Wednesday, June 02, 2010

ECM, Day 10: Bernard of Clairvaux and more Song of Songs

There's been so much life to live, so many conversations to have, and so many other books to read lately! Today at lunch I finally made time to read Bernard of Clairvaux's rather impressive musings on Song of Songs. I was not thrilled at the first couple of pages of his exegesis, in which he does some basic language play and literary analysis. At one point, though, things get interesting and he starts to compare the storerooms in the bridal chamber from Song of Songs to
1. discipline,
2. nature, and
3. grace.

As I wrote in my notes, I find such metaphors fun and interesting but not always useful. And then I read further...

"In the first [room, discipline], guided by moral principles, you discover how you are inferior to others, in the second you find the basis for equality, in the third what makes you greater; that is: the grounds for submission, for co-operation, for authority; or if you will: to be subject, to co-exist, to preside. In the first you bear the status of learner, in the second that of companion, in the third that of master. For nature has made men equal. But since this natural moral gift was corrupted by pride, men became impatient of equal status. Driven by the urge to surpass their fellows, they spared no efforts to achieve this superiority; with an itch for vainglory and promoted by envy, they lived in mutual rivalry (Gal 5:26). Our primary task is to tame this wilfulness of character by submission to discipline in the first room, where the stubborn will, worn down by the hard and prolonged schooling of experienced mentors, is humbled and healed. The natural goodness lost by pride is recovered by obedience, and they learn, as far as in them lies, to live peacefully and sociably with all who share their nature, with all men, no longer through fear of discipline but by the impulse of love" (McGinn 29-30). Bernard goes on to talk about how wonderful it is to live in harmony.

Later on that page he talks about how leaders should not lead by domineering but by influencing out of love. He pulls out key passages to this effect: "Love is the fullness of the law" (Romans 13:10) and "If you love your brother you have fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8). It's tough to argue with that, and as hard as it is to obey sometimes, it is a joyful law that makes sense to my soul.

Bernard does not stop here. He pushes the idea of the bridegroom as God and the bride as any soul who comes in union with him. Bernard speaks a little about the awesome ineffability of God, even if his metaphor is a little antiquated and angrifying: "the king has not one bedroom only, but several. For he has more than one queen; his concubines are many" (31). He explains it a bit better: "All do not experience the delight of the Bridegroom's private visit in the same room, the Father has different arrangements for each (Mt 20:23). For we did not choose him but he chose us and appointed places for us (Jn 15:16); and in the place of each one's appointment there he is too." Indeed, "[t]here are many rooms [...] and each [...] finds there the place and destination suited to her merits until the grace of contemplation allows her to advance further and share the happiness of her Lord" (32).

In other words, we each have our own gifts, our own roles, our own talents, and our own unique experiences of the Divine.

This last bit is not as directly related, but it groks with my thoughts recently on the acquisition and creation of knowledge and of what life has to offer:
"Instruction makes us learned, experience makes us wise" (33).
Aside from the translator's love of comma splices, I can hardly disagree :-)

Go in peace. Next time: more Eckhart! [It's like more cowbell, only better!]

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