Today the church remembers the servanthood of Bernard of Menthon. While he is best remembered for the dogs who bear his name, Saint Bernard is honored as the patron saint of hikers and mountaineers. Born in the early middle ages to a wealthy Italian family, Bernard left his life of leisure to serve travelers on pilgrimage to Rome. He loved people, and he loved the mountains.
In the early middle ages, European pilgrims regularly hiked south through the Swiss Alps along the Via Francigena, through mountain passes filled year-round with snow. Concerned for their spiritual and physical welfare, Bernard established two hostels in the Alps at 7,000 and 8,000 feet elevation. There he offered food and lodging for the weary and aid to those who found themselves endangered by illness, avalanche or crime (robbery was common) on the trek. It was an arduous journey, and few pilgrims were prepared for the dangers of the mountains. Many had never even seen mountains before.
The hostels Bernard established flourished, even after pilgrims found a different way over the mountains. Saint Bernard dogs, added in the seventeen century, rescued stranded travelers; and the small churches at the mountain passes were known for their hospitality and kindness to all who visited them. Even after Bernard’s death, the missions thrived, offering prayer and spiritual counsel to travelers. They also cared for those who died in the mountains.
I have never been to the Col du Grand St-Bernard where Bernard established his hostel, but I have received mountain care all the same. The very best. In the last ten months, I have connected with a handful of other widows whose husbands died like mine, in tragic accidents in the mountains they loved. Over and over, I have heard my story echoed in theirs — a story of helpers who offered care in time of need, efforts that went above and beyond, commitment to duty even in tragic circumstances.
On this, Bernard’s day, I am reminded of the courageous, kind and generous team who cared for Rob in the mountains on the day he died. Friends, rangers, helicopter evacuation pilots, medics, chaplains. All who carried out their missions with love in word and action. Like Bernard, they were people who loved hikers and loved the mountains. They cared gently for the one I love most, and I will always be grateful for their service.