The Bonfire of the Vanities: Memorial of St. Bernardine of Siena, Priest

Acts 4:8-12; Luke 9:57-62

What is it that people will run into a burning building to save, apart from their loved ones? Scrapbooks, photographs, keepsakes, and family heirlooms. Over time these personal items acquire an almost sacred aspect; losing them is like losing a part of ourselves.

Today’s saint, Bernardine of Siena, looked out on the landscape of 15th century Italy and saw something much worse than buildings on fire. He looked into the smoldering ashes of the peoples’ spiritual lives and saw the deadly smoke of fires that rage in the human heart: avarice, selfishness, and sloth. The people burned with desire for worldly possessions, were inflamed with hatred for each other, and had all but abandoned any semblance of religious piety. Even many in the clergy had become lax and neglectful in their practice of the faith.

These were the parts of themselves that Father Bernardine wanted to see lost in the flames of desire for Christ. Burning with love for them and for his Savior, he traveled across the Italian peninsula laying spiritual siege to every town he could. Father would stay as many days as he thought necessary, said Mass every morning in the town square, and preached tirelessly about the vices he detected in that place. Even though Father was known to have a weak, hoarse voice, when preaching a change came over him; filled with the Holy Spirit, his voice was sonorous, clear, and powerful. In a short time, he became famous his eloquence, forcefulness, wittiness, and piety.

fire-227291_640What’s more, Father’s homilies worked like a match to dry kindling – almost literally. Their consciences convicted, the people built bonfires and threw into the blaze any vain or worldly things they owned that kept them away from God. These fires become known as the “bonfires of the vanities” in every town that welcomed the humble yet fiery preacher, Father Bernardine of Siena.

Vanity was not unknown in the time of Jesus any more than it was in 15th century Italy or is now, for that matter. In the gospel we hear people tell Jesus why they can’t follow him; something is holding them back. This reluctance is redolent of the sinfulness in our own lives. Like the people of Christ’s time, there are earthly ties that bind; we may feel ourselves willing but unable to let go of that keepsake, the sin we just cannot seem to break. Nevertheless, Christ has made it clear; following him requires that we allow the reigns of this world to loosen and fall from around us. Let us ask the intercession of St. Bernardine of Siena, who inspired the people of Italy to throw what bound them into the fire, that the Holy Spirit may embolden us to do likewise; to cast every sinful part of ourselves in that eternal bonfire of the vanities: the flames of His infinite, merciful love.

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