I get a kick out of reviewing the titles the Church has given its various doctors over the ages. You could probably guess many of these names by knowing a little bit about the saint in question: Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace”; Chrysostom, the “Eucharistic Doctor”; Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor”; Bonaventure, the “Seraphic Doctor.”
Some names are so cleverly fitting that one wonders whether the scholastics were having a little fun in coining them: Alexander of Hales, the “Unanswerable Doctor” (Doctor Irrefragabilis); John Duns Scotus, the “Subtle Doctor” (try to make heads or tails of one page of his writing and you will find just how fitting this is).
My personal favorite, though, and one I’ve come across only recently, is the Doctor Mellifluus, generally translated as something like “Doctor-flowing-with-honey.” It is an exceptionally fitting title for its recipient, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast day is today. Pope Pius XII, in the encyclical Doctor Mellifluus (1953) celebrating the 800th centenary of Bernard’s death, followed many earlier writers in regarding the saint as “the last of the Fathers.”
It’s not hard to see how why. The sweetness of his writing and teaching — “sweeter far than honey” (Ps. 19:10) — flows directly from his saturation in, and seemingly effortless fluency with, Scripture, and from the affective delight that he so clearly enjoys in his personal intimacy with his Lord. This is what makes the Fathers so attractive to eager young Christians who first encounter them: Intellectual rigor and textual erudition serve a burning love for, and delight in, the risen Savior.
Nowhere is this sweetness more on display than in Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs. Most of the later doctors of the Middle Ages (Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc.) burned with a fervent zeal for their Lord equal to that of the Abbot of Clairvaux; but it is nevertheless immensely difficult for most mortals to dig through their often inscrutable, scholastic hair-splitting to find the affective flame that motivates it.
Not so with these sermons: one immediately finds here the solid structure of sound theology anointed with the fragrant oil of a heart enchanted with its object’s beauty.
Consider, for example, Bernard’s exposition of the very first verse of the Song: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” First of all, let it be known that Bernard discusses this one passage in his first eight sermons on the Song. (I defy you to try teaching a Bible study at that pace.) Reading Scripture, for Bernard, was not about finding out “what the passage means” and then moving on; it was about delighting in the infinite fecundity of Scripture, its endless capacity to lure and entice us more deeply into the warm and tender embrace of the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through these inspired words.
What a strangely abrupt beginning, after all. The Song’s opening is like a “sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course,” with the speaker demanding a kiss from somebody (Sermones in Cantica, 1.5). Why, moreover, does she specify that it is to be a kiss “with the mouth,” “as if lovers should kiss by means other than the mouth?” And why, yet more intriguingly, does she say not “Let him kiss me with his mouth,” but something still more intimate: “with the kiss of his mouth.”
You can feel Bernard’s playful delight as he raises these questions:
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.
Bernard then draws out one of many treasures from the hidden riches in this verse. Why the distinction between “kissing with the mouth” and “kissing with the kiss of the mouth”?
The mouth that kisses signifies the Word who assumes human nature; the nature assumed receives the kiss; the kiss, however, that takes its being both from the giver and the receiver, is a person that is formed by both, none other than “the one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus.” (2.3)
If you’ve ever had a hard time talking about the hypostatic union (and if you haven’t, then you’re not paying attention), this is a text for you. The person of Jesus Christ is a kiss shared between God and man. In Jesus Christ, the face of God and the face of man are closer to each other than the closeness of the most intimate kiss you have ever shared with your beloved.
The nature of God and the nature of man are hypostatically united in this one person, in this one kiss. None of the saints would dare ask, Bernard concludes, for “the kiss of the mouth”: that kiss, from the mouth that is the eternal Word of God, is reserved for Christ alone, “on whom uniquely and in one sole instance the mouth of the Word was pressed, that moment when the fullness of the divinity yielded itself to him as the life of his body” (ibid.).
The saints only ask to be “kissed with the kiss of his mouth,” an important distinction: to be kissed by the Word Incarnate, Christ Jesus, the one mediator between God and mankind.
This theologically rich and spiritually enticing reading by no means exhausts Bernard’s engagement with verse 1. He also uses the idea of the “kiss” to talk about the necessity of advancing in the Christian life by degrees, and not all at once.
That is to say, before we can even think about being “kissed with the kiss of the mouth,” we must first humble ourselves to kiss Christ’s feet (the kiss of the sinful woman forgiven in the Gospels, the kiss of penitence and purgation), and then allow him to raise us to kiss his hand, the hand that he opens wide to fill us with his gracious assistance in our aspiring to a “holier intimacy” with him (3.4-5). Only then can we ask him to give us “that most intimate kiss of all, a mystery of supreme generosity and ineffable sweetness,” the kiss for which the bride yearns in the Canticle (3.5).
Bernard also uses this “kiss” as the inflection for his account of the Trinity:
If … 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. (8.2)
The bride, therefore, knows that it is infinitely beyond her capacity as a creature to ask for the kiss with which the Father kisses the Son; this is the kiss that “no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man” (8.7, quoting 1 Cor. 2:9). This is the “kiss of the mouth” that we hear of in such passages as “The Father and I are one” and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and “No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son” (8.7, 3; quoting John 10:30; John 14:10; Matt. 11:27).
But, Bernard says, there is another kiss, the “kiss of the kiss,” which we hear of when Christ continues: “No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (8.3; quoting Matt. 11:27). We hear of this kiss when Christ breathed on his apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and when St. Paul says that the kiss that no eye has seen “God has revealed to us by the Spirit” (8.7; quoting 1 Cor. 2:10), or when he says, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us” (8.5; quoting Rom. 5:5).
The Holy Spirit draws us into the most intense participation (that finitude can bear) of the infinitely sweet embrace that the Father and the Son share eternally and by nature.
That’s one verse, and I barely scratched the surface. Notice, though, what Bernard is doing. He’s not really talking about one verse of Scripture. He is using this one verse, redolent with a theme sweet to the imagination, as a needle that weaves together threads from all over Scripture into a beautiful tapestry that enchants the minds and hearts of his hearers and readers.
This consistent homiletical and pedagogical strategy is visible in the footnotes of most printed editions: it’s rare to find a page with less than 6 to 10 direct or indirect scriptural references. You can almost smell the pages of Scripture as you turn the pages of Bernard’s sermons.
What if preachers and teachers of the gospel once again learned to preach and teach like this? It might go a long way to helping the church recover a vibrant sense of Scripture as the inspired Word of God if her preachers were breathing out its prayers and its promises in nearly every other sentence (as Bernard does), fluently and elegantly weaving together turns of phrase scattered throughout the Bible into a whole picture of enchanting beauty.
For this to happen, of course, preachers and teachers of the gospel must first breath the Scriptures in. As I said a while back on Covenant, there really is no substitute for memorization. Bernard did not need to use the Internet or even a concordance to look up places in Scripture that helped him make a point: the texts were on his lips and in his heart. He talked of them when he walked by the way, and when he lay down, and when he rose. He bound them as a sign upon his hand, and as frontlets between his eyes.
On this his feast day, may we ask for his prayers to the Father that we might do the same.