saints is humility; and you have indeed demonstrated humility by offering a plethora of excuses to refrain from the spiritual writing project that I asked you to pursue. You say that you are an unlearned and illiterate man and that you arrived in the monastery via the kitchen rather than the classroom. You say that you are a country bumpkin living among rocks and hills, working for your daily bread by the sweat of your brow with axe and mallet. You say that those circumstances have taught you more about silence than about speaking or writing with eloquence. 

I hear and accept all these excuses; however, they only fan the flame of my desire for you to complete the spiritual writing that I asked you to pursue. Although you may not have gained knowledge in the classroom, you have clearly gained knowledge from the school of the Holy Spirit and that knowledge will prove to be the most nutritious knowledge of all. And I remind you that true humility is also expressed in obedience. So, I not only ask you to write, I order and command you to write because I know your words will bring spiritual nourishment. Just as you previously provided food as a steward in the royal house of the king of Scotland, so too will your words now feed those who are hungry with the Word of God in the house of our divine king.

I appreciated your description of the steepness of the mountains and the depths of the valleys and the cragginess of the rocks where you live. My friend, you have discovered things in the woods that you would have never found in books. Stones and trees have taught you things that you would have never learned from your schoolteachers. 

God has given you wisdom and you are to share it with others. So, don’t blush and tremble and hesitate out of fear of being presumptuous or fear of being the envy of others. No one ever wrote anything useful without causing some envy and certainly no one can consider you presumptuous for simply obeying your abbot.

And so, I order you in the Name of Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God to stop putting off this project. I suggest that you include this letter at the beginning of your book The Mirror of Love (for that is the title I recommend) so that if anyone is displeased with the book they can blame me, not you.

Your beloved brother in Christ and your abbot,

Fr. Bernard of Clairvaux

So, may we now discover things in the woods that we will never find in books and be taught things from stones and trees that we will never learn from schoolteachers. And may we be inspired to perhaps pursue that project we have been avoiding. Amen. 

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