Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28 - Bernard of Menthon, Monastic, Missionary, Hospitable

Bernard was raised in the castle of Menthon in the geographic region known as Savoy. Being raised in a castle suggests the degree of nobility that flowed through his veins. In fact, he was a man of significant pedigree for that little region bordering the Alps and received an exemplary education as a child and youth. Being a child of wealth and influence, it was customary that his marriage be arranged so that power could be consolidated and bloodlines could be maintained in a politically and socially useful way. So, a marriage was arranged for Bernard in spite of his stated desire to become a monk and priest. His family and friends tried to talk him out of such a ludicrous idea by mentioning all the things he would need to give up to become a priest. They reasoned that such a vocation made sense for the lower classes because the priesthood or the monastery could represent a step up in quality of life for them but that it made no sense for somebody to step down into such a calling when wealth and influence were theirs by birth. None of this convinced Bernard, though, who maintained that a calling was a calling regardless of what one stood to lose and so he fled through the Alps to part of Italy to escape his family and the envied castle life that threatened to become a prison. He gave it all up for the life of a Benedictine monk under the spiritual direction of Peter the archdeacon of Aosta.

Peter's influence upon Bernard was intensely formative. Due in part to his excellent education and his passionate understanding of his own calling, but largely because of Peter's capable direction, Bernard grew in the faith at an exceedingly rapid rate. In those years he spent as a monk and priest he studied how to reach out to others with the Gospel he had received and been taught to prize above all things.That which he had received he was eager to give away to others if they had ears to hear and eyes to see. After Peter's death, it was Bernard who became the archdeacon of Aosta. With this position of direction and leadership he turned his eyes to the Alps and both the people who crossed them to get to Rome and those who lived among the frosty crags. Bernard began travelling the passes and summits of the Alps and spreading the Gospel he so dearly loved among
the people he encountered. He was a surprisingly effective missionary and evangelist among the natives but perhaps the most memorable part of Bernard's story was his work among the travelers who traversed the mountains he saw as his mission field.

Many who tried to cross the Alps on their way to Rome died because of the incredible challenges to their health and safety. So, Bernard did something ridiculous: he built a monastery on the summit of the most popular pass from the west to the east. The monks lived within its walls under Bernard's direction and lived lives of quiet prayer and contemplation but also included a very peculiar discipline within their monastic lives. Each day, monks would travel into the Alps to look for those who had become lost in their pilgrimage or become overcome by the weather and aid them in their travels. Each monk would travel with a dog bred specifically for the treacherous climate of the Alps (a breed of dog now known as a Saint Bernard) so that they could guide the travelers back to the monastery for the night. Those who traversed the Alps found Bernard's monastery a welcome stop along the way and so, eventually, another monastery was founded with the same disciplines and same directions as the first. After Bernard's death, his direction and guidance lived on in his many disciples and in those whom he reached and for whom he cared.

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