Bernard Song of Songs 7
I can see now that I involved myself in more work when I thoughtlessly laid myself open to your questions! After I had introduced the subject of the first kiss I went on to explain, rather protractedly, the spiritual feet of God with their signification and names. Now you proceed to ask about the hand to which the second kiss is given. Well -- I submit! I must try to comply with your wishes; and even more than you wish; I shall treat not only of one hand but of two, each under a particular name. One I shall call liberality because it gives generously; the other fortitude because it powerfully defends whatever it gives. One who will not be found ungrateful must kiss each of these hands, in order to acknowledge and praise God as the giver and conserver of all-good things.
I should think that by now I have said enough about these two kisses, so we shall pass on to the third.
2. "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," she said. Now who is this "she"? The bride. But why bride? Because she is the soul thirsting for God. In order to clarify for you the characteristics of the bride, I shall deal briefly with the diverse affective relationships between persons. Fear motivates a slave's attitude to his master, gain that of wage-earner to his employer, the learner is attentive to his teacher, the son is respectful to his father. But the one who asks for a kiss, she is a lover. Among all the natural endowments of man love holds first place, especially when it is directed to God, who is the source whence it comes. No sweeter names can be found to embody that sweet interflow of affections between the Word and the soul, than bridegroom and bride. Between these all things are equally shared, there are no selfish reservations, nothing that causes division. They share the same inheritance, the same table, the same home, the same marriage-bed, they are flesh of each other's flesh. "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.” The bride for her part is bidden to "forget her nation and her ancestral home," so that the bridegroom may fall in love with her beauty. Therefore if a love relationship is the special and outstanding characteristic of the bride and groom, it is not unfitting to call the soul that loves God a bride. Now one who asks for a kiss is in love. It is not for liberty that she asks, nor for an award, not for an inheritance nor even knowledge, but for a kiss. It is obviously the request of a bride who is chaste, who breathes forth a love that is holy, a love whose ardor she cannot entirely disguise. For note how abruptly she bursts into speech. About to ask a great favor from a great personage, she does not resort, as others do, to the arts of seduction, she makes no devious or fawning solicitations for the prize that she covets. There is no preamble, no attempt to conciliate favor. No, but with a spontaneous outburst from the abundance of her heart, direct even to the point of boldness, she says: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth."
3. Does not this seem to you to indicate that she wished to say: "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you."
Her love is surely chaste when it seeks the person whom she loves, and not some other thing of his. It is a holy love, the impulse of an upright spirit rather than of carnal desire. And it is an ardent love, blinded by its own excess to the majesty of the beloved. For what are the facts? He is the one at whose glance the earth trembles, and does she demand that he give her a kiss? Can she be possibly drunk? Absolutely drunk! And the reason? It seems most probable that when she uttered those passionate words she had just come out from the cellar of wine; afterwards she boasts of having been there. David in his turn cried out to God concerning people such as the bride: "They shall be inebriated with the plenty of your house; and you will make them drink of the torrent of your pleasure." How great this power of love: what great confidence and freedom of spirit! What is more manifest than that fear is driven out by perfect love!
4. There is a certain modesty in the fact that she directs that utterance of hers not to the Bridegroom himself but to others, as if he were absent: "Let him kiss me," she exclaimed, "with the kiss of his mouth." A sublime favor is petitioned, and hence there is need that the petitioner should be commended by a becoming modesty in the manner of the request. One who seeks access to the interior of the home goes round to the intimate friends or members of the household to attain what he desires. In this present instance who might these people be? In my opinion they are the holy angels who wait on us as we pray, who offer to God the petitions and desires of men, at least of those men whose prayer they recognize to be sincere, free from anger and dissension. We find proof of this in the words of the angel to Tobias: "When you prayed with tears and buried the dead, and left your dinner and hid the dead by day in your house, and buried them by night, I offered your prayer to the Lord." I feel that you are fully persuaded of this from many other testimonies of Scripture. That the holy angels do condescend to mingle with us when we praise God in psalmody is very clearly stated by the Psalmist: "The princes went before, joined with the singers, in the midst of young damsels playing on timbrels." He also said: "I will sing praise to you in the sight of the angels."
For this reason it makes me sad to see some of you deep in the throes of sleep during the night office, to see that instead of showing reverence for those princely citizens of heaven you appear like corpses. When you are fervent they respond with eagerness and are filled with delight in participating in your solemn offices. What I fear is that one day, repelled by our sloth, they will angrily depart. Too late then shall we remorsefully cry out to God: "You have turned my friends away from me and made me repulsive to them;" or again: "You have turned my friends and neighbors from me, my acquaintances from my misery;" or yet again: "They that were near me stood afar off, and they that sought my soul used violence." It is certain indeed that if the good spirits withdraw from us, we shall not easily withstand the obsessions of the evil ones. And so I must warn the slothful: "Cursed be he who does the work of God half-heartedly." It is not I but the Lord who says: "Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth." Be mindful then of these angelic princes when you go to pray or to sing the psalms; stand with disciplined reverence and be proud that your angels continuously see the face of the Father. Since they are all spirits whose work is service, sent to help those who will be the heirs of salvation, they bear our prayers to God in heaven and return laden with graces for us. Let us make use of the service of those in whose company our lot is cast, that by the mouths of children and babes in arms praise may be made perfect. Let us invite them: "Sing praises to God, sing praises!" And let us hear them in turn responding: "Sing praises to our king, sing praises!"
5. Joined therefore as you are in songs of praise with heaven's own singers, since you too are citizens like all the saints, and part of God's household, sing wisely. As food is sweet to the palate, so does a psalm delight the heart. But the soul that is sincere and wise will not fail to chew the psalm with the teeth as it were of the mind, because if he swallows it in a lump, without proper mastication, the palate will be cheated of the delicious flavor, sweeter even than honey that drips from the comb. Let us with the Apostles offer a honey-comb at the table of the Lord in the heavenly banquet. As honey flows from the comb so should devotion flow from the words; otherwise if one attempts to assimilate them without the condiment of the Spirit "the written letters bring death." But if like St. Paul you sing praises not only with the spirit but with the mind as well, you too will experience the truth of Jesus' statement: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life;" the truth too of the words of Wisdom: "My spirit is sweet above honey."
6. Doing this your soul shall be delighted in fatness, you will find your holocaust acceptable; you will conciliate the king, give pleasure to his princes and win the favor of the whole assembly above. And when they smell this sweet fragrance in the heavens, they will surely say of you too: "What is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, breathing of myrrh and frankincense and every perfume the merchant knows?"
"The princes of Judah," the Psalmist exclaimed, "are their leaders, the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali;" the angelic princes are the leaders of those whose work is the praise of God; who live lives of continence, lives of contemplation. Our angelic princes know how pleasing to their King are the praises of psalmody, the fortitude of chaste souls, the singleness of purpose of contemplatives; and they are eager to discover in us these and other first-fruits of the Spirit, which are none other than the first and purest fruits of wisdom. You are not unaware that in Hebrew the word Judah means one who praises or makes acknowledgment, the word Zebulun, a fortified dwelling, and Naphtali, a swift hind, whose powers of agile leaping signify the ecstatic ardors of the contemplative mind. As the hind penetrates the wood's dark avenues, so does the contemplative spirit penetrate the obscure meanings of things. And finally we have God's own words: "Whoever offers praise, his sacrifice honors me."
7. Now if praise is unseemly in a sinner's mouth, do you not see how entirely necessary is the virtue of continence, if you are not to let sin reign in your mortal bodies? Nevertheless, continence will gain you no credit before God if you flaunt it for the praises of men. Consequently there is the greatest need too for that uprightness of intention by which you will both strive to please God alone and find the strength to adhere to him. This adherence to God is nothing less than that vision of God granted as a unique favor only to the pure in heart. That David had this clean heart is evident from his words: "My soul clings close to you"; and again: "My joy lies in being close to God."' His vision of God brought him close to God, his closeness assured the vision. The man who lives in this state habitually will have the angels for his frequent and familiar guests, especially if they frequently find him in prayer. How I desire, O benign princes, that through you my requests may be made known to God! I do not refer here to God's normal knowledge, for the very thought of man is known to him, but rather that they be apprehended in the actual presence of God, by those who abide with God, both the holy angels and the glorified souls of men. Who will raise me up, in my poverty, from the dust, in my indigence from the dunghill, that I may share a place with the princes and be assigned a seat of honor? I am convinced that they will welcome with joy into their mansions him whom it pleased them to visit on the dunghill. Is it possible that we should be snubbed in heaven by those whom our conversion here below made so happy?
8. I think, therefore, that it was to these members of the household and her companions, that the bride addressed her request, to these she revealed her heart's desire when she said: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth." See the familiar and friendly communication there is between the aspiring soul who is still in the flesh and those powerful heavenly spirits. Her desire is to be kissed, she asks for what she desires; but she doesn't call her lover by name, she is certain that they know him because he has been so often the subject of her conversation with them. Accordingly she does not say: "Let this one or that one kiss me;" but simply: "let him Kiss me." This was the way Mary Magdalen behaved; she did not mention the name of the person she sought when she spoke to the man whom she took to be the gardener: "Sir, if you have taken him away ...." Who is this "him"? She names no name, she takes for granted that what her own heart could not forget, even for a moment, must be plain to all. And so the bride's words to the Bridegroom's companions imply that they know her secret, that her inward state is manifest to them, and no name passes her lips in that impulsive pleading about her beloved: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth." Today I shall speak no more to you about this kiss, I shall detain you no longer, but tomorrow you will hear from me whatever your prayers may win from him whose anointing teaches about all things. For flesh and blood do not reveal such a secret, but only he who searches the depths of God, the Holy Spirit who, proceeding from the Father and the Son, lives and reigns equally with them for ever. Amen.
As I promised yesterday, and as you well remember, today we are to speak of the supreme kiss, that of the mouth. You must listen with more than usual attention to a theme that is sweet to the spirit above all others, that is so rare an experience and more difficult to understand. I think I should begin by considering the higher truths, and it seems to me that a kiss past comprehension, beyond the experience of any mere creature, was designated by him who said: "No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." For the Father loves the Son whom he embraces with a love that is unique; he who is infinite embraces his equal, who is eternal, his co-eternal the sole God, his only-begotten. But the Son's bond with him is not less affectionate, for it led him even to death, as he himself testifies: "That all might know that I love the Father, rise, let us go." And he went forth, as we know, to his passion. Now, that mutual knowledge and love between him who begets and him who is begotten -- what can it comprise if not a kiss that is utterly sweet, but utterly a mystery as well?
2. For my part I am convinced that no creature, not even an angel, is permitted to comprehend this secret of divine love, so holy and so august. Does not Paul proclaim from his own experience that this is a peace which passes all understanding, even that of the angels? And hence the bride, although otherwise so audacious, does not dare to say: "Let him kiss me with his mouth," for she knows that this is the prerogative of the Father alone. What she does ask for is something less: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth." Do you wish to see the newly-chosen bride receiving this unprecedented kiss, given not by the mouth but by the kiss of the mouth? Then look at Jesus in the presence of his Apostles: "He breathed on them," according to St John, "and he said: `Receive the Holy Spirit.' " That favor, given to the newly-chosen Church, was indeed a kiss. That? you say. That corporeal breathing? O no, but rather the invisible Spirit, who is so bestowed in that breath of the Lord that he is understood to proceed from him equally as from the Father, truly the kiss that is common both to him who kisses and to him who is kissed. Hence the bride is satisfied to receive the kiss of the Bridegroom, though she be not kissed with his mouth. For her it is no mean or contemptible thing to be kissed by the kiss, because it is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit. If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.
3. He it is then who inspires the daring spirit of the bride, he it is whom she trustingly petitions to come to her under the guise of a kiss. But this boldness in her request is justified by something that she knows. For when the Son said: "No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son," he added: "and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." But the bride has no doubt that if he will reveal himself to anybody, it will be to her. Therefore, she dares to ask for this kiss, actually for that Spirit in whom both the Father and the Son will reveal themselves to her. For it is not possible that one of these could be known without the other. That is why Christ said: "To have seen me is to have seen the Father;" and John in his turn: "No one who has the Father can deny the Son, and to acknowledge the Son is to have the Father as well." From these declarations it is clearly evident that the Father cannot be known apart from the Son, nor the Son apart from the Father. Rightly therefore did Christ point out that one achieves supreme happiness not by knowing any one of them, but by knowing both, when he said: "Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." As a consequence, those who follow the Lamb are said to have his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads," which is to be glorified by this twofold knowledge.
4. But one of you may interpose and say: "Therefore knowledge of the Holy Spirit is not necessary, because when he said eternal life consisted of the knowledge of the Father and Son, he did not mention the Holy Spirit." True enough; but where there is perfect knowledge of the Father and the Son, how can there be ignorance of the goodness of both; which is the Holy Spirit? For no man has a complete knowledge of another until he finds out whether his will be good or evil. So, although it has been said: "Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent," still, if that act of mission demonstrates the good pleasure both of the Father lovingly sending his Son and of the Son freely obeying the Father, then the Holy Spirit is not passed over in complete silence, for he is implied in the mention of so immense a grace. The Holy Spirit indeed is nothing else but the love and the benign goodness of them both.
5. When the bride asks for the kiss therefore, she asks to be filled with the grace of this threefold knowledge, filled to the utmost capacity of mortal flesh. But it is the Son whom she approaches, since it is by him it is to be revealed, and to whom he wills. He reveals himself therefore, and the Father as well, to whom it pleases him. And it is certain that he makes this revelation through the kiss, that is, through the Holy Spirit, a fact to which St Paul bears witness: "These are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit." It is by giving the Spirit, through whom he reveals, that he shows us himself; he reveals in the gift, his gift is in the revealing. Furthermore, this revelation which is made through the Holy Spirit, not only conveys the light of knowledge but also lights the fire of love, as St Paul again testifies: "The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us."
And that is perhaps the reason why, in the case of those who, knowing God, yet refused to honor him as God, we do not read that they knew by a revelation of the Holy Spirit; for even though they possessed knowledge they did not love. As St Paul states: "God has shown himself to them," but he does not add: "through the Holy Spirit," lest those impious minds should usurp to themselves the kiss of the bride. They were content with the knowledge that gives self-importance, but ignorant of the love that makes the building grow. The apostle actually tells us the means by which they knew; they perceived him in the things that he had made. From all this it is clear that even their knowledge was not perfect, because they did not love. For if their knowledge had been complete, they would not have been blind to that goodness by which he willed to be born a human being, and to die for their sins. Just listen to what was revealed about God to them: "his everlasting power and deity," says St Paul. As you see, they in their presumption of spirit -- their own spirit, not God's -- studied his attributes of sublimity and majesty. That he was gentle and humble in heart they failed to understand. Nor must we be surprised at this, because we read of their leader, Behemoth, that he beholds everything that is high, nothing that is humble. On the contrary David did not walk among great things nor in wonders above himself; he would not be a searcher of majesty lest he be overwhelmed by glory.
6. You too, if you would make prudent progress in your studies of the mysteries of the faith, would do well to remember the Wise Man's advice: "Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers." These are occasions when you must walk by the Spirit and not according to your personal opinions, for the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity. And hence the bride, when seeking him whom her heart loves, quite properly does not put her trust in mere human prudence, nor yield to the inane conceits of human curiosity. She asks rather for a kiss, that is she calls upon the Holy Spirit by whom she is simultaneously awarded with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace. How true it is that the knowledge imparted in the kiss is lovingly received, since the kiss is love's own token. But knowledge which leads to self-importance, since it is devoid of love, cannot be the fruit of the kiss. Even those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, may not for any reason lay claim to that kiss. For the favor of the kiss bears with it a twofold gift, the light of knowledge and the fervor of devotion. He is in truth the Spirit of wisdom and insight, who, like the bee carrying its burden of wax and honey, is fully equipped with the power both of kindling the light of knowledge and infusing the delicious nurture of grace. Two kinds of people therefore may not consider themselves to have been gifted with the kiss, those who know the truth without loving it, and those who love it without understanding it; from which we conclude that this kiss leaves room neither for ignorance nor for lukewarmness.
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 plenitude 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." As has already been stated, no creature whatsoever has been privileged to comprehend the secret of this eternal, blessed and unique embrace; the Holy Spirit alone is the sole witness and confidant of their mutual knowledge and love. For who could ever know the mind of the Lord, or who could be his counselor?
7. But I feel that one of you may now want to say: "What voice thundered forth to you a secret that, you insist, was made known to no creature?" Unhesitatingly I answer: "It is the only Son, who is in the Father's bosom who has made it known." But he has made it known, I will say, not to the sorry and unworthy creature that I am, but to John, the Bridegroom's friend, whose words these are; and not only to him but to John the Evangelist also, the disciple Jesus loved. For his soul was pleasing to the Lord, entirely worthy both of the name and the dowry of a bride, worthy of the Bridegroom's embraces, worthy that is, of leaning back on Jesus' breast. John imbibed from the heart of the only-begotten Son what he in turn had imbibed from the Father. Nor is John the only one, it is true also of all to whom the Angel of the Great Counsel said: "I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father." Paul drank of it, because the Good News he preached is not a human message nor did he receive it through men, it is something he learned only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
All of these indeed could say with felicity and truth: "It is the only Son who is in the Father's bosom who has made it known to us." And this revelation -- what can you call it but a kiss? But it was the kiss of the kiss, not of the mouth. Listen if you will know what the kiss of the mouth is: "The Father and I are one;" and again: "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." This is a kiss from mouth to mouth, beyond the claim of any creature. It is a kiss of love and of peace, but of the love which is beyond all knowledge and that peace which is so much greater than we can understand. The truth is that the things that no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, were revealed to Paul by God through his Spirit, that is, through him who is the kiss of his mouth. That the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son signifies the kiss of the mouth. But the kiss of the kiss we discover when we read: "Instead of the spirit of the world, we have received the Spirit that comes from God, to teach us to understand the gifts that he has given us."
8. But we must make a clearer distinction between the two. He who received the fullness is given the kiss of the mouth, but he who received from the fullness is given the kiss of the kiss. Paul was certainly a great man, but no matter how high he should aim in making the offer of his mouth, even if he were to raise himself right into the third heaven," he would still of necessity find himself
remote from the lips of the Most High. He must abide content within the limits of his capacity, and since he cannot of himself reach that glorious countenance, let him humbly ask that it may lean down to him, that, the kiss be transmitted from on high. He however who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, since he could dare to say: "The Father and I are one," because he was joined to him as an equal and embraced him as an equal -- he does not beg for a kiss from an inferior position; rather on equally sublime heights mouth is joined to mouth, and by a prerogative that is unique he receives the kiss from the mouth. For Christ therefore, the kiss meant a totality, for Paul only a participation; Christ rejoiced in the kiss of the mouth, Paul only in that he was kissed by the kiss.
9. Felicitous, however, is this kiss of participation that enables us not only to know God but to love the Father, who is never fully known until he is perfectly loved. Are there not surely some among you who at certain times perceive deep within their hearts the Spirit of the Son exclaiming: "Abba, Father"? Let that man who feels that he is moved by the same Spirit as the Son, let him know that he too is loved by the Father. Whoever he be let him be of good heart, let his confidence never waver. Living in the Spirit of the Son, let such a soul recognize herself as a daughter of the Father, a bride or even a sister of the Son, for you will find that the soul who enjoys this privilege is called by either of these names. Nor will it cost me much to prove it, the proof is ready to hand. They are the names by which the Bridegroom addresses her: "I come into my garden, my sister, my bride." She is his sister because they have the one Father; his bride because joined in the one Spirit. For if marriage according to the flesh constitutes two in one body, why should not a spiritual union be even more efficacious in joining two in one spirit? And hence anyone who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. But we have witness too from the Father, how lovingly and how courteously he gives her the name of daughter, and nevertheless invites her as his daughter-in-law to the sweet caresses of his Son: "Listen, daughter, pay careful attention: forget your nation and your ancestral home, then the king will fall in love with your beauty." See then from whom this bride demands a kiss. O soul called to holiness, make sure that your attitude is respectful, for he is the Lord your God, who perhaps ought not to be kissed, but rather adored with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
It is time now for us to return to the book and attempt an explanation of the words of the bride and their consequence. For there they are, swinging precipitately out of nowhere, suspended before us. But we must see if there is something antecedent to them to which we may suitably connect them up. Let us suppose therefore that those whom we have called the friends of the Bridegroom now again approach the bride as they did yesterday and the day before. They find her in a state of weariness, bemoaning her condition; and wondering what the cause may be they begin to question her: "What has happened? Why this unusual sadness? Why do you murmur in this strange fashion? Is it not true that, estranged from your lawful husband, you turned aside with your lovers until, after they had abused you shamefully, you were finally compelled to return to your first husband? Did you not entreat him with tears and endless petitions to be allowed at least to touch his feet?" "I remember," she said. "What then?" said they. "After receiving that favor, and even the pardon of your offences in the kissing of the feet, you became restless again. Instead of being satisfied with a mercy so wonderful, you became eager for greater familiarity; with renewed insistence you demanded and obtained the second grace, the kiss of the hand with its endowment of virtues both many and great." "I do not deny it," she replied. But they went on: "And are you not the one who so often swore and protested that if you were ever favored with the kiss of the hand you would count that enough, you would ask for nothing further?" "Quite so," she said again. So what is it then?" they continued. "Is it that you grieve because some of those gifts you received have been taken away again?" "No," she replied, "nothing of the kind." "Do you fear then that you will be condemned anew for the sins of your past life, that you presumed were forgiven?" "No," was her answer.
2. "But please," they said, "do tell us what it is, then we can supply what you need."
"I cannot rest," she said, "unless he kisses me with the kiss of his mouth. I thank him for the kiss of the feet, I thank him too for the kiss of the hand; but if he has genuine regard for me, let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. There is no question of ingratitude on my part, it is simply that I am in love. The favors I have received are far above what I deserve, but they are less than what I long for. It is desire that drives me on, not reason. Please do not accuse me of presumption if I yield to this impulse of love. My shame indeed rebukes me, but love is stronger than all. I am well aware that he is a king who loves justice; but headlong love does not wait for judgment, is not chastened by advice, not shackled by shame nor subdued by reason. I ask, I crave, I implore; let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth. Don't you see that by his grace I have been for many years now careful to lead a chaste and sober life, I concentrate on spiritual studies, resist vices, pray often; I am watchful against temptations, I recount all my years in the bitterness of my soul. As far as I can judge I have lived among the brethren without quarrels. I have been submissive to authority, responding to the beck and call of my superior. I do not covet foods not mine; rather do I put both myself and my goods at the service of others. With sweat on my brow I eat my bread. Yet in all these practices there is evidence only of my fidelity, nothing of enjoyment. What can I be but, in the words of the Prophet, another Ephraim, a well-trained heifer that loves to tread the threshing floor? On top of that the Gospel says that he who does no more than his duty is looked on as a useless servant. I obey the commandments, to the best of my ability I hope, but in doing so my soul thirsts like a parched land. If therefore he is to find my holocaust acceptable, let him kiss me, I entreat, with the kiss of his mouth."
3. Many of you too, as I recall, are accustomed to complain to me in our private conversations about a similar languor and dryness of soul, an ineptitude and dullness of mind devoid of the power to penetrate the profound and subtle truths of God; devoid too, entirely or for the most part, of the sweetness of the spirit. What of these, except that they yearn to be kissed? That they yearn is indeed evident, their very mouths are open to inhale the spirit of wisdom and insight: insight that they may attain to what they long for, wisdom in order to savor what the mind apprehends. I think that a motive such as this must have inspired the holy Prophet's prayer when he said: "My soul will feast most richly, on my lips a song of joy and in my mouth, praise." The kiss was surely what he sought for, that kiss at whose touch the lips are so bedewed with the richness of spiritual grace, that only the Prophet's words again, spoken in another context, can fathom the effect: "My mouth is full of your praises, that I might sing of your glory, of your splendor all day long." No sooner had he tasted than he burst forth: "Lord how great your goodness, reserved for those who fear you!" This kiss has sufficiently detained us now. And yet, if I am to speak the truth, I cannot feel assured that my exposition measures up to the dignity of the subject. But let us pass on to other themes, experience of the kiss tells more than any words.
4. The text continues: "For your breasts are better than wine, smelling sweet of the best ointments." The author does not say who spoke these words, so we are free to assign them to the person whom we think they best suit. For my part, I can see reasons for attributing them either to the bride, or to the Bridegroom or to the latter's companions. And for a start I shall point out how fittingly the bride might have spoken them. Let us say that while she and those companions are conversing together, the Bridegroom on whom the conversation centers, suddenly appears, for he loves to draw near to those who speak about him. It is his way. For example he proved himself a pleasant and affable companion to the two men who conversed together as they went to Emmaus. This is no more than what he has promised in the Gospel: "Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them;" and through the Prophet: "Long before they call I shall answer; before they stop speaking I shall say: ‘I am here.' " And so in the present instance he approaches though not actually invited; their words so please him that he anticipates their invitation: I am sure that sometimes he does not wait for words, our thoughts alone are enough to summon him. Did not a man after God's own heart say: "The Lord has heard the desire of the poor: your ear has heard the preparation of their heart." In every place you must be attentive to your inward state, you must realize that the God who is the assessor of mind and heart knows everything about you; he it is who moulds every heart and takes thought of all men do. The bride therefore, becoming conscious of the Bridegroom's presence, grew suddenly silent. She is ashamed to think that he is aware of her presumption, for a certain modesty had prompted her to use intermediaries in achieving her purpose. So in her endeavor to excuse her temerity, she turns to him and says: "For your breasts are better than wine, smelling sweet of the best ointments." What she meant was: "If I seem to be high-minded, O my Bridegroom, you are responsible; you have honored me so greatly with the nurturing sweetness of your breasts, that by your love and not by my own temerity I have put aside all fear, and may seem to have been more daring than is proper. I do indeed make bold, but it is because I am convinced of your goodness, forgetful of your majesty." These explanations have been given merely to supply a context for the words of the bride.
5. Now let us try to see the meaning of this commendation of the Bridegroom's breasts.
These two breasts are two proofs of his native kindness: his patience in awaiting the sinner and his welcoming mercy for the penitent. This twofold sweetness of inward joy overflows from the heart of the Lord Jesus in the form of tireless expectancy and prompt forgiveness. And be assured that this is no figment of mine. You yourselves have read of his patience: "Are you abusing his abundant goodness, patience and toleration, not realizing that this goodness of God is meant to lead you to repentance?" To this very end he postpones his punishment of the contumacious, awaiting a favorable moment to bestow on them the grace of repentance and forgiveness. He does not wish the death of a wicked man, but that he turn back and live. And now let us see an example of the second breast, which I have called promptness to forgive. Of this you have read: "At whatever hour the sinner will repent, his sin will be forgiven him.” Or again: "Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn back to the Lord who will take pity on him, to our God who is rich in forgiving." David beautifully described both breasts in the few words: "Slow to anger, most loving." It is through her experience of this twofold goodness therefore, that the bride justifies the increase of confidence that emboldened her to ask for the kiss. She would seem to say to the Bridegroom: "What wonder if I presume to ask you for this favor, since your breasts have given me such overwhelming joy. It is your breasts' very sweetness, not trust in my own merits, that provokes me to this daring."
6. When she said, then, "your breasts are better than wine," she meant: "The richness of the grace that flows from your beasts contributes far more to my spiritual progress than the biting reprimands of superiors. Not only are they better than wine, but smelling sweet of the best ointments too, for not merely do you refresh those present with the milk of inward sweetness, you also spray the pleasing perfume of good repute over the absent ones, and so are well thought of, both by outsiders and by those within. You have, as I say, milk within and ointments without, for none would come to be refreshed with the milk, if you had not the perfume to attract them." We shall see later on what these ointments contain that make them worth considering, when we discuss the text: "We will run after you to the odor of your ointments."
Now, however, we must fulfill our promise and show if those words which we have attributed to the bride may not also be suitably assigned to the Bridegroom.
7. While the bride is conversing about the Bridegroom, he, as I have said, suddenly appears, yields to her desire by giving her a kiss, and so brings to fulfillment those words of the psalm: "You have granted him his heart's desire, not denied him what his lips entreated." The filling up of her breasts is a proof of this. For so great is the potency of that holy kiss, that no sooner has the bride received it than she conceives and her breasts grow rounded with the fruitfulness of conception; bearing witness, as it were, with this milky abundance. Men with an urge to frequent prayer will have experience of what I say. Often enough when we approach the altar to pray our hearts are dry and lukewarm. But if we persevere, there comes an unexpected infusion of grace, our breast expands as it were, and our interior is filled with an overflowing love; and if somebody should press upon it then, this milk of sweet fecundity would gush forth in streaming richness. Let us hear the Bridegroom "You have received, my love, what you asked for, and here is a sign to show you, your breasts are better than wine; henceforth you will know that you have received the kiss because you will be conscious of having conceived. That explains the expansion of your breasts, filled with a milky richness far surpassing the wine of the worldly knowledge that can intoxicate indeed but with curiosity, not charity; it fills but does not nourish; puffs up but does not build up; pampers but does not strengthen."
8. Finally, let us imagine those words as coming from the Bridegroom's companions: "You are unjust," they say, "to murmur against the Bridegroom, because what he has already given you is of far more value than that which you look for. The favor you demand is rather for your own delight, but the breasts with which you may feed the offspring of your womb are preferable to, that is, they are more essential than, the wine of contemplation. What gladdens the heart of one man cannot be placed on equal terms with that which benefits many. Rachel may be more beautiful, but Lia is more fruitful. So beware of lingering amid the kisses of contemplation, better the breasts that flow in the preaching of God's word."
9. There is still another meaning that I did not really intend to place before you, but I must not exclude it. Why should we not allow that these words may be fittingly applied to those that are cared for by a mother or a nurse, as children are? For these souls, immature, lacking in hardihood, cannot tolerate patiently the contemplative repose of her to whom they look for fuller instruction in the faith, for the guidance of her religious observances. And is it not the restlessness of such as these that is frowned upon in a subsequent verse, where they are forbidden with a grave warning to awake the loved one till she pleases? When these perceive that the bride longs for kisses, that she seeks to be alone, that she shuns the streets, turns aside from the crowds and prefers her own peace to solicitude for them, they protest: "No!" they say. "No! Far greater the profit in the breasts you extend to others than in the embraces you enjoy in private. For by the former you deliver us from the selfish passions that attack the soul; you snatch us from the world and gain us for God." What they are really saying is: "Your breasts are better than wine." "These spiritual delights," they say, "that your breasts distill can conquer in us the pleasures of the flesh, that enslaved us just as drunkards are enslaved by wine."
10. This comparison of carnal pleasures with wine is so very apt. For the grape, once pressed, can never again exude its liquid, it is condemned to endless dryness. So too the flesh, caught in the winepress of death, is completely drained of its co-natural pleasures, never again to revive to the stirring of sensual passions. Therefore the Prophet cried out: "All flesh is grass and its beauty like the wild flower's. The grass withers, the flower fades." St Paul too bears witness: "If a man sows in the field of self-indulgence, he will get a harvest of corruption out of it. Food is only meant for the stomach and the stomach for food; yes, and God is going to do away with both of them." But this analogy may be applied to the world as well as to the flesh; for the world with all it craves for, is coming to an end. Everything in the world indeed will come to an end, an end from which there is no return. Not so, however, the breasts we have spoken of. For when these have been drained dry they are replenished again from the maternal fount within, and offered to all who will drink. Here is a further reason why I insist that the breasts of the bride are superior to worldly or carnal love; the numbers who drink of them, however great, cannot exhaust their content; their flow is never suspended, for they draw unceasingly from the inward fountains of charity. Out of her heart shall flow rivers of water, there will be a spring inside her, welling up to eternal life. The accumulating praises of the breasts come to a climax in the perfume of the ointments, because they not only feed us with the choice food of doctrine, but shed around them like a pleasing aroma the repute of good deeds. All else that these breasts may signify, what milk fills them, what be the ambient perfumes of her ointments these I shall treat of later with the help of Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Bernard Song of Songs 7