As we continue through the season of Lent, I am still drawn to the idea of reflection. Taking some time to consider what is important. What are we really willing to devote ourselves to because we have decided it is worth the effort, the time and the commitment?
These very old words are attributed to the 12thcentury mystic, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He was born into a family of nobility, but joined the Cistercian order and became a monk and scholar of significant influence in his own time, and far beyond. It is said that Martin Luther admired him greatly as the “best monk that ever lived,” some four hundred years later. He is thought to have founded 163 monasteries and was renowned for his religious devotion. The original poem, Jesus dulcis memoria, was a mere 42 verses – although, the most common English translation doesn’t require quite that much devotion of us anymore!
Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the mind recall
a sweeter sound than thy dear name,
O Savior of us all.
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who falter thou art kind!
How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.
These words are quite lovely. They describe feelings of complete love, joy and commitment – of being so convinced of the goodness of the subject of the devotion, that there is a sense that real peace has been achieved. That just the thought or name of the beloved is enough to bring us what we require, the comfort we need and the joy of glory.
Sounds perfect. Sounds easy. And yet, finding something that has this much inspirational power can be a lifelong battle. One that is often difficult to reconcile with reality. For some, the attempt at devotion, particularly within a religious context, can be quite debilitating. The notion that peace can be found if we are pious enough – it just doesn’t always work that way. For some, the idea of religion itself is so fraught with negative and damaging experiences, that it simply isn’t a place where any peace can be found. For some, the circumstances of life are such that this approach feels like a slap in the face, a diminishing of the realities that threaten to swamp a life.
As has so often been the case, I am once again compelled to consider that these words are directive in nature. Yes, they were written by a Christian monk to describe the characteristics of Jesus – something that will undoubtedly be meaningful to many. But they are also a pretty good description of a person who contributes much to those around them. Can we become someone that provides a place of peace and rest? Someone whose name evokes sweet memories? Someone who uplifts those that falter or soothes a contrite soul? Someone who is devoted to bringing joy and love?
It is a tall order. To be a person that is able to fully commit to being this kind of spirit is hard. We live in an era of self-focus. How we define almost everything is dependent upon our abilities to achieve success as individuals. Successes of wealth, career, education, notoriety or fame, popularity and physical attractiveness. We rarely vote for kindness or reward those who carry the weak or the needy. We are simply disinterested in those who do not exhibit the outward evidence of achievement.
But, these words are about a different kind of achievement. They are about something deeply personal and deeply needed. They speak to our common desire to feel surrounded by love and safety, by joy and reassurance. If I look around my life, I can see special people who exhibit these life giving characteristics. People who choose to cook for a neighbour who is not well. People who sing for the dying. People who give rides to the elderly. People who help a child with their homework. People who encourage a talent. People who check if someone is okay. People who say thank you. People who remember and acknowledge a meaningful day. People who volunteer. People who keep our world clean. People who are willing to speak out for good. People who share their own joy. People who live their lives fully despite many obstacles. People who listen. People who try to do what is right. People who are simply available. People who remember. People who are kind.
There are many ways to become a giver of someone’s comfort, safety and joy. Ultimately the task is begun with a choice. I suspect this choice is relatively easy but the actual task can be difficult. It takes courage to seek out the needs of others. It takes honesty and openness to understand what’s actually needed. Providing for those needs takes strength. It is a matter of listening carefully to the voices around us. To the words, the actions, the hidden concerns, the underlying messages. When we choose to see these things, and choose to act, we become part of that which is a sweetness that fills a space that was formerly empty. Providing with our selves, a place of rest, and just maybe, the prize of joy.