Whether one prays frequently or rarely, despite the doubts or certainties one might have: how many of us have carefully thought of a question we would ask Jesus if we had him here, as the apostles did?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the question of Job 13, 24: “Why do you hide your face and count me among your enemies?” That is the natural reaction to the misfortunes of life, especially when they last long and increase with time. That “why” is so human that God incorporated it to his own experience when he became man, saying: “Father, why have you forsaken me?”
That came to my mind today when I was reading the story of St Bernard of Clairvaux. Whether the story is true or not, it does not matter. Sometimes pious fables grow around the essential character of a saint. Even if the story is rigorously true, what really matters is the revelation of something distinctive about Bernard’s specific holiness. Because there are many saints but each one is unique, something that belongs only to its own and unrepeatable species.
The million dollar question that Saint Bernard asked Jesus is singular, never asked in history until that moment. The apostles wanted to know about the second coming and they try eschatological questions. The Zebedeans ask permission to sit next to Jesus when the Kingdom comes. St Peter inquires in a few words about the length of John’s life, and receives an ambiguous answer typical of Jesus: something more or less like “Why don’t you mind your own business?” In short, there are always inquisitive people when God is around, but St. Bernard’s question is really amazing in my humble opinion.
Because St. Bernard dared to ask Christ if there was any wound that did not appear in the Gospels, or in Tradition: a hidden wound of which only Christ knew. Bernard wanted to know about the human pain of Christ. I do not think there have been many saints so well focused on the experience of the Cross as Bernard was. The question reveals everything about the saint, and even if it’s not a true anecdote, it certainly deserves to be true.
The question was good and it was not left without a good response. Christ confided to Bernard the most select of his wounds, a sore on the shoulder caused by the furca, the transversal part of the Cross. The Jehovah’s Witnesses cult leaders falsely teach that Christ was nailed to an upright stake. They deny the historicity of Roman crucifixion. There is much evidence against such nonsensical teaching, but the best one in my opinion is the meticulous distinction that Latin historians make when they describe the functional parts of a cross; “that vile machine”, as Lucian of Samosata calls it. The vertical pole was called patibulum and the transversal was called furca. A triangle of wood or iron was added to the vertical stake. The Romans called it the sedile “the little seat”. As hours went by, the victim had to “sit” on the sedile to lift his chest and take a breath. That was calculated to cause excruciating pain at the end of the spine. So the poor victim paid for each puff of air until fatigue overcame him and he suffocated to death.
Back to the hidden wound of Jesus. That injury on the shoulder was revealed to St. Bernard as a treasure, and there are even some who affirm that those who invoke that wound of Jesus in prayer will be cured of grievous pains. Saint Bernard follows the opposite path. He does not want to show his own pain to God, Bernard tries to get to the depths of the Divine Passion instead.
A perfect Lent, I think, would have the spirit of that question. St Bernard forgot the pain of his own human condition and tried to learn about the pain of another. Eleven centuries away from Calvary, Bernard sought the center of history in a wound, the most painful, perhaps the first that the Cross caused to our Savior. This Lent I want to ask Pope Benedict what was the pain that led to the sacrifice of his resignation. I want to ask a friend who lost two children in the prime of youth. I want to ask an elderly priest who feels more and more his own frailty. I want to ask those who suffer near me where does it hurt. I want to take interest in them and in their wounds, going beyond the mere courtesy of asking them how they feel. Perhaps God himself would count me among his friends, turn his face towards me and tell me his secrets, as he must have calmly told Bernard, the saint who sought grace in hidden pain.
During this Lent, try to meditate on the suffering of others near you.
Please remember to pray for (and if possible donate to) this ministry during Lent season.