Through a friend of mine in St Louis, I received a copy of the homily Fr Michael Casey gave on the Feast of St Bernard last Friday. I thought you would enjoy this and it could be shared with other LCG members, Michael
A Homily for the Solemnity of Saint Bernard
SOMETIMES, I have a sense that many of us would profit from a good dose of Wabi-sabi. This is not some exotic medicine, but a highly medicinal philosophical or aesthetic principle from Japan. It is usually translated as “the beauty of the imperfect” and it celebrates a contentment to remain within a human scale. Wabi-sabi prefers the approximativeness of what is hand-made to the mass-produced “perfection” of what is made by machine.
The remedial effects of finding gratification in imperfection are noticeable in three areas:
- Wabi-sabi cancels out any tendency to perfectionism – which is usually the result of paying attention to an internalised parental voice constantly urging us to try harder and to do better, implying that we are never good enough.
- Wabi-sabi undermines the arrogance or hubris that would have us believe that we are “not like the rest of men” and exaggerates our potential almost to the point of blasphemously forgetting that “only God is good”. And, of course, it saves us thereby from the disillusionment that sets in when our efforts at self-perfection fail.
- Wabi-sabi reduces our perverse tendency to demand absolute perfection of others. We are often unfair. We cannot acknowledge the good that others do without mentioning some demeaning detail.
Wabi-sabi is really a summons to the reality of the human condition in which light and darkness intermingle. In fact, the more brilliant the light, the deeper the shadow. It is this duality that generates the “tragic flaw” at the heart of every great tragedy – the noble soul brought low by a besetting sin. Human beings are imperfect. Trying to conceal imperfection progressively results in a twisted personality – a hollow façade, a false front, a mask with no one behind.
Failure to appreciate the beauty of imperfection makes the uncritical reading of hagiography dangerous. It dehumanises the saints and turns them into something akin to angels, so unlike us that reading about them discourages us and makes us feel bad about ourselves.
It has been noted, especially by Boris Tomashevsky, the Russian formalist critic, that when a writer attracts legends, then readers will often respond more to the legends than to what has been written. The legends colour the interpretation of the text. You might think of Ernest Hemingway, for example. Or Thomas Merton: the most banal sentiment becomes deeply meaningful, because it is expressed by him.
In part this explains why many monks and nuns fail to gain inspiration and guidance from the writings of Saint Bernard. It is not only the intellectual difficulty of understanding someone who lived in a distant country hundreds of years ago and who wrote in Latin. It is because the legends present him as one who is unattractive to contemporary sensibilities, one for whom virtue came easily and whose path through life was adorned from the beginning with an incredible array of signs and wonders.
This is why it is important to detoxify the image of Saint Bernard that has been propagated by Geoffrey of Auxerre, who knew the saint only in the last decade of his life, and whose one ambition was to have Bernard canonised. Geoffrey was responsible for the hagiographical First Life – which had to be rewritten when it failed to produce the desired result – and also for the selection and editing of Bernard’s Letters. All with a view to emphasising his perfection.
Apart from his signature on a number of charters, Bernard made little impact on contemporary chronicles and it seems that there is no trace of any of his correspondence in the archives of the papal chancery. Filling in the gaps by recourse to hagiographical tropes is no basis for understanding his character. To understand Bernard, we need to read extensively in his writings – to separate the texts from the legends and to submit to be carried by the flow of his thought.
To read Bernard intelligently we need pass beyond the particularity of the author and to appreciate him as the voice of Western and monastic tradition. He was, as it were, the living expression of the monastic charism. He made tradition come alive, speaking it out in a twelfth-century Burgundian accent, but authentically communicating it to his contemporaries – who willingly listened to him, and repeatedly copied his manuscripts. To profit from him demands of the reader a certain monastic and human maturity; we need to be willing to make the effort to listen and to understand, to internalise the message and then to re-express the wisdom of the ages – perhaps with a twenty-first century Australian accent.
In Saint Bernard’s writings we have a great gift that can inspire us and give us direction in our living of the monastic vocation. He is worth listening to, not because he was perfect, but because in his own life he grappled with inconsistencies and limitations and found a way to accept these through his deep appreciation of the power of God’s grace. Truly a great master in the school of the Lord’s service!