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RIP – Bernard SSF

Brother Bernard SSF – RIP

Samuel SSF

Brother Bernard SSF died on 17 May 2007, and his funeral Mass was at Hilfield Friary.  He was aged seventy-eight years and in the forty-seventh year of his profession in vows.

Isaiah 43: 1-7:  ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine’.  Here’s the Lord God, through the prophet, speaking to a broken, hopeless, exiled people – words of comfort, of forgiveness, of reconciliation and of restored relationship.

Bernard was a very remarkable spiritual guide.  Whether you were coming to him for regular direction (and a huge number did) or for ‘one-off deepies’ as he used to call them, he had the extraordinary knack of putting his finger ever so gently on the place where one was hurting, where one was fearful, where one was vulnerable.  In fact, on occasions it could be almost irritating: ‘How on earth did he know that about me?’ – but it came from an acute listening, a wise understanding of human nature, and what someone has described as ‘an almost cunning way of searching one’s heart for what was real and true’.  At the same time he was able to communicate to those who came to him that, whatever the wounds – in fact because of them – God our Father loves us to all eternity; that through Christ’s wounds we are loved, redeemed, restored, forgiven.  For many, this was a new or deeper understanding of themselves as uniquely precious in God’s eyes.

And, of course, he could bring people to this understanding and this recognition, because he knew it himself – both the woundedness and the love of God.  He knew that he himself was not the totally integrated human being he was made to be before God; he used to say that ‘it’s very easy for all of us to think one thing, feel another, say another and do yet another’; there were parts of him that were incomplete or spoilt, and he knew that the transformation of our humanity into the full image of Christ is a work in progress.  ‘Kyrie eleison’, ‘Lord have mercy’ was a constant prayer for him; he was a penitent.  And yet he lived with the full assurance of the desire and power of God eventually to effect that transformation.  For many years, above the seat in his room where he sat to meet with people,  there was a black and white photograph of one of the carvings from Chartres portraying the creation of Adam.  The naked Adam has his head resting on God’s knee, and God is bending over him with one hand above and the other cradling Adam’s head.  It’s a sculpture of the most exquisite tenderness, and I always felt that by placing it there, where everyone who came could see it, Bernard was saying to us: ‘This is what the business is about, this is what you’ve really come for – to be led deeper into the mystery of God’s creative love and its completion and fulfilment in Jesus Christ.’  ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.’

1 Peter 1.3-9: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ’.  It’s a letter to new Christians which bubbles up and overflows with joyful praise.  Bernard was such a good preacher, missioner and communicator of the Gospel because the message he gave came across as an overflowing of joy and delight: in creation, in people, in everything beautiful, in reconciliation and peace, in the promise of glory.  He had a stock of certain phrases: ‘Keep praising’, ‘Are you singing and dancing?’, ‘Praise the Lord, Alleluia!’ said in a certain way, and ‘Clever old God’.  There was something of light hearted jocundity in all this, but it flowed from a deep source of joy in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and was a faithful echo of Blessed St Francis.  Another picture on his wall was one of the Poverello, dressed in rags, dancing with an imaginary violin under his chin and a branch with leaves for a bow.

It wasn’t without cost; following in the way of Francis did involve renunciation on a number of levels and just occasionally a sense of that could surface in his life, but in his deepest self he knew what his desire was really for: ‘God of your goodness give me yourself, you are sufficient for me’ – words of Julian of Norwich which he treasured.  He always came back to the joy of the Kingdom and to what he used to describe as ‘the deep belly laugh of God at the heart of creation’.

And, lastly, from the Upper Room in the Gospel of John: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.’

Bernard was a man of many gifts, but not in every department.  He enjoyed good food but was a disaster in the kitchen.  Using his gifts, while always keeping a critical eye, he was a great servant of the institution, whether that be of the Church on the General Synod, or of the Society of St Francis as, successively, Guardian at Plaistow, Brisbane and Hilfield.  He believed passionately in working and praying for Christian unity and was a keen supporter of the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury.  There was a certain driven-ness in how he went about all this, but it was giftedness and energy expended for the sake of the Kingdom, co-operating with God in love and compassion for the world.  In his book Open to God he writes in gratitude of being drawn into the loving, redeeming, purposes of God for the world: ‘I’m glad to know (and partly know) such a God and to have some little share in what he is all about’.

At the heart of it all was his life of prayer, the life of getting up early in the morning and just being there before God in contemplation; here above all he began to enter into the life of the Blessed Trinity, the mystery of giving and receiving and sharing of love which lies at the heart of all reality and which is the source of all good.

Bernard had an enthusiasm for icons  and he loved to talk about them.  For a long time it was the great Rublev icon of the Trinity that drew him, then it was Pierro della Francesca’s painting of the Resurrection; he was also much taken with a photograph of a Japanese Zen garden.  But the San Damiano crucifix was the choice of his last few years.  It portrays, not just the suffering Jesus, but the risen and ascended Lord in the glory of the Father, and includes, around the cross, the life of the Church on which the Spirit is outpoured. Here the world is redeemed; here the world is completed, restored to its true relationship with God; here all creation is brought together to do what it was made to do – to worship God and to enjoy God for ever. It was before this tender, compassionate face of Christ that Bernard would sit or kneel when he could no longer work or remember people’s names, when he could no longer celebrate the Eucharist or even read the scriptures.  He would just sit gazing at it – as Francis had done: ‘My God, my all. My God, my all. My God, my all’.  May God, in his mercy and compassion and love for Bernard, bring him and us at the last to the fullness of his life and joy with the saints for ever. f