Well here comes 19 August and our Commemorations list says it's the Feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux.
Thing is, the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux is actually 20 August.
Whyzat? That's the day he died, and traditionally, the date of a person's death, faith seeing it as the date they were born to eternity, is used as their feast day, if the date is known and not taken by a saint who already died that day or by something of more importance. You die on 20 August, your feast day is 20 August. Pretty simple. It's a Christian version and continuation of Yahrtzeit, meaning "time of year" in Yiddish, when relatives remember a family member on the date of their death.
So what possessed the compilers of our Commemorations list to move it up one day? Hell if I know. I also do not know what possessed them to import several commemorations for Old Testament figures from the Eastern Orthodox calendar, but, they did and one of those is for Samuel on 20 August, so I guess they needed the day and had to boof Bernard. But to the day before, when he was still alive and not born unto eternity? Scholars. Oy.
Anyway, Bernard has a pretty good rep among notable non-Catholics, including Martin Luther and John Calvin. Which is pretty amazing considering:
1) he was a rip roaring kick-ass let's get serious about this Rule of St Benedict for monasteries type; in 1113, at age 23, he entered monastic life at the abbey at Citeaux, which was a reform movement of Benedictines founded on 21 March (the real feast of St Benedict) 1098, called the Cistercians from the Latin name of Citeaux, Cistercium, and was so into it that two years later he became abbot of a daughter abbey in 1115 at Claire Valee (Clear Valley), Latin clara vallis, later Clairvaux for short, hence his name.
2) he chose the "right" pope when two were elected (hey, what if he got the Innocent/Anacletus thing wrong?).
3) he saw one of his students, Bernardo da Pisa, elected Pope (Eugene III) largely on the basis of Bernardo's connexion to him, though he thought Bernardo too naive for the job, then used that naivete to function as a shadow pope.
4) his student-now-pope proclaimed a Second Crusade in reaction to the County of Edessa, a state established by the First Crusade, getting its butt kicked by the Muslims, then he got Bernard to promote it, whereupon the two main takers, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, got their butts thoroughly kicked, which completely tarnished the rest of Bernard's life though he insisted the failure was due to the Crusaders being a bunch of sinners.
5) at the Council of Troyes in 1129 he championed the Knights Templar, which secured their endorsement by the Roman Catholic Church and their transformation from a poor monastic military order, that provided security for those on pilgrimages to Jerusalem after it was retaken in 1099 in the First Crusade, into a multimillion dollar multinational banking and holding company, the world's first such company.
6) in 1139 Pope Innocent II declared the Knights Templar could go anywhere and be exempt from all authority or taxation except the pope's.
7) Bernard's pathological asceticism -- a redundancy, as all asceticism is pathological -- gave rise to one of the more extreme forms of Mariolatry; given the mediaeval misconception that milk was blood in processed form, and given the mediaeval custom among the upper classes that breastfeeding was done for them by others ("wetnurses"), the Madonna lactans, which is paintings of Mary/Madonna nursing Jesus, became an analogue to the blood of Christ, and Bernard is said to have been hit by a blast of milk as he prayed before a Madonna lactans, and was given either wisdom or cured or an eye infection, depending on to which legend one listens.
8) his pathological asceticism -- a redundancy, as all asceticism, oh wait, we covered that -- also gave rise to the whole ideal of Christian knighthood, in particular his De laude novae militia (In praise of the new knighthood) of 1129, written for the first Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Hugues de Payens, which in turn gave rise to the late addition of Sir Galahad to the Arthurian legend, coming from the Old French so-called Vulgate Cycle, which then transformed the existing English legend into a quest for the Holy Grail by the celibate, ascetic, therefore "pure" knight, against the unworthiness of regular knights.
He does, despite all that and more, show some signs of knowing it all comes down to faith in Christ and what he did for us. Well that can happen even in the RCC, and in all fairness I gotta say maybe old Bernard was one of those. And me being a Benedictine never-was, the only thing worse than a has-been, lemme tell ya a little reform wouldn't hurt those guys at all.
Clairvaux was built on a tract of land known as a hangout for robbers, donated by Count Hugh of Champagne. Apparently the land is well suited to retreat from society, whether said retreat is one's own decision or society's. Since the French Revolution, Napoleon, etc, the abbey was abolished and made into a high security prison, which it still is. Hideout to monastery to prison, you know I want to have fun with that, but the utter ironic ridiculousness should be sufficiently obvious with no help from me. Clairvaux Prison is the current residence of Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez of Venezuela, whom you may know as "Carlos the Jackal".
Bernard is best known among non-Catholics because the hymn "O Sacred Head" is attributed to him. Now, let me be clear, O Sacred Head -- which everybody knows God sings as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden -- is among the greatest hymns ever written by anybody, any time, any where.
Thing is, Bernard didn't have a damn thing to do with it.
The text to the hymn comes from the last part of a long mediaeval poem called Salve mundi salutare (Hail, salvation of the world) which meditates on a number of Christ's body parts as he suffered on the Cross. The last part meditates on his head and is called Salve caput cruentatum. It dates from the 14th Century; Bernard lived in the first half of the 12th Century (1091-1153 to be exact).
The tune is even later. It was written originally as a love song by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). When Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), one of the great contributors to our magnificent Lutheran hymn heritage (no clowning around here, he was great and it is magnificent) translated Salve caput cruentatum into German as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (the aforementioned version God now uses, OK that's clowning around) Hassler's love song got used as the tune (there is no textual reason for this parenthetical comment except to make three in one sentence and thus reflect the perfection of the Trinity; that's a monkish thing and I'm completely clowning around).
So, Bernard had nothing to do with O Sacred Head, and all this "attributed to" stuff is just crap that should be dropped. What ought to be pointed out instead is that Salve mundi salutare, the source of O Sacred Head, was the basis for the first Lutheran oratorio, Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima. Don't freak, I'll translate, it means "most holy members (as in limbs) of our suffering Jesus". It was composed by Dietrich Buxtehude in 1680.
So what to make of this? Bernard had absolutely nothing to do with O Sacred Head, either as tune or text, and for that matter, being thoroughly Roman Catholic as we saw above, makes a hell of a lot better Roman Catholic saint than Lutheran commemoration. Rather than indulging in dressing up Catholic fantasies in a Lutheran version, just like some dress up megachurch fantasies in a Lutheran version, we make this of it: the power of the Gospel, well meditated on in O Sacred Head, is such that the hymn does not depend on or even need pious legends and myths about its earthly authorship. And that the power of the Gospel, of which Bernard showed some signs of being aware, is such that it can penetrate even the largely pagan accretions laid over it by the RCC, in which Bernard was deeply involved. Thank God for the Lutheran Reformation, that we no longer live in times like Bernard, where church and state alike were choked by these accretions, and the Gospel can be rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered in our churches openly.
And hey, next time you write a cheque or use a debit card to draw money somewhere else on your bank deposits back home, rather than carry your stash with you and thus make yourself more attractive to thieves and robbers, thank the Knights Templar, who in 1150 created a system of letters of credit based on deposits that is the low tech forerunner of banking as we know it now!
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