Today, a few days before his feast day, is a great day for this story about St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
Bernard was riding his horse up into the Alps to give a retreat, and as he passed a farmer along the road he heard a loud grunt. He stopped to look down at the him, and the farmer remarked, “I envy you, with nothing to do but pray while I have to kill myself working in this rocky soil.”
Bernard said, “Well, praying can be even harder work that digging around those stones.”
“I doubt that very much,” the man said, “With that beautiful horse and the gorgeous saddle, what do you know of hardship?”
Up till then Bernard hadn’t given any attention to his mount. He said, ”It is a beautiful horse, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”
“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?”
(more here from Word on Fire)
I knew the basic story, but not the context that the man considered prayer easy; and I didn’t realize it was St. Bernard who featured as the wise monk. St. Bernard is the patron of our local church, but I know almost nothing about him (but I’m reading up! Here’s some great information from Amy Wellborn). The white plaster statue of him that used to be in the narthex includes a large bee near his feet — I guess because he is known as “Doctor Mellifluus,” or “honey-sweet doctor [of the Church]” because of his sweetly flowing eloquence.
Speaking of distraction from prayer, that narthex is where parents of small children often find themselves when they’re fulfilling their Sunday obligation in the most basic way: by being bodily inside the walls, even if they can’t catch more than a second or two of actual prayer time. Our parish is pretty kid-friendly, but the narthex makes a good rumpus room for the truly bonkers; and that is where St. Bernard stood, too.
One mother I saw kept her kid happy by carrying him up to the feet of the statue, finding the bee, making contact with her son’s little hand clasped in hers, and going, “BZZT!” Kid laughs, forgets to wreak havoc, everyone’s happy. Honey sweet, indeed.
We can draw a few things from this:
First, that saints don’t require us to know anything about them. They’re here to help, period. St. Bernard, who happens to be a great Biblical scholar and reformer, is perfectly content to also be Anonymous Plaster Bee Guy Who Entertains Buggy Kids. It’s a very good thing to do your homework and get to know the saints, but you can also just stretch out your hand and ask for help from all of God’s friends the saints, and they’ll oblige. I can think of numerous stories of people reaching out to saints, drawn in by some random appealing detail, and they turned out later to be a very willing patron. There’s a pretty good Thomas More story on this theme.
Second, if a quick “bzzt” of contact is all you can manage in your prayer life, then DO THAT. Don’t wait until you can get on your knees and say twenty decades without your mind wandering — because, as the story demonstrates, focused prayer is harder than it looks, even highly motivated people can’t seem to help but be distracted. It’s just the human condition. So the remedy is to keep making contact, keep coming back, keep regrouping, keep putting a check on that tendency we have, like restless kids in the pew, to lose focus and bug out.
We don’t have to be the most skillful bees; it’s God that will bring honey from the rock, if he so choses. But you do have to show up; and you do have to eventually acknowledge that it’s not about your efforts, at all. It’s about Jesus. “All food of the soul is dry”, he professed, “unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it.”
Third, I forget what three was for. Oh yes! St. Bernard, pray for us.