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
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
I think that what I have said pleases you. But listen to another meaning.
Table of Contents:
On Loving God
Sermons on The Song of Songs
Selections from His Letters