Homily on the Feast of Saint Bernard — Monday, Aug. 21, 2017

Wisdom 8: 2 – 3a, 10 – 11, 13 – 15a, 16; I John 4: 7 – 16; John 15: 9 – 17

The words of today’s Gospel are powerful words, my brothers and sisters. They flow from the deepest center of the heart of the one we call our Lord and our God, our Savior, our way, our truth and our life. They are not a verbatim transcription of words spoken long ago in another culture, another country, and another language. They are not an historical record of what was once true for a select group of people in a specific setting.

The power of the liturgy, the reality of our faith-grounded service, is that these words are spoken here today for each one of us. Father Gerard-Jonas proclaimed them, but they are not Gerard-Jonas’s words. He is simply a minister of the Word. Just as shortly Jesus will be really present in the bread and wine as a sign of his being the food and drink that sustains our inner life, so too, Jesus is really present in the very words proclaimed today.

And the words we have heard today are simply amazing, utterly awesome – words without alloy, silver from the furnace, seven times refined.

I call you friends, Jesus says. No longer slaves, no longer hirelings, but friends. Why friends? How friends? Friends because Jesus has revealed the deepest secrets of his life to us. Friends because he has laid down his life for us. Friends because he has chosen us from the foundation of the world to share his own divine life. Friends because of that most powerful word he spoke to us today:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain, abide, dwell, make your home in my love.

Our Father Saint Bernard heard these words in his own time and made them the very foundation of his personal life and of the doctrine that he taught as abbot to his monks and to all who have fallen under his sphere of influence.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.

Do we believe these words, my brothers and sisters? Have we made them our own? Do we remain in them, abide in them, make our home in them?

It is not easy. So much in our lives goes against the truth proclaimed in these words. There is not one of us here who is free from sin and can stand before God blameless.

What are we to do? Is there anything we can do? Isn’t this who we truly are: poor, unworthy, despicable? Yes, of course it is. But, and this is a big but, it is not the last word on our condition. It is not the last word on who we are in the depths of our being.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. That is the last word. We are loved with the same love that the Father has for the Son. That is who we are.

I suggest that today we listen anew to these words of the Gospel. The words the Church gives us today on Bernard’s feast. Let us dwell in them, remain and abide in them, and make our home in them. They are the living words of Jesus and they lay bare his life to us, his desire for intimate union with us. Bring them to your prayer today. Ask Jesus to make them the words of life they were spoken to be.

Perhaps a way we can help to allow this to happen is to recall the long line of tradition in which we find ourselves. We are not the first ones to hear these words. E.g., think of Saint Bernard. We can look at him as the great voice of his age; we can see him as this tremendously charismatic Doctor of the Church; we can view him as this larger than life figure: the last of the Fathers, the founder of scores of monasteries, the counselor of kings and popes. But we can also look at him as a simple human being, a mortal like you and I, acquainted with weakness, his own first of all.

For Bernard did not experience spiritual growth as a matter of pure and unchallenged progress. On the contrary, he knew it as a sustained struggle against weariness and discouragement. He knew it as a constant effort to resist the allurement of alternative attractions. This is one of the things I find so attractive in Bernard. He constantly speaks from his own experience. He breaks forth in spontaneous prayers / sighs to God. In one of his last sermons on the Song of Songs, those sermons that describe the very heights of the mystical life, he writes: “The languor of the soul is very great and so is the difficulty of returning to God.”

Another passage in these sermons reveals the very heart of Bernard the monk, Bernard the simple human being striving to respond to the words of the Gospel we have heard today.

“O how desirable is that weakness which is made up for by the power of Christ. Who will grant me not only to be weak, but to be totally destitute and to fail completely on my own resources, so that I may be sustained by the power of the Lord of hosts?” Hear it again.

I am reminded of a powerful testimony I heard at Catholic Heart Work Camp. A young adult, probably all of 23 or 24, stood before a group of 350 teenagers recounting how he had lost his way as a teenager himself and then uttered these amazing words: “I do not pray for your strength, but for your weakness, so that the mercy of God may triumph in you.”

This young man’s failures and Bernard’s weakness is our own, is it not, my brothers and sisters? So let us go to Jesus with that weakness so that in that weakness the power of God may take full hold of us and we can make our own the words we have heard today.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.