Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Preaching of Saint Bernard

It has been noted that Martin Luther often admirably observed the preaching of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux of the Cistercian Monastic community (c. 1090-1153). In some selected sermons on the Song of Songs Bernard meditates on the nature of love, which is granted as gift by God. In the opening meditation we can already see the great reformational breakthrough that Wittenberg thrust upon the papacy, “For by keeping the Law no human being will stand justified before him. Taking this commandment into our hearts and feeling our own inadequacy we shall call to heaven and God will have mercy on us, and we shall know in that day that he saved us not because of any upright actions of our own, but in virtue of his mercy.” Calling upon God’s mercy and being sure of it actually take place in Christ’s promise is the mark of great preaching. Bernard creatively teaches that being saved and receiving the riches of heaven come by way of gift.

Love however marks the gift of salvation and has no chance of remaining dormant. Saint Bernard here speaks on a meditation of love that arises from the content of the heart. A loving heart he sees as being received by categorical gift. It proceeds not as an emotion but rather as action – as deed. Bernard cites the word of our Lord, “If your enemy is hungry feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink” (Lk. 6:27). Therefore love is manifested in actions rather than a purely emotional encounter, or as Bernard beautifully puts it, “But there is an affective response bred of the flesh, another rules by reason and yet another seasoned with wisdom.” There exists a harmony in loves action in the physical concrete expression, in reason, and godly wisdom. Action that proceeds from a callous heart is deficient and emotions that abound without any action are vain.

Bernard understands a great breakthrough occurs when the human acknowledges the following, “you will know your own self as your are when you perceive that there is nothing whatever in you to love, save only in so far as you are God’s, since you have poured all your capacity for loving into him. I repeat, you will know yourself as you are when the very experience of the love and affection that you bear yourself reveals to you that there is nothing in you deserving of your love, unless it be on his account without whom you yourself have no existence.” Here some lovely contours of Lutheran preaching take shape as we see a rather eloquent confession of justification by Christ alone. God’s action and claiming of the wayward human heart is the source and mediator of all love. That there is nothing within “deserving of your love” is a somewhat gentle way of acknowledging the deplorative and fallen state apart from God’s word, but it expresses it nonetheless. The personal identity of the Christian is rightly expressed this way, that true “self knowledge” antithetically distinguished from the Socratic tradition, is established by losing one’s personal egoism – with the result that the authentic self is realized in Christ’s identity. Ontological questions are met here in Bernard’s sermon. The question of being is met in God’s being and wisdom is met in the wisdom that emanates from God himself. The man who is wise in God’s love “reaches out to the rest of God’s creation with an ordered love.” This order is found by meeting the transient elements of the world with moderate involvement and clinging to “all things eternal with a desire that never flags.” Therefore involvement in the world is not disconnected from eternity but is rather moderated by it. The man wise in love therefore is acted upon by God and moves about in creation freely handing over the love shown to him by the Lord of Hosts.

Bernard ends his meditation with a lament of sorrowful expectation, “Weeping, I ask: how long shall we have the fragrance without the savour, we who glimpse our heavenly home from an unapproachable distance and are left sighing for it and hailing it from afar?” We might consider this the poetry of lament – that there exists a natural and apparent discrepancy between God’s promise of our heavenly home and the present circumstance of feeling disconnected and quite far from it. There is a “sighing” for the magnificent homecoming which of necessity finds a magnificent tension between promise and the present circumstance which cannot fully apprehend the wholeness of heaven. In closing he admits that he is “grimed with sin” but nevertheless seeks the Bridegroom of the Church.

A more mystic and stylistic detailing of the relationship between Bridegroom and the church takes place in Bernard’s meditation on Solomon’s Song 2:10, “My beloved spake, and said unto me, rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The meditation opens with the thought that “My beloved speaks to me.” Besides a linguistic exchange, the relationship between lover and beloved is described in rather lofty terms more illustrative of a graceful ballroom dance than anything else:

"Consider the gradual approach of grace and mark the steps by which the divine Bridegroom condescends. Notice the single-mindedness and the perception of the Bride, her sharp-eyed watching for the coming of the Bridegroom, the loving scrutiny she gives by turns to everything pertaining to him. As for him, he is coming, hastening, drawing near, he is here, he looks at her, he speaks with her. Not one of these moments escapes the Bride’s intent observation or catches her unaware."

In this mystical dance and interchange between the groom and bride it is the groom who is doing the leading and performing toward and for his bride. The theological proposition of the verbiage of the action is that Christ is doing the work. The dance is not guided and led by the bride but solely by the coming, hastening, and drawing near of Christ. This movement does not render the bride lifeless but her life arises from a more passive interaction marked by “watching,” “hearing,” and “turning” in reaction toward her lover. Bernard therefore begins with the great starting point of theology - that God intervenes, leads, and ultimately carries the church to the wedding feast. The bride, the church, does not meet the groom on the middle of the dance floor. She does not meet him “50/50.” Rather the groom condescends completely to the bride who is eagerly watching and waiting to be addressed and taken.

The groom’s action is not to be considered a projection of mystical illumination but instead as initiated and performed through means. Christ performs through “angelic messengers.” He is present in the flesh and addresses the bride through apostles. Therefore Christ’s speaking, his coming, hastening, and drawing near is not a contemplative pursuit on the part of the church but is achieved on the part of apostles and Christ’s encounter in the flesh. Bernard must have the apostolic ministry in mind with the priestly duties of the preaching office and administration of the sacraments. Therefore the church meets Christ through pastors who are entrusted to preach the gospel and feeds his dearly beloved his Holy Supper.

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