“Anything on Jesus,” the professor said as he gave our class instructions for the final paper in his theology course. “For example, you can analyze Jesus in art, or even discuss how a particular saint viewed Jesus. The deadline is three weeks from tonight.”
No problem, I thought. I already knew my topic, thanks to a little prayer book I carried. The worn paperback, buried in my handbag among keys and cosmetics, was a goldmine of meditations by various saints. Several snippets from the writings of St. Bernard had intrigued me, and I decided that this saint would lead me to both a better understanding of Jesus and (hopefully) a good grade.
I headed to the college library to gather my research materials. “St. Bernard, Sermons on the Song of Songs,” I typed into the search engine. I clicked on the “submit” button — and as the results flickered across the screen, I groaned.
“Four volumes?” I silently wailed. “Eighty-six sermons?” Recalling a few long-winded homilies I’d recently heard, I cringed.
Since I worked full time while taking evening classes, I wasn’t sure I was up for this project after all. Maybe St. Bernard was wordier than those brief passages in my prayer book had suggested. Almost 90 sermons to cover the eight chapters of the Song of Songs? I needed a more succinct saint.
A few days of procrastination and several anxious chocolate bars later, I realized that I was running out of time and ideas. Resigning myself to St. Bernard, I returned to the library, checked out all four volumes of his spiritual masterpiece, and marched back to my kitchen table.
Tea (and more chocolate) in hand, I began reading the introduction’s biography of St. Bernard. Apparently, 86 sermons on a single subject was nothing unusual for St. Bernard, who was a classic overachiever. Born in 1090 near Dijon, France, the future saint and doctor of the church entered the Abbey of Cîteaux at age 22 — and brought 30 of his relatives with him, an impressive batting average for vocational recruitment.
Bernard was soon appointed the head of a new Cistercian abbey at Clairvaux, where he spent four decades shepherding his monks, defending the faith against heresies, authoring treatises, and managing affairs of both church and state.
In 1136, St. Bernard began writing his “Sermons on the Song of Songs,” and for the next 17 years he pondered this beautiful and mysterious Scripture. With profound insight and great tenderness, Bernard showed how the Song of Songs is a duet of love sung by God and the soul, the Bridegroom and the Bride, to each other.
To the modern mind, a medieval monk may seem like the last person who could speak credibly to the intimate experience of love found in the Song of Songs. But Bernard’s voice echoes across eight centuries to harmonize with Pope Francis’ call to a Year of Mercy.
“Love speaks everywhere; if anyone desires to grasp these writings, let him love,” Bernard wrote. “It is vain for anyone who does not love to listen to this song of love, or to read it, for a cold heart cannot catch fire from its eloquence” (Sermon 79.1).
And that love by definition is mercy. The recent Synod on the Family stressed that “the love of the Father, when it encounters the human condition, becomes the mercy of Christ.” Bernard’s confidence in this mercy is boundless:
“Every soul — even if burdened with sin, enmeshed in vice, ensnared by the allurements of pleasure, a captive in exile, imprisoned in the body, caught in the mud, fixed in mire, bound to its members, a slave to care, distracted by business, afflicted with sorrow, filled with anxious forebodings and uneasy suspicions … every soul, I say, standing thus under condemnation and without hope, has the power to turn and find it can … breathe the fresh air of the hope of pardon and mercy.” (Sermon 83.1)
Such mercy is so real that we can grasp it with our senses, even as the Bride and Bridegroom passionately delight in each other in the Song of Songs. In a June 2015 homily, Pope Francis declared that mercy usually requires “getting your hands dirty. And Jesus is dirty,” he added, noting how the Lord was unafraid to touch the leper, the outcast, the sinner.
Bernard likewise stained his hands in the service of love while breathing deeply of its strange perfume. Reflecting on Isaiah 53:12, which recounts how Christ “bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors, that they shall not perish,” Bernard asks, “What smells of mercy like that?” (Sermon 67.5)
This fragrance of mercy has lingered with me. Although I’ve finished my term paper, I haven’t yet returned the once-daunting volumes of Bernard’s sermons to the library. In fact, I renewed them, since I plan to re-read these ancient meditations on mercy. I have much to learn.