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St. Bernard and the Struggle of Prayer

Today is the feast of the twelfth century Cistercian mystic, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who stands as one of the few saints in Church history to have a papal encyclical written about him. The pope declared Bernard doctor mellifluus, the honey-sweet doctor, for his unparalleled eloquence. Bernard was an exceptionally influential author, a persuasive negotiator, and a steely-willed reformer. His massive commentary on the biblical Song of Songs stands among the greatest works of spiritual and exegetical literature in the medieval western Christian tradition.

All that said, the first impression I got of St. Bernard, which has kept with me to this day, is the story a Trappist monk told me about Bernard after I shared with this monk my own personal struggle with discouraging distractions during prayer.

Bernard was riding his horse up into the Alps to give a retreat, and as he passed a farmer along the road he heard a loud grunt. He stopped to look down at the him, and the farmer remarked, “I envy you, with nothing to do but pray while I have to kill myself working in this rocky soil.”

Bernard said, “Well, praying can be even harder work that digging around those stones.”

“I doubt that very much,” the man said, “With that beautiful horse and the gorgeous saddle, what do you know of hardship?”

Up till then Bernard hadn’t given any attention to his mount. He said, ”It is a beautiful horse, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”

“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?”


Bernard’s conviction is shared universally by all the praying saints of our tradition. Actually, anyone who has ever tried to persevere in prayer, not just for ‘an hour’ here or there, but daily for years on end, will find that prayer is truly – as the Catechism aptly terms it – “the battle.” The late Fr. Tom Hopko argues that the best way to empirically demonstrate the existence of the Devil is to commit to daily mental prayer (i.e. attentive prayer) and watch all hell break loose to wrest you free from your “dangerous” commitment to make space in your life for God alone.

Read more at Word on Fire

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