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A Medieval Remedy for Modernity’s Ills

Show me a Catholic not troubled by the circumstances of these days, and I will show you a Catholic asleep. Society’s woes rock his soul, but the historic perils facing Holy Church do so even more. Not only from outside her walls, but more frighteningly, from within. How are we to keep our spirits from sagging? How do we keep at bay critical spirit, one of those acids which eats away at the soul? Clearly, the obvious answer is increased prayer and mortification. Added to this, however, is a consistent return to the lives of the saints. We often hear that puerile retort: “What would Jesus do?” The question is as vain as asking the way I can fill the oceans in a thimble. Our Lord’s divine teachings can only be applied by attention to the teachings of his Holy Catholic Church: He is the Light, she the prism. Also studying closely the manner in which the saints lived divine instructions in their simple human lives, gives us clues to our own.

Fr. Gerard Manly Hopkins gives this truth poetic expression when he writes: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His / To the Father through the features of men’s eyes.” The clever quip, “What would Jesus do?” is merely a penumbra of Protestantism’s sola fides. It assumes a direct contact with the Wisdom Incarnate, without the mediation of the Church, her doctors and saints. This is presumption run amok. A more thoroughly Catholic approach is articulated by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Grammar of Assent:

One ordinarily arrives at the heart … by way of the imagination, through direct impressions, testimonies to facts and events, through history, through description. People influence us, voices move us, gazes strike us deeply, needs kindle us. Men will live and die for a dogma; no one will endure martyrdom for a conclusion.

To this end, a look at the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is instructive. He so dominated the twelfth century that church historians call that century his, for there is no corner of it that does not live beneath his shadow. Mother Church seemed hard put to find enough encomia to bestow upon him. Not only does she bestow the honorific “doctor” but Pius XII, in the encyclical written on the eighth centenary of his death, Doctor Mellifluus, does not hesitate in the first lines to repeat another title, Last of the Fathers. This appellation soars above the rest. Though Bernard is separated from the last Father of the Church by 400 years, Mother Church shows no hesitation in setting upon his head this singular title. Infrequently does the Church add to the already splendid attribution, doctor, anything further. But in the case of a rare few she does. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas boasts two, the Common Doctor, and Angelic Doctor; St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor. St. Bernard stands in this august select company when the Church crowns him with the title, Mellifluous Doctor: Literally, honey-filled. Strange sounding as it may be, it is an apt reference to the magnetic sweetness of his preaching and writing, adumbrating the style of the ancient Fathers. His preaching and writing, as theirs, was direct, affecting, summoning, enchanting and allusive in its poetic cadences.

Read more at Crisis Magazine. 

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