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Gems of Wisdom from St Bernard of Clairvaux

Today, the Church honors the memory and witness of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), abbot and Doctor of the Church. He is a saint whose insights into God’s love have a refreshing relevance that revitalize our efforts to evangelize in our time. Here, I explore three gems of wisdom and light from his writings that can help our mission of evangelization to become more effective and fruitful.

Love Has a Source

First, Bernard of Clairvaux teaches that love has a source. Through saints like Bernard, the Lord takes us back, time and time again, to the truth of who he is; he is not a distant deity or an impersonal being, but love itself—a personal God who invites those he loves to enter into a loving communion and friendship with him. In one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard teaches about the nature of love as having a source: “Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it” (Sermon 83).

With this beautiful image of moving water, Bernard draws our attention to the generative effect of God’s love as the source of all love. Authentic love flows from its source before it changes those who receive that love. For those who are missionaries of that love of God in the world, the living water of love that they share will be replenished each time they return to the fountain. In this way, God’s love is like a well that never runs dry.

What stands out in St. Bernard’s writings on the love of God is the accessibility of that love for everyone. God’s unconditional love is so accessible and available that we often struggle to believe it. Often, in conversations with people in the parish or in spiritual direction, I try to assure them that despite what they are going through, God knows them, loves them, and is at work in their lives. And when this message is heard, it’s like a light goes on within them. Something changes as the Holy Spirit moves them by this most important of truths. In the words of Bernard, it is God’s humble love that comes first and engages our love for him: “The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love” (Sermon 1 on the Epiphany). Over four hundred years later, St. John of the Cross teaches something similar when he writes, “God engages the soul through spiritual affection. Through spiritual affection, God refreshes, delights, and gladdens the soul” (Spiritual Canticle, 11.3).

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