Learning to follow the path of perfection is the most important goal of the spiritual life. How do we get our relationship with God right so that we can live with him forever in heaven? That was certainly the goal of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.
In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux. His five brothers, two uncles and around 30 of his friends followed him into the monastery. Within four years a that monastic community, which had been dying, had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, particularly on himself. A minor health problem, though, taught him to be more patient and understanding. The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.
His ability as arbitrator and counselor became widely known. More and more he was called upon to settle long-standing disputes. On several of these occasions he apparently stepped on some sensitive toes in Rome, and at one point he received a letter of warning from Rome. He replied that the good fathers in Rome had enough to do to keep the Church in one piece. If any matters arose that warranted their interest, he would be the first to let them know.
But his long-standing support of the Roman See was also well known, and shortly thereafter it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope. The Holy See prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe. His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured. The ideals of the men and their leaders, however, were not those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster. Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade. This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came August 20, 1153.
In striving for perfection throughout his life, Bernard responded to the call of today’s Gospel reading: “Come, follow me.” That’s our call, too, and reflecting on the life of the saints, like Saint Bernard, can help us to follow that rather demanding path. One day, we hope that striving for perfection will lead us to eternal life, the goal of all our lives.