This is Friday, 19 August not 20 August the Feast of Saint Bernard. But in anticipation of the Feast we celebrated it this morning with prayers, scripture, and incense. The life and history of Saint Bernard’s ministry is aptly summed up in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and Holy Women, Holy Men. In summary he was an abbot and “… a fiery defender of the Church in the twelfth century who was famed for the ardor with which he preached love for God “without measure”. He was completely absorbed , even to the neglect of his own health, in support of purity, doctrine, and prerogatives of the Church. He fulfilled his own definition of a holy man (or woman) : ” seem to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using every gift for the common good”.
The phrase “holding back nothing for himself, but using every gift for the common good” holds special meaning for me with regard to daily prayer in the form of praying the Daily Office. Saint Bernard, at least from what I know about him, was not so much different in his thinking than the later evangelical reformers who put the love of God above all else. Unlike them he was not so radical as to suggest that we reduce or do away with the sacraments.
In a recent Facebook post the vicar of a parish church in Texas talked about the parish’s consideration of using a curriculum from the Catechesis of the Good Shepard as a way of teaching young children the faith. He was sharing an article published in the Living Church by Sarah Puryear from which I will quote. The credit for quoted material go to the article and is not originate with me . The conclusion that this Catechesis is equally applicable to adults is mine.
The Catechesis is based on the work of Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the Italian physician who developed an alternative curriculum for teaching children in ways that they actually learn and which is the basis for the Montessori school curriculum today.
The Catechesis emphasizes first the gifts of God in the form of Scripture, baptism, Eucharist, and the Church Calendar. Children are “given time to reflect upon the stories of Scripture, the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and the way in which we pattern time upon the life of Christ upon the life of Christ in series of feasts and fasts (The Feast of Saint Bernard being one of them) . The CGS invites children into mystagogy (the interpretation of mystery) which was the final form in the ancient Christian initiation rite.
Second the Catechesis “engages the entire child : body, mind and spirit.” The Catechesis rejects the enlightenment notion that the intellect is the supreme capacity of the student. It, rather, “assumes that the children learn through imitation, active participation, and quiet reflection in a space that does not assault them with the facts but invites them into mystery.” Some of the ways in which the Catechesis does this is ” inviting children to encounter and be with God in ways that honor their physical, spiritual and intellectual capacities. The child is invited to help lead short corporate times of prayer, to make prayer cards, to respond to a presentation with a prayer drawing, to sing a song of praise in response to a Bible story. The catechesis makes room for children to practice the Christian faith in body, mind and spirit.”
The article goes on the relate one story about a student who was in a class taught by a Dominican sister . The student had a particularly difficult and unstable family life and at times stayed with relatives because of his parent’s inability to care for him. One morning he showed up at class early with a pillow case stiffed with clothes, saying that the relative with whom he was staying had kicked him out of their home and told him not to return. The sister invited him to stay in her classroom until she could decide how to best respond to the incident.
As she thought about the incident she noticed that the young boy had gone over to the baptismal font area of the room. “He began pouring water from the pitcher over his hand into the font, the gesture of baptism he had learned from the presentations. Each time he poured water he said ” I am a child of God”. “It was a beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful story of how God had reminded this young boy of the central truth about his identity at a time when he was surrounded by mistreatment and instability . ”
As adults we learn in much the same way as children especially in areas of the faith. I suggest that like children learning the faith is best accomplished through “practicing it” in a way that it “engages the entire child : body, mind and spirit.” The methods employed in this catechesis did not completely originate with Maria Montessori but rather with the ancient Church Fathers who in developing the monastic offices created a practice which instilled the faith by engaging the body, mind and spirit of the participant. In praying the Daily Office, and especially in leading it , we utilize the same methods that the catechesis prescribes for children. The preparation for the prayers and leading opens the door. We make the prayers, we read from the bible, and we make responses with the psalms and canticles.
Ours is a faith demanding more than just intellectual understanding. We must use our body, mind and spirit not to understand but rather to experience God. Saint Bernard opposed the efforts of Peter Abelard in his attempt to reconcile inconsistencies of doctrine by reason, because he felt that such an approach was a downgrading of the mysteries (of the Church). And, C.S. Lewis in his dialogue between Screwtape and Wormwood in his Screwtape Letters repudiates the notion as expressed by Sameul Taylor Coleridge that prayer can be performed without the necessity of kneeling or standing or otherwise engaging the body but rather by just sitting an thinking good thoughts. Coleridge’s prescription is just what Screwtape advises Wormwood to push.
So my argument is that praying the offices, and especially leading them, is a primary way to experience God. In preparation and leading you will learn the faith in a time tested and highly effective manner. Remember that first of all we are a child of God.