By Chaplain (Captain) Lindsey Moser
Virginia Wing, Civil Air Patrol
When I was studying English at a small women’s university in Virginia, I discovered the popular Catholic saint and prolific writer, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. His style, which was very eloquent and passionate, really struck me: he quickly became my favorite medieval author and, to this day, I am amassing a collection of books and sermons by Bernard. He was born to a noble family in 1090 and received a strong religious education, learning Latin so well that he quickly became proficient in the language. To this day, his writing about religious life in the early twelfth century, his sermons marking the calendar year, and his letters to young people interested in joining his monastic order remain sources of insight into life during this time of change, controversy, and spiritual growth within the church.
Bernard was only 8 years old when another saint named Robert of Molesme decided to break away from his monastic order and form a new one. This decision was based on his experiences in several monastic abbeys and his displeasure at seeing so many monks ignoring the guidance laid out in a sixth-century book called the Rule of Saint Benedict. This Rule outlined how monks should behave during worship, how often they should pray, how much they should eat in the summer versus how much in the winter, how often they should work to farm the land around their abbeys to support themselves, and so on. Robert felt as though many monks and even whole orders were not living up to the principles in the Rule, and he wanted to start fresh with an order that defined itself by living simply and sticking as close to the Rule as possible. When Bernard was in his early twenties, he was named the abbot of a new location for a daughter house (essentially an abbey planted in a new location to help the order grow) and was tasked with construction of a new abbey.
The task was difficult because Bernard had a small group of monks to help him construct the new abbey as well as limited resources. The initial abbey was to be made out of wood but the location, in the valley of Clairvaux, made it difficult to transport materials. The monks also faced another hardship: they barely had enough food. For months, while they worked on the abbey, the monks ate berries, roots, wild carrots, simple coarse bread, and anything else they could find. For Bernard, a young monk on the start of his career path as an abbot of a brand new house, it was an especially challenging time because the lack of sufficient food made him so ill, many said he would not live through the first winter. During this time, as Bruno James mentions in his fascinating biography, Bernard experienced a vision: he saw people flocking from every direction to join his abbey and become part of this new monastic movement, the Cistercian order. The thought of impacting these converts bolstered Bernard and he gradually regained his health, completed the abbey at Clairvaux, and watched as their monastic community exploded with young men who wanted to become part of the new order. By the time Bernard passed away in 1153, the Cistercian order had grown to 343 houses where monks pursued this lifestyle, including communities where whole families decided to take this step together as well as houses for nuns.
The value for living for the month of May has been perseverance. This word often pops up in motivational material and it’s tempting to gloss over its importance to our resiliency and daily life. The truth is that every one of us has experienced something to persevere through: a bad grade, an intimidating physical fitness test, the death of a loved one, a learning challenge, a mental health concern, or even a day when it seems as though nothing is going right. Perseverance is helpful throughout our entire lives, no matter what we’re facing.
I appreciate the story of Bernard, especially in his early years, because I know the rest of his story. He became one of the foundational voices during this time, traveled throughout Europe, and even became a spiritual advisor to the pope. However, his best writings seem to be the ones where he addresses his own community of monks at Clairvaux. He seems to have a tenderness towards his young disciples and an empathy about their lives that grew from the tough challenges he faced. He persevered despite health issues, the fear of the unknown, and logistical challenges of building a new abbey in a new location, with limited resources and men depending on him.
Although it’s difficult to always put our challenges into a broader context, there is always more to the story. We never go through anything without a purpose. If we are able to persevere, sticking to our values and our beliefs even though we’re going through a tough time, we will come out wiser, more mature, and ready to take the next step.
This Month’s Reflection
How can you prepare yourself for success when challenges hit? What have you already persevered through? What resources can you use to help you tackle the difficult times in your life?
Image taken from https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-bernard-of-clairvaux/.