Tag Archives: Song of Songs

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.’” Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – early church: Origen & Augustine


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo, playing hot potato with his heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following introductory material from C S Lewis herehere, and here, the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis opens its tour of medieval heart religion with a peek into Origen, Augustine, and other early Church Fathers:

Origen, early fathers

Although affective piety was “a mood and form of expression which advanced over all of Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries,” (ATK: 130-131), the writers of that period, from Anselm to Bernard to Julian to Dante, were merely passing on a tendency from the early church, described by Robert Wilken: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Even in the most detailed theologizing of the early and medieval fathers, “The goal was not only understanding but love.”[1]

The very first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the believer’s relationship with God—erotic emotions and all. In Origen’s reading, the song’s male lover is God or Christ and its female lover is Israel, the church, or the believer. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and a long line of medieval interpreters would pick up Origen’s approach to the Song of Songs, using similar sexual language of our desire for God. As Gregory mused, “‘what force of love exists in the bedchamber of the Bridegroom.’” Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part II


Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Augustine: a pioneer of heart religion

This is continued from Religion of the heart – part I:

Heart religion is also rooted deeply in almost every stream of historical Christianity

Now by starting from today in this brief talk, and then moving quickly back to the 17th and 18th centuries, I don’t want to overlook another important fact: critics of heart religion are, let’s say, “historically outnumbered” in the church. In other words, heart religion is rooted deeply in historical Christianity. Let’s consider for a moment the early church:

Wilken: history of Christian thought cannot be told without the history of Christian love.

We often teach the early history of our faith as if nothing but the intellectual development of doctrine mattered. It’s nothing but a litany of heresies, apologists, and church councils. And while these things are important, they are in some respects only the surface of the story. People don’t get upset about heresies and arguments unless these are about something that matters to their lives. And so I was delighted a few years ago to read the wonderful book by the University of Virginia’s Robert Louis Wilken called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This is the history of Christian thought done right—done with a full awareness of the heart of the matter, if you’ll excuse the expression. So, here’s Wilken, introducing his book by talking about what the early Christians were doing when they had all of those theological debates I mentioned: Continue reading

Play me that hot Puritan love song


The Puritans had, ahem, robust attitudes toward sexuality (“They were not prudes. . . . They were intense lovers” says historian Harry Stout). The Bible’s R-rated book, the Song of Songs, was a favorite of theirs. I checked into this in a newsletter a while back:

Play Me That Hot Puritan Love Song
A little-read book of the Bible reminds us of the astonishing intimacy we enjoy with Christ
Chris Armstrong

If you grew up Jewish in a certain time, there was a forbidden fruit in your Bible. You knew this book was in there. You whispered about it with your friends. You probably snuck a peek when you were sure dad and Rabbi weren’t looking. It was as canonical as any other book. In fact Rabbi Akiba had said, “If all the sacred writings are holy,” then this one was “the holy of holies” (Mishnah, Yadayim 3:5). But you wouldn’t be allowed to read it out in the open (some sources say) until your thirtieth birthday. Continue reading