St. Bernard of Montjoux: Mountain Missionary

One of my favorite movies as a kid was a story set in the Alps. I remember being delighted watching St. Bernard dogs and their owners rescuing people who had gotten into trouble on the treacherous snow-covered heights.

This breed of dog is named after St. Bernard of Montjoux (c. 923 – c. 1008). His family origin is disputed — but his work in the Alps is not. For 40 years, St. Bernard founded schools and churches in the Diocese of Aosta, a region of Italy that borders France and Switzerland. As vicar general of the diocese, he traveled not only throughout the diocese, but as far as Geneva and Novara. He is primarily remembered for establishing two facilities on an ancient path through the Alps, which is perpetually snow-covered. Located at 7,076 and 8,000 feet above sea level these facilities provided shelter and food for Rome-bound French and German pilgrims. Through the centuries, the monks who eventually staffed these two hospices have continued to provide hospitality and, along with their highly-trained dogs, operate search and rescue missions. Pope Pius XI proclaimed St. Bernard the patron saint of skiers and mountain climbers in 1923.

I love watching people ski. Watching skiers compete in the Olympics has always left me with a desire to go skiing. However, I know that what the skier makes look so effortless in reality takes a tremendous amount of concentration, balance and awareness. Isn’t this the same with the spiritual life?

Concentration — The skier has to concentrate every part of his being on what he is doing. Even a split-second break in his concentration can have dangerous, even fatal, results. And if the skier wants to be at the top of his game, what he does off the slope is just as important as what he does on it. The same concentration is necessary in the spiritual life. This concentration helps us stay on track both when the track is clean and even, and when it is difficult. It helps us get back on track when we become distracted and when we no longer feel any satisfaction. We need to apply this concentration to every aspect of our lives. We are not Christians only at certain times. Rather all of our life needs to be lived in a decidedly Christian way.

Balance — Just as for a skier, balance is very difficult to obtain and maintain in life. If we are to stay spiritually fit, we must also be physically, intellectually, emotionally and psychically fit as well. At times the best thing we can do for our spiritual lives is to take a nap, go to the gym, or go out with a friend for a cup of coffee. Every now and then it is helpful to take a look at all the various components of our lives and make sure that each dimension is being given what it needs to be healthy.

Awareness — Temperature, wind, equipment, direction, speed and destination are some of the things that the skier has to be aware of. Good concentration and balance lead to profound awareness. And awareness is what helps us to live in the present, keeping what is in the past in the past, and leaving to providence what is in the future. Awareness allows us to truly live each moment, making adjustments when necessary, experiencing each moment as the gift that it is. When we are aware, we savor and interact with every present reality, and all of these interactions impact our movement toward the finish line.

St. Bernard must have had a high dose of concentration, balance and awareness in his own life. His power of concentration kept him steadfast in his service to God for more than 40 years, over hazardous terrain, in conditions that were far from the comfort we are used to in the 21st century. That he could have achieved what he did, including renown for holiness, tells me that he must have been a balanced person. His powers of awareness led him to understand the needs of the people who had been placed under his pastoral care. And thanks to him, many, many people have found rescue, warmth and comfort at one of the highest altitudes on earth, for more than a thousand years now. That’s a legacy worthy of a gold medal (or maybe a golden halo), don’t you think?