home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted November 30, 2005

Book: Bernard of Clairvaux
Foreword by Vinita Hampton Wright
Harper San Francisco, CA, 2005, pp. 146

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

When I was in my twenties, I wrote a little essay, “The ABCs of Delight,” about how a person comes to delight in God. I don’t know if the piece is still in my files; it probably was tedious and not very good. But as I read some of Bernard’s material about loving God, I remembered my own struggles, for the past three decades, to articulate the soul’s pilgrimage toward God. I write and edit for a living now, and the only reason I can, in good conscience, keep adding to the mountain of books out there is that, from time to time, we do get the words right, and those words do make a difference in the world. When I read Bernard’s prose — his urgency for people to care about their souls, his patience in lining out the concepts — I feel the weight and the glory of my responsibility to be a wordsmith in this age far removed from Bernard’s world.

His living and effective word is a kiss; not a meeting of lips, which can sometimes be deceptive about the state of the heart, but a full infusion of joys, a revelation of secrets, a wonderful and inseparable mingling of the light from above and the mind on which it is shed, which, when it is joined with God, is one spirit with him.

It’s impressive that someone like Bernard of Clairvaux dared to take on a subject like the Song of Songs. He was a vowed celibate, and his culture was not at all comfortable with sex. Nevertheless, he went straight to the heart of what it means to be in love, to ache with desire for another, and he used those natural yearnings to bring God close to us in a stunning fashion. It’s as simple as this: God is our lover. All our desire is unfulfilled until it is filled by divine love, an that filling goes beyond any other form of satisfaction.

One of my chief frustrations about creative work in the American landscape is how it has been crippled by a warped understanding of sexuality. We waver constantly between repression and fear of sex and the sheer worship and mutilation of it. The more I work as an artist, the more evident it becomes to me that sexuality and spirituality arise from a common passion, and each informs the other as the person proceeds toward integrity of body and soul. And so I am quite grateful that Bernard of Clairvaux allowed all those years ago, for sexuality to be a teacher about spirituality. Like so many others, he could have avoided sexuality altogether and demonized it. Instead he discerned its proper location in the life of a person who is moving toward unity with a loving God:

These are the Lord’s words. You cannot disbelieve them. Let them believe what they do not know from experience, so that by their faith they may in the future have the reward of experience.

Bernard is one of the people in this universe who hold on to faith that I do not yet possess, and perhaps this is one of the most crucial roles of a saint. He has journeyed farther toward God than I have, and he assures me that if I simply keep moving and following my longing after Divine Love, I will in fact arrive at it for real. This is help and hope that I cannot live without.

An Excerpt from the Book:

On the Kiss

When I reflect, as I often do, on the ardor with which the patriarchs longed for the incarnation of Christ, I am pierced with sorrow and shame. And now I can scarcely contain my tears, so ashamed am I of the lukewarmness and lethargy of the present times. For which of us is filled with joy at the realization of this grace as the holy men of old were moved to desire by the promise of it?

Soon now we shall be rejoicing at the celebration of his birth. But would that it were really for his birth! How I pray that that burning desire and longing in the hearts of these holy men of old may be aroused in my by these words: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” [Song of Sgs. 1:2]. In those days a spiritual man could sense in the Spirit how great would be the grace released by the touch of those lips. For that reason, speaking in the desire prompted by the Spirit, he said, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” desiring with all his heart that he would not be deprived of a share in that sweetness.

The good men of those days could say, “Of what use to me are the words the prophets have uttered? Rather, let him who is beautiful beyond the children of men kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. I am no longer content with what Moses says, for he sounds to me like someone who cannot speak well” [Exod. 4:10]. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips” [Isa. 6:5]. Jeremiah is a child who does not know how to speak. All the prophets are empty to me.

But he, he of whom they speak, let him speak to me. Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. Let him not speak to me in them or through them, for they are “a watery darkness, a dense cloud: [Ps. 18:11]. But let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth, whose gracious presence and eloquence of wonderful teaching causes a “spring of living water” to well up in me to eternal life [John 4:14]. Shall I not find that a richer grace is poured out upon me from him whom the Father has anointed with the oil of gladness more than all his companions, if he will deign to kiss me with the kiss of his mouth? His living and effective word is a kiss; not meeting of lips, which can sometimes be deceptive about the state of the heart, but a full infusion of joys, a revelation of secrets, a wonderful and inseparable mingling of the light from above and the mind on which is shed, which, when it is joined with God, is one spirit with him.

It is with good reason, then, that I have nothing to do with dreams and visions and reject figures and mysteries; even the beauty of angels seems tedious to me. For my Jesus outshines them so far in his beauty and loveliness. That is why I ask him, not any other, angel or man, to kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.

I do not presume to think that I shall be kissed by his mouth. That is the unique felicity and singular prerogative of the humanity he assumed. But, more humbly, I ask to be kissed by the kiss of his mouth, which is shared by many, those who can say, “Indeed, from his fullness we have all received.

Listen carefully here. The mouth that kisses signifies the Word who assumes human nature; the flesh that is assumed is the recipient of the kiss; the kiss, which is of both giver and receiver, is the Person who is of both, the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. For this reason, none of the saints presumed to say, “Let him kiss me with his mouth,” but “with the kiss of his mouth”, thus acknowledging that prerogative of him on whom uniquely once and for all the Mouth of the Word was pressed, when the whole fullness of the divinity gave itself to him in the body.

O happy kiss, and wonder of amazing self-humbling, which is not a mere meeting of lips, but the union of God with man. The touch of lips signifies the bringing together of souls. But his conjoining of natures unites the human with the divine and makes peace between earth and heaven. “For he himself is our peace, who made the two one” [Eph. 2:14]. This was the kiss for which the holy men of old longed, the more so because they foresaw the joy and exultation of finding their treasure in him and discovering all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in him, and they longed to receive of his fullness.

I think that what I have said pleases you. But listen to another meaning.

Table of Contents:

On Conversation
On Loving God
Sermons on The Song of Songs
Selections from His Letters