Leadership Advice from St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Prompted by some other recent reading, I just finished reading Five Books on Consideration Advice to a Pope written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (translated by John D. Anderson and Elizabeth T. Kennan. Athens, OH: Cistercian Publications. 1976, Third Printing 2004). St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote this work as a series, offering guidance to Pope Eugene III, who had been a monk under St. Bernard.

As Keenan writes in the introduction, Bernard “scrutinizes the papal calendar and exposes a disastrously overloaded schedule” (12). (How many people today face an “overloaded schedule”?) Kennan continues, “Bernard discusses the necessity of leisure within the confines of responsibility. Leisure is the source both of vitality and of wisdom” (12). We need to remember to take time for ourselves. We need to do this so that we can continue in the long-term to be there for others. We can’t help them if we don’t take care of ourselves. For, as Bernard himself writes, “a sick man who is unaware of his condition is in greater danger” (25).

Bernard writes to Pope Eugene III, “I am aware of the pleasant delights of solitude you enjoyed not long ago” (25). Bernard’s advice is based on the fact that Pope Eugene had been a monk, perhaps exacerbating all the more, the challenges of the busy life of the pope. Moving from the quiet life of a monk to the busy life of the pope would be a challenge in itself. While Bernard writes in a particular context, I would like to offer some thoughts from the book that I think are relevant in our world today.

For example, we can’t simply ignore our challenges. Bernard writes, “A scab forms over an old, neglected sore, and it becomes insensible, it becomes incurable…If it is not relieved by something external, it must provide its own relief. It is a fact that it will either obtain relief quickly from a cure or produce numbness by its own persistence” (26-27). We either need to face our problems or they will take over us. We may think we are doing okay but, in reality, we may have simply become numb to the problem. At times we may need to accept our sufferings but we still need to pay attention to what they are telling us.

Pope Eugene is leading a church, not a business. Here, Bernard points us to 2 Timothy 2:4, “To satisfy the one who recruited him, a soldier does not become entangled in the business affairs of life.” The reality today is that, in leading the church, we need to be aware of business concerns but we cannot let them become our priority. Our top priority is to bring Christ to the world. We do so with two swords, “that is, the spiritual and the material” (Bernard, 118, cf. 134). We just need to make the spiritual the most important).

Bernard reminds Pope Eugene, “You cannot suddenly correct every error at once or reduce excesses to moderation. There will be an opportunity at the proper time for you to pursue this little by little, according to the wisdom given to you by God” (43, cf. 2 Peter 3:15). I would love to fix everything today but I know that is not realistic. First of all, we need to observe and note what really needs fixing. We must also realize that it is not for any one person to fix everything. We must remember the Serenity Prayer that begins, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We must also remember to let others handle items that do not need our specific attention. Bernard puts it this way to Pope Eugene, “Therefore, let it be your custom to become involved in only those cases where it is absolutely necessary” (44). My challenge here is to know when I need to get involved. Do I have information about what is going on that others don’t? Am I to share the information I have with others and let them handle it or am I to get more directly involved? Lord, help me to know what to do.

One is not called to leadership for one’s own good. Bernard writes, “You have charge over them not to oppress them but to feed them” (62, my emphasis). The pope is called to feed people spiritually. As a priest, part of my calling, part that I love to do, is to feed the people with the Eucharist and to feed them by teaching them. Speaking of the early disciples, Bernard writes, “their only desire was in some way to be able to prepare them as a perfect people for the Lord” (113). He later writes, “To preach the Gospel is to feed. Do the work of an evangelist and you have fulfilled the office of shepherd” (117). Bernard writes these words to Pope Eugene but they are words I take seriously in my calling. How is God calling you to share the gospel?

As Bernard nears the end of this work, he calls Pope Eugene to reflect on who God is. Bernard writes, “Who is he? Clearly no better answer occurs to me than, “He who is” (155). This points me to God’s answer to Moses when Moses asks his name, “I am who I am” (see Exodus 3:13-14). Bernard points us to John 1:3 when he describes God as “That without which nothing exists” (see also Romans 11:36).

In contemplating God, Bernard writes, “Do you ask: if all things are in him, where is he? I can answer nothing more inadequately than this. What place can contain him? Do you ask where he is not? I cannot even answer that. What place is without God? God is incomprehensible” (157). This is not to say we cannot know God in some way. Rather, it reminds us that to totally comprehend God is beyond us. This does not mean we cannot believe. In faith, we trust in God.

If we are to be followers of Jesus, then, knowing that He willingly lays down his life for us on the Cross, we can trust him. We may not understand but we can believe.


Fr. Jeff

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