The roots of heart religion – Bernard of Clairvaux

Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:

Bernard (1090-1153)

Probably best known today for hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” Bernard of Clairvaux was by any measure a formative figure in medieval devotion.

A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.

Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’”

His Sermons on the Song of Songs take the sensuous, erotic metaphors of the poems and completely flip them around, using them to appeal against the passions of the flesh, and to describe the joys of spiritual intimacy with God. Here the Bridegroom is Jesus, and the Bride, the soul of the Christian: “What a close and intimate relation this grace produces between the Divine Word and the soul, and what confidence follows from that intimacy, you may well imagine. I believe that a soul in such condition may say without fear, ‘My Beloved is mine. . . .’”

Pastor Daniel Harrell comments, “Bernard insisted that Song of Songs was really a song about the mutual exchange of amorous devotion and desire between the King of kings and his Bride, the church.” He preached for 18 years on the book, spending eight whole sermons on chapter 1, verse 2 alone: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.”[1]

In his fourth sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard elaborated on the verse “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” with a reflection on our progress toward intimacy with God, in which we move from the kiss of the feet (the ascetic or “purgative” way), to the kiss of the hand (the “illuminative” way of knowledge), to the kiss of the mouth (the “unitive” – the final mystical goal of personal union with God). Here again, ascetic discipline is the first step, the baby step, in the affective path toward union: “The first is the sign of genuine conversion of life, the second is accorded to those making progress, the third is the experience of only a few of the more perfect.””[2]

[1] Daniel Harrell, “Preaching Bernard of Clairvaux: First Kisses and the Ecstasy of Worship,”

[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, Sermon 20, section 4.

One response to “The roots of heart religion – Bernard of Clairvaux

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