Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) must have had one of the toughest lives of all. “The subject of love consumed” him. Yet, “his commitment was contemplative.” “His life was lived as [only] a testimony to the love of God.” Although, he was born into a noble family, he decided to live the life of a chaste monk. And, he took many of his friends with him.
He weaved the song of the wisest man who ever lived into a practice which all of humanity could learn from. His obsession with love drew him closer to the Bride’s lover, Christ. But, it must have left him amiss within his personal life. He was able to shine a clear light on the purpose of the Song of Songs, but he remained unable (due to his vow) to live out the metaphor here on Earth. Perhaps, that is what fueled him to continue in proclaiming a romantic Gospel.
Bernard’s words remain, filled with inspiration and a profound understanding of the love of God and our reciprocal love for Him. As he treads through the often under-appreciated writing of Solomon, Bernard repetitively pulls out the single line, “Let Him kiss me with the kiss of His Mouth” and uses it to masterfully navigate the story of our relationship with our Lord as the Bride of Christ.
He is able to use this same imagery, based off of a completely human love, something most of his hearers would be able to understand and relate to, as instruction and insight to a completely divine love. First, before anything else, Bernard believed there must come a purgative worship and repentance, then an illuminated acknowledgement and understanding, and finally a contemplative unification in our relationship with God. His concept lays out a simple path that anyone should be able to follow.
(Others have pointed out how this path is like a mystical ladder, Purgative--Illuminative--Union or, to include the works of Solomon, Purgative/Proverbs--Illuminative/Ecclesiastes--Union/Song of Songs. Personally, I think that on Earth, we're mainly stuck going back and forth between the first two rungs. We do become unified with Christ in Baptism and as His Bride, but we can never fully see Him until we are with Him again in Paradise.)
At the climax of his piece, after already tying in the woman who washed Christ’s feet with her hair and the imagery of Christ’s promise to answer the door when knocked, Bernard adds the idea behind 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4: “Love is the highest of all our natural gifts, supremely so when it is rendered back to God, Who is its Source.”
To conclude, Bernard points out that the love of God should be so grand that He is never absent from our hearts, even in remaining nameless we should know whom we speak of. Just as Mary Magdalene had asked what they had done with him, her Savior, and the woman in Solomon’s Song said to let him kiss her, we are to have him at the forefront of our minds.
Besides giving a better understanding of Scripture and our relationship to God, Bernard was most-likely able to use this style of sermon to shock the audience into seeing their faith anew. The sensuality would probably be a draw to many people who would have refrained from the church spotlight otherwise. And, this sort of undying love would certainly play an effect during the time of the crusades.
With his educated background in rhetoric, grammar, and logic, along with his need to stand for what he saw as divinely inspired truth and move people to stand with him, Bernard did what he needed to do. He molded the text not only as a romance meaningful to him and his listener but also as a tool of influence and a description of the limitlessly dedicated life that every Christian should live. He unhesitatingly confronted the leaders of his time and remained aggressively and self-righteously active. As he preached the second Crusade, it was no coincidence that he saw such a contrast between physical works and the spiritual life. His concept of kisses surely led his followers unafraid toward the kiss of death.
Today, we may continue to be inspired by his words. We can continue to know a love as a deep and mysterious subject which continues to bring us closer to God. Although, we are not fighting in a full-scale crusade, his writings remain as comfort and support in the spiritual battles of our own.