A Study of the “Song of Songs” in the Works of St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross

The Songs of Songs which is Solomon’s1 was written in the 5th century, B.C., and is attributed to King Solomon.2 It is written in a very poetic manner, and on the face of it, it is a love poem clearly showing the love, anticipation of, and of the great admiration for, the woman through whose eyes the male object of her affection is perceived. The note in the Catholic RSV version of the Bible tells us that there are three main interpretations of this book: first, a purely allegorical interpretation, where, for the Jews, it stood for God’s love of the Chosen People; for the Church Fathers, it was an allegory showing the loving relationship between Christ and his Church. Secondly, it is seen as an allegory of the love between an unnamed bride and groom, intended to extol married love in the sight of God. Lastly, some, taking the literal sense of the second interpretation—that of married love—say that it is a type of the union between Christ and his Church.3 The second of these interpretations is the one taken by, for one example, the explanation in the Life Application Study Bible, (NIV). It holds that this book is a wedding song honoring marriage, showing that human love and sex are a good in God’s eyes.4 In this Bible, the explanation goes on to tell a story that Solomon used to visit his vineyards, and there came upon a beautiful peasant woman tending the vines. Embarrassed, the woman ran away, but Solomon could not get her out of his mind. He returned, found her, and married her. Hence, the note contends, this book is about their love and marriage, though nowhere does it tell us where this story comes from.

Catholics tend to hold to the first or third interpretation mentioned above.5 Based on modern biblical scholarship, yet according to the whole tradition of the Church, it appears that the third interpretation is the most valid. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture there is, first, a literal interpretation, and then there is a second, spiritual interpretation, which is subdivided into three categories: the allegorical sense; the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.6 The literal sense must be understood in terms of what the author and the Holy Spirit intended to say. This includes actual historical events, but also the whole plan of salvation, and the analogy of Faith.7 Surely, the literal sense is that the Songs of Songs is a love poem, and it does show that true human love is a part of human nature, and is pleasing to God in the right context. But unlike the second interpretation given to this book and mentioned earlier, there is more to it than this. This does not mean that this aspect is not important, but it does mean that a mere love poem would not be included in Sacred Scripture. God has a higher reason for this.

St. Bernard on the Song of Songs
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom Thomas Merton calls the “last of the Fathers,”8 was a great Cistercian spiritual writer of the Middle Ages. He founded the Abbey of Clairvaux, was a noted preacher, defender of Church teachings against heresies, and author of 86 sermons on the Song of Songs.9

While a thorough investigation into the insights into the Song, given by St. Bernard, is impossible in this work, many important insights can be discussed. In his first “Sermon,” St. Bernard tries to remind us that the carnal man cannot read the Scriptures with the mind he is supposed to have to clearly understand them. He says that there are two enemies of the soul that must be conquered: “a misguided love of the world, and an excessive love of self.” He says that the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are meant to remedy these faults that would produce blindness in reading the Song.10 The intemperate man is shut off from the spiritual realities because the Holy Spirit shuns what is false, and hence is not given to the carnal man.11 Here, St. Bernard appears to reject, from the very beginning, the second interpretation of the Song given above. This is not just an allegory of married love, but there is much more to it. Nevertheless, these sermons do not exclude the flesh or the physical. In a very insightful sermon,12 he discusses the following line form the Song: “My beloved is mine, and I am his; he feeds among the lilies.” Bernard points out that the act of feeding is a humble and commonplace thing. It has a note of abasement in it.13 How could it be that this bride would have someone who acts in such a way? The answer is that “he who is God above, is the beloved below; above the stars he reigns, and among the lilies he loves.”14 “[U]ntil he came down to the lilies, and revealed himself feeding among the lilies, his love was not returned, and he did not become the beloved.”15 What he is referring to is that this beloved must be seen, first by prophecy, as did the Prophets, and with the eyes of faith, as does the believer of today. The full realization of this could not come about until the incarnation: “So he who gives food to all has deigned to come down to the lilies, and feed among them, and thus become the beloved, for he could he could not be beloved before he was recognized.”16 The beloved has “no form or comeliness” merely seen in the flesh, but seen by faith, he is in splendor among the lilies, which are the perfect qualities shown by the incarnate God.17 In other words, the Prophets could “see” God’s goodness by what God said through the prophets, and by reflecting about his actions to make Israel his people. But becoming flesh, we can now actually see these actions up close, in person. Though we cannot directly see his deity, Jesus, the beloved of the Song, is as close as men will ever be allowed on this earth to witness the deity. We who have not seen Jesus, roam the earth on foot, see him clearly in the Gospels, and in the Eucharist, not with our eyes, but with our eyes enlightened by faith, and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Hence, he becomes the beloved.

Here, St. Bernard is describing spiritual marriage. It presumes that we are creatures of body and soul, the “suppositum” of John Paul II. How appropriate it is to describe this mystical contemplation in physical terms, in terms in which anyone who has ever been in love with another human being can appreciate: terms that we humans can understand; terms which are of the flesh (in the good sense) which are a real reflection of the heavenly. In Sermon 52, St. Bernard discusses Song of Songs 2; 7, which says: I charge you, daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not to stir my beloved or rouse her until she pleases.”18 This is not the sleep which relaxes the senses, nor is it the “sleep” of Lazarus, from which Our Lord went to raise him. Neither is it the sleep of the “second” and eternal death, that is, the death from sin. This sleep is an intimacy so great that it is a foretaste of heaven: it is a spiritual repose in the beloved, an embrace of the fullness of which we will completely experience in heaven. This is the real meaning of contemplation.19 Even studying these few sections of St. Bernard’s Sermons, the whole book of the Song comes alive. God will never tamper with our free will. And just like a bride and groom on their wedding night, the groom will proceed gently with the bride, going at her pace, so their consummation of the marriage will be an act of true love, not just sensual satisfaction.20 God waits, giving us the grace prior, to see if we accept it. If we accept this grace, it tells him that he can raise us to the next stage, etc. This is clearly matrimonial; a spiritual betrothal, and ultimately spiritual marriage

To St. Bernard, the human soul and the Word have an affinity, such that even if the soul gets enmeshed in all vice and sin, it can still repent and prepare itself, by the natural abilities that God gave it, for these spiritual nuptials. God is within the soul, even in its darkest time, ready to give it the grace to return to him.21 Once “consummated,” the bond between God and the person becomes stronger than the natural one between the person and his or her parents. As St. Bernard quotes Genesis: “’A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his bride.’”22

St. Bernard shows how the increasing frequency of the visits of the bridegroom, the Word, increases the hunger for that bridegroom. The bride, the soul, longs more for that bridegroom when he is absent, that is to say, when the soul does not detect his presence, the more the bridegroom visits that soul. The bride so understands the beauty, love, and wonder of that bridegroom, the more she communicates with him. So his absences cause greater and greater pain, causing the bride to long more ardently for the hidden bridegroom.23 For this soul, the more familiarity with the Word, the more everything else fades into the background and loses its meaning.24

Lastly, St. Bernard points out that the spiritual marriage ends in fruitfulness, just as a regular human marriage. There are two kinds of fruitfulness: birth or offspring that come from this spiritual marriage. First, there are births by preaching, as when we share the Gospel, and give birth to the Word in the souls of others; and, second, by giving birth to spiritual insights by meditation. In both cases, these are real births. In the first, God gives birth to himself in the soul of another, the mother of which is the original soul. In the second, the original soul is given the offspring of new understandings of the realm of the deity, by the bridegroom, God himself, through infused contemplation.25

St. John of the Cross
There is some contrast between St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross on the issue of the Song of Songs. While St. Bernard wrote sermons beautifully explaining the Song, St. John wrote his own version of the Song of Songs. This appears in his book, Spiritual Canticle, which is, as was the practice of St. John of the Cross, actually a canticle like the Song, accompanied by explanations which the Carmelite nuns, and his own disciples, asked him to write.26 Most of his Canticle was written while St. John was in horrible prison conditions at Baeza.27

One might rightly ask how it was possible to write such beautiful things in such horrible conditions of no light, fresh air, and on a bread and water diet. The Spiritual Canticle itself contains the answers. The Song of Songs, as was said above, is a poem depicting the search for the Divine by Solomon, the presumed author, which begins in the person, prompted by grace, and continues ending in spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. The language used is that of great human love, because the love of persons for each other is the only fitting language that can adequately explain what is going on in the soul. For St. John of the Cross, it is the same, but this Canticle is the story of his personal search for God. The fact that it is so similar to the Song implies that the true search for the Divine has the same schema for all sincere searchers. The great Thomist and scholar of the spiritual life, Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., severely criticizes those who say that mystical graces may be desired, they may be properly asked for, but that they are not in the normal way of sanctity. These erroneous writers even say that sanctity can be obtained without these graces, as if there were merely icing on a spiritual cake. Garrigou-Lagrange strongly asserts that, “[t]his opinion is not in harmony with the teaching of St. John of the Cross.” These graces are in the normal way of sanctity.28

In fact, the truth is that many people never attain this level of sanctity, even if it is in the normal way, because they first have to prove themselves by passing through two major purgations. First is the passive purification (or dark night) of the senses, where the soul is purged to obstacles hindering the operation of grace. These are the attachments to spiritual consolations which God has granted to the person to encourage that person to pursue God more seriously. But these consolations become a danger to this pursuit, because the soul becomes attached to them, thinking it has reached the goal. God, then, has to remove these as a test of the person’s sincerity and perseverance. He does not remove his grace, but only the sensible consolations.29 The second purgation is the dark night of the soul. While the dark night of the senses is horrible to the senses, the dark night of the soul is horrible to the soul, where the soul is stripped spiritually of all that would hinder the operations of grace which will end in the spiritual marriage.30 These purgations are necessary because the obstacles to God’s action “must be renounced, rejected, as far as possible; the soul must go beyond them and, thus, rest in emptiness, in the absolute nudity of spirit.31

St. John of the Cross obviously passed through these purgations at an early age, which explains how he was to expound on the search for God in such a wonderful way, and during such a period of suffering and rejection.

In stanzas 1 to 4, we see the bride (rather the bride-to-be) searching for the lover who fled “like the hart, having wounded me … I went out after thee, calling, and thou wert gone.” The soul says that it “will go over yonder mountains and banks,” neither plucking the flowers, nor fearing wild beasts. It will cross frontier woods, and thickets.32 Obviously, here the soul has been wounded by divine love, almost, if I may use the analogy, injected by God of a highly addicting drug, without which the soul can hardly live. The thirst for God, prepared for by successfully passing through the nights of the senses and of the spirit, is given more mystical graces by God. As St. John writes: “And there comes to pass in the soul this grief that is so great, inasmuch as when God inflicts upon the soul that wound of love, it will rise with sudden celerity to the possession of the beloved.”33

These wounds are not to satisfy, but to give pain, but they are delectable to the soul, because “they cause it to issue forth from itself, and enter into God.” This the bride expresses in the line following, saying: “I went out after thee, calling, and thou wert gone.34

The bridegroom has scattered thousands of graces, meaning that the person can see the mark of God on created things that remind him of the beloved. It is a vagueness called by the spouse “a something,” also saying that the creatures are stammering something which, because the soul cannot exactly comprehend it, leaves her dying.35

Stanza 12 is a bridge between restless searching, and tranquility and rest. St John here describes with much imagery a pleasant place of mountains, valleys, strange islands, and a supper that recreates and enkindles love, by which he means that the supper, which we have at the end of the day’s trials, signals that the soul is in possession of all things good.36 He then says, “there he gave me his breast; there he taught me a science most delectable; And I gave myself to him indeed, reserving nothing; there I promised him to be his bride.” This is the spiritual betrothal. St. John says of these stanzas: “In this stanza, the Bride describes the surrender which was made upon either side in this spiritual betrothal, namely, that betwixt herself and God; saying that, in that inner cellar of love, they were united through the communication of Himself to her, when he gave her freely the breast of His love.”37 In the 27th stanza, the divine Spouse says:

The Bride has entered Into the pleasant garden of her desire,
And at her pleasure rests, Her neck reclining on the gentle arms of the beloved.

Here is the point of spiritual marriage. The bride has finally found her spouse; she is fully at rest with the object of her love that she sought for so long, so diligently, and with such pain.38 This marriage between the Son of God and the Bride is far greater than the betrothal, “because it is a total transformation in the beloved … wherein on either side, there is made surrender, by total possession, of the one to the other, in consummate union of love, as far as may be in this life, where the soul is made Divine, and becomes God by participation, insofar as may be in this life, and thus, this is the highest estate which in this life is attainable.”39 Garrigou-Lagrange states that this is the ultimate end (i. e., goal) of all spiritual work: If, therefore, the state of spiritual marriage is the end of all the actions of the soul, as well as of the divine operation, it is necessarily identified with perfect love, and cannot be in purely accidental relation to it. Consequently, we conclude that it incontestably brings the spiritual marriage, an eminently mystical state, into the normal way of sanctity.”40

St. John of the Cross’s spiritual marriage is similar to that of the Song of Songs, though St. John is more clear in the detail. In the Song, the bride-to-be searches for the beloved, as she does in St. John, but there is no clear differentiation, in this writer’s opinion, between the spiritual betrothal, and spiritual marriage. What we see is the Bride searching and the Beloved being ravished by the beauty of this searcher.41 Near the end, the bride possesses the beloved:

I am my beloved’s,
And his desire is for me.
Come my beloved,
Let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There, I will give you my love.42

Clearly, this is the consummation of the spiritual marriage. Finally the bride has found her bridegroom.

What strikes one who studies the Song of Songs, the Sermons of St. Bernard on the Song of Songs, and the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, is how all three, starting with the Holy Spirit in the Song, can only really describe the higher levels of spirituality in terms of the fully human experience of love. Even though the tradition repeats, “the soul … the soul,” and this writer believes that this is misleading, nevertheless, the three works clearly demonstrate what John Paul II says about human nature: the human is a “suppositum,” meaning he is a unity of body and soul. These two are meant to work together. The body is not, as in some older ideas held, a mere hindrance to the soul, from whence the tradition of speaking of the soul may have come, but they are partners. And if the body becomes a hindrance to the spiritual progress of the person, it is not the body’s fault, it is the fault of the whole person, who, either voluntarily, or through laziness, did not seek the union with the beloved that these three great works describe.

Following this line of reasoning, these three works demonstrate how closely the nature of man is to the nature of God, such that God gives man the graces to pursue God in an analogous way to the way a human would pursue a human beloved. Could this be accidental? No.

According to Bonaventure, every creature bears some analogy to God because every creature is an imitation of God, inasmuch as it is caused by God, and is conformed to him through the divine idea.43

Reading Richard of St. Victor, and how he wondrously explains the internal relations of the persons of the Trinity, coupled with the fact that man, of all creatures, resembles God the most, these three writings we have analyzed have given us a glimpse into God himself.44

  1. Holy Bible Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 517 in an introductory note to the book, “Song of Solomon,” says that this is its original title.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Life Application Study Bible New International Version (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2005), 1062.
  5. Holy Bible (RSV), 517.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #’s 116-7.
  7. Ibid., # 113, and class notes Scri 607, New Testament, Prof. Pimental Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College.
  8. Thomas Merton, The Last of the Fathers: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Encyclical Letter Doctor Mellifluous (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954).
  9. These are all available in Cistercian Fathers Series: Number Four, The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Volume Two: Song of Songs (Four Volumes) (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1971). All references to St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs are from this work.
  10. “Sermon” 1:1.
  11. “Sermon” 1:2.
  12. “Sermon” 70.
  13. “Sermon” 70:1.1.
  14. “Sermon” 70:1.2
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 70: 1.3
  17. Ibid., 70: 2. 4-5.
  18. Ibid., 52: 1.1.
  19. Contemplation is an unfortunate word used for these things in the Church, since it is burdened with “reason.” The sleep of which St. Bernard speaks is beyond reason, and is purely a gift of God to the faithful soul who seeks him, as in the early passages of the Song.
  20. This is a great argument against co-habitation before marriage. There is almost nothing more beautiful and wonderful than to be admitted into the intimate sanctuary of the life partner after the beautiful sacrament of Matrimony, and a nice reception following it. Co-habiters, not to mention those who have serial sexual partners, will never experience the beauty of this God-given event.
  21. “Sermon” 83:1.1, 1.2. This is very similar to St. Theresa of Avila’s “first mansions.” See, St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, tr., by E. Allison Peers, New York: Image Books, 1944, 33 ff.
  22. “Sermon” 83: 5.2.
  23. “Sermon” 74: 1.2.
  24. Ibid., 74:1.3.
  25. “Sermon” 85: 4.13. This reminds one of the Immaculate Conception. The person is prepared to receive the word by the acceptance of God’s grace, just as Mary was prepared, who never rejected a single grace. Then the Word comes down from heaven to the soul, and is in a way, incarnated in human flesh, so that, as St. Paul says, “{I}t is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me . . . .” (Gal 2:20)
  26. E. Allison Peers, “Introduction,” St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, ed. and trans. by E. Allison Peers (New York: Image, 1961), 14.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. two, trans. by Sr. Timothea Doyle, O. P. (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, 1989), 548.
  29. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, ed. and trans. by E. Allison Peers (New York: Image, 1959), 61 ff., on the elucidation of the phase “In a dark night.”
  30. Ibid.
  31. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, 549.
  32. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, ed. and trans. by E. Allison Peers (New York: Image, 1961), stanzas 3 and 4. This volume has a number of redactions in it and it would be purposeless to distinguish among them for the purposes of this study.
  33. Ibid, 54.
  34. Ibid., bold in text.
  35. Ibid., 75.
  36. Ibid., 116.
  37. Ibid., 137.
  38. Ibid., 173. Capitalization is as it appears in the English text.
  39. Ibid., 174.
  40. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, 558.
  41. Song of Songs 4 and 7.
  42. Ibid., 7: 10-12.
  43. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, s.v. “The Theological Use of Analogy.” 
  44. Richard of St. Victor, “Book Three of the Trinity,” The Twelve Patriarchs; the Mystical Ark; Book Three of the Trinity, trans. by Grover A. Zinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 371-397.
Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD About Dr. William R. Luckey, PhD

Dr. William R. Luckey is Professor Emeritus and Scholar in Residence at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He has a BA from St. John's University in New York, where he also taught for five years. He has an MA and PhD in political philosophy from Fordham University, an MBA from Shenandoah University in Virginia, an MA in economics from George Mason University, and an MA in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology of Christendom College. He is widely published in scholarly and popular forms. He has been married for 45 years, and has four grown children, and 22 grandchildren. Dr. Luckey and his wife are Lay Dominicans.