For Solid Food Like This (Hold the Milk)

Once I met up with Thomas Merton, it didn’t take long for him to introduce me to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Not exactly the founder of the Cistercian Order, as that distinction belongs to the trio of monks Robert of Molesme, Alberic, and Stephen Harding, all in the Communion of Saints now too, he nonetheless grew the Cistercian Order into a powerhouse of prayer.

Bernard, a Doctor of the Church, was indefatigable in his allegiance to Christ and to the Catholic Church. He was a contemplative, but was constantly being called into action, attending Church councils, while providing counsel to monarchs, and even preaching the Second Crusade. Repairing schisms and matching wits with Peter Abelard (and others constantly), it’s a miracle he had time for prayer, or anything else for that matter.

Personally, I don’t think he slept much. Where else would he have found the time to write, and deliver, 86 sermons on the little eight chapter poem attributed to Solomon entitled the Song of Songs? That is close to eleven homilies per chapter folks! There are 117 verses in this book, so St. Bernard has written a homily for every 1 and a third verse(!) of this poem. 1.37 homilies per verse if you include the title, which, as it turns out, he did. And don’t forget, he had to find time to read the scriptures too!

Thomas Merton said that Bernard is the professor of Love, and after reading the first homily on the title of this book, I think you will agree that Doctor Mellifluus as a title for him may actually be an understatement. He states that this is the third Old Testament book that is like a loaf of bread. The first two being my favorite OT book, Ecclesiastes, and as a runner up, the book of Proverbs. For this book, and these homilies, bring along your knife and fork because as loaves of bread go, this one is high in fiber. Ready? Dig in!

On the Title of the Book: The Song of Songs

The instructions that I address to you, my brothers, will differ from those I should deliver to people in the world, at least the manner will be different. The preacher who desires to follow St Paul’s method of teaching will give them milk to drink rather than solid food, and will serve a more nourishing diet to those who are spiritually enlightened: “We teach,” he said, “not in the way philosophy is taught, but in the way that the Spirit teaches us: we teach spiritual things spiritually.” And again: “We have a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity,” in whose company, I feel assured, you are to be found, unless in vain have you prolonged your study of divine teaching, mortified your senses, and meditated day and night on God’s law. Be ready then to feed on bread rather than milk. Solomon has bread to give that is splendid and delicious, the bread of that book called “The Song of Songs.” Let us bring it forth then if you please, and break it.

Now, unless I am mistaken, by the grace of God you have understood quite well from the book of Ecclesiastes how to recognize and have done with the false promise of this world. And then the book of Proverbs – has not your life and your conduct been sufficiently amended and enlightened by the doctrine it inculcates? These are two loaves of which it has been your pleasure to taste, loaves you have welcomed as coming from the cupboard of a friend. Now approach for this third loaf that, if possible, you may always recognize what is best.

Since there are two evils that comprise the only, or at least the main, enemies of the soul: a misguided love of the world and an excessive love of self, the two books previously mentioned can provide an antidote to each of these infections. One uproots pernicious habits of mind and body with the hoe of self-control. The other, by the use of enlightened reason, quickly perceives a delusive tinge in all that the world holds glorious, truly distinguishing between it and deeper truth. Moreover, it causes the fear of God and the observance of his commandments to be preferred to all human pursuits and worldly desires. And rightly so, for the former is the beginning of wisdom, the latter its culmination, for there is no true and consummate wisdom other than the avoidance of evil and the doing of good, no one can successfully shun evil without the fear of God, and no work is good without the observance of the commandments.

Taking it then these two evils have been warded off by the reading of choice books, we may suitably proceed with this holy and contemplative discourse which, as the fruit of the other two, may be delivered only to well prepared ears and minds. Before the flesh has been tamed and the spirit set free by zeal for truth, before the world’s glamour and entanglements have been firmly repudiated, it is a rash enterprise on any man’s part to presume to study spiritual doctrines.

Just as a light is flashed in vain on closed or sightless eyes, so “an unspiritual person cannot accept anything of the Spirit of God.” For “the Holy Spirit of instruction shuns what is false,” and that is what the life of the intemperate man is. Nor will he ever have a part with the pretensions of the world, since he is the Spirit of Truth. How can there be harmony between the wisdom that comes down from above and the wisdom of the world, which is foolishness to God, or the wisdom of the flesh which is at enmity with God? I am sure that the friend who comes to us on his travels will have no reason to murmur against us after he has shared in this third loaf.

But who is going to divide this loaf? The Master of the house is present, it is the Lord you must see in the breaking of the bread. For who else could more fittingly do it? It is a task that I would not dare to arrogate to myself. So look upon me as one from whom you look for nothing. For I myself am one of the seekers, one who begs along with you for the food of my soul, the nourishment of my spirit. Poor and needy, I knock at that door of his which, “when he opens, nobody can close,” that I may find light on the profound mystery to which this discourse leads. Patiently all creatures look to you, O Lord. “Little children go begging for bread; no one spares a scrap for them;” they await it from your merciful love. O God most kind, break your bread for this hungering flock, through my hands indeed if it should please you, but with an efficacy that is all your own.

Tell us, I beg you, by whom, about whom and to whom it is said: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course? For the words spring upon us as if indicating one speaker to whom another is replying as she demands a kiss— whoever she may be. But if she asks for or demands a kiss from somebody, why does she distinctly and expressly say with the mouth, and even with his own mouth, as if lovers should kiss by means other than the mouth, or with mouths other than their own? But yet she does not say: “Let him kiss me with his mouth”; what she says is still more intimate: “with the kiss of his mouth.”

How delightful a ploy of speech this, prompted into life by the kiss, with Scripture’s own engaging countenance inspiring the reader and enticing him on, that he may find pleasure even in the laborious pursuit of what lies hidden, with a fascinating theme to sweeten the fatigue of research. Surely this mode of beginning that is not a beginning, this novelty of diction in a book so old, cannot but increase the reader’s attention. It must follow too that this work was composed, not by any human skill but by the artistry of the Spirit, difficult to understand indeed but yet enticing one to investigate.

So now what shall we do? Shall we by-pass the title? No, not even one iota may be omitted, since we are commanded to gather up the tiniest fragments lest they be lost. The title runs: “The beginning of Solomon’s Song of Songs.” First of all take note of the appropriateness of the name “Peaceful,” that is, Solomon, at the head of a book which opens with the token of peace, with a kiss. Take note too that by this kind of opening only men of peaceful minds, men who can achieve mastery over the turmoil of the passions and the distracting burden of daily chores, are invited to the study of this book.

Again, the title is not simply the word “Song,” but “Song of Songs,” a detail not without significance. For though I have read many songs in the Scriptures, I cannot recall any that bear such a name. Israel chanted a song to Yahweh celebrating his escape from the sword and the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the twofold good fortune that simultaneously liberated and avenged him in the Red Sea. Yet even though chanted, this has not been called a “Song of Songs”; Scripture, if my memory serves me right, introduces it with the words: “Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.”

Song poured from the lips of Deborah, of Judith, of the mother of Samuel, of several of the prophets, yet none of these songs is styled a “Song of Songs.” You will find that all of them, as far as I can see, were inspired to song because of favors to themselves or to their people, songs for a victory won, for an escape from danger or the gaining of a boon long sought. They would not be found ungrateful for the divine beneficence, so all sang for reasons proper to each, in accord with the Psalmist’s words: “He gives thanks to you, O God, for blessing him.” But King Solomon himself, unique as he was in wisdom, renowned above all men, abounding in wealth, secure in his peace, stood in no need of any particular benefit that would have inspired him to sing those songs. Nor does Scripture in any place attribute such a motive to him.

We must conclude then it was a special divine impulse that inspired these songs of his that now celebrate the praises of Christ and his Church, the gift of holy love, the sacrament of endless union with God. Here too are expressed the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in figurative language pregnant with delight. It is no wonder that like Moses he put a veil on his face, equally resplendent as it must have been in this encounter, because in those days few if any could sustain the bright vision of God’s glory. Accordingly, because of its excellence, I consider this nuptial song to be well deserving of the title that so remarkably designates it, the Song of Songs, just as he in whose honor it is sung is uniquely proclaimed King of kings and Lord of lords.

Furthermore if you look back on your own experience, is it not in that victory by which your faith overcomes the world, in “your exit from the horrible pit and out of the slough of the marsh,” that you yourselves sing a new song to the Lord for all the marvels he has performed? Again, when he purposed to “settle your feet on a rock and to direct your steps,” then too, I feel certain, a new song was sounding on your lips, a song to our God for his gracious renewal of your life. When you repented he not only forgave your sins but even promised rewards, so that rejoicing in the hope of benefits to come, you sing of the Lord’s ways: how great is the glory of the Lord! And when, as happens, texts of Scripture hitherto dark and impenetrable at last become bright with meaning for you, then, in gratitude for this nurturing bread of heaven you must charm the ears of God with a voice of exultation and praise, a festal song.

In the daily trials and combats arising from the flesh, the world and the devil, that are never wanting to those who live devout lives in Christ, you learn by what you experience that man’s life on earth is a ceaseless warfare, and are impelled to repeat your songs day after day for every victory won. As often as temptation is overcome, an immoral habit brought under control, an impending danger shunned, the trap of the seducer detected, when a passion long indulged is finally and perfectly allayed, or a virtue persistently desired and repeatedly sought is ultimately obtained by God’s gift; so often, in the words of the prophet, let thanksgiving and joy resound. For every benefit conferred, God is to be praised in his gifts. Otherwise when the time of judgment comes, that man will be punished as an ingrate who cannot say to God: “Your statutes were my song in the land of exile.”

Again I think that your own experience reveals to you the meaning of those psalms, which are called not Songs of Songs but Songs of the Steps, in that each one, at whatever stage of growth he be, in accord with the upward movements of his heart may choose one of these songs to praise and give glory to him who empowers you to advance. I don’t know how else these words could be true: “There are shouts of joy and victory in the tents of the just.” And still more that beautiful and salutary exhortation of the Apostle: “With psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts.”

But there is that other song which, by its unique dignity and sweetness, excels all those I have mentioned and any others there might be; hence by every right do I acclaim it as the Song of Songs. It stands at a point where all the others culminate. Only the couch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. Let those who are versed in the mystery revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely to learn about it. For it is not a melody that resounds abroad but the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills. It is a tune you will not hear in the streets, these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings – the lover and the beloved. It is preeminently a marriage song telling of chaste souls in loving embrace, of their wills in sweet concord, of the mutual exchange of the heart’s affections.

The novices, the immature, those but recently converted from a worldly life, do not normally sing this song or hear it sung. Only the mind disciplined by persevering study, only the man whose efforts have borne fruit under God’s inspiration, the man whose years, as it were, make him ripe for marriage years measured out not in time but in merits – only he is truly prepared for nuptial union with the divine partner, a union we shall describe more fully in due course. But the hour has come when both our rule and the poverty of our state demand that we go out to work. Tomorrow, with God’s help, we shall continue to speak about the kiss, because today’s discourse on the title sets us free to resume where we had begun.

Tomorrow?! One down, and 85 more to go!


  • Mary R

    “(W)ith the kiss of his mouth.”, ” for it is not a melody that resounds abroad but the very music of the heart” and “only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings – the lover and the beloved”, this is beautiful and contemplative. I look forward to the rest of your friend’s homilies.


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