Today we honour the memory of Saint Bernard, the founder of the Cistercians, and perhaps the most notable religious character of the 12th century. Bernard’s life and influence in the Church was more active than we can imagine possible today, even for a Cistercian monk. His efforts at reconciliation between popes and princes produced far-reaching results. But he knew that his efforts would have achieved little without the many hours of prayer and contemplation that brought him strength and direction. His life was characterized by a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. His sermons and books about Our Lady are still the standard of Marian theology today. Saint Bernard died at Clairvaux in 1153 and was canonised in 1174.
Today’s Gospel follows on from yesterdays in which we heard about the rich young man who earnestly asked Our Lord, “What good must I do to gain eternal life?” He had only one obstacle to being a disciple: he was too attached to his possessions. He loved his wealth to the point that it prevented him from accepting Our Lord’s invitation to follow him. And yet, over the course of two thousand years, countless men and women have taken Our Lord’s call to heart, and have literally given up all they had to honour and serve him in the religious life.
There are many examples we could cite, including Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today. His life was changed forever when he read Our Lord’s words to the rich young man: “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. He promptly obeyed, and the intensity of Saint Bernard’s commitment to the religious life changed the face of the Church, inspiring other men and women to follow in his footsteps.
But what do people like Saint Bernard have to say to us in the 21st century? While not all of us are called to embrace absolute poverty as they did, their lives challenge us to examine whether our riches – whatever they may be – may be holding us back. Has our comfort, our desire for more, and our abundance of goods closed us off from everything that God wants to give us? Are there possessions—or even attitudes—that we can’t seem to let go of? Our Lord asks us to leave behind whatever is weighing us down on our journey towards heaven. His invitation to “sell” all that we have is not meant to be a burden, but a joy that leads us to the freedom of loving God without reservation.
Saint Bernard, pray for us.