St. Bernard’s Grief Revealed- A homily by Fr. Isaac Slater of Our Lady of the Genesee Abbey

St. Bernard’s Sermons On the Song of Songs are widely considered his masterpiece, and among them, number 26, on the death of his brother Gerard, is a crown jewel. A short way into an exegesis of the verses, “I am black but beautiful, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon,” Bernard breaks off, too grief-stricken, he says, by the recent loss of his brother, to continue.

Yet, brilliantly, his account of Gerard’s death and his own grief becomes a means of commenting on the verses by other means.

He writes of how, at first, he tried to hold back and deny his grief, like Augustine at the death of Monica, not wanting to scandalize his brothers by his feelings being apparently stronger than his faith.

He describes “keeping up a pretense,” “doing violence to himself,” and “suppressing” what he felt, disguising his grief behind the vestments and ritual of the funeral ceremony…

“…but the sorrow I suppressed struck deeper roots within, growing all the more bitter, I realized, because it found no outlet.”

By the end of the sermon, we discover, with Bernard, through his convincing account of grief and loss, that while we are “blackened” and burnt by death, guilt and overwhelming passions, the beauty of our true nature shines out precisely in and through these.

The sermon works as a validation of affectivity and the fragility of the human condition: “I have made public the depths of my affliction, I make no attempt to deny it. Will you say then that this is carnal? That it is human, yes, since I am a man. If this does not satisfy you then I am carnal. Yes, I am carnal, sold under sin, destined to die, subject to penalties and sufferings. I am certainly not insensitive to pain; to think that I shall die, that those who are mine will die, fills me with dread. And Gerard was mine, so utterly mine. Was he not mine who was a brother to me by blood, a son by religious profession, a father by his solicitude, my dear friend in love? And it is he who has gone from me. I feel it, the wound is deep.”

Bernard’s attempt to bury his grief is a good example of what psychologists call “emotional bypassing:” our tendency to do an end-run around difficult feelings, both our own and those of others.

We dismiss, minimize, ridicule, ignore, rationalize, or spiritualize our grief, guilt, anger, shame and fear. We use overwork, entertainment, and a host of addictions and distractions to numb and ignore our pain.

In “spiritual bypassing” we use spiritual practice for escape. We could think here also of religious and monastic bypassing.

Bernard said that what sets apart the saints is not that they never fall, but that they get up quickly and keep going. They are not overly disheartened, or even very surprised that they’ve fallen. They have confidence in the great goodness of God and their eyes turn swiftly from their own misery to his divine mercy.

For any kind of emotional healing to take place in our lives, we need to once again feel the difficult feelings, and release the trapped energy we hold in our bodies. It’s not enough to understand the dynamics we’re stuck in. We have to get to the hurt feelings at the root.

Truly contemplative prayer includes the cultivation of an inner space where we can accept and get close to our grief, guilt, fear and shame.

We need to sink down into the muck, so to speak—not to wallow in it, but because, as Gregory Nazianzen said famously regarding the Incarnation: “the unassumed is the unhealed.” We need to own and accept every facet of ourselves, in order to heal.

Bernard models this powerfully in his sermon. His dignity shines in his honesty and vulnerability. In the same way, the glory of Easter shines through the wounds of Christ and consolation comes in and through mourning: Blessed are they who mourn.

On this feast of Blessed Gerard, calling to mind his brother’s famous sermon, we might ask: what are some of the ways that, like Saint Bernard, we use religious practices and ideas to “bypass” difficult feelings, in ourselves and others?  …and how, again like Saint Bernard, might we come to embrace more fully the “blackness” of our condition, in order to experience, in and through our poverty, both the riches of grace, and the beauty of our original nature