In the Office of Readings this week we read from a sermon of St. Bernard, who was preaching to his monks and priests. He called them to mount the watchtower of their pulpits and, having listened to the Word of God, warn His people of threats to their salvation. Let’s sample from the sermon and ponder its meaning for us.
I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation. Yet wisdom cries out in the streets, in the broad and spacious way that leads to death, to call back those who take this path (Sermo 5 de diversis,1-4; Opera omnia. Edit. Cisterc. 6, 1  98-103).
St. Bernard reminds these ancient preachers that some people will accept the words of the Lord while others will condemn them as foolish, hard, unreasonable, and harsh. Today it is common for many in the world to attack teachings of the Church and Scripture—particularly those regarding human life and sexuality—as harsh, unkind, and even hateful. They flee to what St. Bernard calls the “pathetic consolations” of the world, which affirm and even celebrate deeply sinful things such as abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide.
What are we to do in the face of this widespread rejection of the Lord’s words? St. Bernard says that we should imitate Lady Wisdom, who cries out to call us back. we must cry out in the “broad and spacious way” that leads to the damnation of the second death; we must call them back and away from the pathetic lies and false consolations of a world gone mad.
[The Lord] calls upon sinners to return to their true spirit and rebukes them when their hearts have gone astray, for it is in the true heart that he dwells and there he speaks, fulfilling what he taught through the prophet: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem (Ibid).
Too many bishops, priests, deacons, and parents fear rejection and fail to rebuke. “Someone might get upset or angry,” we say. Too easily do we fear losing the esteem of man and fret over being in conflict with others. Courage, fortitude and serene confidence in the Word of God seem to be gone from the heart of too many Catholic leaders.
St. Bernard says that we should speak to the heart of others. This means that we should appeal to a person’s conscience, to that better self that is buried beneath rationalization, deception, and self-justification. Deep down inside everyone is his conscience, where the voice of God echoes; to that we must consistently appeal.
St. Paul says, We do not practice deceit, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by open proclamation of the truth, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2). This is the work, the battle, of every preacher, parent, and leader.
Hear also the prophet Habakkuk. Far from hiding the Lord’s reprimands, he dwells on them with attentive and anxious care. He says: I will stand upon my watchtower and take up my post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me and what answer I will make to those who try to confute me (Ibid).
The image of a watchtower reminds me of a pulpit. Our pulpits used to be high places; we had to climb up a good number of stairs to reach them. While this was often necessary for audibility before there were microphones in every pulpit, there was more to it than that. Standing in those older pulpits above the congregation as if in a watchtower, we warned of approaching dangers and summoned our people to battle, describing the enemy, his tactics, and the weapons to be used against him.
Today’s pulpits look more like lecterns; there is little that seems prominent about them. This both affects and reflects modern preaching, which so often fails to warn of the approaching wolf. The good shepherd sees the wolf coming and drives it away, but as for the fearful shepherd, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf pounces on them and scatters the flock (John 10:12). This is emblematic of our times.
I beg you, my brothers, stand upon our watchtower, for now is the time for battle. Let all our dealings be in the heart, where Christ dwells, in right judgment and wise counsel, but in such a way as to place no confidence in those dealings, nor rely upon our fragile defenses (Ibid).
We must reengage the battle that too many of us have set aside, and this battle must be engaged on every level. Priests have the watchtowers of their pulpits; parents have the watchtower of their table during dinner and of their car when driving with their children. These pulpits must resound again with instruction in the Word of God, with right judgment, with wise counsel, and with sober warning about impending foes and moral dangers.
Use whatever “pulpit” you have as a watchtower. Moral error and foes abound; sound the trumpet of warning. Bestow the medicine of God’s teaching, drawing the faithful to the sacraments, to prayer, and to all that is holy and true.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: An Admonition from St. Bernard and a Summons to Priests and Parents Alike