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St. Bernard’s Rules

July 5, 2011

On our tour of the Abbaye de Senanque, which was all in French, our guide spoke eloquently and extensively on the humanity of St. Bernard. His rules of punishment, for example. If you sinned, you were spoken to in private. If you did not mend your ways, you were spoken to in front of all the brothers. If you persisted, you were banished from group activities — a medieval time out. Only as a last resort, did you get beaten. The turning point for most erring monks, according to our guide, was when they had to eat dinner alone. All the French people on the tour nodded in deep understanding. The one British woman translated (loudly) for her friends: “the most severe punishment was being sent away from the supper table.” My son missed all this, as his one year of French — “What color is your house?” “Do you have a pet or a sister?” — did not allow him to follow the niceties of Cistercian culture. He floated around taking pictures of lavender while I learned that sleeping on a tile floor rather than a stone floor was a luxury the monks felt a little guilty about because tile stays warmer than stone.

Finally, during the last leg of our tour, our guide, who wore a large cross around her neck — perhaps she was a nun? — got down to business. “Why” she asked, “the rule of silence?”

“So you could pray all the time?” someone ventured.

Our guide did not like this answer. “What is prayer?” she asked sternly. I felt like I was in one of my own classes; I ask huge questions like this all the time (“So, who or what is God?” “How do we define religion?” “What does studying the Bible as literature mean?” “Why should we bother to write anyways?” “Should there be such thing as a women and literature class?” “Why are you in college?” “What, really, was the American Revolution?”) No one said anything, which is what happens when I ask this sort of question.

“Ah, prayer. It is a conversation,” said our guide. “You are silent because you must talk inside yourself; the most important conversation.” She looked at all of us. “This is the only way to know God.”
Only on a tour of a French abbaye would you get a lesson in contemplation. I loved this, of course, and have spent the rest of our trip thinking the monks were onto something. Long before Freud, they made it their goal to understand the secrets of their own hearts and minds, and, unlike us, they did not have to do it alone.

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