Bernard Song of Songs 3


4 Yesterday our talk dealt with three stages of the soul's progress under the figure of the three kisses. You still remember this, I hope, for today I intend to continue that same discussion, according as God in his goodness may provide for one so needy. We said, as you remember, that these kisses were given to the feet, the hand and the mouth, in that order. The first is the sign of a 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. The book of Scripture that we have undertaken to expound begins with this last kiss, but I have added the other two in the hope that you will attain a better understanding of the last. I leave it to you to judge whether this was necessary, but I do really think that the very nature of the discourse clearly suggests that they be included. And I should be surprised if you did not see that she who said: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth," (Ct 1,1) wished to make a distinction between the kiss of the mouth and another or several other kisses. It might have been enough for her to have said simply: "Let him kiss me." Why then should she distinctly and pointedly add: "with the kiss of his mouth," a usage that is certainly not customary ? Is it not that she wished to indicate that this kiss at the summit of love's intimacy is not the sole one? People normally say, do they not: "Kiss me," or "Give me a kiss" ? Nobody adds the words: "with your mouth," or, "with the kiss of your mouth." When we wish to kiss somebody, we do not have to state explicitly what we want when we offer our lips to each other. For example, St John's story of Christ's reception of the traitor's kiss simply says: "He kissed him," (Mc 14,45) without adding “with his mouth or with the kiss of his mouth." This is normal procedure then both in speech and in writing. We have here three stages of the soul's growth in love, three stages of its advance toward perfection that are sufficiently known and intelligible to those who have experienced them. There is first the forgiveness of sins, then the grace that follows on good deeds, and finally that contemplative gift by which a kind and beneficent Lord shows himself to the soul with as much clarity as bodily frailty can endure.

2. Perhaps I should here attempt a better explanation of my reason for calling the first two favors kisses. We all know that the kiss is a sign of peace. If what Scripture says is true: "Our iniquities have made a gulf between us and God," (Is 59,2 Sg 1,4) then peace can be at attained only when the intervening gulf is bridged. When therefore we make satisfaction and become reconciled by the re-joining of the cleavage caused by sin, in what better way can I describe the favor we receive than as a kiss of peace? Nor is there a more becoming place for this kiss than at the feet; the amends we make for the pride of our transgressions ought to be humble and diffident.

3. But when God endows us with the more ample grace of a sweet friendship with him, in order to enable us to live with a virtue that is worthy of such a relationship, we tend to raise our heads from the dust with a greater confidence for the purpose of kissing, as is the custom, the hand of our benefactor. It is essential however that we should not make this favor the occasion of self-glorification, we must give the glory to him from whom it comes. For if you glory in yourself rather than in the Lord, it is your own hand that you kiss, not his, which, according to the words of Job (Jb 31,28), is the greatest evil and a denial of God. If therefore, as Scripture suggests, the seeking of one's own glory is like kissing one's own hand, then he who gives glory to God is quite properly said to be kissing God's hand. We see this to be the case among men. Slaves beg pardon of their offended masters by kissing their feet, and the poor kiss their benefactor's hand when they receive an alms.

4. This poses a problem for you? God is spirit, his simple substance cannot be considered to have bodily members, so then, you say, show us what you mean by the hands and feet of God; explain to us the kiss of these hands and feet. But if I in turn put a question to my critic about the mouth of God - for, after all, Scripture does speak of the kiss of the mouth - will he tell me that this of course does refer to God. Surely if we attribute a mouth to God we may also attribute hands and feet, for, if he lacks these latter he must lack the former too.

But God has a mouth by which "he teaches men knowledge," he has a hand with which "he provides for all living creatures,'' and he has feet for which the earth is a footstool." When the sinners of the earth are converted from their ways, it is in abasement before these feet that they make satisfaction. I allow of course that God does not have these members by his nature, they represent certain modes of our encounter with him. The heartfelt desire to admit one's guilt brings a man down in lowliness before God, as it were to his feet; the heartfelt devotion of a worshiper finds in God renewal and refreshment, the touch, as it were, of his hand, and the delights of contemplation lead on to that ecstatic repose that is the fruit of the kiss of his mouth. Because his providence rules over all, he is all things to all, yet, to speak with accuracy, he is in no way what these things are. If we consider him in himself, his home is in inaccessible light (1Tm 6,16), his peace is so much greater than we can understand (Ph 4,1), his wisdom has no bounds. No one can measure his greatness, no man can see him and live (Ex 33,29). Yet he who by his very nature is the principle through whom all creatures spring into being, cannot be far from any of us, since without him all are nothing. More wonderful still, though no one can be more intimately present to us than he, no one is more incomprehensible. For what is more intimate to anything than its own being? And yet, what is more incomprehensible to any of us than the being of all things? Of course when I say that God is the being of all things, I do not wish it to be understood in the sense that he and they are identical, but rather in the sense of the words of Scripture: "All that exists comes from him, all is by him and in him." He is the creator, the efficient cause, not the material, of every creature. Such is the way the God whose majesty is so great has decided to be present to his creatures: as the being of all things that are, as the life of all things that live; a light to all those who think, virtue to all who think rightly and glory to those who prevail in life's battle.

In this work of creation, of government, of administration, of imparting motion, of steering toward particular ends, of renewal and strengthening, he has no need of bodily instruments. By his word alone he had made all things, both corporeal and spiritual. Souls have a need for bodies, and bodies in turn a need for senses, if they are to know and influence each other. Not so the omnipotent God, who by the immediate act of his will, and that alone both creates and governs at his good pleasure. His influence touches whom he wills, as much as he wills, without calling on the aid or service of bodily powers. What possible help could he receive from bodily senses when he decides to take cognizance of the things he brought into beings. Nothing has the remotest chance of hiding from him, or of escaping that light of his that penetrates everywhere; sense awareness can never be the medium of his knowledge. Not merely does he know all things without a body's intervention, he also makes himself known to the pure in heart without the need for recourse to it. I have spoken extensively on this point in order to make it more plain for you, but now pressure of time demands that I come to an end, so we must postpone further discussion till tomorrow.


As you know, spirits can be divided into classes: that of the animal, that of man, that of the angel, and that of God who created all the others. Each of these, with one exception, needs a body or a body's likeness, either for its own sake or for the sake of others or for both. The exception is he whom every creature, whether corporeal or spiritual, is called on to acknowledge in sentiments like the Psalmist: "You are my God because you have no need of my goods (
Ps 15,2)." If we consider the animal we see that its spirit, its life principle, cannot even exist without a body. When the animal dies its soul ceases to live at the same moment that it ceases to impart life. We indeed continue to live after the body's death, but only by means of the body do we gain those merits that lead to a life of blessedness. St Paul sensed this, saying: "The invisible things of God are understood through the things he has made (Rm 1,20)." All creatures that he has made, creatures that possess a body and are therefore visible, can be understood by our minds only through the body's instrumentality. Therefore our souls have need of a body. Without it we cannot attain to that form of knowledge by which alone we are elevated toward the contemplation of truths essential to happiness. If one of you will object that baptized infants who die before acquiring a knowledge of the material creation are believed nevertheless to enter heaven, I shall reply briefly that this is a gift of grace, not a reward of merit. For the moment this discussion deals with normal processes, not with the special interventions of God.

2. Let us now study the case of heavenly spirits. We can be absolutely sure that these have a need of bodies from those divinely inspired words: "Are they not all spirits whose work is service, sent to help those who will be the heirs of salvation?" (He 1,14) How will it be possible for them to fulfill this service without a body, especially among beings who possess bodies? Is it not true that only creatures with bodies can run to and fro and pass from place to place ? Do we not know on unimpeachable authority that angels have frequently acted that way? You recall how they were seen by the patriarchs of old, how they entered their tents, shared their meal, and had their feet washed. And so we see that though both animal and angelic spirits have need of bodies, it is not for their own sakes but in order to render some service to others.

3. The animal kingdom is destined by nature to serve, and that service is fulfilled in alleviating the temporal and physical needs of man; the animal spirit or soul is limited by time, it dies with the body. You know then "the slave does not continue in the house forever," but those who treat him well will discover that the usage of this temporal service will redound to eternal rewards. The angel, however, in the freedom of his spirit, applies himself with eagerness to the demands of his duty, which is to bring prompt and swift assistance to us mortals in our striving for the blessings that are to come. He knows that we are destined to be fellow-citizens with him; and co-heirs of the bliss of heaven. Therefore both the animal and the angel need bodies that they might be of help to us, the first that he may give us the service appropriate to his nature, the second that he may lovingly support us. What benefit they themselves may derive from a body I cannot see, at lease with regard to eternal life. The spirit of the animal can indeed perceive corporeal things by means of the body, but is this body of such potential value to him that the material world which he experiences through the senses enables him to advance to a knowledge of spiritual and intellectual truths? Surely not. On the other hand, within the limits of its corporeal and temporal service, the body does provide a gateway to a knowledge of these truths for those who transmute their usage of the things of time into coin of eternal reward, "dealing with this world as though they had no dealing with it."

4. We must understand too that if the angel can soar to a grasp of the highest truths and penetrate their profoundest depths, he does so by the vital force and kinship of his nature rather than with the aid of a body, or with the awareness of things that bodily senses provide. St Paul implied this when he said: "The invisible things of God are understood through the things he has made," adding the qualification, "by the creature of the world (Rm 1,2)." Because this is not so for the creature of heaven. For, what the spirit clothed in flesh and dwelling on the earth strives to achieve gradually and little by little, through the knowledge it derives from the senses, that same the dweller of the heavens attains with all speed and ease, because of the native fineness and sublime quality of its being. No prop of bodily sense sustains its poise, no bodily member ministers aid to its effort, no bodily medicine whatsoever contributes to its vision. Why should they search for spiritual meanings among bodily substances when they can find them in the book of life without any discordance, and understand them without any hardship. Why should a man work his sweat out winnowing grain from the chaff, pressing wine from grapes and oil from olives if he has an abundance of all these things ready to hand? Who will beg his food from door to door when his own house is stocked with bread? Will he bother to dig a well, to explore with might and main for springs of water in the bowels of the earth, for whom a burbling fountain pours out full-flowing, limpid streams? Neither angelic nor brute spirit therefore can benefit from corporeal aids in acquiring the knowledge that makes a spiritual being happy. The brute's natural stupidity renders him incapable of that knowledge, while the angel, by a prerogative of splendor and excellence, has no need of a bodily intermediary.

5. We come now to the spirit of man. This, since it holds a middle place between the extremes of bestial and angelic spirits, manifestly has a twofold need of a body: without it the soul can act neither for its own advantage nor for the benefit of others. For, to say nothing of the other members of the body or of the duties they perform, how, I ask, can you instruct the listener if you have no tongue, or receive instruction if you have no ear ?

6. Therefore, since without the support of the body the brute spirit cannot offer the service it owes, nor the heavenly spirit fulfill its labor of love, nor the rational spirit of man succeed in providing for its own and its neighbor's salvation, it follows that every created spirit certainly has a need of bodily faculties whether it be mercy to assist others, or, as in the case of man, to assist as well as being assisted. What then if there be some living things whose existence seems to confer no benefit on themselves, nor to minister in any obvious way to the needs of humanity? Well, are they not good to look at, if not to use? They are for the mind's study rather than the body's utility, there their advantage lies. Even if injurious, and an obstacle to human welfare in this world, their bodies still serve a purpose for all those whom he had called according to his purpose to be saints. If these creatures do not provide food or perform a service, they certainly make man use his wits in accord with that progress in understanding common to all who enjoy the use of reason, by which the mysteries of God may be apprehended and contemplated through the things he has made. For both the devil and his satellites, whose intentions are always evil are ever bent on hurting those who do what is right. To these latter St Peter said “Who can hurt you if you are determined to do only what is right?" (1P 3,13) God forbid that they should be able to harm you. The truth rather is that in spite of themselves they benefit the good.

7. As for the rest, whether the bodies of angels be natural to them as bodies are to men; whether, immortal though they be, their bodies have an animal nature like man's, which in this life is not immortal; whether they change these bodies and turn them into whatever form and figure suits them when they wish to become visible, imparting to them the density and solidity that fits their purpose, while at the same time, in the reality of their own nature with its essential subtlety, they remain impalpable to us and beyond our power of vision; or whether again, while continuing to exist as simple spiritual substances, they merely assume bodies when they find a need for them and then, once the need has passed, allow them to dissolve again into the elements from which they were formed— all these are questions which I prefer that you should not ask me. The Fathers seem to have held divergent views on the problem, and I must confess that I cannot come to a decision about the view I might be justified in teaching. But I am of the opinion that knowledge of these matters would not contribute greatly to your spiritual progress.

8. Try to understand this however, that no created spirit can of itself act directly on our minds. This means that without the mediation of a bodily instrument it cannot make contact with or infuse itself into our minds, so that thereby we either acquire knowledge or increase it, acquire virtue or improve on it. No angel, no created spirit has power to influence me in this way, nor can I influence them. Even the angels lack this power over each other.

That is a prerogative reserved to that supreme and infinite Spirit, who alone, when he imparts instruction to man or angel, does not require an ear to hear him nor a mouth to speak. He communicates himself directly to the mind, he makes himself known directly; a pure spirit himself, he is received by us in proportion to our rectitude. He alone has need of no one, he alone, by reason of his omnipotent will, is sufficient for himself and for all.

9. Nevertheless, there are boundless and countless achievements that he carries through by means of his subject creatures, whether corporeal or spiritual, but he uses them as master rather than as suppliant. For example, he now employs my tongue for his purpose of instructing you, when he could certainly impart the same knowledge directly with greater facility on his part and more pleasure for you. This mode of acting that he has chosen represents an indulgence on his part, not indigence. He makes this promotion of your welfare an occasion of merit for me; it does not mean that he needs my assistance. This is a truth that every man should remember when he does good deeds, lest he give glory to himself and not to the Lord for the fruits of grace. There is furthermore the case of the person, be he bad angel or bad man, who performs good deeds against his will. It is plain that the good of which he is the agent does not benefit himself since no good can benefit one whose will is set against it. He is therefore merely a dispenser of good, but, I know not why, we seem to feel that the good which comes to us through an evil agent is on that account more gratifying and pleasurable. This is the reason why God makes use of the wicked to benefit the just; it by no means implies that he needs their help in doing good.

10. And who will doubt that God has less need still of those creatures that lack sense or reason? But when these do have a share in the doing of good we are reminded that all creatures are the servants of that God who can so rightly say: "The world is mine (Ps 149,12)." Again, because he knows the means that best suit his purpose, he does not choose a bodily creature for the sake of the efficacy of its action but rather for the fittingness of it. Granted then that bodily agents are often and opportunely used in promoting the works of God, for example, the showers that quicken the seeds, that multiply the crops and ripen the fruit, what need has he, I ask, for a body of his own when to his least desire all bodies, both in heaven and on earth, are equally obedient? A body of his own would be superfluous to one for whom none exists outside his sway. But if I were to include in this present sermon all the points that might be dealt with on this subject, it would be unreasonably prolonged, and I should perhaps overtax the endurance of some. We shall find another occasion to discuss them.



In order to connect this talk with my last, let me recall to your minds what I then said. The supreme and infinite Spirit, and he alone, has no need of a bodily faculty or of any bodily assistance, in the accomplishment of all that he wishes to do or permit. We may with perfect confidence then, assert that God is truly an immaterial being, just as he is truly immortal. He alone in the world of spirits so far transcends the efficacy of all corporeal beings, that not only is he entirely independent of bodily aid in all the works that he undertakes, but by a simple gesture of his will he is able to achieve his purpose when and as he pleases. His is the sole sovereign power, therefore, that neither for intrinsic nor extrinsic reasons requires the support of a bodily form. His omnipotent will finds response that is instant and effectual. All that is lofty bends to it, all that is stubborn yields, every creature pays it court. It needs no other power, bodily or spiritual, to intervene on its behalf. He needs no tongue to teach or advise, no hand to help or uphold, no feet to run to the rescue when danger looms.

2. Our ancestors down through the ages experienced these ways of God repeatedly; his gifts pursued them without fail, but the benefactor's hand was hidden. He indeed deployed his strength from one end of the earth to the other, yet ordering all things with gentleness, but men remained insensitive to him. They enjoyed the largess the Lord poured out, but they failed to recognize him as the Lord of hosts, deceived by the tranquility that shrouded his dealings with men. Though they owed him their being they did not live in his presence. They lived through him, but not for him. What understanding they possessed was from him, but him they failed to understand. They were alienated, ungrateful, irrational. Their being, their life, their reason, all these they ascribed to nature, or, more foolishly still, to chance. Many again arrogantly assumed that the workings of God's providence were the fruit of their own labor and strength. What wonders have not deceitful spirits attributed to their own powers, what wonders are attributed to the sun and moon, to the forces of earth and water, even to the handicrafts of mere mortals! Herbs, trees and the smallest and commonest of seeds were honored as gods.

3. How sad indeed that men should degrade and exchange the one who was their glory for the image of a grass-eating ox (Ps 106,20). But God had mercy on their errors: coming forth from his shady and thickly covered mountains he pitched his tent in the sun (Ps 19,6). He became incarnate for the sake of carnal men, that he might induce them to relish the life of the Spirit. In the body and through the body he performed works of which not man but God was the author. He showed by his commands that chance events, were subject to his law. He revealed the foolishness of human wisdom, and overthrew the tyranny of evil spirits, thereby manifestly showing that when these things were done in past ages they were done by him. In the body, I repeat, and through the body, he performed wonderful deeds with an authority that was obvious. He proclaimed the message of salvation and endured outrage, thus clearly demonstrating that he it was whose invisible power created the world, whose wisdom governed it, and whose benevolence protected it. And finally, by preaching the good news to thankless crowds, by proving himself with signs to men without faith and praying for those who crucified him, did he not plainly declare himself to be that same person who, in union with the Father, daily causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike (Mt 5,45)? For this is what he himself said: "If I am not doing my Father's work, there is no need to believe me (Jn 10,37).”

4. See him then, instructing the disciples on the mountain by word of mouth at the same time that he enlightens heaven's angels in silence. See how at the touch of a fleshly hand a leper is healed, blindness is dispelled, the deaf are empowered to hear, the dumb to speak, the sinking disciple is rescued on the lake and you will surely recognize him as the one to whom David long ago uttered the words: “ You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing (Ps 145,16);” And again: “When you open your hand all are filled with your goodness (Ps 104,28).” See how, prostrate at his human feet, the penitent finds assurance as she is told; “Your sins are forgiven (Lc 7,48)." She knows that he is the one of whom she had read in words composed long ago: "The devil shall go forth before his feet (Ha 3,5)." For when sin is forgiven it is certain that the devil is driven out from the sinner's heart, and for this reason Christ embraced all sinners in his statement: “Now sentence is being passed on this world, now the prince of this world is overthrown (Jn 12,31)." God removes the sin of the one who makes humble confession, and thereby the devil loses the sovereignty he had gained over the human heart.

5. Again you find him with those feet of flesh walking on the waters (Mt 14,25), him of whom the Psalmist long before the incarnation said: "You strode across the sea, you marched across the ocean," by which he meant: you tread under foot the puffed up hearts of the proud, you repress the surging passions of sensual men; the wicked are won over to goodness, the haughty to lowliness. And because God acts invisibly in accomplishing this, the sensual man fails to perceive the doer. So the Psalmist adds: ". . . but your steps could not be seen (Ps 77,20)." In connection with this we may understand the Father's words to his Son: "Sit at my right hand and I will make your enemies a footstool for you (Ps 110,1)," that is, I shall subjugate to your will all those who spurn you, either against their will, and then they will be miserable, or with that willingness which will make them blessed. Because carnal men did not perceive this work of the Spirit -- "the animal man does not perceive anything of the Spirit of God" (1Co 2,14) -- it was necessary that the sinner should receive pardon for her sins while lying prone at God's feet of flesh, kissing these same feet with her lips of flesh. In this way that change of the right hand of the Most High (Ps 77,11), by which in a wonderful but invisible manner he leads the wicked to repentance, is made manifest to those in bondage to the senses.

6. However, I must not omit to speak of those spiritual feet of God to which the penitent's first kiss, understood in a spiritual sense, ought to be directed. Well do I know the inquisitive bent of your minds, that allows nothing whatever to pass without scrutiny. Nor must we disdain to consider what are those feet by which Scripture so frequently draws our attention to God. At one time he is described as standing: "We will adore in the place where his feet stood (Ps 132,7);" at another time as walking: "I will dwell in the midst of them and I will walk among them (Lv 26,12 2Co 6,16);" and again as running: "He exulted like a hero to run his race (Ps 19,6)." If it seemed right to St Paul to describe Christ's head in terms of the divinity (1Co 2,3), it should not seem unreasonable to us to ascribe the feet to his humanity. Let us call one of these feet mercy, the other judgment. You are familiar with these two words, they both occur together, as you remember, in several passages of Scripture. That God assumed the foot of mercy in the flesh to which he united himself, is taught in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of Christ as one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin, that he might become merciful (He 4,15). And the other foot that is called judgment? Does not God made man plainly point out that this also belongs to the assumed humanity where he declares: "Because he is the Son of Man the Father has appointed him supreme judge (Jn 5,27)."

7. With these two feet, therefore, so aptly united and controlled by the divine head, he who was the invisible Emmanuel is born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, appears on earth and moves among men (Ba 3,38). It is on these feet that, in a spiritual, invisible manner, he still goes about doing good and curing all who have fallen into the power of the devil. With these very feet he finds his way into the souls of his lovers, tirelessly enlightening and searching the hearts and loins of the faithful. See if these are not those legs of the Bridegroom, which the bride so magnificently praises in subsequent verses, comparing them, if I mistake not, to "alabaster columns set in sockets of pure gold (Ct 5,15)." How beautiful this is, because in very truth, in the incarnate wisdom of God, signified by the gold, mercy and truth have met each other (Ps 85,11). Therefore all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth (Ps 25,10).

8. Happy is the man then in whose soul the Lord Jesus once sets these feet of his. There are two signs by which you may recognize such a one, for he cannot but bear upon him the imprint of these divine footsteps. These signs are fear and hope, the former presenting the imprint of judgment, the latter that of mercy. Truly, the Lord takes pleasure in them that fear him, and in them that hope in his mercy (Ps 146,11), for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 1,7), hope the growth of wisdom. Its perfection charity reserves to itself. If all this be true, then obviously this first kiss, given to the feet, brings forth no small fruit. But of one thing you must beware, that you do not neglect either of these feet. If, for instance, you feel deep sorrow for your sins along with the fear of the judgment, you have pressed your lips on the imprint of truth and of judgment. But if you temper that fear and sorrow with the thought of God's goodness and the hope of obtaining his pardon, you will realize that you have also embraced the foot of his mercy. It is clearly inexpedient to kiss one without the other; a man who thinks only of the judgment will fall into the pit of despair, another who deceitfully flatters God's mercy gives birth to a pernicious security.

9. I myself, however wretched I may be, have been occasionally privileged to sit at the feet of the Lord Jesus, and to the extent that his merciful love allowed, have embraced with all my heart, now one, now the other, of these feet. And if, as happened at times, I should grow forgetful of his mercy, and with a stricken conscience become too deeply involved in the thought of the judgment, sooner or later I was cast down in unbelievable fear and shameful misery, enveloped in a frightful gloom out of which I cried in dismay: "Who has yet felt the full force of your fury, or learnt to fear the violence of your rage?" (Ps 90,11-12) But if on escaping from this I should cling more than was becoming to the foot of mercy, the opposite happened. I became dissipated, indifferent, negligent; lukewarm at prayer, languid at work, always on the watch for a laugh, inclined to say the wrong thing. And my interior was no steadier than my behavior. But you know what a teacher experience is; no longer of judgment alone or mercy alone, but of mercy and judgment I will sing to you, O Lord (Ps 101,1). I shall never forget your precepts, mercy and judgment will be the theme of my songs in the house of my pilgrimage, until one day when mercy triumphs over judgment, my wretchedness will cease to smart, and my heart, silent no longer, will sing to you. It will be the end of sorrow.

Bernard Song of Songs 3