| The following introduction
to and selection from St. Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs was
done by Prof. Katherine Gill for her courses at Yale Divinity School
and Boston College. The page is reproduced here with permission.
The "mellifluous teacher," Bernard of Clairvaux, viewed the relationship between the divine Word and the individual soul as a spiritual marriage between the heavenly Bridegroom and the human bride. The sacramental humaneness of his mysticism, with love as its central focus, shaped Christian piety, spirituality, and mysticism from his day to this. Selection taken from An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, ed. Harvery Egan, S.J. (Liturgical Press, 1991): 166-179.
Bernard of Clairvaux may well be the apotheosis of the monastic tradition in the medieval period. In his day, he was one of the most powerful figures in Christendom. He was instrumental in securing the election of Innocent II to the papacy in preference to the antipope, Analectus II, and influenced the papacy when one of his disciples became Pope Eugene III in 1145.
During his life of prodigious and ceaseless activity, Bernard undertook sensitive missions for popes and kings, had tremendous influence over popes, bishops, and councils, and was the eloquent preacher of the Second Crusade. He also gave himself wholeheartedly to the theological controversies and ecclesiastical politics of his times. He was called "the conscience of all Europe." Passionately in love with God, Christ, and Mary, he maintained a vigorous contemplative life to the end of his life.
Because Bernard believed that everything in Scripture is meaningful if approached in love, he thinks and speaks like the Scriptures. His is the method of Augustine, Origen, and most of the Fathers, but the ease, fluency, and clarity with which he makes the hidden sense flow from the text earned him the title, Doctor mellifluous.Due to his extraordinary, mystical penetration of Scripture, the Fathers, the liturgy, and psalmody, and his awesome artistic power to describe and communicate this to others, he has been aptly described as "the last of the Fathers, and not inferior to the earliest." The structure of his sentences causes his works to sound like a soul sighing or singing hymns to God. His erudition was such that many in the Christian tradition contend that everything he wrote is a masterpiece. The sacramental humaneness of his mysticism and spirituality, with love as its central focus, shaped Catholic piety, spirituality, and mysticism from his day to this.
Born of an especially holy mother at Fontaines-les-Dijon in Burgandy, Bernard received an education commensurate with his noble lineage and lively intellect. However, when he was 21 years old, he decided to become a monk at Citeaux, the Cistercian protomonastery, at this time in its first fervor with strict rules. He convinced his brothers, his uncle, and several other noblemen to take the same step.
Within three years he was chosen abbot for a new foundation in the solitary valley of Clara Vallis, or Clairvaux. Clairvaux soon became a model of strict observance, and Bernard averred that-for all practical purposes-there was no salvation outside Citeaux. Convinced of the superiority of the Cisterician life for the practice of Christian perfection, Bernard railed against the alleged disciplinary decadence of the Cluniacs who observed a modified version of the rule of St. Benedict. He attracted thousands to the cloistered, contemplative life, established 68 foundations, and had almost direct authority over 164 of the 350 houses that existed across the whole of Europe.
Bernard was preeminently a monk whose theology aimed at a clear, intelligent, affective exposition of the faith in order to dispose a person to prayer and contemplation. Thus, he eschewed the incipient scholasticism of his day for its emphasis upon great subtlety in reasoning and its claims to be a "scientific" theology. Bernard placed knowledge squarely in the context of the ascent of the soul to God and was convinced that the profoundest and most significant truths come from and are validated by mystical experience. With others in the Christian mystical tradition, he taught that love is itself a knowing.
His Spirituality and mysticism are profoundly Christocentric. As he says, "Write what you will, I shall not relish it unless it tells of Jesus. Talk or argue about what you will, I shall not relish it if you exclude the name of Jesus. Jesus is to me honey in the mouth, music in the ear, a song in the ear." For Bernard, it is essential to "remember" Christ in order to "imitate" him. By praying the mysteries of the life, death, and resurrection, Bernard desires that the "affections for our Lord Jesus should be both tender and intimate, to oppose the sweet enticements of sensual life.
For Bernard, the invisible God assumed flesh because God "wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love." Thus, he strongly suggested praying with a "sacred-image of the God-man." Bernard writes even more emphatically: "I have said that wisdom is to be found in meditating on these truths [Christ's life, death, and resurrection]. For me they are the source of perfect righteousness, of the fullness of knowledge, of the most efficacious graces, of abundant merits ... This is my philosophy, one more refined and interior, to know Jesus and him crucified." Still, as profitable as meditations on Christ's humanity may be, Bernard viewed them as "imperfect," because they are tinged with "carnal love." The proficient in the spiritual life love Christ with "rational" and "spiritual love."
This cast of mind, in conjunction with an eagerness to be the champion of orthodoxy, led him to condemn with polemical vehemence Abelard at the Council of Sens (1140) and to attack both Gilbert de la. Porree and Arnold of Brescia as grave dangers to the faith. However, "if at times he appeared somewhat impetuous and obstinate, nothing could conceal the caritas which illuminated his character and writings, and caused him to denounce the persecution of the Jews, and to insist that prayer, preaching, and the life of self-denial and worship should be the militia of Church and state, monk and layman, alike." Even his enemies were edified by Bernard's great asceticism, holiness, absence of egotism, self-sacrifice, humility, and whole-hearted service.
Central to Bernard's theology is the notion that Love created us out of love to share Love itself, and then redeemed us after we had sinned. God's gift of both the Incarnation and the Mother of God are proof of this. Moreover, the ultimate and culminating end of all theology, the summit of all God's works, is mystical experience.
Bernard's 86 Sermons allegorically interpret the Song of Songs; they summarize his mystical theology Like Origen and Augustine, Bernard views the relationship between the Divine Word and the individual soul as a spiritual marriage between the heavenly Bridegroom and the human bride. But unlike them, he fully developed the notion of spiritual marriage.
Commenting on the biblical words, "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," Bernard draws an analogy between kissing Christ's feet, hand, and mouth and the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way. As he says, "these kisses were given to the feet, the hand and the mouth, in that order. The first is the sign of genuine conversion of life, the second is accorded to those making progress, the third is the experience of only a few of the more perfect.
Thus, the remote preparation for the mystical kiss of the mouth is the asceticism required to obtain solid virtue. The proximate preparation recollection and introversion-is profoundly affective. For Bernard, the soul's Bridegroom will reveal himself "only to the one who is proved to be a worthy bride by intense devotion, vehement desire and the sweetest affection. And the Word who comes to visit will be clothed in beauty, in every aspect a Bridegroom." What the bride really desires and asks for is "to be filled with the grace of this threefold knowledge [of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], filled to the utmost capacity of mortal flesh .... Furthermore, this revelation, which is made through the Holy Spirit, not only conveys the light of knowledge but also lights the fire of love..."
A portion of Sermon 1 was selected to show Bernard's great esteem for the Song of Songs and to illustrate his conviction that personal experience is necessary to plumb the mysteries of this marriage song heard in the heart. In Sermon 41, Bernard gives the earliest account in the Christian tradition of the distinction between apophatic contemplation (in which both reason and the imagination play no part) and revelatory contemplation. In the latter, the purely spiritual experiences of God are translated into communicable images and language. With an eloquence unusual even for Bernard, he describes the role the angels play to produce in the imagination and mind the images, concepts, and language through which God's pure light can be comprehended and communicated to others.
Sermon 52 illustrates Bernard's conviction that contemplation is a foretaste of heaven and a mystical (bridal) sleep that vivifies the mystical senses. But he also viewed it as a type of ecstatic dying to the world and as an apophatic, imageless-therefore, "angelic"contemplation of God. For St. John of the Cross, bridal sleep is the most apostolic work a person can do for the Church, because therein a person does what he or she was created for: to love and to be loved.
The selected text from Sermon 74 is one of the most stunning attempts in the entire Christian mystical tradition to describe the mystical experience. When the Word invades the soul, he cannot be perceived by the senses. However, the heart, or the person's deepest center, suddenly becomes alive and its most secret faults are disclosed. When the Word leaves, it is like a boiling pot removed from the stove. The Life of the soul's life seems to have disappeared.
Sermons 83 and 85 describe spiritual marriage and spiritual fecundity. The Word actually takes the soul as his bride, and two become one in spirit, yet remain two. Spousal mysticism emphasizes a differentiated unity. In other words, love actually makes two one, but also enhances personal identity. Love makes the soul equal to God, God by participation, but not simply God. Also, Bernard emphasizes that bridal love loves God for his own sake. Although as bride, the soul desires the Bridegroom's embrace, as mother she loves her children, that is, her neighbor.
On the Song of Songs
VI. II. But there is that other song, which, by its unique dignity and sweetness, excels all those I have mentioned and any others there might be; hence by every right do I acclaim it as the Song of Songs. It stands at a point where all the others culminate. Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely to learn about it. For it is a melody that resound abroad by the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills. it is a tune you will not hear in the streets, these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings-the lover and the beloved. It is preeminently a marriage song telling of chaste souls in loving embrace, of their wills in sweet accord, of the mutual exchange of the heart's affection
III. 3. We should take note of the kind of pendants they offer her [the bride]: they are made of gold and studded with silver. Gold signifies the splendor of the divine nature, the wisdom that comes from above. The heavenly goldsmiths to whom this work is committed, promise that they will fashion resplendent tokens of the truth and insert them in the soul's inward ears. I cannot see what this may mean if not the construction of certain spiritual images in order to bring the purest intuition of divine wisdom before the eye of the soul that contemplates, to enable it to perceive, as though puzzling reflections in a mirror, what it cannot possibly gaze on a yet face to face. The things we speak of are divine, totally unknown except to those who have experienced them. While still in this mortal body, while still living by faith, while the content of the clear interior light is still not made clear, we can, in part, still contemplate the pure truth. Any one of us who has been given this gift from above may make his own the words of St. Paul: "Now I know in part;" and: 'We know in part and in part we prophesy." But when the spirit is ravished out of itself and granted a vision of God that suddenly shines into the mind with the swiftness of a lightning flash, immediately, but whence I know not, images of earthly thin fill the imagination, either as an aid to understanding or to temper the intensity of the divine light. So well-adapted are they to the divinely illuminated senses, that in their shadow the utterly pure and brilliant radiance of the truth is rendered more bearable to the mind and more capable of being communicated to others. My opinion is that they are formed in our imaginations by the inspirations of the holy angels, just as on the other hand there is no doubt that evil suggestions of an opposite nature are forced upon us by the bad angels.
4. Perhaps, too, we have here those puzzling reflections seen by the Apostle in the mirror [1 Cor 13:12] and fashioned, as I have said, by angelic hands from pure and beautiful images, which I feel bring us in contact somehow with the being of God, that in its pure state is perceived without any shadow of corporeal substances. The elegance of the imagery that so worthily clothes and reveals it I attribute to angelic skill. That this is so is more distinctly conveyed by another version: "We, the artificers, will make you images of gold, with silver decorations." 'With silver decorations" and "studded with silver" mean the same thing. To me they seem to signify not merely that the angels produce these images within us, but that they also inspire the elegance of diction which so fittingly and gracefully embellishes with greater clarity and keener enjoyment our communication of them to the audience.
2. That in heaven it is like this, as I read on earth, I do not doubt, nor that the soul will experience for certain what this page suggests, except that here she cannot fully express what she will there be capable of grasping, but cannot yet grasp. What do you think she will receive there, when now she is favored with an intimacy so great as to feel herself embraced by the arms of God, cherished on the breast of God, guarded by the care and zeal of God lest she be roused from her sleep by anyone till she wakes of her own accord.
II. 3. Well then, let me explain if I can what this sleep is which the Bridegroom wishes his beloved to enjoy, from which he will not allow her to be awakened under any circumstances, except at her good pleasure ... This sleep of the bride, however, is not the tranquil repose of the body that for a time sweetly lulls the fleshly senses, nor that dreaded sleep whose custom is to take life away completely. Farther still is it removed from that deathly sleep by which a man perseveres irrevocably in sin and so dies. It is a slumber which is vital and watchful, which enlightens the heart, drives the heart, drives away death, and communicates eternal life that does not stupefy the mind but transports it. And-I say it with out hesitation-it is a death, for the apostle Paul in praising people still living in the flesh spoke thus: 'For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.'
4. It is not absurd for me to call the bride's ecstasy a death, then, but one that snatches away not life but life's snares, so that one can say 'We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers'. In this life we move about surrounded by traps, but these cause no fear when the soul is drawn out of itself by a thought that is both powerful and holy, provided that it so separates itself and flies away from the mind that it transcends the normal manner and habit of thinking; for a net is spread in vain before the eyes of winged creatures. Why dread wantonness where there. is no awareness of life? For since the ecstatic soul is cut off from awareness of life though not from life itself, it must of necessity be cut off from the temptations of life ... How good the death that does not take away life but makes it better; good in that the body does not perish but the soul is exalted.
5. Men alone experience this. But, if I may say so let me die the death of angels that, transcending the memory of things present, I may cast off not only the desire for what are corporeal and inferior but even their images, that I may enjoy pure conversation with those who bear the likeness of purity.
III. This kind of ecstasy, in my opinion, is alone or principally call contemplation. Not to be gripped during life by material desires is a mark of human virtue; but to gaze without the use of bodily likenesses is the sign of angelic purity. Each, however, is a divine gift, each is a going out of oneself, each a transcending of self, but in one, one goes much farther than in the other.
6. Consider therefore that the bride has retired to this solitude, there, overcome by the loveliness of the place, she sweetly sleeps within the arms of her bridegroom, in ecstasy of spirit. Hence the maidens are forbidden to waken her until she herself pleases.
II. 5. Now bear with my foolishness a little. I want to tell you of my own experience, as I promised. Not that it is of any importance .... I admit that the Word has also come to me-I speak as a fool-and has come many timesBut although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; some times I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going. And where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now; as John says: 'You do not know where he comes from or where he goes.' There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, 'Your foot steps will not be known.' The coming of the Word was not perceptible to my eyes, for he has not color; nor to the ears, for there was no sound; nor yet to my nostrils, for he mingles with the mind, not the air; he has not acted upon the air, but created it. His coming was not tasted by the mouth, for there was not eating or drinking, nor could he be known by the sense of touch, for he is not tangible. How then did he enter? Perhaps he did not enter because he does not come from outside? He is not one of the things which exist outside us. Yet he does not come from within me, for he is good, and I know there is no good in me. I have ascended to the highest in me, and look! the word is towering above that. In my curiosity I have descended to explore my lowest depths, yet I found him even deeper. If I look outside myself, I saw him stretching beyond the furthest I could see; and if I looked within, he was yet further within. Then I knew the truth of what I had read, 'In him we live and move and have our being'. And blessed is the man in whom he has his being, who lives for him and is moved by him.
6. You ask then how I knew he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced? He is life and power, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased. So he has begun to pluck out and destroy, to build up and to plant, to water dry places and illuminate dark ones; to open what was closed and to warm what was cold; to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth, so that my soul may bless the Lord, and all that is within me may praise his holy name. So when the Bridegroom/ the Word, came to me, he never made known his coming any signs, not by sight, not by sound, not by touch. It was not by any movement of his that I recognized his coming; it was not by any of MY senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depth of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told did I perceive his presence; and I knew the power of his might cause my faults were put to flight and my human yearnings brought into subjection. I have marvelled at the depth of his wisdom when my secret faults have been revealed and made visible the very slightest amendment of my way of life I have experience his goodness and mercy; in the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty, and when I contemplate all these things I am filled with awe and wonder at his manifold greatness.
7.But when the Word has left me, all these spiritual powers become weak and faint and begin to grow cold, as though you had removed the fire under the boiling pot, and this is a sign of his going. Then my soul must needs be sorrowful until he returns, and my heart again kindles within me-the sign of his returning. When have had such experience of the Word, is it any wonder that I take to myself the words of the Bride, calling him back when he has withdrawn? For although my fervor is not as strong as hers, ye am transported by a desire like hers. As long as I live the word return', the word of recall for the recall of the word, will be on lips.
As often as he slips away from me, so often shall I call him back From the burning desire of my heart I will not cease to call him begging him to return, as if after someone who is departing, and I implore him to give back to me the joy of his salvation, and restore himself to me.
3. Such conformity weds the soul to the Word, for one Who is the Word by nature shows himself like him too in the exercise will, loving as she is loved. When she loves perfectly, the soul wedded to the Word. What is lovelier than this conformity? What more desirable than charity, by whose operation, 0 soul, not content with a human master, you approach the Word with confidence, cling to him with constancy, speak to him as to a familiar friend, and refer to him in every matter with an intellectual grasp proportionate to the boldness of your desire'? Truly this is a spiritual contract, a holy marriage. It is more than a contract, it is an embrace: an embrace where identity of will makes of two one spirit. There need be no fear that inequality of persons should impair the conformity of will, because love is no respecter of persons. It is from loving, not revering, that love receives its name. Let someone filled with horror or stupor or fear or wonder be content with reverence; where there is love all these are unimportant. Love is sufficient for itself; when love is present it absorbs and conquers all other affections. Therefore it loves what it loves, and it knows nothing else. He who is justly honored, held in awe, and admired, prefers to be loved. He and the soul are Bridegroom and Bride. What other bond or compulsion do you look for between those who are betrothed, except to love and be loved?
II. This bond is stronger even than nature's firm bond between parents and children. 'For this', it says in the Gospel, 'a man will leave his father and his mother and cleave to his bride.' You see how strong this feeling is between bride and bridegroom-it is stronger not only than other affections, but even than itself.
4. Now the Bridegroom is not only loving; he is love. Is he honor too? Some maintain that he is, but I have not read it. I have read that God is love, but not that he is honor. It is not that God does not desire honor, for he says, 'If I am a father, where is my honor? Here he speaks as a father, but if he declares himself to be a husband I think he would change the expression and say, 'If I am a bridegroom, where is my love?' For he had previously said, 'If I am the Lord, where is my fear?' God then requires that he should be feared as the Lord, honored as a father, and loved as a bridegroom. Which of these is highest and most lofty? Surely it is love. Without it fear brings pain, and honor has no grace. Fear is the lot of a slave, unless he is freed by love. Honor which is not inspired by love is not honor but flattery. Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love. Love is sufficient for itself; it gives pleasure to itself, and for its own sake. It is its own merit and own reward. Love needs no cause beyond itself, nor does it demand fruits; it is its own purpose. I love because I love; I love that I may love. Love is a great reality, and if it returns to its beginnings and goes back to its origin, seeking its source again, it will always draw afresh from it, and thereby flow freely. Love is the only one of the motions of the soul, of its senses and affections, in which the creature can respond to its Creator, even if not as an equal, and repay his favor in some similar way ... Now you see how different love is, for when God loves, he desires nothing but to be loved, since he loves us for no other reason than to be loved, for he knows that those who love him are blessed in their very love.
5. Love is a great reality, but there are degrees to it. The bride stands at the highest. children love their father, but they are thinking of their inheritance, and as long as they have any fear of losing it, they honor more than they love the one from whom they expect to inherit. I suspect the love which seems to be founded on some hope of gain. It is weak, for if the hope is removed it may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return. Pure love has no self-interest. Pure love does not gain strength through expectation, nor is it weakened by distrust. This is the love of the bride, for this is the bride-with all that means. Love is the being and the hope of a bride. She is full of it, and the bridegroom is contented with it. He asks nothing else, and she has nothing else to give. That is why he is the bridegroom and she the bride; this love is the property only of the couple. No one else can share it, not even a son.
... but the love of a bridegroom-or rather of the Bridegroom who is love-asks only the exchange of love and trust. Let the Beloved love in return. How can the bride-and the bride of love--do other than love? How can Love not be loved?
6. Rightly, then, does she renounce all other affections and devote herself to love alone, for it is in returning love that she has the power to respond to love. Although she may pour out her whole self in love, what is that compared to the inexhaustible fountain of his love? The stream of love does not flow equally from her who loves and from him who is love, the soul and the Word, the Bride and the Bridegroom, the Creator and the creature-any more than a thirsty man can be compared to a fountain. Will the Bride's vow perish, then, because of this? Will the desire of her heart, her burning love, her affirmation of confidence, fail in their purpose because she has not the strength to keep pace with a giant, or rival honey in sweetness, the lamb in gentleness, or the lily in whiteness? Because she cannot equal the brightness of the sun, and the charity of him who is Charity? No. Although the creature loves less, being a lesser being, yet if it loves with its whole heart nothing is lacking, for it has given all. Such love, as I have said, is marriage, for a soul cannot love like this and not be beloved; complete and perfect marriage consists in the exchange of love. No one can doubt that the soul is first loved, and loved more intensely, by the Word; for it is anticipated and surpassed in its love. Happy the soul who is permitted to be anticipated in blessedness so sweet. Happy the soul who has been allowed to experience the embrace of such bliss! For it is nothing other than love, holy and chaste, full of sweetness and delight, love utterly serene and true, mutual and deep, which joins two beings, not in one flesh, but in one spirit, making them no longer two but one. As Paul says: 'He who is united to God is one spirit with him.'
13. But notice that in spiritual marriage there are two kinds of birth, and thus two kinds of offspring, though not opposite. For spiritual persons, like holy mothers, may bring souls to birth by preaching, or may give birth to spiritual insights by meditation. In this latter kind of birth the soul leaves even its bodily senses and is separated from them, so that in her awareness of the Word she is not aware of herself. This happens when the mind is enraptured by the unutterable sweetness of the Word, so that it withdraws, or rather is transported, and escapes from itself to enjoy the Word. The soul is affected in one way when it is made fruitful by the Word, in another when it enjoys the Word: in the one it is considering the needs of its neighbor; in the other it is allured by the sweetness of the Word. A mother is happy in her child; a bride is even happier in her bridegroom's embrace. The children are dear, they are the pledge of his love, but his kisses give her greater pleasure. It is good to save many souls, but there is far more pleasure in going aside to be with the Word. But when does this happen and for how long? It is sweet intercourse, but lasts a short time and is experienced rarely! This is what I spoke of before, when I said that the final reason for the soul to seek the Word was to enjoy him in bliss.