Just a few years after Robert of Molesmes left the Black Monks and journeyed a short distance to found a New Monastery, with a few monastic companions, at a marshy place outside Dijon called Cîteaux, thus giving his new monastic enterprise their name – Cistercians – it seemed as if the venture would fail. The new monks, seeking a more authentic manner of living the Rule of St Benedict, were finding the going tough, and numbers were not improving. Into this rather dismal scene a young Burgundian nobleman, Bernard, came knocking on the door of the new monastery – not alone, but with a significant entourage of family members – seeking to enter and live this new life. The new monastery, and the Cistercian way, never looked back, and Bernard, soon to be sent out from Cîteaux as a young abbot to found another monastery at Clairvaux, became a sort of new founder, with the three Holy Founders, and began the expansion of the Order throughout Europe.
St Bernard it is who begins the written account of his chapter discourses on the book of Sacred Scripture which was to become most precious to the Cistercians, The Song of Songs. The eighty six discourses which we have – Bernard came nowhere near completing his preaching on the Song, but was cut off, by death, in the middle of Chapter 2 – demonstrate in a full sense St Bernard’s teaching, from the central theme of union of the soul with Christ, to the developing Cistercian anthropology, to the role of the Church herself in the history of salvation, to the details of the monastic life specific to Cistercian monasteries, to the various virtues which must be pursued by the monastic. Others would follow who would take up the task and bring it to the completion of spiritual Cistercian commentary – John of Forde and Gilbert of Hoyland in particular – but Bernard’s achievement remains unique.
On this solemnity of our Father, St Bernard of Clairvaux, we happily share with you some of his most moving words from his chapter discourses on the Song of Songs. Not for nothing was he called the last of the Fathers, honoured thus by Pope Pius XII, confirming him with the title of Mellifluous Doctor (The teacher whose words flow like honey!) Doctor Mellifluus (May 24, 1953) | PIUS XII
Bernard has left us a vast store of wisdom as he, along with the other Cistercian Fathers, sought to teach in depth the single great search of the soul for Jesus Christ, and communion with him. This was, of course, and is, the entire purpose of the Cistercian life: to give oneself completely to the constant search for God, to come to know God, and to come to know oneself in the process.
On the Kiss of the Mouth. There is no point to Cistercian life if the monastic is not invited to, and seeks above all, union with Christ and conformity with Christ. Famously quoting St Paul, the life should lead to the formation of Christ in us – conforming which is our work, and transforming, which is Christ’s in us.
Felicitous, however, is this kiss of participation that enables us not only to know God but to love the Father, who is never fully known until he is perfectly loved. Are there not surely some among you who at certain times perceive deep within their hearts the Spirit of the Son exclaiming: “Abba, Father”? Let that man who feels that he is moved by the same Spirit as the Son, let him know that he too is loved by the Father. Whoever he be let him be of good heart, let his confidence never waver. Living in the Spirit of the Son, let such a soul recognize herself as a daughter of the Father, a bride or even a sister of the Son, for you will find that the soul who enjoys this privilege is called by either of these names. Nor will it cost me much to prove it, the proof is ready to hand. They are the names by which the Bridegroom addresses her: “I come into my garden, my sister, my bride.” She is his sister because they have the one Father; his bride because joined in the one Spirit. For if marriage according to the flesh constitutes two in one body, why should not a spiritual union be even more efficacious in joining two in one spirit? And hence anyone who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. But we have witness too from the Father, how lovingly and how courteously he gives her the name of daughter, and nevertheless invites her as his daughter-in-law to the sweet caresses of his Son: “Listen, daughter, pay careful attention: forget your nation and your ancestral home, then the king will fall in love with your beauty.” See then from whom this bride demands a kiss. O soul called to holiness, make sure that your attitude is respectful, for he is the Lord your God, who perhaps ought not to be kissed, but rather adored with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen. (On the Song of Songs, Sermon 8)
On Humility. Elsewhere, in his treatise On the Steps of Humility and Pride, St Bernard deals at length with this topic, so central to the Rule of St Benedict and to the putting on of the monastic life (The Holy Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 7). But the topic of humility can never be far from Cistercian thought and conversation, and so it finds its way into these central sermons on the Song of Songs. The context is important here: St Bernard has begun to introduce the themes of self-knowledge and knowledge of God, and growth in humility – how one lives according to truth and not simply according to one’s own plans and purposes – is central to this, indeed, indispensable.
Do you see that humility makes us righteous? I say humility and not humiliation. How many are humiliated who are not humble! There are some who meet humiliation with rancour, some with patience, some again with cheerfulness. The first kind are culpable, the second are innocent, the last just. Innocence is indeed a part of justice, but only the humble possess it perfectly. He who can say: “It was good for me that you humiliated me,” is truly humble. The man who endures it unwillingly cannot say this; still less the man who murmurs. To neither of these do I promise grace on the grounds of being humiliated, although the two are vastly different from each other, since the one possesses his own soul in his patience, while the other perishes in his murmuring. For even if only one of them does merit anger, neither of them merits grace, because it is not to the humiliated but to the humble that God gives grace. But he is humble who turns humiliation into humility, and he is the one who says to God: “It was good for me that you humiliated me.” What is merely endured with patience is good for nobody, it is an obvious embarrassment. On the other hand we know that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Hence even when we fast we are told to anoint our head with oil and wash our face, that our good work might be seasoned with spiritual joy and our holocaust made fat. For it is the possession of a joyful and genuine humility that alone enables us to receive grace. But the humility that is due to necessity or constraint, that we find in the patient man who keeps his self-possession, cannot win God’s favour because of the accompanying sadness, although it will preserve his life because of patience. Since he does not accept humiliation spontaneously or willingly, one cannot apply to such a person the scriptural commendation that the humble man may glory in his exaltation.
If you wish for an example of a humble man glorying with all due propriety, and truly worthy of glory, take Paul when he says that gladly will he glory in his weaknesses that the power of Christ may dwell within him. He does not say that he will bear his weaknesses patiently, but he will even glory in them, and that willingly, thus proving that to him it is good that he is humiliated, and that it is not sufficient that one keep his self-possession by patience when he is humbled; to receive grace one must embrace humiliation willingly. You may take as a general rule that everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. It is significant that not every kind of humility is to be exalted, but that which the will embraces; it must be free of compulsion or sadness. Nor on the contrary must everyone who is exalted be humiliated, but only he who exalts himself, who pursues a course of vain display. Therefore it is not the one who is humiliated who will be exalted, but he who voluntarily humiliates himself; it is merited by this attitude of will. Even suppose that the occasion of humiliation is supplied by another, by means of insults, damages or sufferings, the victim who determines to accept all these for God’s sake with a quiet, joyful conscience, cannot properly be said to be humiliated by anyone but himself. (On the Song of Songs, Sermon 34)
On the right ordering of love within ourselves. There can be no doubt that the Cistercians, in their very positive view of the human person, saw the ongoing battle of fleshly desire and the downward pull of the world as being joined in the desire for love coming to completion within the individual. The Cistercian Fathers see the triumph of love in the person not as an ideal but as a reality to be striven for and grasped. This raises their spiritual theology to a new level: the person is redeemed because they are intended for the vocation to love, and in discovering and responding to this vocation they seek out the Lover, Christ their Redeemer. The union of the individual soul with Christ underpins all of the seeking done in this life, and each discernment and decision is one which either contributes to this goal being achieved, or diverts the individual from the singular path towards union. This wonderful passage should be read on several levels: Bernard speaks about himself, of course, the master who reflects always on his own lived experience and invites us to do likewise; the one who attracts others to his monastic company and family, and so is himself a marvellous vocations director – he invites others to engage completely in this search for love rightly ordered in themselves, waiting for them in the Cistercian life; and it applies always to the one who, in whatever way of life they find themselves, desires God above all things, and wishes to see God the focus of all they do.
Give me a man who loves God before all things and with his whole being, self and neighbour in proportion to their love of God, the enemy as one who perhaps some day will love, this physical parets very deeply because of the natural bond, but his spiritual guides more generously because of grace. In like manner let him deal with other things of God too with an ordered love, disregarding the earth, esteeming heaven, using this world as if not using it, and discriminating between the things used and those enjoyed with an intimate savouring in his mind. Let him pay but passing attention to things that pass, as existing need demands. Let him embrace eternal things with an eternal desire. Give me such a man, I repeat, and I shall boldly proclaim him wise, because he appreciates things for what they really are, because he can truthfully and confidently boast and say: ‘he set love in order in me’. But where is he, and when shall these be? In tears I ask. How long shall we smell and not taste, gazing toward the fatherland and not taking possession, sighing for it, saluting from afar? O Truth, fatherland of exiles, end of their exile! I see you, but held fast by the flesh I may not enter. Filthy with sin, I am not fit to be admitted. O Wisdom, reaching mightily from end to end in establishing and controlling things, and arranging all things sweetly by enriching the affections and setting them in order! Guide our actions as your eternal truth requires, that each of us may confidently boast in you and say: ‘he set love in order in me’. For you are the strength of God and the Wisdom of God, Christ the Church’s bridegroom, our Lord and God who is blessed for ever. Amen. (On the Song of Songs, Sermon 50)
Bernard hymns Love! The highpoint of this sermon hears Bernard immerse himself in his principal theme – the love of the Bridegroom for the Bride, the love of Christ for the soul. This is the driving force of Cistercian spiritual theology: the very search of the individual for Christ is begun in the deep planted loving desire which is part of the human person’s createdness. Love impels, love supports, love completes, and is fulfilled in union with the person of Love.
Love is sufficient for itself: it gives pleasure to itself and for its own sake. It is its own merit and its 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 beginning 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 favour in some similar way. 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. 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 is the bride; this love is the property only of the couple. No-one else can share it, not even a son.
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. (On the Song of Songs, Sermon 83)
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St Bernard of Clairveaux, pray for your Cistercian family and for us.