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Bernard of Clairvaux: The Song of Solomon as Theological Allegory

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most influential religious and political voices of twelfth-century Western Europe, and as a result, his eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs had a significant impact on future generations of Christian thinkers and mystics. Like Origen before him, Bernard viewed the Song of Songs as spiritual allegory rather than as a record of physical passion shared between two created beings. Its intimacy reveals the soul in love with a most lovely Divine lover (85).[1]

Sermon Seventy-Four, the text to which we shall here dedicate our attention, should be read within the context of Bernard’s entire sermon series on the Song of Songs, at the heart of which is his understanding of how the soul achieves intimacy with God through the “kiss of the kiss.” Song of Songs opens with the soul’s burning plea, “Let him [the Word] kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!”[2] In Bernard’s thinking, the pure “kiss of the mouth” can only occur within deity (i.e., between the Father and the Son), but humans can receive the kiss of that first and fullest kiss through the Holy Spirit and the gift of the Incarnation[3]. Although Sermon Seventy-Four contains vivid images of spiritual union, his other sermons on the “kiss of the kiss” help us remember that for Bernard there is a fixed distinction between creature and Creator, the soul and the Word. This distinction is most clearly evident in Sermon Seventy-Four when the bride calls for her lover to “return” the moment he has departed (85). It is in fact the soul’s past familiarity with the Word that gives her the nerve to ask again for his presence, for she desperately desires the return of his familiar sweetness (88). Sermon Seventy-Four is an exploration of the Word’s continuous departure and return as an apparatus of purification for the soul; the soul’s constant calling and recalling draws the soul out, enlarging its capacity for intimacy with the Word. That the Word can depart from the soul at all implies that their union is relational rather than ontological.

It is from this milieu that the text’s most directive question emerges, which Bernard himself articulates on page 86: “Where does God come from and return to if he is everywhere? This question is the axis from which the rest of Bernard’s sermon flows as a “discourse of pure love” (87). Bernard begins addressing his own question by admitting that it is actually quite unanswerable, that the Word’s inherent presence within every particle of time and space means that it is fundamentally illogical to speak of the Word’s movement (86). Nevertheless, Bernard proceeds with the rest of his sermon using frail human speech and finite imagery in order to communicate as much as possible the spiritual reality he inwardly perceives.

Having stated that his question about where the Word comes from and goes to is unanswerable, Bernard immediately sets to build his discourse around two possible answers.[4] The first is theologically coherent and in harmony with his understanding of how the Word permeates all creation (i.e., God’s immanence), but the second is much more earthy and paradoxical. Both evoke exquisite images of the love that can exist between the Word and the soul.

Bernard’s first and longest answer states quite simply that in fact the Word doesn’t ever literally leave the soul. The “departure” of the Word is the result of the “soul’s sensitivity,” and not any actual “movement of the Word” (87). Drawing from his own experience near the end of his sermon, Bernard states that he isn’t able to feel the Word coming when it comes since the Word doesn’t possess smell, sound or color in the same way other things do (90). Of course this makes perfect sense. How could Bernard feel the Word coming if the Word already exists within him and does not actually come from some external place? And yet we must also ask how Bernard could not feel the Word coming if Bernard is in fact begging it to return with as much urgency as Song of Song’s longing bride. Bernard is apparently forced to trip over his speech here as he searches for language to explain that the Word’s presence must be distinguished by more than passionate emotion alone. One recognizes the Word’s presence by its fruits (92), namely contemplation. This will come up again later.

Whatever small linguistic difficulties exist within the text, Bernard’s point is clear: the Word’s movement is in fact an illusion because God is inward, and the implications which follow are beautiful. If the Word is inward and his coming is simply the soul becoming aware of he who is intrinsically present, then the soul itself is deepened each time it enters into awareness. Surely then as the soul is deepened, its capacity to love is also deepened. The soul is not only drawn out of itself by uttering the call “Return,” but it is also drawn inward, in love, to where the Word resides. Here is the redemptive gem of Bernard’s first answer to his question about where God goes to and comes from. How it works logically must be that the soul drifts away from inner attentiveness and then experiences remorse. The soul’s drifting is the Word’s departure, the soul’s remorse is its cry “Return,” and the new attentiveness which results from the soul’s remorse is in fact the Word’s return.

This leads to another separate but very tantalizing question: Why would a soul so deeply in love, one who has been visited often by the Word, ever lose its attentiveness? Surely it would not choose to have to say “Return,” and yet in neither the text of Bernard or the Song of Songs is the departure of the Word (the soul’s inattentiveness) depicted as a wickedness. Perhaps inattentiveness is just an inherent feature of humanity—something that is not frowned upon by God but actually cherished for the opportunity it presents for deeper union with the creatures he loves. If so, the soul itself should not linger on feelings of guilt over its moments of unfaithfulness, but rather it should feel excitement over the potential these moments possess. 

While not being an evil thing in this view, the soul’s inattentiveness is admittedly a symptom of its poverty. The poor cry “Return,” and quoting The Psalmist on page 87, Bernard says, “The Lord… [hears] the longing of the poor.” This helps us interpret a wrinkle in Bernard’s text that is initially difficult to reconcile with the Word’s gracious response to the soul’s unfaithfulness as outlined in the paragraph preceding this one. In at least three places[5] in Sermon Seventy-Four Bernard describes the length of the Word’s departure as being in accordance with what the soul “deserves.” On page 89 he says that the Word’s “going is a little while compared to what we deserve.” And again, “He comes sooner than we deserve, but not as soon as we desire.”

To the modern mind the word “deserves” conjures up images of reward and punishment, and the idea follows that the length of the Word’s absence is in some way related to human goodness or lack thereof. This would challenge the conclusion previously drawn that the soul’s inattentiveness is not a bad thing per se, but just an aspect of its finitude. But when we understand that the soul’s blessed inattentiveness flows somehow from a state of inner poverty (finitude), then we can interpret “deserves” in Bernard’s thought to mean simply that which the soul is capable of receiving. Just as created humanity cannot receive God’s kiss but only the kiss of his kiss, so the unperfected soul cannot bear the Word’s continuous presence. The duration of the Word’s presence lengthens each time it is called as the soul deepens and moves toward full intimate union with the Word (it must be noted that Sermon Seventy-Four does not give its readers a clear idea of what uninterrupted intimacy with God might look like. As stated in my introduction, union with God cannot mean union in an ontological sense, as humanity in Bernard’s thinking never, even in eternity, receives God’s direct kiss, but only the kiss’ kiss).

Ironically, when the Word does come, Bernard describes its coming in terms that totally overwhelm human poverty. In short, the Word does not limit the fullness of its substance according to what the soul can receive, but it respects the soul’s capacity instead by how often its fullness comes. When the Word comes, it can’t help but sweep upon the sleeping soul with all the life and power it contains (90).[6] The soul itself rumbles and wakes up. As stated previously, the soul knows that the Word has “left” as soon as it senses an inward movement away from attentiveness (92.)

Everything within this, Bernard’s first and longest account of where the Word “comes” from and “goes” to, is compatible with the Christian doctrine of God’s transcendence, even if God’s transcendence appears to get swallowed up within his immanence. The two opposite attributes of God are mutually compatible. But in his second and much shorter answer to his central question about the Word’s movement, which we now move into, Bernard offers his readers a portrait of God that is more raw and earthy. It as almost as if Bernard gets so carried away with himself in his own longing for the bridegroom that he forgets the logic of theology in favour of what he “knows” in his heart.

If Bernard’s first answer streams chiefly from the soul’s desire, his second answer is concerned primarily with God’s desire. Bernard recounts the story of when Jesus acted as though he would walk past his disciples who were sailing in a boat across the Sea of Galilee.[7] According to Bernard, Jesus did this “not because he intended to” really walk away from his disciples, but because he longed to hear them call for him. When dealing with souls, the Word “makes to go past, desiring to be held back, and seems to go away, wishing to be recalled” (88). Those wishing to maintain a theology of God’s self-sufficiency might be quick to dismiss Bernard’s portrait of Divine desire as being somehow figurative, but clearly more love can pour from the text when all its images are permitted to stand by themselves in their apparent paradox and contradiction. One is led by Bernard to the tantalizing portrait of a God who actively plays with human sensitivities simply because he likes hearing humanity express its affection for him. Some may argue that this makes God look co-dependent, but surely the holiness behind God’s desires purifies his neediness of the destructive and controlling tendencies that so often characterize human neediness.

The most urgent question that can emerge from any spiritual text, of course, is always the one directed at the reader. Bernard ends sermon seventy-four with the poignant pledge, “As long as I live the word ‘return’, the word of recall for the recall of Word, will be on my lips.” Then he gets even more desperate: “I will not cease to call him, begging him to return.” The person who reads sermon seventy-four should ask himself whether or not he also burns with Bernard’s holy impatience, because the cry “Return!” is apparently not only healthy for the soul, but it is music to the ears of the Word. If there is any truth in Bernard’s second account of the Word’s “movement,” then the Word has made itself vulnerable to the soul just as the soul is vulnerable to the Word. Such mutual vulnerability can intensify intimacy between the soul and the Word (89) in the same way worldly lovers are woven together by their interdependency. This intimacy brings salvation as it purifies and deepens the soul, preparing it for fruitful union with its creator God.

Rachel Davies is editor of the spirituality section here at Spectrum.

[1]All in-text references are taken from Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs IV, translated by Irene Edmonds, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1980).

[2]Song of Songs 1:2

[3]Edward Howells, Bernard of Clairvaux: Some Notes, (unpublished), 5.

[4]Bernard does not specify that he is offering two answers, but the bulk of his discourse seems easily divisible between that which reads in accordance with his theology of the Word’s substance and that which seems to stand in contrast to it. Hence, Bernard appears to offer two different answers to his initial question.

[5]Once on page 87 and twice on page 89.

[6]If God could appear as anything less than God, than he wouldn’t be God.

[7]Mark 6:47-52


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