Monday, 15 October 2012

St. Bernardino's formula for overcoming hard times. Personal growth in extreme circumstances. How to be fearless

"I have never seen times like these," admitted Bernardino. "The pest has wiped out half of the population of Siena." Giovanni Capistrano looked at his friend and shook his head. "We are indeed facing the end of the world," he replied. 

Sometimes you may think that you are facing the end of the world

"We have run out of salt for the fish, ink for the copyists, and candles for the chapel," enumerated Bernardino. "We don't even have cloth to make robes for the novices!"

Capistrano took in a deep breath and, instead of giving an answer, he murmured a prayer. He was convinced that the catastrophes that had happened during the last years were a punishment from God and that no resistance was possible.

In the year 1419, the economic depression ravaging Tuscany had reached gigantic proportions. Bernardino was 39 years old and he had seen with his own eyes land prices go down by 80% in a twenty-year period. It was difficult to imagine that things could get worse than they were already.

It was difficult to imagine that things could get any worse

Although Bernardino appreciated Giovanni Capistrano highly, he was also conscious that his friend was more gifted for theological disputes than for solving practical problems. Since Bernardino was the prior of Santa Maria Monastery, finding solutions was his job.

After the morning prayer, he left the chapel through the back door, crossed the monastery's orchard, and walked into the woods. Like every time he had to make a difficult decision, he needed to be alone for a while.

"We have hardly enough to eat as it is now," Bernardino reflected as he advanced towards the river. "Should I tell novices that our monastery cannot accept new vocations at this time and send them away?"

Something had changed since the last time

Suddenly, Bernardino stood still and looked around puzzled. Something had changed since the last time he had been in the woods, but he couldn't tell what. Intrigued, he advanced fifty steps and reached the riverbank. It was only at that moment that Bernardino realized what had interrupted his thoughts. It was the noise! He was so used to long hours of silence in the monastery that he had forgotten the relentless sound of nature.

Summer had arrived and Bernardino was immersed in a cacophony of cries from birds, cicadas, and tree frogs. He sat down on a stone in front of the water and tried to concentrate his mind on the most pressing problems.

Like every year, the summer had made the river water level go down by two feet, uncovering in the middle of the stream a long, narrow island. Bernardino knew it well, since it had served him as playground in his childhood, many years ago.

Bushes that had remained submerged during the winter were now showing deep green colours and had become the ideal basis for swallows to build their mud-nests. Bernardino smiled when two yellow butterflies flew above his shoulders, fearlessly headed towards the island.

He lowered his head and prayed silently for guidance. Nine young men had requested to join the Santa Maria Monastery as novices. Bernardino was the prior and it was up to him to decide on the postulants' admission.

The economic depression had drained the monastery's resources to such an extent that there was no way for Bernardino to feed nine additional monks, let alone provide them with novice's robes. On the other hand, additional help was badly needed to cultivate the monastery's land.

"I have found a solution," announced Bernardino 

When Bernardino returned to the monastery one hour later, he found Giovanni Capistrano sitting on a bench in front of the chapel, reading the Bible. "I have found a solution," announced Bernardino approaching his friend. Capistrano lifted his eyes from the book and scrutinized Bernardino's face. "To the economic crisis?" he retorted sceptically. "Or do you mean a solution to the pest that is decimating the population of nearby cities?"

"If we cannot change the whole world," went on Bernardino, "let us at least focus our efforts on doing whatever we can to improve our situation." Giovanni Capistrano closed the Bible and stared at Bernardino, wondering what he was talking about.

I realized that the solution was before my eyes

"I was sitting by the river thinking about our problems," Bernardino continued, "when I realized that the solution was before my eyes. It is summer now and swallows have built their nests on the island in the middle of the river."

He turned around and pointed at the cedar tree beside the chapel. "The energy of nature never stops. Season after season, year after year, animals and plants grow and live further. If there is a storm, birds might stand still for a few hours, but only to move on relentlessly as soon as the weather improves."

"Swallows don't sit around paralysed by fear of the end of the world," continued Bernardino. "They pick up whatever materials are available and build their nests, trying to make the best of any given circumstances."

Giovanni Capistrano shrugged his shoulders. "Indeed, birds are always moving, but they are stupid animals that cannot reflect about the future. Otherwise, swallows would not build nests on the island every summer. When the river water level goes up in September, the island will be flooded and the nests will be washed away."

We don't have to repeat our past mistakes

Bernardino nodded. "That's the point, Giovanni. We are men, not birds, and we don't have to repeat our past mistakes. On the other hand, we can learn from animals that life is meant to be lived by relentlessly moving forward, not by complaining that things should be otherwise than they are."

"That's very philosophical, but I can't see how it relates to our current problems" objected Capistrano, laying the Bible on the bench and standing up. "That will not help the Santa Maria Monastery feed nine new novices. Unfortunately, we have to send those postulants away."

"No, let's welcome those new vocations and thank God for sending them to us," answered Bernardino. "Those nine novices are the help that we need to cultivate the monastery's land. If necessary, we will pawn our gold chalice to get us through the next months."

A pro-active attitude in difficult times

Incredulous, Giovanni Capistrano shook his head. "Even if a pawnbroker in Sienna took the chalice, that wouldn't bring us enough money to purchase nine monk's robes for the novices."

"Follow me," ordered Bernardino, starting to moved towards the chapel. With Giovanni Capistrano on his trail, he entered the chapel, walked past the wooden benches, and stood still in front of the brown drapes that covered the wall. "We'll use those to make monk's robes. When the economy recovers, we'll have new drapes made for the chapel."

Indeed, the economy recovered little by little. Six years later, by 1425, the Santa Maria Monastery was restored to its old splendour. Bernardino's pro-active attitude in difficult times earned him a well-deserved reputation and, soon after, Pope Eugene IV offered him a bishop's appointment.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book about how to be rational  "The 10 Principles of Rational Living"


[Image by larry&flo under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

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