By Mark Fugitt
At first glance, it is hard to imagine reading a collection of sermons on the Song of Songs from a celibate, medieval monk. Yet, in this volume, 20 of the 86 sermons on this scriptural book reveal Bernard of Clairvaux as a brilliant and transcending mind. He is a paradox too: everything gentle and academic yet clearly assuming many of the predominant medieval perspectives on theology. Bernard composed Sermones super Cantica canticorum around 1136 in the middle of his life as a Cistercian monk.
Bernard (1090 - 20 August 1153) is known today for a few key accomplishments amounted during his many years of service to the Roman Catholic Church and his Cistercian order. In many circles, he is remembered for his fervent preaching and advocacy for the second Crusade (1146-1149). With the first Crusade a fading memory by Bernard’s adulthood, church authorities worried the whole movement risked being a one-time event with waning public interest. Bernard took it upon himself to rally public and theological support for the new venture, thus establishing a precedent that would continue far beyond his life.
Bernard is also known for his lasting reforms of the Cistercian Order that radiated out of Clairvaux and impacted all of Western monasticism from the lowest monk to the papal office. He fought against drifting theology and heresy inside and outside his own ranks. His most helpful work for modern believers is a product of these efforts to champion the Scripture study he used to combat false doctrine. This return to Scripture and his exultations of the purity of piety are showcased in his work on the Song of Songs, and it is no doubt why it emerged as his most famous. While other Orders became more focused on missions, social justice efforts, church discipline, or Crusading, Bernard produced expository sermons. Though occasionally laden with some of the biases and perspectives a modern reader might expect,back to the text he went. Bernard of Clairvaux invited his humble cloister to journey with him on this particularly lengthy trip through the proportionally edgy book of Song of Songs. Sadly, the collection of sermons remained unfinished, as he died before it was completed.
The first 20 sermons focus primarily on the major concepts of spousal love, ecstasy, and union of God among other themes. Regarding the former, the editor of one edition writes that Bernard believes that “the absences of the Spouse become a purgatory of love.”Thus, the monk articulates the literal reality of the Biblical text while still allowing for real life application to celibates like himself and his students who might question the need for studying this book at all. Instead of dwelling on what is missing (i.e. spousal relationships), life for the monk became a trial of purity to be rewarded in the eternal.
Bernard also introduces us to Cistercian mysticism with the discussion of how ecstasy leads further into the discipline of understanding God better through the purification of the soul. “There is nothing of sense or imagination in this communing of God and the soul.”Yes, scholasticism is vital and Scripture study, self-deprivation, and prayer are profitable, yet the true understanding of God and resting in satisfying ecstasy with Him is an elusive and undefinable thing. Like love itself, there are no true words to describe the union of God and man.
In the opening sermon, Bernard outlines his desire to mine the contents of this piece of wisdom literature as he has done in previous teachings on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. He further discusses his audience as being the brothers who are growing in their faith and understanding of Scripture. It is written by a monk for an audience of monks. Bernard also notes that what he is preaching on Song of Songs is not an entry level effort by making a comparison to Paul’s teachings on the difference between preaching “milk” and preaching “bread” and “meat.” Thus, Bernard requires a hefty awareness of theology and doctrine of his audience – especially as he makes Christological notations throughout.
The use of an allegorical hermeneutic is applied throughout, and one good example of this allegorical interpretation describes how a text about a bride’s kiss can directly link to the union of two members of the Trinity:
So, therefore, let the bride about to receive the twofold grace of this most holy kiss set her two lips in readiness, her reason for the gift of insight, her will for that of wisdom, so that overflowing with joy in the fullness of this kiss, she may be privileged to hear the words: “Your lips are moist with grace, for God has blessed you forever.”
Thus the Father, when he kisses the Son, pours into him the plentitude of the mysteries of his divine being, breathing forth love’s deep delight, as symbolized in the words of the psalm: “Day to day pours forth speech.”
Possibly because of his monastic background or possibly because of the medieval allegorical tradition, Bernard deflates all sensual innuendo from the words of the biblical author and infuses them with supernatural, spiritual meaning. In this particular example, the discussion turns to God the Son with a very Christo-centric reference as well as a vague connection to the writings in Psalms.
Bernard does note that this study should not be all allegory when he makes the pastoral shift at the very end of sermon 17 from interpretation to application:
And now that we have passed through the shadow-land of allegories, it is time to explore the great plains of mortal truths.Our faith has been strengthened, let our lives reveal its influence; our intellects have been enlightened, let them prescribe the right behavior. For they have sound sense who do this, if they direct their actions and understanding toward the praise and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever.
Bernard is not slow to find direct connections to other Scriptures in the text of Song of Songs. In one instance he quotes from Romans 5:5 and connects the Pauline idea of God’s love being poured out onto believers as what the text in Song of Songs is referring to in 1:2 which states “your name is oil poured out.” The volume weaves in and out of passages from the New Testament and Psalms as if they are as clearly printed in Song of Songs as its own verses. Bernard seems to care little to explain his hermeneutics, he is too hastily bent on preaching the love of God demonstrated through Christ. It is bold writing that calls for a response as it tells a homiletic story throughout.
Of all the biblical books perfectly fitting the medieval understanding of Scripture, Song of Songs may be paramount. In contrast to today’s celebrity pastors preaching a six-week series on the book for shock value, Bernard has done something else entirely. With all their emphasis on the allegorical and mystic union between God and humanity, medievals like Bernard are perfectly equipped to look deeper at this particular work and consider what might have caused it to be included in the canon of Wisdom Literature in the first place. Regardless of one’s personal interpretation, there is no doubt that Bernard offers a worthy alternative at many junctures. His hermeneutics are fascinating even when unsubstantiated and offer invaluable insight from a historical theology standpoint.
The sermons move very slowly in their analysis of the text itself. In fact, it is so slow that at times, the sermons appear topical, and the actual text is almost obscured for its brevity. It is also just as common that the supporting texts take the prime attention of each individual sermon. Sermon 20 begins with I Corinthians 16:22 and the words of the Apostle Paul in fact. Yet, with a particular literary style, Bernard always brings the narrative back to the Song of Songs like a clever scholar’s boomerang.
Believing all Scripture was for all people, Bernard sought a new meaning in the text. Far from requiring the celibate and single audience to either refrain from studying the book or to read it in frustration, Bernard approaches the subject with practical and judicial attention. Bernard’s work should be a required background perspective for any pastor attempting a rapid sermon series through this biblical book. It is his delicate sensitivity to the nuances of the love of God that allow him to explain his own devotion to the one who has granted him the same affection. Forgoing earthly passions, Bernard calls on all his hearers to drink deep from the pools of God’s love as he sees it clearly personified in the poetic words of Song of Songs.
This includes a more personal journey as he dealt with the death of his brother in his reflections in the 26thsermon, though it is outside the prevue of this particular volume.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs IinThe Works of Bernard of Clairvaux,Volume Two, trans. Kilian Walsh (Spencer, Mass.: Cistercian Publications, 1971), xxiii.
Bernard references Psalm 44:3 and Psalm 18:3 respectively, 50.
This sentence drips with C. S. Lewis undertones that could lead to an interesting comparative story indeed.