Title: Songs of silence
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Title: Songs of silence
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Language: English
Creator: Brunetti, Claire F
Copyright Date: 1991
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Copyright 1991


Claire F. Brunetti

For My Family


I would like to thank the English department of the University of

Florida for their willingness to sponsor my research into the rhetoric

of Christian mysticism. For his expertise, wisdom, and guidance, R. A.

Shoaf has earned my deepest gratitude. I am indebted to Marie Nelson

who not only encouraged my exploration of the contemplative dimension

and gave in-depth commentaries on the various stages of these

chapters, but also shared her own rhetorical work as she wrote it. To

a brilliant and most professional professor, Don Ault, I owe my

alterede" reading perceptions as well as frequent inspirational

conversations. I also appreciate the thoughtful readings of Ira Clark

and his knowledge of sacred writings.

My special thanks goes to the Women's Studies group of the

university, whose Tybel Spivak scholarship enabled the completion of

this research within my limitations of time.

Various other individuals have aided my research. For his letter

of introduction to the Carmelites of Spain, I thank John Snyder,

Bishop of St. Augustine. To Baltasar Fra-Molinero I am grateful for

his expertise in the literature of Spain. For the wonderful

illustrations, I thank Clifford Brunetti, my son. For his readings,

useful suggestions, and his patience, special thanks go to my husband,




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...................................................... iv

ABSTRACT .......................................................... vi

INTRODUCTION ...................................................... 1





AFTERWORD ......................................................... 199

WORKS CITED ........................................................ 209

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.................................................216

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Claire F. Brunetti

December 1991

Chairman: R. A. Shoaf
Major Department: English

The erotic implications of the Song of Songs provide the

rhetoric for the Christian affective tradition of "love." The

allegorical reading of Christ as Bridegroom and soul as Bride

participates in two reflexive processes: the silent body's way of

knowing and the cultural process of gendering. Knowing through the

body involves spatial movement: vertical regard, horizontal

socialization, personal containment, and birthing process. Cultural

gendering imposes dichotomies of value on these movements. Within

such dichotomies, the mystics formulate persuasion advocating the

audience's and their own gender transference and depend upon body

knowledge as a source of appeal.

The purpose of this dissertation is twofold. First, it records

the cataphatic "love" language directed at Christ's body which

mystics from three different centuries employed. Second, it shows the

metaphorical patterns of the rhetoric as a process by which language

provides a sensual experience of myth shared by genders and cultures

via sexuality. Though speculations of an origin of the "mystical

union" experience are explored, the issue of "divine" presence

remains open since this study is literary, not theological.

Beginning with St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), whose

Sermons on the Song of Songs appropriate the female metaphor of the

Bride, erotic rhetoric effects Christian conversion. Bernard's "kiss"

sermons weave rhetorical strategies with his mysticism. Margery

Kempe's (1373?-1440?) spiritual autobiography cries out the effects

of the Bernardine tradition. Margery's visionary life with Christ

together with her subversive tears ease the birth of her rhetorical

autonomy. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) persuaded her nuns in

Meditations on the Song of Songs to experience God on their own. She

altered their perspective from brides to children sucking at the

breasts of God and to men using the "sword of contemplation." The

metaphoric patterns used by these three imply creativity as a

repeated allegory of Genesis which blames the woman for forbidden



The rhetoric of Christian mysticism, i.e. contemplation, has been

at the root of controversy since the first century. Detractors have

charged mystics with heresy; they have seen mysticism as a sensual

form of demonic possession, a psychological instability such as

hysteria or a means of orgasm, and have identified it as elitist or

eccentric, which uses an emotionally based language rather than an

intellectually based one. Individuals identified as Christian mystics

have firmly claimed that they are true Christians, that they draw

their inspiration from an asensual knowledge of divinity, accessible

to any person, regardless of gender, age, status, race; that theirs is

a divine rhetoric and, as such, is a political weapon. The controversy

remains unresolved, and indeed is itself one main reason for the

continuing interest of theologians and historians--and now

psychologists, cultural anthropologists, linguists, phenomenologists,

and genderists as well. Manuscript discoveries of the 1930s, followed

by more recently introduced approaches to the early texts to be

considered here provide, as would seem immediately apparent, reason

for further controversy. That further controversy, examined with close

attention to the language used by disputants, can provide opportunity

to exercise our ability to question customary pronouncements of


The rhetoric to be examined here is that of individuals who lived

in Christian communities. The texts to be considered have been


conserved by Christian religious groups. This, however, does not mean

that the only lessons to be learned from those texts must be learned

by readers who are themselves devoted primarily to the greater glory

of God. Granted, this was the overt intention of Bernard of Clairvaux,

Margery Kempe, and Teresa of Avila, but texts have a certain

indeterminacy. They reflect, often without their writers' intentions

that they should do so, the cultures in which they were composed as

well as their authors' particular sensibilities. And consideration of

affective mystical literature can be especially challenging with

respect to the relationship between the individual who writes and the

culture in which s/he lives. Mystical literature reaches beyond

culture even as it reflects it, because it expresses and extends love

to the communal universe of sound through the parallel silent

universe "single song" of the individual.

The body sings itself, and the vehicle of its tenor is often

Christ's own body. For corporeal lyrics, affective Christian mystics

turn to the Song of Songs, unanimously agreeing on its beauty and its

inspired source. By using the Song, they continue its eroticism but

brace it with a spiritual interpretation. Their compositions thus

become paradoxical, and their paradoxes become grounds for


The Song permits at least two allegorical readings. The first

holds that Christ is the Bridegroom and the soul is the Bride; while

the second, also well established by tradition, holds that the

communal church is the Bride. One problem with either interpretation

is that the function of the Bridegroom is to sexually consummate


union, and the tradition of Christ is that though his gender

designation is "male," he is not sexually active. Another problem is

the language's encouragement of sexual desire while the patristic

tradition simultaneously labels such desire as "carnal," which may

only be tolerated for the propagation of the species. A third problem

is gender-specific. How is a man who loves Christ to express corporeal

love without homo-eroticism becoming an issue of the language? How

does a married woman, no longer allied with her own husband, express

corporeal love without recourse to the remembered intimacy of married

life? How does a virgin with little practical experience with intimacy

express corporeal love? These are some of the problems of expression

built into the affective Christian mystical literature.

Perhaps the greatest problem with which a writer on the

literature of "mysticism" must deal, however, is a definition of the

term itself. Mysticism may be defined as a secret knowledge of God, as

love of God, or as a receptivity to union with God during one's life.

The closely related word, "contemplation" will be used as a

near-synonym for "mysticism" here because it carries such meanings as

"being aware of," "looking at" divinity, and meditating on God with

"attention and thought." Thus, as a mystical action in Christianity,

contemplation partakes of the love which is God. God is a priori to

mystics, and here at least they are undeniably within the confines of

Christian faith. Within Christian theology, God is the first person of

the trinity and the creator. What mystical theology adds is

description of ways to God. Untrained in these ways, any person may

have a unitive experience precipitated usually, though not always, by


nature, music, ritual, sex, or words, in any surroundings, among

people or alone, during routine or intense activity. It is usually of

short duration but leaves a lasting longing in the mystic for a

permanent experience.

Persons trained in contemplation move through stages. Three basic

stages are purgation, in which is realized the inadequacy of the human

state and the particular knowledge and sacrifice of one's own

weaknesses; illumination, by which one is instantly aware of God's

logic of love through vision, audition, or intuition; and union, by

which the personality is joined by God so that an aspect of divinity

is experienced according to the capacity of the mystic. These three

stages have been variously divided and categorized through the

centuries. In sixteenth-century Spain, St. Teresa of Jesus mapped the

mystical way as seven stages: recollection, quiet, union, ecstasy,

rapture, pain of God, and spiritual marriage. Evelyn Underhill

(1875-1941) describes five stages: awakening, purgation, illumination,

"dark night of the soul" (which she borrowed from St. John of the

Cross), and union.

"Meditation," which may be defined as the exercising of the

mentality concerning an object, is not part of the mysticism to which

this study is directed. "Contemplation," however, because of its

near-synonymity with "mysticism" itself will receive primary

attention. There are two basic forms of Christian contemplation,

cataphatic and apophatic. They correspond to the via affirmative and

via neqativa. The first emerges from faith in the immanent God; it is,

therefore, oriented toward the incarnation. Subjects of incarnational


contemplation range from the historical life of Christ to fantasies of

his body. For instance, the fantasies of the Puritan minister, Edward

Taylor, and the conflated myths of William Blake present a lavish

poetics of incarnational contemplation. "Immanence" is taken to mean

the "in-dwelling," that is, the informed presence of God, whether that

be in the mystic's heart or in all of creation. The second form of

contemplation is apophatic and seeks God by way of negation, denying

that the material world is God, denying human descriptions of God,

denying the limitations of space. This form is oriented toward God's

"emanation," that is, toward the hidden God, whether that be coded

among the permutations of letters and numbers or by attributes bonded

to the elements. It requires the mystic to enter a state of unknowing,

a darkness that strips the consciousness of its humanness, of its

body, and thrusts it backwards into the cloud of God, who is no thing

describable. The roots of apophatic mysticism can be discerned in

Plato, Plotinus, and the Pseudo-Dionysius, author of Divine Names and

Mystical Theology.

This study focuses on the via affirmative, on the contemplation

of the in-dwelling God. That is, it shows the cataphatic form of

mysticism within an affective incarnational tradition. What we human

beings know, if the conclusions of Mark Johnson are to be accepted, is

always in terms of the body, though what we know is by no means

limited to the body. Our knowledge of the body is culturally

prescribed so we must admit its limitations. One major source of pain

and pleasure for the European/American culture, in which I

participate, is its belief in love. The two expressions of love which


have had the most impact are, first, the God/Christ spiritual

expression, and second, the human body's sexual expression. The

historical point of intersection is the medieval period when both

Christianity and sexuality were institutionalized. So this is my

starting point.

With the Reformation came controversy concerning the issue of the

individual interpretation of Christianity based on the Bible and

experimentation in sexual ethics. Sexual imagery was the metaphor for

the workings of grace, and the Song of Songs was its biblical basis.

Spain, the country whose culture colored the mystical experience of

St. Teresa, cannot be said to have experienced a Reformation.

Nevertheless, it still reacted to the questions the Reformation

raised. This country's turmoil became a macrocosm of the suppression

that individuals were experiencing. Here the wild witch hunts of

Spain's northern neighbors were institutionalized by the Inquisition,

and hence, as I consider the writing of St. Teresa, discussion of this

controversy will enter, even as I attempt to focus primarily on the

words she wrote.

But the Reformation also brought a new interest in language. As

Aristotle defined it, "rhetoric" was "the faculty of discovering in

the particular case what are the available means of persuasion"

(Rhetoric 7). His own influence on the history of rhetoric during the

medieval and renaissance periods may, as James J. Murphy claims, have

been minimal, but that of Pseudo-Cicero's Ad Herennium is

indisputable. Since some of the terms of that work will be useful in

discussion of the texts to be examined here, it will be well to define


them. Its rhetorical divisions include inventio, dispositio, and

elocutio. Inventio, the selection of topic and materials suitable to

the audience, the writer, and purpose of the work; dispositio, the

arrangement of the work and its proofs; elocutio, the style of the

work as "grand," "middle," and "plain," are the basic divisions of

written rhetoric. To elocutio belong the figure of diction, which

embellish by means of word appearance and placement, and of thought,

which embellish by means of troping the word into other meanings and

ideas. Though the mystics in this study have an unequal formal

education in rhetoric, they all employ it because, as George Kennedy

writes, "Wherever persuasion is the end, rhetoric is present" (7).

This study, then, makes use of classical definitions in its

examination of the written texts of three remarkable Christian

mystics: St. Bernard, Margery Kempe, and Teresa of Jesus. It also

demonstrates that the rhetoric of those three individuals, despite the

differences imposed by their respective cultures, participates in two

reflexive processes: the silent bodily process of knowing and the

cultural process of gendering. In doing so, it describes the "love"

language which cataphatic mystics from three different countries

employed, how they used that rhetoric and for what purpose.

Furthermore, this study also attempts to synthesize that rhetorical

record as a heuristic device by which we add to our knowledge about

the human mind's dependency on the manipulation of words to form

sensual impressions impacted by sexuality. Thus it contributes, it is

to be hoped, to a history of sexuality that is now being written.


It will be prudent to acknowledge that the terminology for

discussing such a history is emotionally charged. "Gender" may not be

as layered with distracting connotations as "sex" in determining the

biological status of the mystic as male or female. But "male" and

"female" activities call for cultural evaluation. This has long been

the case. Gregory the Great, for instance, in his world view sets the

standard of the "weak female" in close proximity to "flesh" and "sin"

while his "strong male" has proximity to "spirit" and "virtue" (Straw

54). The terms "masculine" and "feminine" are also loaded with

culturally imposed roles. Masculine men are thought to be big, virile,

and action-oriented. Feminine women are self-effacing, delicate, and

home-oriented. For example, in Marion Homer's 1968 research "65% of

the women studied showed anxiety over success because they anticipated

that success in competitive achievement activity, especially against

men, produced social rejection and loss of femininity" (Conn 19). Even

"man" and "woman" have problems.

Some critics of the language have considered generic "man" to be

a fraud foisted upon our society as but another linguistic means to

subjugate women. It is, perhaps, not necessary to be this polemic,

but, just as deliberately replacing all generic "he's" with "she's"

reveals the non-inclusiveness of "he," so does the failure of any man

to consider himself included in "woman" shows the reason for objection

to generic "man" and "he."

If contemporary English presents such problems of reference, it

will not be surprising to find that the languages with which the

mystic's relationship to the Bridegroom presents particular problems


to a twentieth-century reader. These problems are neither

insurmountable nor unique. A woman of the fourteenth-century

struggling to make herself as important as a man had to deal with

age-old, linguistically determined perceptions of hierarchical

position. Twentieth-century women have had the benefit of a

consciousness-raising movement. Some of our extraordinary

predecessors, fictional and historical, however, seem to have gained

some of the things we have recently learned through their own

individual efforts. It may be that Aristophanes imagined the

characters for Lysistrata by inverting the norms, but the Sumerian

texts inform us that the "dominant partner" in the hieros gamos

(sacred marriage) was the goddess not the god. Henri Frankfort

mentions that "texts from Isin leave no doubt that the initiative was

ascribed to her" (Stone 137). Political power rested with the

priestesses of such goddesses, and their power of persuasion was the

sexual act. It takes little imagination to be aware of historical

precedent and may even have empowered a few Greek women as the models

for Aristophanes' satire on rhetoric. Throughout history status has

been part of the issue of rhetoric and gender.

One of the questions I will not attempt to answer here has to do

with the issue of whether mystical union, a form of "divine" presence

ascertained by the human recipient, is imagined, real, or a

fulfillment of psycho-sexual needs. I will say, however, that for

Bernard, Margery, and Teresa all of those particulars combine to

create an incontrovertible validity to their testimony. Though

speculations of an origin of the "mystical union" experience are


explored, the issue remains open because this study is dedicated to

the scholarly exploration of literature and does not attempt

theological pronouncement. Since the mind is the translating medium, I

do occasionally refer to the God or Christ in a mystic's mind. The

distinction is made to show the singularity of that mystic's

perception as opposed to a communal perception.

The criteria for my selection of St. Bernard of Clairvaux,

Margery Kempe, and St. Teresa of Jesus were standard. In considering

the texts that have come down to us, I have been particularly

interested in the influence of the Song of Songs, in the affective

tradition as differing from the scholastic tradition, in the

cataphatic approach as differing from the apophatic, in

persuasiveness as measured by effect on the culture, in originality in

modifying the Song's tradition, and in the mystics' age, status, and

gender. The selection was, thus, narrowed from the wealth of the

world's mystical literature and religions to focus on the cultures

with which I am most familiar. Some extraordinary mystics had to be

eliminated, Julian of Norwich, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Meister

Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, William Blake, Edward Taylor (whose

inclusion would undoubtedly spark controversy), and others.

In surveying the criteria, I noticed two biases related to

maturity: (1) a mystic's credibility is assured with age, and (2) the

creative energy of mature people is regarded as odd. For instance, the

aged Margery was known for her healing, especially of women suffering

postpartum trauma. People turned to her for her prayers when they were

in trouble. But as a younger woman, she was despised and ridiculed.


Descriptions of the mystics remark on the unusual amount of energy

they displayed in their older years, as if older adults were not known

for such energy. For instance Teresa's biographer includes the

comments of a nun contemporary with her: "She was never idle," quotes

E. Allison Peers (Mother 214). Perhaps, the astonishment at the energy

of Teresa and the other mystics is reactionary to the commonplace of

contemplative passivity to which Evelyn Underhill refers when she

remarks: "We see already how far astray are those who look upon the

mystical temperament as passive in type" (49).

Consideration of the two biases leads to questions arising from

the other criteria--status and gender--and the related question of

aesthetic judgment. Originally, the status of the mystics was not a

high priority, but I noticed an emphasis on status in the texts. The

question that developed was: Does status have anything to do with

their experiences and need to communicate? It definitely affects their

believability. In most marriages of the past, the individual did not

exist; the partners became one body in Christ, and the head of that

body was the man. The woman's head disappeared. Individual freedom,

though, has a way of asserting itself; literature is one of such ways.

Since St. Bernard is the summit of the affective tradition, and he

appropriated the female metaphor of the Bride, I wondered how women

would treat it. The female variations on Bernard's metaphor show the

mystic as bedded spouse, confidante, and nursing child to Christ, the

mother. Finally, how much effect does the gender of a mystic have on

the community's opinion of the reliable quality of that person's

literature? Not surprisingly, women's literature has been generally


degraded. Lack of education and traditional roles are the nominal

reasons. The quality of the literature seems unaffected by gender,

though much affected by education. Symbolic content is similar in all

the works, though structural expertise parallels educational level.

Rhetorical deployment is equally effective. Political and doctrinal

topics are explored in all of the literature. The mystics could be

outspoken or enigmatic depending on the strictures of their society.

The question, then, of aesthetic judgment is again a perception, as we

must acknowledge, conditioned by our culture. Proximity to the apex of

Classical Greek culture appears to be the standard by which we judge

art. The closer to Dionysiun theology mystical literature moved, the

more its beauty is recognized.

For power of persuasion, however, the body rhetoric of affective

mysticism cannot be rivaled. Though only St. Bernard and St. Teresa

wrote specifically on the Song (Margery Kempe was out of step in that

respect), they each assumed the bridal metaphor and the erotic

language of the Song. Since Margery's genre was visionary

autobiography, she appropriately joined the Song's eroticism to her

daily scenes and mixed them with Christ's life. Her mind was itself a

reflection of the Song, and she persuaded many others of her

revelations about and from Christ. To return, then, to the question of

explicit use of the Song, Bernard's Sermons on the Song of Songs are

of foremost importance. Incorporating Origen and St. Augustine,

Bernard's rhetorical masterpiece has been the greatest single

influence on this tradition. Each of the other mystics knew of

Bernard's sermons from sermons and counsel in their own countries. St.


Teresa used her Meditations to teach the women under her influence to

accept God's language the way that they found it and to trust their

own judgement. The first negates the accepted teachings on sexuality

as source of evil; the second negates male authority of

interpretation. Using maternal imagery, Teresa subverted the dicta of

the day not to preach or teach, especially from the Song of Songs.

The reader can expect to find a certain inconsistency of

expression in this study. At times s/he may find the language

over-bold, at others noncommittal. The reasons, as far as I

understand them, lie in my personal background and my recent

introduction to feminist criticism. As a dual citizen of England and

the United States whose mother was born in Spain, father in England,

with an American husband of Italian descent and Francophile

tendencies, I have long been exposed to various perspectives, not the

least of which was the duality of religion of my childhood. My elder

sister is Anglican according to my father's wishes. My father was a

staunch Anglican with Calvinist tendencies; my mother was Roman

Catholic and left me in the hands of contemplative teaching nuns for

my early educational experiences. As a feminist, I enjoy recovering

neglected or forgotten texts and attempt to discover the cultural

values implied by female representations. As a dialogic, I see all

texts as part of the ongoing discourse among individuals and cultures.

As a phenomenologist, I believe that an author's patterns of

perception composing that person's reality are within the text. As a

deconstructionist, I see the ways that a text turns back on itself

undoing the very themes that my New Critical bent often identifies. As


a grateful but unpartisan Freudian, I see the Id as harboring the

sexual/destructive urges that present themselves in the Pleasure

Principle. As a reader-response critic, I see the gaps in the text

that allow for variety of interpretation, but I do believe that it is

the responsibility of the reader to submit to what can be learned from

close study of an individual text. With the New Historicists I see

literature not only as reflecting its culture but also as creating

culture, though my bias is toward the individual text rather than

amassing a melange. I feel no "shame-faced subjectivity" nor admit to

any other bias than enjoying mystical literature and admiring the

energy it exhibits. Sexuality is not an embarrassing subject to me,

nor is it a particular concern except as it seems to be a source of

increasing violence and exploitation in this culture. On a political

level, language has ever persuaded by its appeal to our egos but also

by its heavily weighted sexual/spiritual components. My approach is to

place the writers within their cultures, which I identify as the locus

of each; to focus on a particular text, defining its concerns and its

risks; to give a close rhetorical reading of that text.

Perhaps, though, an axe must be honed on the

Christian/sexual/political tree of sacrifice. Reading eroticism and

political persuasion in a Christian text is an uncomfortable process

for a Christian. It has been said that a Christian rhetorician is a

paradox, but so is the mystical condition. To write about the

ineffable, to join body to spirit, these, we are told cannot be done,

and so they should be. Denial is not the way of affective mysticism;

that tradition is affirmative. This reading may shock us, surprise us,


or nauseate us, but we should remember that acceptance is the way of

Christian love.

The Christian religion, that practice of following Christ,

emerged from the Hebrew, which itself had a Gnostic tradition as well

as a Torah. That gnosis believes that the hidden God, the Sefiroth,

underlies all existence. It is the basis for the Kabbalah, the Jewish

mysticism. One of its myths, attributed to Ptolemy, describes the

emanations of the Sefiroth--as Pleroma--entering the world, male and

female personified qualities. The female emanation, Wisdom, became

overwhelmed with Passion and fell to earth pregnant with substance, a

shapeless mass formed from Wisdom's ignorance, grief, fear, and

bewilderment (Pelikan 1:87). The Torah forbids such sins as arising

from passion; its negative construction was replaced by the

affirmation of Christ whose dual nature, divine and human displayed

the prime mystery of our culture. By his hypostatic union, that is, by

the act of affirmation which fused his divine nature to a human

nature, Christ replaced condemned humanity with the salvation of


We should further acknowledge that the Hebrew and Christian

religions share monotheism with Islam. An essential difference,

though, is to be found in the order of human experience and the

record--text--of that experience. For instance, the human Mohammed

experienced divinity through the revealed Koran. Sufism, Islamic

mysticism, may be viewed as a journey where traveller, way, and

destiny are one. The world is merely a stopping place for the

traveller who receives enlightenment like a flash in the night of his


existence (See Figure 1). Hasan al-Basri (643-728), a Sufi famed for

jurisprudence, rhetoric, and spirituality, said, "That is a wise man

who regards this world as nothing, and so regarding it seeks the other

world" (quoted in Smith 176). This mysticism, then, also negates this

life in search of the world of heaven beyond. In contrast, again,

Christ continually accepts the passion of human beings, accepts their

crudities and condemnations, and joins their errors to his own

constantly replayed Passion. Thus to Christian mystics, time is ever

accessible through the Christ, we need to remember, who is outside

time yet historically documented. Past, present, and future are but

points on a wheel equally distanced from the hub of their minds. Their

activities reach out to the rim of history in which they find

themselves, but their minds are on the ever-present eternity which

fuses past and future in the presence of Christ. Since this text has

lasted 2000 years, I would say that it is effective rhetoric. This is

the Word that I would read through St. Bernard, Margery Kempe, and St.


Since the Word itself is a metaphor for Christ, the chapters

presented here focus on three metaphors of mysticism. All of the texts

in this study are from contemplatives who practice silent meditation

as the focus of their lives even while confirming their societies in

vocal worship. Thus, their "songs" are silent. Chapter One explores

the "kiss" of St. Bernard's sermons. He distinguishes the "kiss"

variously as the Holy Spirit, the breath exchanged by God and Christ

in a kiss, the penitent's kiss to the feet of Christ, the gradual

grace of a subject who kisses the king's hand, the mystical kiss


whereby the contemplative is granted union, and its effects in the

intoxicated Bride. In doing so, he presents the bodily means of

knowing in terms of vertical and horizontal movement as well as

containment. Chapter Two shows Margery Kempe's "tears" as her metaphor

of grace. Her tears are explored through the lens of Christian

tradition and through their subversive effects on her society. Here

the bodily means of knowing primarily presents itself in terms of the

birthing process of her autobiography which tears lubricate, but also

includes the vertical and horizontal visions of Christ above her and

in her bed. Chapter Three describes St. Teresa's "sword of

contemplation" as a rhetoric of subversion with which she attempts to

arm her nuns to read the Song for themselves. She takes her metaphor

from the Song which shows the Bridegroon's bed surrounded by men

holding swords. Disjunctively, Teresa alternates the nuns' identity as

men and as the Bride who nurses at Christ's breasts. She also

appropriates Christ's mothering from the Song, in the tradition of

Bernard, since the Bridegroom brings his Bride to his mother's house.

Her Conceptions show the bodily means of knowing as vertical in

reaching up to Christ, horizontal in reaching out for his grace, and

containing as they are pregnant with God's truth.

My methods of analysis employed primary resources, critical

responses, cross-disciplinary studies, and a close reading attuned to

my "negative capability." Usually I read the mystic's material,

selected a work on the basis of its high rhetorical content, its

contemplative status, and the singular kinds of readings such texts

usually promote. I questioned the text. Why is one word used instead


of another? How does the text get me to visualize? What techniques

make me respond? What games are played and why? I got a quick

impression of the text and its messages, then I read what other

readers thought. Since I had already formulated an opinion, I was

ready for disputation. Detractive pronouncements returned me to the

text to which I became more closely attentive. Then I returned to the

critical reception and tested the critics by the standards which they

applied to the texts.

The results of this approach, as I have used it, seem to be

particularly visible in the chapter on St. Teresa. Here I was able to

join my rhetorical questioning of the text, which led to such external

conclusions as the recognition that periphrasis, that is an

embellishment of a simple idea by means of a circumlocution, was the

most caommn trope, with immersion, a technique learned long ago from

dramatic studies. Immersion, the attempt to recreate the mental

conditions of the character by attention to place, business, and time,

led to further understanding of the mystic's life than I could gain by

more analytical means. What I discovered by straightening out the

circumlocutions was the Bernadine tradition of the soul as Bride.


Figure 1. Monotheistic Modern Religions


"Thy lips drip as the honeycomb, my spouse:
Honey and milk are under thy tongue."
(Song of Songs, 4:11)


Hundreds of sermons and treatises, probably more than a thousand

letters, a defense of Pope Innocent II against supporters of Peter

Leonis, an address that incited the second crusade, a rule for the

Knights Templar, two successful prosecutions of heresies, and a new

rhetoric that joined the skills of Cicero with those of St. Augustine,

all this is just part of the legacy of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

(1090-1153). But it is in the eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs

and, in particular, those which deal with the kiss that Bernard forces

himself upon our modern consciousness. Here it is that he took up the

Platonic split of sexuality from spirituality1 and forged the

Christian dilemma: our awareness that "good" entails forcing our

sexuality to fall away from unity as if it were ascending stages of a

rocketing soul moving towards its spirituality in the celestial


Bernard of Clairvaux is known for his innovative rhetoric; Pope

Pius XII dubbed him the "mellifluous doctor" in his 1953 encyclical

letter. So honey-tongued was Bernard, in fact, that many critics have

been unable to avoid noticing the most persuasive erotic content of

his mysticism. Few go further than that. Those who do are useful,

however, because they emphasize by their own rhetorical dichotomy the



problematic legacy which the saint has bequeathed to us. Etienne

Gilson, Bernardine scholar, attacks an identification of Bernard's

mysticism with the erotic as the very opposite of Bernard's meaning.

Ann Astell, an exegetical researcher on the Song of Songs, displays

the eroticism as a means by which Bernard united masculine and

feminine for a Jungian approach to the whole self, but even Astell

undercuts the erotic component and concurs with Gilson that Bernard

did not mean it "that way." Both Gilson and Astell acknowledge that

Bernard's eroticism, then, is an issue; both see it in terms definable

as a linguistic incitement to lust, and both see its opposition to


The erotic language of the mystic does not oppose spirituality,

but integrates it. The affective mysticism to which Bernard adhered is

a way of perceiving that differs from doctrinal discourse because it

makes meaning not through negative laws but through positive movement.

He did not condone licentiousness, but sought to heighten the person's

spiritual awareness by a sexual awareness of God. Recent critics such

as Foucault and Stone show rather that in matters of doctrine,

Classical, Hebrew, and Christian leaders broke the spiritual from the

sexual in order to assert patriarchal power. Divide and conquer has

been the rule, unconsciously and consciously.

Such distinctions take advantage of what Mark Johnson in The Body

in the Mind calls our spatial constructs of understanding. Experiences

that we have even before birth include: containment, something as

being within something else, which also allows for something outside

of the self--an inner/outer scope for understanding; verticality, that

knowledge of being up or down, with up being closer to the comforting


rhythm of the heart and down being toward the seat of pain or trauma

of birth; and horizontality, that sideways umbilical cord connecting

our nourishment with its attenuating severance. When sexuality, the

gendered experience of maleness or femaleness hormonally governed by a

desire to incorporate an in-out plane of experience, is pitted against

spirituality, a perception of experience not yet ascribed to the

physical senses but supported by an up-down plane of experience and

related to vertical cellular organization, the resulting gap causes a

yearning for integration. Thus, the splitting itself is an erotic

formula. Instead of doctrinally splitting sexuality and spirituality

into separate lower (evil) and upper (good) domains, we might conceive

of mysticism as a horizontality, an experiential umbilicus pursuing

synthesis. The rhetoric of mystical union demonstrates the mystic's

subconscious desire to re-integrate sexuality and spirituality in an

experience of love impossible to sustain because it involves perpetual

attachment and total acceptance of another. Mystics have not spoken of

union as a divine rejection of their sexuality. What they have

mentioned has been a removal of sensual anxiety. Thus, for them,

yearning ceases when integration occurs and resumes when union ends.

The legacy of Bernard, however, would seem to be guilt. Early in

his sermons he aroused sexual fantasies of the men toward God and

Christ through appropriation of the Bride metaphor; later, he

described human lust as belonging to the sinner. Bernard's rhetoric is

experience-based, and the key to opening that experience is the body.

Christianity, we might acknowledge, is the only one of the three

Western monotheistic religions to translate the abstraction of God


into the body at all. Operating within this religious frame, then,

Bernard applied the Socratic rule and learned about himself. First, he

understood his sexuality; second, he understood his spirituality;

third, he experienced mystical union; fourth, he learned the masterful

application of rhetoric.

The written word, of course, is what we have. It therefore seems

appropriate, since we are readers of texts, to begin with some

comments on Bernard's language. His initial rhetorical step was to

acknowledge a shared condition. For instance he not only addressed the

topic of concupiscence, but also identified with it and encouraged it

with his vivid language. He did not nip it frigidly the way Origen

did, but fanned its living flames with passion. He did not mystically

wander among the gardens of God as Gregory the Great did, but pulsed

with a body in a world of men and women. In short, he made language a

sensory experience. He is famous, in fact, for his "affective

mysticism," known as an approach to God through the affections rather

than through logic. From the foregoing discussion, we might suspect

"affective mysticism" of using phenomenological knowledge, which

itself provides the planes of meaning from which logic draws its

propositions. It is Bernard, significantly, who entwined Classical,

Hebrew, and Christian elements into the love-rope which has been left

dangling since the twelfth century.

To place St. Bernard at the forefront of a tradition requires

some critical appraisal. His generally accepted motive for speaking

and writing was that he wanted others to know the love of God. The

focus of critics then and now presents a dynamic proselytizer and an


able apologist. Bernard's mystical rhetoric shows three stages of

love: carnal, spiritual, and benevolent. He employed Classical tropes

shrouded in Augustinian "reminiscence." His development of the wedding

allegory of the Song of Songs embellished the bodily eroticism of the

soul as Bride and Christ as the Bridegroom. Of course, the focus of

this study will also explore the European conception of a kiss and

foreground Bernard's turns and re-turns to it. The textual discourse,

though, will examine the explicit sexual nature of his sermons and the

rhetorical tropes he used. Thus, the four components of rhetoric,

audience, speaker, subject, and arrangement, function as the

components of this inquiry with the first three comprising a reason or

container for the last. The way to an integration of individual and

culture, we know, must begin with a removal of taboos. Because he is a

recognized saint of the Church, the first taboo from which our

scholarship should disengage is the analysis of a saint's work. The

second taboo to eliminate is that an established theologian would not

use erotic persuasion. No scholar has given an individual analysis of

Bernard's sermons. Few scholars have remarked on their erotic content

without simultaneously describing the viewpoint as inappropriate

reader response. Why is it that this rich textual source which may

contain some answers for our present woes, especially our cultural

relegation of sexuality as evil, unprofessional, amoral, unstable, and

definitely non-spiritual, is explored not by academics, but rather by

theologians? Since the field of ethics attaches shame to sexuality

out of the Greek and Hebrew religious traditions, our culture is

generally restrained from treating sexuality as an experiential base


for our concepts. Bernard, though, seemed to accept that base and used

sexuality as a means of persuasion and an erotic means of knowing the


In G. R. Evans' translation Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bernard

declared his motivation to be spiritual love, one which he perceived

as within a Church tradition:

How I pray that that burning desire and longing in the hearts of
these holy men of old may be aroused in me by these words: "Let
him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth." (215)

The scriptural love rhetoric in this brief selection from St.

Bernard's sermon 2: "On the Kiss" of the Song of Songs shows the kiss

as the most important of all the tropes he used. The "him" in the Song

is the Bridegroom, but Bernard rendered "him" as Christ.

The allegorical connection of Christ to the Bridegroom, though,

did not begin with Bernard who followed Origen's lead. E. Ann Matter

in The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval

Christianity sees the allegorical tradition of the love between God

and Israel as being "passed on to Christian exegetes with the canon of

the Hebrew Bible" (51). Thus, the Christian allegory translates that

love to Christ and the Church.

Etienne Gilson continues that translation when he remarks in The

Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard that Bernard labeled Christ as "the

Kiss par excellence, the Osculum of the Canticle of Canticles" who

will be the medium through which mystical favourss" may be attained

(110). Bernard echoed the old "longing" for divine unity, but

specified it more as a reciprocal affection of wills in life-a

joining of individual entities through spiritual grace. The human must


be able to develop this affection, and Bernard showed the way through

the sensual, even "carnal." Bernard designed this fleshly movement of

the mind to bring about an awareness of human nature, its capacity and

desire for love, as well as its deviation from it. He did not try to

develop God as love; that was already the premise of the faith that

dramatized all true love as divine. Through his kiss metaphor, a sign

of adoration or "love," Bernard proposed two senses of love to the

medieval Christian world--physical and spiritual. Etienne Gilson

addresses both senses in his appendix "The Two Loves Opposed":

The mystic can have no thought of union with God by way
of his body (albeit this body is hereafter to
participate in beatitude) for God is spirit; but in the
order at least of spiritual life which is his, he will
never conceive a union of love which is not, in its own
way, total: Sponsus et Sponsa sunt; love will have
that, or it will be frustrated of what it is impossible
for it not to desire without ceasing to be itself. (192)

He also remarks that "Never did St. Bernard condemn it, for carnal

love may be blessed and hallowed by the Church; it is too often

forgotten that marriage is a sacrament" (194). In appendix 5, Gilson

adds that love was the focus of monastic theology. He says, "The

monasteries were equally [with secular schools] schools of love but

schools that would teach charity" (200). Carthusians, Victorines,

Benedictines and Cistercians2 "all took up the problem of love with

a jealous predilection" (3). Specifically for Bernard, Christ was the

means to a divine union with the Father which inspired charity. Thus,

his community experienced the fruits of love in its social

connections. The rhetorical direction of Bernard's kiss, then, leads

through the body's movements of containment in his "carnal" love,


verticality in his "spiritual" love, and horizontality in his social


Historically, Bernard's body-centered mysticism emerges within

the traditions of the abstract, God-centered mysticisms of

Neoplatonist, Pseudo-Dionysiun, and Augustinian (Butler 130) and the

later movement known as the "renaissance of the twelfth century"

(Tavard 1) in which the Christological scholastic spirituality of

Thomas Aquinas and Richard of St. Victor asserted the "science of

contemplation" (Butler 125), not to speak of the thirteenth century's

affective Franciscan movement which focused on the crucifixion

(Hellman 42). Bernard, more than these other influential theologians,

demonstrated his vivid ethos--that rhetorical part of the speaker's

invention which portrays character and provides credibility for his

discourse--in the service of spirituality. Bernard, mystic saint and

doctor of the Church, employed a powerful rhetoric, not in ethereal or

light-flashing terms, not in earth-shaking revelation, not in

passionate stigmata, but in the love language of his day, in both his

sermons and writings, in order to persuade others of the exoteric

availability of the experience of God and the need for living the life

of Christ.

His last and most famous work, though unfinished because of his

death,3 presents an exegesis of the Song of Songs in a series of

sermons ostensibly addressed to the monks at Clairvaux, but with the

world in mind. It is in Bernard's response to his medieval Christian

world that the rhetorical element is most obvious. Because audience

influences inventio, that rhetorical action of selecting materials on


which to base a persuasive discourse, Bernard selected the Song for

its popularity. This Old Testament book had more monastic commentary

than any other due to its theme of love.4 In fact, love was the

favorite subject among the theologians who "initiated and conducted

the movement" of reform known as the "Renaissance of the Twelfth

Century" (Ozment 4, 86-87): Carthusians, Victorines, and the

Benedictines and Cistercians. The latter group of Cistercians,

organized by Saint Stephen Harding (English monk and abbot of

Citeaux), William of St. Thierry and Saint Bernard (Gilson 2-3), was

the most important to this study. Not only was the Song crucial to

these monks as a group, but it was also of value to Bernard's close

friend, William of St. Thierry. They discussed it at length when in

the infirmary together. Later, William was to write his own commentary

on the Song, Expositio altera super Cantica Canticorum (Evans, Mind

109). Bernard's response to individuals such as William reflects

Ciceronian benevolentia (De Inventione II, 55), a kind of social love

which may be described as "disinterested" and reciprocal concern for

the good of the friend rather than for self interest (Gilson 10). As

an example of this concern, we should note St. Bernard's response to

Bernard de Portes' petition "for the text of his first Sermons on the

Song of Songs" (Leclercq, On the Song viii).5 A closer look at

Bernard's answer shows his incorporation of ethos, considered by

Aristotle to be the most important proof (Rhetoric 9). The saint

employed humility and affected a naturalness of inventio due to

response rather than what might seem to many ascetics as pride.

Bernard wrote in letter number 153 (Benedictine tradition):


And so I will accede to your importunity, so that you may have no
doubts about my insufficiency. It is a matter between friends. I
will not try any more to spare my modesty, I will forget my own
foolishness in trying to satisfy your demands. I am having copied
a few sermons I wrote recently on the first verses of the Song of
Solomon . I shall continue with them, but you must encourage
me. (Letters 229)

Through this letter, too, St. Bernard's request for encouragementnt"

ensured a future audience through participation. A Bernardine

researcher, Huffer, "estimates the total number of letters written and

received by Bernard at not less than a thousand," but Bruno James

feels this is a "very modest estimate" (Bernard, Letters xvii). We now

have some tangible evidence of Bernard's Ciceronian love as motivation

for his rhetorical construction of the "kiss" sermons. His horizontal

experiential plane, receiving and sending letters, is the space in

which he created those sermons.

No one doubts that St. Bernard's approach to the Song is

rhetorical (by which I mean that it persuades through conscious

selection of a topic that suits his audience, arrangement that employs

his audience's habits of memory, curiosity, and identification, and

style that appeals to sensual and imagistic thinking), and most agree

that his approach was innovative, even bizarre. One reason for such an

appraisal is the containment of inner rhetorical tension created by

Bernard's use of both Ciceronian and Augustinian methods. Many critics

cannot agree as to which influence predominates. Bernard actually

worked within a continuum of grammar tightly knotted to

contemplation.6 Grammar, as distinct from rhetoric, was encouraged

as a means of understanding Scriptures. It was part of the basic

medieval trivium, which the 21- or 22-year-old Bernard must certainly


have had before he entered the monastery. Such a classical-based

education was "exterior" as opposed to the "interior" monastic schools

concerned with spiritual matters and derived from secular schools

which were using the literature of Horace, Cicero, and Ovid.

Consciously, Horace and Ovid were meant to be left at the monastery

door. But Bernard transformed the arrangements and pagan tropes of

Cicero by incorporating Augustinian influence in his scriptural

models. Until Augustine, early Christian leaders largely avoided

Classical rhetoric for two reasons: because of its obvious pagan

connections and because of the culturally absorbed Platonic

condemnation, such as that noted in the Gorgias, when Socrates

identified oratory as "cookery" (see note 6). Because of their

avoidance of rhetorical art, early Christian sermons were merely

rambling homilies. Medieval rhetorician, Alan de Lille, for instance,

arranged his Summa de arte praedictoria from Cicero's five-part

schemata (McKeon 232-3), not from any outstanding Christian

schemes.7 St. Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana broke this trend

and provided a Christian precedent for St. Bernard. Augustine

identified "two things necessary to the treatment of Scriptures: a way

of discovering those things which are to be understood, and a way of

expressing to others what we have learned" (Murphy 57). He unabashedly

and often referred to Cicero and urged the use of rhetoric to defend

the mysteries of the Old Testament (Augustine: Writings 293). He

adapted Origen's exegetical method by identifying four ways[] of

discovering" as: historical, etiological, analogical, and allegorical

(Aug. 294).8 The "way of expressing" that Bernard adopted was


rhetorical "reminiscence," a branching form of memorial that combined

Hebrew exegesis with Greek technique, despite the lack of available

Aristotelian rhetoric.9 Such a psychologically linked plan of

development as "reminiscence" relied on associations and digressions

to explain parts of scripture or doctrinal matters (Leclercq, Love

74). Bernard not only applied Ciceronian tropes, but also appropriated

Augustinian "reminiscence" for at least sermons 12-17 of the Sermons

on the Song.10

Another rhetorical element besides the containment tension is the

verticality of Bernard's philosophy in his treatment of the Song. What

kinds of language could be employed in the celibate Cistercian setting

to both attract and hold his audience? The answer to this question

provides a second reason for the appraisal of Bernard's

uniqueness-his frank mingling of body and soul. Though he did not

recall the body in Origen's Neoplatonic terms as a sensually

attractive cell which detained the fallen soul in its attempts at

God,11 Bernard still saw the body in the vertical tradition and

practiced the words of St. Paul: "First comes the natural and after

that the spiritual" (iCor 15: 46). The men who entered the Cistercian

community were adults, unlike the children often left among the

Benedictines who are used to the dictates of celibacy (Astell 9). Many

were married or widowed and were familiar with secular love

literature.12 By adapting the erotic component of the Song, St.

Bernard's language seduced the men's senses into a desire for a

"higher" spiritual form. His language created a physical desire to a

point humanly impossible to consummate since he frequently referred to


the inadequacy of human commitment. He encouraged a hunger for

fulfillment only available in divine union. The experience is within

traditions of containment, vertical desire, as well as the rhetoric of

ineffability. Though mystics use the "inexpressibility topoi" of which

Curtius speaks (159) to excuse their "inadequate" explanations of the

phenomenon of divine union, Bernard expressed it in his first sermon

to heighten his ethos. His pretense at struggling to "explain" the

opening of the Song demonstrates how well he succeeded at explaining

it. Very quickly that concern for his own language changed to a

constructed amazement at the Song's speaker's language, which troped

again when he emphasized the female's demanding desire for a

mouth-to-mouth kiss. He effected the transformation from premature

linguistic ejaculation to persistent intercourse when he said:

How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden
irruption as from a speech in mid-course? For the words
spring upon us as if indicating one speaker to whom
another is replying as she demands a kiss--whoever she
may be. (Bernard, Sermones 3)

Bernard's unique rhetoric showed these men the way to God as the

feminine way, as the anima of soul which prepares itself with desire

and impatiently awaits her king. Astell, who notes that such

feminizing enabled these men to get in touch with their sensitive and

passionate side, draws on Jung for confirmation (11). Certainly,

Bernard enabled his audience to integrate their personalities in a

wholeness of sexuality through this approach, judging from the

enormous growth of the monastic movement which even enlisted husbands

and wives in separate facilities. Because the Cistercians were known

for their asceticism and sexual suppression, we can determine that his


rhetoric was successful. Too, there was a constant need for him to use

that rhetoric, to travel outside the monastery walls converting and

persuading. His language facilitated the vertical movement Bernard

desired his audience to make from the physical plane of the senses to

the spiritual sphere of the soul. Through scriptural "reminiscence"

and sensual rhetoric, Bernard managed an orthodox interpretation of

Scripture that well may have had its origins firmly located in the

secular love from which it traditionally refrains.

Given Bernard's conscious employment of rhetoric to convince his

monastic community, it seems evident why he did not choose the popular

dialectic from among the secular schools.13 Dialectic, in its

exchange of opposing views as a means to "truth," emerged from the

logic taught in the trivium. Dialectic's opposition to rhetoric,

proves one proposition true while another proves false. The logic of

containment, though, presents the unknown in terms of the known--a

method Bernard successfully employed in his sensual rhetoric.

Bernard's art lies in his manipulation of sensual concepts, rather

than the rigors of debate. But it is doubtful that we can agree with

A. Victor Murray, among others, who sees Bernard as unable to compete

with an able dialectician such as Abelard (36) even though we might

agree that Bernard was untrained. His rhetorical approach beat his

opponent's dialectic mercilessly when Abelard was charged with heresy.

Furthermore, Bernard's choice of rhetoric over dialectic was his way

of choosing faith over reason. Bernard even wrote to Pope Innocent II:

"I thought it unfitting that the grounds of faith should be discussed

by human reasoning" (Murray 38). He knew only too well that the


mystic's connection with the invisible is questioned by the reasoning

of dialectic. Bernard's use of reminiscence and rhetoric in sermons,

unique14 for their artistic and sublime rendering, directly connects

his Christian mystical theology to those techniques found in the Ad


Working from a tradition of commentary on the Song beginning

with Origen, St. Bernard's exegetical method, based on Augustine's

allegorical means for understanding Scripture, developed15 an

unforgettable wedding allegory of union with God (or Jesus) as

Bridegroom and Soul (or Church) as Bride. In fact, his allegory helped

both lay and monastic symbolic maturity. Through audience

identification, Bernard energized integration of the individual's

masculine and feminine sides, first with the known masculinity of the

Bridegroom then with the feminine anima of the Bride (Astell 94).

Allegory and analogy were used, of course, as the chief modes of

explanation and discourse in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth

centuries.16 The problem for many readers of his Song sermons, we

are informed, is being "carnally-minded."17 Repeatedly twentieth

century theologians and scholars say that twelfth century monks only

saw the spiritual analogy of the wedding. Even modern readers are

scorned for viewing Bernard's message in an erotic light and branded

as lacking spiritual depth by those applying only vertical planes of

meaning. With that brand lighting the way, then, we may persevere in

our exploration of Bernard's mystical kiss. From his active life

within and without the monastery, Bernard was familiar with his

audience. He, as much as the Pseudo-Cicero, wished to have his hearers


"attentive, receptive, and well-disposed" (13), so that his topic

would be attuned to their perceptions.18 One such perception is the

Church tradition of interpreting the Song of Songs,19 as a religious

model of attraction to God. Bernard continued that tradition. The

major contribution of Bernard's exegesis, though, is its exploitation

of the Song's erotic component. Ann Astell relates Bernard's

eroticism, even as she makes spiritual correctives. For example, she

introduces a Bernardine passage from sermon 61 on the Song by

explaining that "the saint actually invites his monks to imagine a

seduction scene, dramatizing the lover's speech for them before

discounting it as word play" (93). She reveals that Bernard's use of

the carnal as "appealing" to these men drew them into "an awareness of

their own cupidity," particularly as Bernard rejected the

interpretation he persuaded them of as "inappropriate" (94).

Bernard's audience, then as now, was caught in a teasing rhetoric that

seduced carnally, identified such carnality as sinful, and produced

shame and desire for conversion. Sympathy might not be out of place

for that "carnally-minded" audience. The monks fell into Bernard's

rhetorical net. He was a fisher of men and used the available means to

snare souls for God. Today's audience should be able to recognize his

use of carnality without being accused of misinterpretation as Thomas

Merton accused Rousselot. Merton, in fact, identified Father Rousselot

as a confused great mind when in Rousselot's Bernardine commentary "He

accused the Abbot of Clairvaux of making 'pure love' grow out of

cupidity, and all of one piece with it" (169; emphasis mine).


Thus, it is Bernard's knowledge of human love in all its spatial

constructions and shadings that delivers his mystical theology.

Drawing from his time's flux a dissatisfaction with the material

prosperity of the Benedictines, a dissatisfaction with the sensual

life exemplified in literature, and a dissatisfaction with the

questioning process of dialectics in scholastic studies, Bernard

confirmed an orthodoxy that has persisted for eight hundred years. His

mystical experience may be ascertained by his asceticism, Biblical

exegesis, preaching, and writing. He approached God and man as a

poet-lover. Through the rhetorical seduction of his mystical language,

he moved the listener/reader vertically from the containment of the

literally erotic into the metaphysical world of the spiritual, and

redirected the divine outward in a horizontally social impulse of

charity. In the Song of Songs he used an unforgettable metaphor that

not only embodies his rhetorical philosophy, but also his mystical

theology. That metaphor is the kiss.

Because of the modern disparagement of erotica and the critical

taboo of placing Bernard in unflattering sexual shadow, we should

examine the possibility of secular rhetoric in monastic use during his

time. Bernard did not, after all, operate in a vacuum. He himself was

contained within a monastic community whose linguistic ccumunity

bustled with influence moving both ways, inside and outside its walls.

First, we should remember Bernard's motivation was communal (social)

love. Second, we should note the sensual language of the subject

matter he used for exposition-The Song of Songs. Third, we should

maintain an awareness of the popular use of love language in the


surrounding secular world of St. Bernard. Finally, we should remember

that evangelization requires persuasion, occasionally seen

historically as synonymous with seduction.

By positioning St. Bernard's sermons on the "kiss" in the Song of

Songs as erotic, we should be aware of the invective that position

evokes today. Frequently cited is Bernard's own twelfth century

defense-that motive is everything (Leclercq, Evans 19). Since

Bernard's obvious motive-emerging from his social love-is spiritual

leadership, few people today even want to entertain the notion that

his language is erotic. Gilson feels that carnality is the very

opposite of what Bernard espoused, but that statement does not deny

Bernard's use of carnality. Astell feels that Bernard asserted the

carnal in order to dismantle it. Though both critics treat the issue,

they are at pains to realign its quality. Still, beginning with the

literal we follow the two strands of medieval exegetical thought

represented by Nicholas of Lyra (c.1270-1340) who stressed the

"literal-prophetic" and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples (c.1455-1536) who

stressed the "literal-spiritual" (Ozment 69). Of course, there is

always the argument that explains St. Bernard's sexually inciting

language as due to that identification of the Song of Songs itself:

The songs [a collection of 'love poems'] . .
assimilated a whole series of lyrical topoi from Old
Egyptian love poetry. . Very typical of the style
of the Song of Songs are the many repetitions of
individual images and formulae, which Bernard of Clairvaux,
who has a very fine feeling for the style of this poem,
interprets as a linguistic expression of the passion of
love. (Riehle 35)

What such people forget is that many other people, before and after

Bernard, have commented on the Song, yet only he has been consistently


named as influencing the course of the affective tradition in

Christianity up to our own century. Bernard's "feeling" was so "fine"

that he was not beyond exploiting the Song's original eroticism by

using its own rhetorical device of paromoesis (repetition). By

repeating the "kiss" image Bernard developed the erotic nature of his

sermon through prolongation of the sensual. His "feeling," thus,

captured the actual nature of the original source. The fact that

Bernard's spiritual analogy evolved from Scriptures that had basis in

Egyptian love lyrics has only recently come to light:

Comparatively recent theological research has shown
that the metaphorical language of the Song of Songs is
to quite a considerable extent a direct borrowing from
the lyrical topoi of Old Egyptian love poetry.20
(Riehle 3).

The search for love and for ways of knowing have provoked such

research. Influence and persuasion are sexually based, which is but

one reason behind the Song's tremendous impact on our culture. Whether

Bernard was aware of these ramifications or not, he is the one who

combined that persuasion with spatial conceptual constructs. It was

not only the content of love that dictated the form of his sermons,

but his knowledge of how humanity could be persuaded to desire and how

it could be moved through word selection and arrangement to action.

Some critics have noticed that other monastic rhetoric contains

metaphoric elements in common with romantic medieval literature.

Riehle, for instance, notes:

In addition to the basic stock of metaphors obtained from
the Song of Songs several others were borrowed from the
language of secular love literature. But in our context we
now have the additional question of whether the contemporary
courtly love poetry did not in some way 'rub off' on
vernacular mysticism. (52)


The question as to which way the influence (secular-monastic or

monastic-secular) goes has still not been decided, so that the

historical possibility of secular influence on St. Bernard cannot be


Monks recorded gifts to the monasteries, and in some cases

embellished the sensual persuasiveness pious wives used on the

husbands who contributed. Writings in the monasteries, then,

demonstrate a positive connection between feminine physically sensual

persuasion and language.22 Another monk, William of St. Thierry,

friend of Bernard previously mentioned as principal in the renaissance

of the twelfth century, demonstrated awareness of the containing

conceptual plane and acceptance of the sensual nature of language as

it calls the soul to listen when he said:

'Hearing involves nothing interior, that is, it does
not function within the body. It is instead, in one
way, exterior, that is vibration on the eardrum; it
calls the soul to come out and listen.' . Indeed,
spoken language was the tool of evangelization.
(Farmer 540)

Bernard appropriates the power of speech to evangelize just

because of his familiarity with its effects on the senses

and his awareness of its seduction. Farmer acknowledges this

awareness on the part of some of the religious writers:

Following upon a long-standing classical and Christian
discomfort with the seductive power of spoken rhetoric,
many of these clerical authors assumed that
speech--like woman herself, and all the other material
attractions of nature-was an enticement, luring the
soul away from its proper relationship to God. However,
they also recognized that with the aid of divine grace,
spoken language could change the soul, cultivating it
and directing it towards God. (541-2)


As already noted, most critics refuse to connect

spiritual/religious writings with secular products, especially because

of the professed antipathy of the former for the latter. Two noted

authorities should suffice as representative. Jean Le Clercq discusses

the love "cultivated in both secular and religious circles" and asks,

"Were there influences between the two? Scholars still debate this

point" (Leclercq, Evans 7). Etienne Gilson writes of this time period:

"The schools of Cistercian charity confronted the schools of profane

love" (9), and writes of Bernard: "It was a spiritual love, in sharp

opposition to every kind of carnal love" (172). Gilson does think that

if any connection exists, mystical rhetoric could not have borrowed

from the secular; that is "an altogether unjustifiable petitioo

principii'" (171), but he concedes the possibility of the secular

appropriation of mystical language providing it is "established that

the courtly conception of love is a sensual interpretation of the

mystical conception of love developed by St. Bernard" (179). However

there are a few critics who, perhaps, intuit a cross-influence:

Although the authors of religious works condemned
romance, they were sensitive to its sources of appeal.
Hagiography and romance may hold conflicting ideal
visions of what constitutes human achievement, but
both genres seek to attract their audiences to their
respective world views. Thus hagiography freely
appropriates fabulous, affective, and dramatic elements
from romance when they can make images of the holy life
more compelling. While tacitly adopting these elements,
religious literature overtly condemns the romances
themselves. (Crane 102)

Susan Crane seems to be speaking to the issue of role models of

achievement rather than the sexual elements of the discourse which

both Leclercq and Gilson protest. Nevertheless, she acknowledges a

rhetorical cross-influence. Even though Bernard employed exegesis and


not hagiography, a closer look at his sermons reveal "fabulous,

affective, and dramatic elements" too, so why not sexual? Bernard

himself appropriated sensual language at the service of the divine

when he said:

Since we are creatures of the flesh who . are
receptive to sensations and thereby form images . .
[we] understand, through analogy, the meanings of God's
mysteries. (Bernard 33)

Finally, though, Riehle points out that "it is more important to

recognize the close links between secular and spiritual literature

than to attempt to clarify the question of priority" (55).

The question of connection must first be settled; then priority

of influence should be addressed. The issue involves: experience, by

what means we interpret the experience, the means we use to express

the experience, and the means by which that experience becomes

accessible; in other words, an event takes place, a basis for

understanding it is required, a vocabulary for communication is

needed, and a method by which others may acquire such experience is

provided. Thus, experience is received and interpreted by the body,

expressed with the body's language, and converted into written signs

that sight transfers to the imaginative sphere of the other senses so

that the experience might be simulated. But on the question of St.

Bernard's erotic language, we find literary precedence, some critical

recognition of it, his own statement of the sensual connection in

language, and some recent critical discussion of the secular-spiritual

love connection.

No one doubts the mystical dimension of St Bernard's sermons on

the Song although there are only a few partial analyses of them


(notably those of Jean Leclercq and Etienne Gilson, also Thomas Merton

and Ann Astell). What those analyses consist of are either background

compositions, proof for theological dogma, or historical tracings of

Song commentary. Those who do commit themselves to identifying

Bernard's language as erotic without undercutting such a commitment do

not explore his sermons, but merely accept his erotic language as

common knowledge. Few others are willing to place the saint's sermons

under the shadow of sexuality. We might mention, though, that the

historian, Ernst R. Curtius, does find "an unprejudiced erotic candor

even among the higher clergy" in the beginning of the twelfth century

and notices the spiritualizing of Eros in Bernard of Clairvaux's work


In order to investigate the spiritualizingg of Eros," as Curtius

puts it, we need to take a closer look at the discussion of mysticism

itself. Ozment discusses "both 'mysticism' and 'mystical theology.'

He says:

The former describes the experience of true mystics,
those who claim to have experienced God intimately. Mystical
theology, on the other hand, describes the learned study of
mysticism by university scholars and the pursuit of mystical
experience by clergy and laity who never actually achieve
it. (115)

Though he provides useful definitions, Ozment does not describe the

varieties of union or the different steps experienced by the "true

mystics," nor does he entertain, in this definition, that mystical

theology also might be pursued by "true mystics." In other words, a

person who has visionary or unitive experience might also speculate on

the nature of God as Bernard does. If we, however, keep such


possibilities in mind, then we may apply both of Ozment's definitions

to the discourse of Bernard's language.23

As we traverse mystical and erotic discourse, distinctions

between them occasionally blur. Curtius understood Bernard to have

spiritualized Eros, that Greek god of sexual love; Gilson denies it

"since mystical love is the negation of carnal love one cannot borrow

the description of one to describe the other" (179). Western culture,

however, uses the kiss in a variety of ways, joining mystical to

carnal. There is a classical statue rendering Psyche kissing Eros

which textually connects mind (Aquinas located the soul there) and

sexual passion. In Diogenes Laertius' Lives, a couplet reads:

My soul was on my lips as I was kissing Agathon.
Poor soul she came hoping to cross over to him.
(Perella 7)

Besides the Greek, we have many instances of kisses in the Hebrew

Bible for respect, affection, and reconciliation. Perella notes,

though, that "The only clear mention of the kiss being on the mouth is

in connection with the passionate love of the Song of Songs."

Christian tradition, on the other hand, shows that the kiss had "a

ritualistic and sacramental function from the beginning" (12). Kisses

to the altar, ring, icons, and to the face in the kiss of peace are

just a small sampling. Continuing these traditional definitions

ascribed to the kiss as both nonsexual and sexual are those to be

found in current dictionaries and encyclopedias. The OED's first

definition of the metaphor we are exploring identifies "kiss" as "A

touch or pressure given with the lips in token of affection, greeting,

or reverence; a salute or caress given with the lips." Within

this definition, then, we notice its "gifted" and "affective"


characteristics. Associating "reverence" with the kiss, this

dictionary clearly demonstrates the horizontal connection of affection

and religious veneration. The "salute" demonstrates respect for

another's authority, so with this usage a vertical hierarchical power

structure is invoked. The sensual nature of "touch" must have been

immediately noticed, but as an historical entry of its use, the OED

recalls the classical distich in its reference to a line from

Tennyson's Fatima: "He drew With onle long kiss my whole soul thro' My

lips." Nicolas Perella's book, The Kiss Sacred and Profane, describes

labial association of eroticism as a Western cultural construction

associated with eating and sensations of touch and smell. If we

juxtapose Tennyson's use with Perella's observation, the containment

meaning plane neatly integrates spirituality with sexuality.

On the other hand, a common explanation of the "kiss"

in Brittanica identifies motive as the deciding factor among

the interpretations of affection, greeting, or eroticism:

Whether or not a behaviour is interpreted by society or
the individual as erotic (i.e. capable of engendering
sexual response) depends chiefly on the context in
which the behaviour occurs. A kiss, for example, may
express asexual affection (a mother kissing a child or
a kiss between relatives), respect (as a French officer
kissing a soldier after bestowing a medal on him),
reverence (kissing the hand or foot of a pope), or it
may be a casual salutation and social amenity. . In
other words, the apparent motivation of the behaviour
determines its interpretation. Individuals are
extremely sensitive in judging motivations: a greeting
kiss, if protracted more than a second or two, takes on
a sexual connotation. (594)

From this interpretation and with a knowledge of Latin, a reader may

readily construe St. Bernard's "kiss" within the motive of friendship,


rather than sexuality. In his history of The Kiss, Christopher Nyrop

describes the Romans as identifying three kinds of kisses with three

different words: "oscula, friendly kisses, basia, kisses of love, and

suavia, passionate kisses" (8-9). St. Bernard uses the Latin

translation of the Song's kiss as osculum, never the other two. The

problem with one-to-one definitions, though, is that they fail to

acknowledge the plane of meaning in which they are used. We might

recall that containment, verticality, horizontality are some of the

spatial considerations which we use for understanding. These are the

contexts in which Bernard's "kiss" acts, which brings us to the text



Specifically, we need to analyze St. Bernard's mystical kiss

sermons themselves to see their spatial employment of the carnal, the

spiritual, and the social as erotic rhetoric. There are eight

thematically centered sermons on the "kiss" out of the eighty-six

sermons on the Song of Songs; they are arranged with a "spiritual"

break in the center, a kind of abyss which the mystic must bridge. The

first four sermons are "kiss" sermons; the fifth sermon deals with

"four kinds of spirits" and makes no reference to the kiss, thereby

making a parallel in arrangement with the previous more "fleshly"

figure. The next four sermons, 6-9, return to the "kiss" motif.

Further references to the kiss are sparse following these sermons, but

some isolated allusions occur in sermons 28, 30-31, 38, and 41.

Bernard's opening sermon on the "kiss" in the Song of Songs

emphasizes the stylistic devices of beginning in the middle of the


action, the rhetorical ambiguity of the speaker, and the unusual

adverbial modifier of the statement: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of

his mouth." Bernard reflects, "What a delightful way of putting it! We

begin with a kiss, and the lovely face of Scripture readily attracts

the reader and leads him on" (Bernard 212). To begin in medias res, we

may recall, is a classical method which incorporates divinity in the

lives of men. Bernard believed that though he was not present at the

beginning of God's interaction with man nor at its ending, he was at

its mid-point. Calling attention to this method of beginning also

recalls that Bernard was addressing monks in the middle of their

lives, not in childhood or old age. Knowing that such people

everywhere are fascinated by mystery, Bernard crafted his language

with veiled references. In fact, ambiguity was a joy for Bernard. He

demonstrated a belief that, while we do not know through language,

through its imagery we could see "darkly." Bernard's personified use

of "face" and his appropriation of contemplation as seeing "in a glass

darkly" displays his use of ambiguity as well as his appropriation of

traditional mystical rhetoric. In regards to Bernard's reaction to the

scholar Abelard, A. Victor Murray notes: "Bernard's chief complaint

against Abelard was that he was too clear about the mysteries of the

faith" (160). Thus, it is the ambiguity of the speaker's identity in

Song that emphasized for Bernard its mystical connection.25 He must

have known from the Ad Herennium, that employing ambiguity produces

emphasis (401). Also, Bernard's use of the "inexpressibility topoi,"

inherited from the ancient mystics and verified by Curtius (159-162)

forces a separation of those who experienced divine union and


entrusted the knowledge through various coding and rites only among

the elect,26 especially as the Old Testament God refused to be

specifically named.

That the kiss should be described as "of the mouth" finds its

significance in the "intimacy" of love, which we might identify as the

trope periphrasis, which embellishes meaning through circumlocution

(Cicero, pseud. 337), and which Bernard developed scripturally. The

rhetorical device began innocently enough with, perhaps, the agreed

denotative and Christian sign of affection, but moved gradually under

the total control of the speaker as he called into question kisses

that are not "of the mouth" and promoted swerves in his listeners'

connotations by connecting their kiss experiences to the speaker's

changed perceptions. Leclercq says that for Bernard

love is the sole object of the sacred texts . [and
the Bible's] facts and ideas serve as both pre-text and
pretext for this encounter between two loves: that of
God for man and man for God" ("Intro.," Evans 32).

In his reflection Bernard placed the mouth on the personified "face"

of Scripture. So that, in effect, reader and listener began with the

words of God as if they were kissed by him and wanted more. This

imaginative and bizarre image appeals erotically through a form of

mouth to mouth transfer--a sensual kiss experience-and recalls the

Greek distich of Laertius mentioned earlier. No wonder Bernard

described it as "delightful." It facilitated his persuasive power to

focus on the body part--the mouth--for his express purpose of exciting

the experiential level of the senses. Through his use of synecdoche,

which demonstrates a whole from its part (Cicero, pseud. 339), Bernard

wanted to recreate each listener into the Bride, even transferring her


emotions through arousal, another rhetorical trope (Cicero 369). Ann

Astell and Ernst Curtius, for their own reasons, depend on Jungian

psychology to describe Bernard's feminine appeal, but they do not

really explain the variety of roles Bernard projects for his

audience's participation. Just to join the feminine and masculine

sides of the monks' psyches does not account for a rhetorical

seduction that involves the containment of the Bride within the sole

domain of the Groom; the verticality of kisses of submission, respect,

and love; or the elite horizontality of equality only to be found in

the kiss of the trinity. Bernard seemed bent on awakening the same

Bridal desire found in the Song among his audience, and for that

reason his treatment of the Song is different from those that preceded


Why did Bernard want, even subconsciously, to deliver erotic

sermons? Why did he amplify the kiss itself? Why did he discuss it

over and over again, dwelling on the point (Cicero, pseud. 375) so

much that it was "like blood . spread through the whole body of

the discourse," as the translation of the Latin describes the trope?

These rhetorical figures of embellishment conjure the continued

attention of the audience to this strongest of topics. In sermon 2

there is one possible explanation. He perceived his audience's

pathetic lack of Christian "ardor" at a time just prior to Christmas.

He said:

When I reflect, as I often do, on the ardor with which
the patriarchs longed for the incarnation of Christ, I
am pierced with sorrow and shame. And now I can
scarcely contain my tears, so ashamed am I of the
lukewarmness and lethargy of the present times. . .


In those days a spiritual man could sense in the Spirit
how great would be the grace released by the touch of
those lips. (215)

Briefly noting his feminine sexual "pierced" image which invades his

space with "shame" and the emission of grace from the touched "lips,"

we may acknowledge him benevolently motivated to fire others with the

same kind of love that he felt. He ascribed God's "grace" to the

action of the kiss. By that attachment of property to the metaphor,

Bernard moved his trope into the sphere of metonymy, expanding the

kiss for his audience's intuitive knowledge; "to intuit," says Ozment,

"means to behold and gaze on something attentively" (57). Since

Bernard presents images for the monks to "gaze" upon, we might reflect

that Western males are most stimulated sexually by sight.

With the attention of his audience focused on the property of the

kiss-its grace, Bernard next emphasized its significance for them:

The mouth which kisses signifies the Word who assumes
human nature; the flesh which is assumed is the
recipient of the kiss; the kiss, which is of both giver
and receiver, is the Person which is of both, the
Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.

By this accumulation-a forceful trope intended to impress (Cicero,

pseud. 361)--of horizontal imagery, Bernard revealed the orthodox

theology of the dual nature of Christ, proclaimed at the Council of

Chalcedon (451 A.D.) as being both God and man. Erotically he

refined-this figure seems to say something new and may transfer a

thought to arousal (Cicero, pseud. 365)--the stationary noun, "kiss,"

to an active present tense verb, "kisses," concentrating on the body

part "the mouth" as performing the action; within the same sentence he

repeated "kiss" three times. Further, he directly connected the


"kiss" to an infusion into "flesh" so there can be no doubt of its

sensual nature. However, there is also another aspect, drawn, of

course, from the Gospel of John--the Word. In the "kiss," as Bernard

explicated it, are three persons, but they are the Word itself, God as

giver, and Jesus as receiver. At this point, however, he did not

explain the "kiss" as the Holy Spirit. The connection of God and man

is found, though, in Christ and the Word. Bernard gave a second

amplification of the union in the "kiss"--reconciliation. Prior to

Christ's arrival, Bernard said, people

began to lose faith in the promises and they demanded
the kiss, the sign of the promise of reconciliation.
and so by this sign of peace make peace secure. .
S[not] believing in mere words. They need to be
confirmed by deeds. (217-18)

Bernard has changed the "kiss" now into a symbol of peace and a "deed"

that was "demanded" to insure Christ's presence. This reconciliation

became instituted not long after Bernard's life, in 1215 at the Fourth

Lateran Council in the standardization of lay confession (Kieckhefer

102), which consists of the word, forgiveness through Christ, and

reunion with God. Out of social concern and brotherly charity the

Church itemized, examined, and restricted human sexuality in all its

fleshly weakness and attempted to transfer its more lustful aspect

into discourse.27

Having established audience interest and image participation,

Bernard approached his audience in sermon 3 on the experience of

divine union, the contemplative ecstasy. He said:

I want to investigate whether it has been given to any
of you to say, 'Let him kiss me with the kiss of his
mouth.' Few can say this wholeheartedly. But if anyone
once receives the spiritual kiss of Christ's mouth he


seeks eagerly to have it again and again. . But a
soul like mine, burdened with sins, cannot dare say
that, while it is still crippled by fleshly passions. (221)

Bernard, in the tradition of mystical theology, implied that few

people actually had experienced such a phenomenon. Further, he

described this experience, the "kiss" of contemplative ecstasy, as one

that mystics wanted repeated. The juxtapositioning of three spiritual

"kisses" with continuous desire and "fleshly passions" displays a

bizarre use for the oxymoron. Certainly it would seem by such a choice

of imagery that Bernard was acutely aware of the pathetic--feelings

and emotions in an audience-inner conflict that the Church's mandate

and his own enforcement of celibacy had effected in his audience.

Though monks are not necessarily priests and have their own vows of

chastity, it is during Bernard's most influential lifetime that the

first (1123) and second (1139) Lateran Councils ended the possible

Roman Catholic legality of clerical marriage, something which is still

a source of church division. But, of course, Bernadine critics would

have us remember that Bernard's benevolent motivation which made

"divine union" so personal for his monks is the reason we should not

construe his rhetoric as erotic. In keeping with this criticism, we

might remember that Bernard's order, the Cistercians, was a strict

reform of the Benedictines. To lash us and his audience, then, to the

mast of sexual denial would seem to be the next step since the

listeners/readers must not stop up their ears or eyes. Traditionally,

asceticism28 provides the best reception for the ecstatic

experience. Disciplined senses shut to the corporeal are supposed to

attract the divine, so Bernard's coupling of divine union with a


reminder of sinful nature is orthodox mysticism. The problem of his

language remains, however. It is like describing a deferred,

mouth-watering meal to starving children.

The first ascetical step, then, for the sinful person, instead of

aspiring to union, was to begin an allegorical movement of repentance

described by three kisses: he should throw himself at Christ's feet

and give them the first kiss; next, he should kiss the hand; then, he

may kiss the mouth. The social effect of penance, we might remember,

is a kind of containment meant to redirect outward aggression inward

to restructure the self; when that is accomplished with the help of a

spiritual leader, reconciliation may be effected towards those to whom

aggression was originally directed. Spiritually, the same procedure is

adopted since man's sin is a rebellion against God, and self denial is

the way that Christ took to achieve man's salvation. The first kiss

Bernard ascribed to penitence, demonstrated by the tears which

accompanied it and washed not only Christ's feet as in Luke (7:37),

but also the penitent himself. Only with forgiveness may the penitent

rise by grace given by the hand which helped him up. The kiss to the

hand, then, signified that the glory was due to the giver of grace,

not the given. Overwhelming love caused the penitent to "press" for

the gift of "that supreme kiss of the highest condescension and

wonderful sweetness" (223) which, of course, is the kiss of Christ's

mouth. Though sermon 3 briefly discussed the contemplative ecstasy in

terms of the kiss, the penitent kisses leading to it were explained in

more detail. Of course, we might have failed to recognize the erotic

nature of traveling up the body via kisses because the motive is to


show disgust and sorrow with the sins of the flesh. Hierarchical

desire is inherent in the vertical plane of our experience. No one

wants to remain servilely at the feet, yet that is the place the

humble Christian must begin. The mouth is prioritized because it is

the bodily entrance to the head, the translating center of language.

In mystical tradition, the movement in cataphatic theology is always

upwards, a scala toward divine union.30 We may discern from

Bernard's theology of the Word, as well as his belief, that "sinful

nature" is "crippled by fleshly passion," but union can be effected by

"spiritual" language.

Though Bernard's fourth sermon showed kisses as "stages of

progress in the soul, it emphasized the body." He denied "bodily

members" to God "since 'God is a Spirit'"; then paradoxically, he

referred again to "the kiss of the mouth" because Scripture spoke of

it, using portrayal-a figure which depicts a person through his body

(Cicero, pseud. 387). By means of metonymy, Bernard specified the

bodily parts God has by the gifts that come from them, i.e. knowledge

from the mouth that teaches, food by his hand, and feet for the kisses

of humility. Then he attempted to clarify the paradox by saying "God

has all these not by nature, but we understand them as ways by which

we can come to him" (225). Bernard then spoke of the love of God in

terms of a bodily mystical joy: "A joyous contemplation finds rest in

him in the rapture which is the kiss of his mouth" (226). This

antithetical doctrine of opposites, contemplation and physical

rapture, consisted in Bernard's belief that the soul needs the body:


Only through the body does the way, the ascent
to the life of blessedness, lie open to us. . .
The spiritual creature which we are has a body
which is necessary to it, and without which it cannot
reach that knowledge which is the only way to the
knowledge the blessed have. (227)

Bernard recognized his use of the body as necessary matter or form for

the soul. The body, of course, is a prerequisite for both the literal

and the spiritual union of Bride with Bridegroom in the kiss, not to

speak of sexual rapture.

Displaying his knack for dispositio--the rhetorical arrangement

of material--Bernard uses sermon 6 to bridge the spiritual focus of

sermon 5 to the carnality of the kiss sermons. Sermon 6 refers to

mankind's inability to understand God's spiritual ways. Such a

statement not only explains the reason for the Incarnation, but also

the reason behind Bernard's invocation of the fleshly figure of the


He became incarnate for the sake of carnal men, that he
might induce them to relish the life of the Spirit .
In the body, I repeat, and through the body, he
performed wonderful deeds. (Bernard, Serm. 33)

Enlarging this carnal need, Bernard showed it as the means to the

Spirit: It was necessary that the sinner should receive pardon for her

sins while lying prone at God's feet of flesh, kissing these same feet

with her lips of flesh. This utter prostration of the sinner, who in

Bernard's rhetoric has changed gender from the male penitent to the

returning Bride, is necessary for the kiss to occur, which, Bernard

cautioned, must be "understood in a spiritual sense" (Serm. 35).

Trying to emphasize this "sense," he defined God's feet. One foot is

"truth and judgment"; the other is "mercy." He urged the kissing of

both feet in order to avoid the errors of "despair" or "pernicious


security" (Sermones 37). The effects of this sermon do more, though,

than just precipitate Christ's gift of love and provide a base for

conversion. The effects pervade experiential planes. For instance, not

only is the sexually subordinate position accorded to a feminine

representation, but the position is horizontal with the ground.

Communal access is horizontal. Furthermore, the prone position was

accepted by the medieval Church as the correct copulatory position, as

opposed to other "unnatural" ones. Next, there is a reverse order of

bodily connection; the head of the woman applies itself to the male

extremities--the feet. Also, the connection of feet and lips is

emphasized by repeating "flesh" and by urging two kisses. But to be

fair to Bernard, he did make the spiritual connection, too, when he

ascribed a trinity of Christian qualities-truth, judgment, and

mercy--to God's two feet.

In sermon 7, dwelling on the point, Bernard returned to the kiss

of union and specified it as the Bride's request: "Let him kiss me

with the kiss of his mouth." Since a kiss, then as now, presupposes

affection, Bernard examined affection. After he used the figure of

division to define (Cicero, pseud. 361) the various "affections,"

Bernard contrasted the Bride's affection as love: "She who asks for a

kiss feels love." Such affection is the epitome of gifts: "This

affection of love excels among the gifts of nature, especially when it

returns to its source, which is God" (231). Character delineation is

the figure which uses signs and attributes to "know" a person (Cicero,

pseud. 387), and Bernard utilized it when the "affection" of the

Bridegroom's Word is shown to the Bride's Soul. Bernard placed love

here in the domain of marriage:

So then love especially and chiefly belongs to those
who are married and it is not inappropriate to call the
loving soul a Bride. . She does not ask for freedom
or payment or an inheritance or learning, but for a
kiss, . and she cannot disguise the flame which is
so evident. (Bernard 232)

Her love is such, Bernard said, that she cannot see the "majesty" of

Him whom she dares to love. The only explanation for her daring to ask

him for a kiss is that she must be intoxicated: "Is she drunk? Indeed

she is!" This odd concoction of intoxication, spiritual thirst, and

sexual desire is made even odder by Bernard adding rhetorical

palliation-praise combined with frankness (Cicero, pseud. 351)-to

show that she did not present her request for a kiss directly, but did

it "modestly" through the mediation of those present (angels, in

Bernard's estimation) as if the Bridegroom were not there (Bernard


She desires to be kissed and she asks for what she
desires. But she does not name him whom she loves,
because she has so often spoken of him to them.
Therefore she does not say, 'Let him, or him, kiss me,'
but just, 'Let him kiss me,' just as Mary Magdalene did
not say the name of him whom she sought . And so
then she, speaking to the Bridegroom's companions,
takes it that they know what she means, and she speaks
no name when she bursts forth about her beloved. 'Let
him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.' (Bern. 235)

In the previous passage four main points are made: unneeded

names, the issue of mediation, a comparison with Mary Magdalene, and

the Bride's boldness. Since naming is a human sound system for

communicating knowledge of presence, an ambiguous reference such as

"him" fixes a form of familiarity. The company is quite aware of the

Bridegroom's presence; all know that the Bride wants the privileged


kiss of the mouth from him and no one else. Since language is not

needed to identify his presence, we may infer that the mystical

presence not only need not, but cannot be symbolically

represented.31 Nevertheless, it is the human language emanating from

the upper vertical region of the body-the mouth-which expresses

desire for the experience. The socially horizontal incorporation of

other beings or intermediaries in bringing together the wills of Bride

and Bridegroom makes a parallel of the ecclesiastical/monastic

mediation between laity and divinity, not to speak of the mediation of

the Virgin Mary and the saints with Christ, one of the theological

issues (Pelikan 165) which Bernard bolstered in his sermons.

The difference, though, is that the mediation of the Church and

its saints is not horizontal, but hierarchical. Periphrasis has again

twisted our awareness of mediating beings who combine divine and human

qualities in spiritual mediation. The cross of horizontal and vertical

planes is the space of sermon 7's rhetorical experience. Through his

invocation of Mary Magdalene, Bernard connected the heavy imagery of

sensuality, love, forgiveness, and spirituality to the familiarity of

the soul for God and retracement in Christ. Even in the English work,

Mirror of Simple Souls, Mary Magdalene "is held up as a model for the

mystic because she thus 'drewe God to hir'" (Riehle 74). Juxtaposing

sensual femininity turned pure, Bernard presented the pure soul who

"does not love in fleshly desire" turned passionate with a spiritual

love that made her drunk and oblivious to God's "majesty." In fact, he

praised her boldness and lack of subterfuge in tellingn] him clearly

what she desires." Bernard dramatized his mystical theology when he


described her demand for the "kiss" as an ecstatic spontaneous

overflow of the "force of love!" This linguistic ejaculation erupting

from a drunkenness in the soul muffles her discrimination of the

overwhelming nature of God compared to the soul's relative

insignificance. Bernard enhanced his description of the vertical

movement of the soul's language by locating her as comingn] out of

the wine cellar" (232). Concluding this passage on the drunken soul,

Bernard reinforced it with the psalmist's comment to God: "They shall

be intoxicated with the plenty of your house, and you will give them

the torrents of your pleasure to drink" (Ps 35:9).

Rarefying the experience of the "kiss" in sermon 8, Bernard

repeatedly used the ancient trope of hyperbole to inform his monks

about "the supreme kiss, the kiss of the mouth" and cautioned them to

"Listen more carefully to that which tastes the sweeter, is enjoyed

the more rarely, and is the more difficult to understand" (236). In

this sermon Bernard made several distinctions. First, through

hyperbaton--a figure which makes use of an audience's memory to make a

word order change (Cicero, pseud. 339)-he drew attention to what we

note as a choice of prepositions. Bernard mentioned that if the Bride

had said, "Let him kiss me with his mouth" (emphasis mine), she would

have been referring to God himself, and this she would not have

"dare[d]." Next, he doubled the identification of the kiss as a "new

kiss, not from the Bridegroom's mouth but from the kiss of his mouth"

(emphasis mine). Another periphrasic twist occurred when Bernard

communally connected the kiss to "breath": He quoted from John's

gospel that Jesus breathed on his apostles and told them, "Receive the


Holy Spirit" (236). The kiss was not, then, the breath at all (as in

Abelard and Plato), but the "invisible Spirit." Bernard confirmed this

image when he said, "It is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as

the kiss" (237. Buphasis mine).

Bernard continued the kiss accumulation making connections

through knowledge and love. "So when the Bride asks for a kiss," he

said, "she begs to be flooded with the grace of this threefold

knowledge as much as mortal flesh can bear"(238). The "threefold

knowledge" in this case was the Son's gift which revealed the Father's

love through the kiss of the Holy Spirit. Bernard, paradoxically,

given the sermons he preached,32 cautioned against reliance on the

senses or intellectual curiosity. His example was the Bride who "does

not trust her senses or rely an the vain speculations of human

curiosity," but instead:

asks for a kiss. . And that knowledge which is
given in a kiss is received with love, for a kiss is
the sign of love. . the grace of the kiss brings
with it a double gift, both the light of knowledge and
the wealth of devotion. . This kiss leaves no room
for error or apathy. (Bernard 239)

Riehle identifies this combination of knowledge and love as part of

"affective mysticism" when he says, "Hence for the mystic affective

contemplation implies receiving wisdom and savouring divine love at

the same time" (109). After telling his audience what the kiss

brought, Bernard rhetorically reversed time to the anticipation of the

kiss, and told the bride to get prepared as if he and his audience

were dramatically present: "Therefore let the Bride prepare her two

lips" (Bernard 239). Symbolically, this preparation involved

understanding through love, desire for wisdom, and fulfillment through


grace, as demonstrated through Bernard's evocation of Psalm 44: "Your

lips are moist with grace, for God has blessed you forever" (239).

Literally, moist lips are erotic, especially as preparation for the

groom's entrance. We cannot deny this bridal evocation even when aware

of the spiritual connection of "grace." We may presume the parallel

lips of human anatomy to which Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" alludes.

Bernard, then, expanded and clarified the unity found in the kiss

through comparison when he noted, "And so the Father, kissing the Son,

pours into him in full the mysteries of his divinity, and breathes the

sweetness of love" (239). Of course, Bernard was quick to mention that

no human had ever seen such a holy embrace as that of the trinity, and

added that he has been made aware of it through the Gospel of John:

'The only begotten who was in the bosom of the Father,
he has told' (Jn 1:18) us. And what is that telling
but a kiss? But it is the kiss of a kiss, not of the
mouth. Hear about the kiss of the mouth, 'I and the
Father are one' (Jn 10:30), and again, 'I am in the
Father and the Father in me' (Jn 14:10). This is a kiss
from mouth to mouth which no creature can receive. It
is a kiss of peace and love. . But let us
distinguish more clearly between the two. (Bernard 240)

He who received the fullness is given the kiss of the
mouth, but he who receives from the fullness (Jn 1:16)
is given the kiss of the kiss. (Bernard, Serm. 51)

Though the latter translation by Walsh is more comprehensible using

"from" than Evans who uses "of,"33 there still seems little

difference in the cause, only the metonymic effects of being a

recipient: "fullness" equals "fullness," but "mouth" does not equal

"kiss." There does seem to be something else going on here--a kind of

prioritizing of the male divinity connection with the stream of grace

which they both emit and share in the "kiss of the kiss." Fortunately,


for the spiritual aspect, Bernard clarified the distinction a little

further on when he used St. Paul's "kiss" in contrast to Christ's.

Paul could not reach the "face of glory" so his humble request was

bestowed by a "kiss of the kiss," but Christ "meets the Father's mouth

directly" and receives the "kiss of the mouth" (Serm. 51). Bernard

ended this sermon with a consideration that "the Lord your God . .

perhaps ought not to be kissed, but adored with the Father and the

Holy Spirit" (241).

Sermon 9 picks up the Biblical allusion to Jerusalem as whore:

"But you have sinned with many lovers, and yet you return to me! says

the Lord" (Jer 3:1). Bernard mentioned the Bride's past adultery with

other lovers who abused and finally repudiated her so that she

returned to the Bridegroom kissing his feet in penitence. His love and

forgiveness emboldened the Bride into demanding the "kiss of the hand"

laden with its obtainable virtues (Bernard, Serm. 53). Bernard's

direct reference to sexual promiscuity with Biblical support shows a

cultural fantasy of woman on the ground begging forgiveness to man.

Where before the penitent approached God by vertical stages, the Bride

must speak, demanding the helping hand, so that she, too, may follow

the upward trail of kisses. Saint Bernard showed the Bride as fearless

of her husband's remembrance of her sins and of the possibility that

he would renounce her. In fact, she presents no reasonable account for

her restless demand for "the kiss of his mouth," explaining "It is

desire that drives me on, not reason" (Serm. 54). The bridal epithet

seems strangely awry as Bernard had her recount years of "dry"

fidelity and chaste duty as the cause for her love's "thirst" for the


"kiss of his mouth" (Bernard, Sermones 55). While Bernard was probably

paralleling ascetic denial to the Bride's dry duty, the audience is

still made vividly aware of its own sexual "thirst," presumably

transformed into spiritual desire. He extended the parallel to

knowledge of God, which seems to use the Biblical sense, when he

identified his audience's inability to comprehend the "subtle truths

of God" as the Bride's dryness and noted their yearningn] to be

kissed" by Him. Building the rhetorical power of his last concept by

heightening the sense of taste through desire, he returned to the

psalmist who thirsted for "that kiss at whose touch the lips are so

bedewed with the richness of spiritual grace" (Bernard, Serm. 55). At

this point Bernard brought his audience to the climax of the kiss

sermons. There is no doubt that the "holy kiss" caused conception

since Bridegroom informed his Bride:

You will know that you have received the kiss because
you will be conscious of having conceived. That
explains the expansion of your breasts, filled with
milky richness far surpassing wine. (Serm. 58)

Though we are bound to realize that the breast milk symbolized the

nourishment given to spiritual babies and resulted from the "kisses of

contemplation" (Sermones 59), we cannot fail to remember the drunken

Bride's ecstasy when the milk was contrasted with wine. This last

thematically created "kiss" sermon sums up Bernard's mystic fiducia.

It shows his confidence in Christ, as Bridegroom, showing love; it

shows Bernard's desire for the spiritual in his carnal terminology; it

parallels his outward expression of ecstasy in the nourishment

produced by God's kiss.


References to the kiss, as mentioned previously, are severely

limited after sermon 9. They do combine, however, the erotic,

spiritual, and social dimensions of these early sermons in terms of

spatial movement. For instance in sermon 28, the spiritual aspect is

emphasized when Bernard contrasts the kiss of man's hand to Job's

adoring kiss--gift to God (Sermones 94). In sermon 30, Bernard lists

antitheses which include "the curb and the kiss" to show the different

ways "ardor" may be measured. The Bridegroom's "maneuvering" for the

Bride's kiss is described as a change of presence in sermon 31, and

his kisses prove him both "loving and charming" (Serm. 130-31). Sermon

38 connects the Bridegroom's "colloquys" with "kisses"; they are both

privileged and intimate communications which inspire the daring of the

Bride (Sermones 189). The horizontally social aspect of the Bride's

milk is furthered in her preaching assignment which Bernard applied in

sermon 41, his last kiss reference:

We learn from this that only too often we must
interrupt the sweet kisses to feed the needy with the
milk of doctrine. (On the Song 208)

If all these kisses are spiritual indicators and do not display an

erotic component, then why should Christ "perhaps not be kissed"?

Though no critics show a willingness to explain the eroticism of

St. Bernard's mystic kiss, critic Wolfgang Riehle willingly identified

"the erotic component" as "characteristic of the mysticism of St

Bernard and St Francis" (136). Even with this fairly straightforward

identification, Riehle feels the need to castigate the Englishwoman,

Margery Kempe, for exactly the same "component" when he said of her:

"In a way which is typical for her sick, neurotic psyche she uses the


verb ravishen in both an erotic and a mystical meaning" (96). Perhaps

the cause of Riehle's disgust lies with her lack of canonization, or

with her loud cries that would not subtly insinuate themselves into

his psyche, or with the fact that her gender presents the erotic from

a female perspective instead of a female appropriation.

St. Bernard's experience and Biblical study were the basis of his

mysticism and rhetoric. As we have seen, he was not above using erotic

rhetoric to keep his audience's interest and to move them sensually

through the space of their physical desires to the abstraction of

their spiritual desires. Ordinarily, the recognition of his erotic

dimension might indicate condemnation, which is probably why he and

his admirers deny such a connection. Ethical considerations which he

helped forge require heavy penalties for mixing Christianity with

sexuality. It is true that Bernard was a successful manipulator of

love with far-reaching effects through the centuries that followed

him. Yet, we can hardly omit this man's life or the rntive of social

love that it presents. It is through his description of the kiss in

Song that we view his mystical theology of sexual love and contrition

as metaphors for the union of God with soul. In Bernard the "union"

translated into a charity which empowered his teaching, preaching,

political involvement and loyalty. Riehle points out that "Bernard

expresses the teaching of affective mysticism--that love is the only

form of experience and knowledge of God" (111).

Leclercq identifies Bernard as quite aware of the human condition

in the containment of society. He says:

We exist in a society fram which we receive and to which
we must contribute, and this entails many practical
consequences of which Bernard often spoke to his monks.
He greatly insisted on 'social grace' as a requirement for
any communal life . . Everything Bernard said about
fraternal love in the rest of his work and everything he
did throughout his life in the service of his neighbor,
was simply the practical application of the social
character of love. ("Intro.," Evans 41)

Such acknowledgement should cause us to examine contemplation. Is it

that peaceful, quiet state known as meditation? Can it really be a

contained, inward movement if Bernard was so active? Leclercq says

that "The more he [Bernard] enjoyed contemplative solitude with God,

the more responsible he felt for sharing with others the interior

light he had received" ("Intro.," Evans 18). Phenomenological data

indicates contemplation is only outwardly calm; the alpha waves of the

brain synchronize positively with "traits of the strong nervous

system"; alpha abundance is always high in such people. Yogis who

produce greater light discharges frcm their bodies while photographed

with the Curlian procedure may be only reflecting a rise in their

generally lower alpha abundance in comparison with experienced

Christian contemplatives.34 From this evidence, sketchy as it still

is, we may infer that contemplatives are much more active than

passive. Further study might explain why such people generate more

bodily energy outward than the Eastern contemplatives and the

inexperienced subjects. Certainly, this very movement is analogous to

the movement of the "kiss" sermons. The Bride asks for "the kiss of

the mouth"; her desire is for Divine Union; she makes her request

within the community-a social intercession that confirms her


connection. Thus, the soul receives its grace from Christ through a

kind of community intercourse.

St Bernard's energy has never been disputed. As Murray indicates:

The center of gravity of Christendom was clearly at
Clairvaux rather than at Rome. . It is no wonder
that Luther, looking back into the Middle Ages, should
feel himself to be in the succession of St Bernard
[especially as Bernard relied on Christ]. (27)

But whereas Luther's fiducia saw man as a sinner saved by Christ, in

effect, a finished product sealed with God's kiss, Bernard saw man

within a continuum of love, allowing the soul to forget its

regressions.35 Despite the shame and guilt which this approach

entails, it is due to Bernard's energetic personality, though, that

"one of the most notable products of Western mysticism" (25) exists.

We have noted the many influences on St. Bernard and though we refute

Evans' praise, we may still join his sentiment when he says that the

sermons on the Song of Songs "draw for their inspiration from the

Bible and on Bernard's own thoughts, and there appears to be no

reference to any of the Fathers. All that Bernard had, he had of

himself" (26). The union of Bride with Bridegroom through the kiss is

Bernard's Christocentric mystical theology, which had not only erotic

connections, but also socio-political implications.

Bernard saw the Bride's desire as causal, and the Bridegroom's

magnificence as divine; the kiss, was both the action of grace

bestowed upon the soul and the union of divinity. The metaphor of the

kiss incorporated a trinity whose emanation was grace, brought about

by a meeting of wills-that of Bride and Bridegroom. It is important

to notice, though, that the Bride did not lose her identity in union


with the Bridegroom since such immersion would not be consistent with

Bernard's individualism. Describing mystical union, he said:

God and man remain distinct from one another. Each
retains his own will and substance. They do not mingle
their substances, but rather consent in will. This
union is for them a communion of wills and an agreement
in love. (Quoted in Ozment 131).

The doctrine of grace which Bernard espoused showed the Bride already

infused with desire from her first words. Such desire for divine

union, he believed, was a result of already infused grace, which is

continually desired after receiving the kiss.

Besides erotic and socio-political implications, a third division

of Bernard's mystical theology demonstrated by the kiss of fullness

was God's omnipotence. It was God who kissed the Son with the Holy

Spirit, an action unobservable by mankind. Because it was only through

Christ that Bernard saw man achieving union; it was Christ's kiss that

carried a "wonderful sweetness," one of the odors of mysticism.

Lastly, mankind's weakness and need for God were paralleled in the

Bride's intoxicated "daring," in the presence of the Bridegroom's

"majesty," and in the prostration of the penitent kissing Christ's

feet. The metaphoric "kiss" sermons, then, amply demonstrated

Bernard's persuasion through eroticism, sublimity in spirituality, and

Christian social service, in other words, his mysticism of love. The

contained, horizontal, and vertical experiences-transferred through

his erotic rhetoric-all started with a kiss.


1 It is arguable that Plato caused the original dichotomy.
Certainly, his culture prioritized male beauty and male love and
denigrated the female to aspects of sordid sensuality and matter. His
writings reflected the polarity, but they also demanded control of

matter in the service of divinity. Prior to the writings of Plato,
there are indications of a human unified understanding of the
spiritual-sexual connection, but "Plato was the first writer in
Western intellectual history to make explicit and systematic use of
the language of sexuality for knowing" (Evelyn Keller 21), just as
there are indications that a more exalted position was given to
rhetoric than his diatribe against Sophists would have history
believe. In Phaedrus, Plato describes an early human enjoyment of "the
beatific vision" before corruption set in:

Whole were we who celebrated that festival, unspotted by all the
evils which awaited us in time to came, and whole and unspotted
and changeless and serene were the objects revealed to us in the
light of that mystic vision. Pure was the light and pure were we
from the pollution of the walking sepulchre which we call a body,
to which we are bound like an oyster to its shell. (56-7)

Not only does he make the body spotted, polluted, and an image of
death and prison, but he describes the human soul as "a mixture of
good and bad" (50) in an image of a charioteer driving an unruly,
passionate horse braced to one which is "fine and good and of noble
stock" (51). This discourse is embedded within his "science of love"
(66) and mingles with his review of rhetoric as an art of persuasion
more properly applied to address the gods than in its usual pursuit of
probability without concern for truth (93-4).

2 Each of these religious is contemplative and enclosed as
opposed to active in preaching and teaching in the world. They are
known by the noun appellation of "religious," which is a term for any
monastic calling, male or female. The Carthusians were contemplatives
founded by St. Bruno in 1084. They "attached special importance to
silence, manual labor, and the strict suppression of sexual desire"
and practiced self-flagellation despite its prohibition by Pope
Clement VI (Ozment 87). The Victorines, supposedly after St. Victor,
adopted the Rule of St. Augustine. The Benedictines followed the Rule
of St. Benedict, and the Cistercians were a reform of that order.

3 Bernard began the sermons on the Canticle of Canticles in
about 1135. He continued them on and off until his death at age 63. As
expositions on the Song, Leclercq tells us, "he [Bernard] does not go
beyond the first verse of the second of the eight chapters of the
biblical book" ("Intro.," Evans 22). Actually his eighty-six sermons
are his means of expressing contemplation, asceticism, and divine
union itself. Each sermon is a unified whole expressing a concept and
containing its amplification. To say that they are unfinished, really
refers to the organizing plan of the Song itself, not to any lack of
unity in the sermons.

4 Jean Leclercq says that the "most read and most frequently
commented in the medieval cloister" was none other than "a book of the
Old Testament: the Canticle of Canticles" (Love 84).

5 For a discussion of the literary composition of the Sermons,
see Jean Leclercq's introduction in Killian Walsh Trans., On the Song
of Songs II.

6 Leclercq proposes that grammar and mysticism are inextricably
bound: "These two elements are the two constants of Western monastic
culture: on the one hand, the study of letters; on the other, the
exclusive search for God" (Love 22). Commenting on the first half of
the ninth century, he asks, "How does grammar help one get to Heaven?
By making possible the reading of the Scripture and the Fathers . .
It is a gift of God, like his word itself, from which it cannot be
separated since it furnishes the key to it" (Leclercq, Love 44).
Murphy suggests that Isidore of Seville (c.570-636) "brings grammar
and rhetoric together" in Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (73). We may
also remember Donatus' influence "in medieval Europe both before and
after 1200," especially his Barbarismus; it "tended to create a
special grammatical interest in the lore of figure" (140) because he
included thirty-three figures and tropes. My point is that the use of
language is sometimes discussed in terms of grammar and sometimes
rhetoric. At times over the centuries they have been separated; at
other times they have been combined. I tend to see them usually under
the heading of grammar during the medieval period because "As one
modern scholar has said in relation to rhetoric, 'in terms of a single
subject matter--such as style, literature, discourse--it has no
history during the middle ages" (Murphy 87). The probable reason is
the Platonic condemnation in Gorqias of rhetoric as "cookery": neither
could claim to be an art nor show concern for the welfare of others in
their aim at immediate gratification (Plato 10). As a classical rather
than Christian art, "rhetoric" was not defended until Augustine's De
Doctrina Christiana, but it would take several hundred years for
another Christian to write a rhetorical treatise. John of Salisbury's
Metaloqicon "squeeze[s] out" rhetoric, says Murphy (129, FN 122).

7"The Ars Praedicandi, the complex theory of the thematic
sermon, appears early in the thirteenth century" (Murphy 88).
Homiletic, then, was not a prescribed art during Bernard's time of the
12th. century, and earlier had only been reserved for bishops. It does
have a history, though, in the Jewish community where scriptural
readings and comments were invited (Murphy 273), but the line between
preaching and teaching was not always easy to discern (Murphy 278).
Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care was more "a treatise on moral pathology"
than a plan for sermon designs. See also my note 14.

8 Origen is credited with the use of three senses in exegesis:
"the literal, the moral, and the intellectual or spiritual; and the
last was the perfect and complete meaning" (Pelikan I: 61). Origen
also did a commentary on the Song "known to St. Bernard but of
another spirit than his" (Gilson 17). "It is the mysticism of an
exegete" (Gilson, FN 7, 216).

9 Most scholars agree that Aristotle's Rhetorica was not nearly
as influential as the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica Ad Herennium and

parts of Cicero's De Inventione (Murphy 132), both of which refrain
from subjective disclosures.

10 While Bernard is speaking about the perfumes of the bride,
he delivers a lengthy tribute to humility. Again while extolling the
name of Jesus, he discusses some Old Testament names which takes him
to the resurrection of a boy who yawns seven times; from there Bernard
moves to the seven steps of conversion, bringing him to the Spirit of
God in the second verse of the Canticle (Leclercq, Love 74-5).

11 According to legend and some critics, Origen castrated
himself because of concupiscent feelings. See Astell, 3.

12 In 1948 S.M. Stern published 20 short lyrical poems, the
oldest of which was written before 1040 AD and found in old
manuscripts in Cairo, Egypt with Arabic or Hebrew characters, but in
an old Spanish dialect of Mozarabique, forerunner of the Castilian.
These short love lyrics with imagery very similar to the Song of Songs
predates the French Provengal lyrics. Typical of the jarchas is the
fact that they always deal with love and are narrated by a young male
lover; they frequently address a friend or teacher and comment on the
absence of the beloved; on occasion they employ the beloved's mother
as confidante to the lover's complaints; and, they use formulas also
discoverable in 13th. and 14th. century Galician and Portuguese and in
15th. and 16th. century Castilian love songs (Sanchez-Romeralo and
Ibarra 10).

13 The differences between dialectic and rhetoric as delineated
in Book Four of Topica Boetii are: "1. Dialectic proceeds by
interrogation and response; rhetoric has uninterrupted discourse. 2.
Dialectic employs perfect syllogisms; rhetoric is satisfied with brief
enthymemes. 3. Dialectic seeks to dislodge an adversary; rhetoric
tries to move a judge or judges" (Murphy 70).

14 Though Leclercq says Bernard's genre was the "sermon," a
structure of "exordium, development, and a conclusion" (Love 6),
Murphy says that "all the evidence seems to point to the conclusion
that a purposeful choice of nontheory [lack of rhetorical arrangement,
on the lines of inspiration] was regarded by many churchmen, over many
centuries, as a viable way to respond to Christ's preaching mandate..
. Aside from Pope Gregory, there are only one or two other preaching
theorists worth mentioning before AD 1200" (300). Thus, Bernard's
development of anthropomorphic tropes and scriptural "reminiscence" is
a unique rhetorical preaching theory persuasive of the movement from
human to divine state.

15 Bernard did not invent the marriage symbolism already in the
Song, but he does develop allegorical wedding unions within the human
soul's desire for Christ and His kiss gift, within the Church's
communal desire for Christ and the Father's gift of the Word from the
mouth of Christ spiritually manifesting itself as a kiss, and among
the Trinity with the Spirit as means of union between Christ and God
the Father when They share a kiss.

16 Murphy mentions that analogy and metaphor "are especially
prominent in the medieval period" (276). "It was at least partly in
response to pagan criticism of the stories in the Bible that the
Christian apologists, like their Jewish predecessors, took over and
adapted the methods of pagan allegorism" (Pelikan I: 30), in
particular the analogy of the body used in Aesop's fables, later by
St. Paul, "But the creative principle underlying all medieval exegesis
is the evolutionary character of all Sacred History, the conception of
the Church as a growing body, and this body being the total Christ"
(Leclercq, Love 80).

17 Referring to "the carnally minded reader" as endangereded"
by the Song's "lushly erotic" language (1), Ann Astell also reminds us
that the literature of the Cistercians, among others of the twelfth
century, "required (and inspired) a body of monastic love literature
which is noticeably different . [because of] its incorporation of
feminine imagery and in its preferred symbolism of God's love for
humankind by the love between a man and a woman-a symbolism
explicitly derived from the Song of Songs" (9). Etienne Gilson does
not appear to argue with the licentiousness which such sensual
"mystical" ecstasy evokes and rather than freezing it with cold
disdain, heats it with ardor that contemptuously ignites a union from
which courtly love usually refrains (186). In effect the symbolism is
erotic because it comes from an erotic source and is used because of a
level of experience that constitutes the adult-entered Cistercian
monastic community in a way that the Benedictines did not compose
because of celibate lives led from childhood. But, according to Astell
and Gilson, if we read his sermons that way, we are "carnally minded

18 The pseudo-Cicero of the Ad Herennium identifies the "task
of the public speaker" as securing "as far as possible the agreement
of his hearers" (5). Furthermore, Murphy identifies the Rhetorica Ad
Herennium and parts of Cicero's De Inventione as being most
influential on the rhetoric of the middle ages; he discounts
Aristotle's Rhetorica since it was widely known as a book of "'moral
philosophy' rather than a book on discourse" (132).

19 Origen (In Canticum Canticorum, trans. Rufinus, Patrologiae
Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, Ed. J.P. Migne. 162 vols., with Latin
translation. Paris, 1857-66; vol. 13, c63) acknowledges the
possibility of erotic incitement by the Scriptures: occasione divinae
Scripturae commoveri et incitari videbitur ad libidinem carnis"
(quoted in Astell 1). Astell also attributes Origen's exegesis as
"parallel[ing] the process of mystical marriage which is the Song's
secret subject" (3). William of St. Thierry encouraged Bernard's
exposition on the Song. His own knowledge of the subject led him to
collect "Gregory the Great's sayings on the Song of Songs, and those
of St. Ambrose; he wrote an exposition of his own" (see Patroloqia
Latina 180, 441-526). Other commentators on the Song at the time
included: Anselm of Laon, Bruno of Segni, Rupert of Deutz, Honorius of

Autun, Philip of Harveng, Gilbert de la Poree, Gilbert of Hoyland,
John of Ford, Thomas the Cistercian, and Alain de Lille (Astell 8-9).
Astell also refers us for ordered commentaries and summaries to Marvin
Pope's edition of The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible Series (1977),
114-24, 236-42.

20 Riehle took this information from G.Gerleman, Ruth. Das
Hohelied. Biblischer Kommentar--Altes Testament, 18 [Neukirchen-Vluyn,
1965], p.53 and passim.

21 See Etienne Gilson's chapter "Courtly Love and Christian
Mysticism Hypothesis of Influence" in Mystical Theology of St. Bernard

22 See Sharon Farmer's "Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of
Medieval Wives" in Speculum, 61: 517-543.

23 Etienne Gilson's book The Mystical Theology of Saint
Bernard, translated by A.H.C. Downes, discusses the points of
Bernard's doctrine of love together with the soul's attempt to regain
its original state of that love. (His most concise recognition of the
mystical theology can be found on p.71.) How Bernard displays genuine
mysticism is not specifically dealt with, but certain factors enable
such judgment. First, he refers to experiencing a love which is
unselfish and all-forgiving. Second, Bernard identifies the experience
as different for each person, yet having in common a transitory
nature. Third, Bernard feels the need to communicate his experience.
Through Bernard's language, we glimpse a mystic who also presented a
mystical theology.

24 Mystical rhetoric refers to specific ways of describing the
experience which are repeated through the ages and constitute its
cant. For instance, an anonymous monk early in the twelfth century
wrote "The City of God" and asked, "Who then will conduct us to the
city of the great king in order that what we now read in these pages
and see only as in a glass, darkly, we may then look upon the face of
God present before us, and so rejoice?" (Leclercq, Love 65). However,
the same phrase was stated in 1 Cor 13:12 as "Now we see through a
glass darkly, but hereafter face to face" and quoted by Bernard in his
sermon On Conversion (Evans, Bernard 90). Common tropes to mystical
rhetoric include: fire, cloud, spear/arrow, light, flower, music,
perfume, et al.

25 Ambiguity is also part of mystical rhetoric and begins in
the Christian tradition with the Old Testament Yaweh, God: I am who
am. The idea that God refuses to specifically identify himself
indicates his divinity. Bernard connects this lack of naming with the
Bridegroom and even the Bride, both of whom are referred to by means
of onomathesia, a means of naming according to the nature of the being
as used in Genesis, as their position indicates; but the ambiguity in
the Song also surrounds the speaker. Often, there is no real indicator
of who is speaking or when a change of speaker has taken place.

Ambiguity was furthered by the ancient Western mystics in order to
keep the sacramental nature of religion out of the hands of the
uninitiated; as the Pseudo-Dionysius says, "it is the protective garb
of the understanding of what is ineffable and invisible to the common
multitude" (283).

26 The "elect" vary among specific Christian religions. The
most common Pre-Reformation reference is to those people who receive a
specific call from God to lead a life separated from most of humanity
by its rigorous denial of the carnal call. Bernard's use of the term
seems to refer to monks: anchorites or hermits, those who live apart
from communities; cenobites, those who live in fraternal community
charity; perhaps even mendicant ascetics, those who wander from place
to place and are given alms. On occasion it refers to those who have
received the gift of divine union, which though Bernard avers is
possible to anyone, only happens to a relative few-the mystics.

27 Some discussion of the history and ramifications of the
Sacrament of Penance in the form of private confession may be found in
Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, trans. Robert
Hurley (1980). Various excellent articles on this subject are in
Philosophy of Sex (1980), edited by Alan Soble. For an individual as
well as cultural approach see Donald Goergen's The Sexual Celibate
(1979). There is also commentary on this topic in Sharon Farmer's
article cited above. The point is that Christian celibacy began
because of the apocalyptic expectation wherein Christians would not be
in the carnal body and would thereby be whole through union with God.
When that occurrence did not happen, chastity became more connected
with holiness. Consequently, sexuality became a source of defilement
for secular as well as monastic and priestly vocations. Despite the
decree of the regional Council of Elvira in Spain (c.306 AD) opposing
sexual relations for bishops and priests, married or not, such
relations did not stop and became a recognizable power obstructing
ecclesiastical obedience. The confessional was the means to regulate
this power, and priests were instructed to ask specific questions
related to sexual activities which included its nature and frequency.
The effect was to extend Church regulation into the bedroom. As for
the monks, their vows were an extension of their calling, but even for
them much confusion reigned on the topic. Many observers have termed
the sexual encounters of both ecclesiastic and monastic members of
this time period as scandalous, but the observations are from our
historical period, a time known for its clear and wholesome ethical
divisions. Voluntary celibacy, as taken in the cenobitic vows,
releases the individual to the power of God in his/her life, and
should not be a denigration of'sexuality. Celibacy is, after all, not
a divine law nor even an infallible Church order.

28 Cistercian asceticism attempts to pattern thought, feeling,
and behavior after Christ. Thomas Merton identifies three basic steps
in the asceticism promulgated by Bernard: (1)awareness of one's own
shortcomings, (2)humility through acceptance, (3)mortification of
appetites: simplicity of intellect, mortification of self-will through

obedience. Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard (119). The kernel of this
asceticism is to strip the veils of sin from the soul which is an
image of the image of God; it is a movement the individual makes
toward God whereby he might again recognize the soul enough to infuse
grace and strengthen its movement to regain divinity. In symbolic
terms, three Biblical figures represent the cross of Christ which each
Christian must carry in ascetic movement. Penitence is represented by
Lazarus; good works by Martha; contemplation by Mary. Bernard also
refers to the sterile but beautiful Rachel as contemplation and the
fertile but unattractive Leah as action. Merton explains the purpose
of "the Cistercian Usages is, according to St. Bernard, to keep man in
an atmosphere where, by obedience, poverty, solitude, prayer, fasting,
silence, manual labor, and the common life [monastic community], he
will be . forced to recognize his misery without God, with the
result that he will turn to God in supplication, begging him for that
grace and infused charity which will enable him to purify his soul"

29 There is same critical disagreement on the order of action
and contemplation. Jaroslav Pelikan says, "Bernard of Clairvaux,
simultaneously (or alternately) a reflective mystic and an eminence
grise" in The Growth of Medieval Theology (298). Thomas Merton sees
Bernard as promoting the "mixed life," but Jean Leclercq believes that
"it is a concept missing in St. Bernard and objected to by St. Thomas
[Aquinas]" (Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard 16). As is obvious from my
discussion, I believe Bernard describes active life as a necessary
proceeding from the contemplative, which is a sweeter and more
sacramental state.

30 There is little connection to Pseudo-Dionysius in St.
Bernard's writing, celestial hierarchy envisions gradations of "being"
from the human ecclesiastical hierarchy to the celestial divisions of
saints and angels to God. The "ladder" is used by Bernard in an ascent
to humility. Dante's scala is an upward climb to the soul's mystical
union in Paradiso, interestingly attended by St. Bernard.

31 The names of God/Christ have been the subject of much
mystical speculation over the centuries. The origin of such
speculation, as might be guessed, lies in the Hebrew Bible where God
identifies himself as "I am who am" a translation effected by the
letters making up YHVH. The Jewish Kabbalah informs much of its
mysticism on these symbols, letters, positions, and numerical
equivalents. The spatial movement vertically through the seven levels
of the Sefiroth, that hidden sphere of God, to the source of God's
emanations is just another way in which the symbols may guide the
initiated on his journey through himself to union with God. The most
notable expressions of the mysticism surrounding the names may be
found in the Pseudo Dionysiun (spelled -un to disassociate him from
the riotous Greek god, Dionysius) treatise on The Divine Names and the
Renaissance Spanish mystical scholar Luis de Leon's book Nombres de

32 I refer to Bernard's dependency on sensual reception of his
sermons as I have explicated it through his rhetorical usage.

33 Evans translates: "He who receives of the fullness receives
the kiss of the mouth. He who receives of the fullness (Jn 1:16)
receives the kiss of the kiss" (240). This translation shows no
difference in the qualifying adverbial phrases, so I chose the Walsh

34 Marilyn May Mallory did same empirical testing on Carmelites
in the Netherlands. She used a combination of psychological,
observation, and E.E.G. tests. She finds high alpha abundance as the
normal pattern in experienced Christian contemplatives in contrast
with the surge of alpha abundance in Zen and Yogi practitioners during
contemplation (100). She uses Eysenck's theory of personality to
identify extroverted, stable personalities and introverted, weak ones
(70-73). Eysenck's The Biological Basis of Personality (1967) shows
introverts as over-sensitive to their environment and, thus,
negatively influenced by it. Extroverts, he finds, however, have a
better system of inhibitors which activate a kind of neurological
protection. Mallory records inhibition and anxiety producing faster
beta waves as opposed to the abundance of alpha waves in the more
stable contemplatives.

35 In Gilson's Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard, he refutes
any similarities between Luther and Bernard. In Murray's Abelard and
St Bernard, the "seal" image is used by Abelard to describe the
trinity. This image received Bernard's strongest condemnation, yet his
"kiss" image is very similar in its trinitarian connection.


"You may ask what skill enabled her to accomplish
this change, or on what grounds did she merit it?
I can tell you in a few words. She wept bitterly."
(St. Bernard, Sermon 3 of Song of Songs)


Twelfth century France is a long way from fourteenth century

England, and the direct simplicity of Margery Kempe's (13737-1440?)

single book is even further from the rhetorical complexity of Bernard

of Clairvaux's many sermons. Nevertheless, the same affective

tradition of Christian love continues to breathe in the work dictated

by this remarkable woman. The question to be dealt with in this

chapter is a question of how. How does Margery transform the sense of

Bernard's Latinized language into the direct sounds of everyday Middle


Affective piety, men of the church agreed, tends to promote

desire. Thus we should not be surprised to find it as a potentially

subversive emotion which takes form in Margery as one of the most

widely believed "feminine wiles"--tears. This fluid response continues

Bernard's sermon 41, but reappropriates it as a woman's experience of

creation. Though she did not read, the Bernardine tradition had been

translated into the sermons she heard and the private counsel she

received. Note Bernard's breast milk of doctrine implied in the

anchorite's words to her: "Dawtyr, ze sowkyn euyn on Chrystys brest"

(Kempe, 18).1 Margery's bodily responses and visions are in the


tradition of affective piety, which develops a personal emotional

passion in the mind of the believer, envisioning Christ and his life

and participating in it. Such affective love is the way of individual

"feeling" rather than common knowledge.

One reason that the philosophy of Bernard and the experience of

Margery coincide lies simply in their shared humanity. Bernard was, as

we have just seen, well able to draw upon metaphors of the body in his

descriptions of spiritual experience. As Mark Johnson has recently

demonstrated vertical, horizontal, and containment experiences

structure our thought processes,2 but so does the "path" experience.

The "path" describes the way in which the unborn baby must travel

through a narrow and pressing vagina before it emerges painfully into

the too-bright light. In such a "path" we might recognize the mystical

way of purgation, illumination, and union. We can also recognize the

path structure in learning processes that direct us toward goals. It

is a rare learning experience that has us precipitately leap from idea

to goal without moving through a process.

The birthing process, not quickly recognized because of what

appears as an illogical arrangement of her book, is Margery's mystical

pilgrimage. Perhaps the reason for our failure to recognize the

significance of birthing in The Book of Margery Kempe is comparable in

some ways to the failure of people of her own time to understand the

truths she discovered. Though giving birth to children was the only

reason for marriage recognized by the Church, the physical act was

accorded no respect. Caroline Bynum's Jesus as Mother tells us that

"There was in the general society no mystique of motherhood; both


medical texts and exhortations to asceticism dwell on the horrors of

pregnancy" (143). Its recognizable characteristics in Margery's

discourse include: the male-mediated marriage, the bedded intimacy,

the creature's conception, the maternity clothing-white,

attention-getting apparel--which added another layer to her already

heavy burden of criticism, the breaking of water signified by

drenching tears, the pain-racked cries of a woman in labor, and

delivery of the book. The process is complete in her autobiography, if

not in its expected order. The sensual allusions of Bernard's kiss of

conception, which he ended by preparing the Bride's lips, Margery has

transformed into her own physical reality.

Though we must train our ears to hear the Song, Margery's

mysticism was awakened as she lay in her husband's bed and heard

heavenly music. So should we, then, taking our cue from her, attune

ourselves to the sounds in Margery's book. All the critics agree with

Margery's voice which denied heresy and affirmed orthodoxy, yet, the

question of "orthodoxy" is bound to the way Margery alters Bernard's

sensory perception. The Book speaks a multi-voiced narrative--of

tears, hysteria, faith--not the least of which is its subversion of

the patriarchal mythos which contained the medieval Church.

Tears, we are told, are unmanly; therefore, by default, they

become womanly. Men see them as women's means of manipulation, as

signs of weakness, as signs of emotionality in the eye/I of male

logic. Tears, though they could turn defeat into brilliant victory,

are a less than forceful form of revolt. The fact, however, is that

many communicative meanings, some of which are very forceful, have


been attached to tears. Cultural conditioning can harness tears, but

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex sees them as a woman's ageless

weapon in the battle of the sexes:

Tears are woman's supreme alibi . she eludes the man
who is contemplating her, powerless as before a cataract.
He considers this performance unfair; but she considers the
struggle unfair from the start, because no other weapon has
been put into her hands. She is resorting once more to magic
conjuration. And the fact that her sobs infuriate the male
is one more reason for sobbing. (608-9)

From this reflection, then, we should remember that tears can be

construed as a means of defiance as well as a Church-promoted

tradition of grace. And there may be more meaning here. H. M.

Parshley, de Beauvoir's translator, chooses "contemplation" for the

gazer and "magic conjuration" for the manipulator as equivalencies

without mysticism in mind. These words dramatically demonstrate the

problem Margery faced. "Contemplation" has associations with reverence

of observance and is most commonly used among religious ccamunities,

whereas "mysticism" retains its muffled association with magic and the

occult and is most commonly used among scholastic communities. The

former is associated with the male; the latter with the female.

Furthermore, the "magic conjuration" seems to fit sociologists'

constructs of mysticism as an operation that adds power to deprived

individuals. If these observations are to be applied to Margery, we

may note her defiance of the male-controlled divinity and her

perception of power-deprivation as gender-based.

A question we cannot help asking is: how did this woman acquire

such courage? Born Margery Burnham (or de Brunham) at Bishop's Lynn

(now King's Lynn) to an unidentified mother and John Brunham, a


five-time mayor of the city who had also been a six-time member of

Parliament, in Norfolk, England, the self-styled illiterate Margery

dictated her autobiography in English to two scribes,3 the second of

whom was one of her confessors and the general redactor of the whole

work. The work of the two scribes shows a divided book. Its two parts

are stylistically different. The first rambles and chats, revealing

social illusions and pain-filled experiences together with a deep

faith. The second observes and records in a distanced style.4 The

book does not follow a chronological order or even the familiar frame

of adult looking back at youth; instead it depends entirely on

associational, memorial construction, spiralling time in more

disconcerting ways than even Bernard did with his "reminiscence."

The Book of Margery Kempe has been the subject of much interest

in recent years, primarily because of our desire to incorporate "her"

story into history. Criticism has coalesced around Margery's tears,

the most obviously disturbing feature of her book. For most modern

readers, those abundant tears are the manifestations of a menopausal

hysteric. More sympathetic readers, who tend to have more

understanding of the time in which she lived, place her firmly within

the Church tradition of tears. Strongly critical readers split between

a general debasement of mysticism on sexual grounds5 and a specific

debasement of Margery's mysticism in its fixed illuminative stage.6

The critical voices agree on a fascination for the book because of its

vividness and, perhaps, because of its polarizing effect. By giving

readers a secure position from which to express pontifical judgements,

polarization might be considered a virtue. Margery's vividness,


though, seems directly descended from St. Bernard's love language and

should give critics like Wolfgang Riehle7 no more cause for disgust

than that of St. Bernard himself, although George Tuma says that "It

[Margery's love language] appears more intense at times than the

marriage metaphor in Bernard's Canticle de Canticorum" (45). Perhaps,

though, such discomfort originates in an objection to a woman using

such language, or, perhaps, they inadvertently notice her infringement

on the patriarchal tradition.


Since Margery's book, not the possible sexism of individual

critics, is the subject of our discourse, we should turn from that

topic of speculation to the way it reflects and reacts against Church

tradition. The way explored will be the mystical path--the familiar

Bernardine path of the body. Opposing the general agreement of

Margery's orthodoxy, her own book demonstrates her subversion of

Church hierarchy in at least ten ways, by:

1. identifying herself as a creature.

2. refusing the way of silence.

3. a. escaping from conjugal relations

b. envisioning men as tempters.

4. refusing to attach herself to an order or to a Church as an


5. traveling alone on pilgrimages.

6. confessing direct auditions from Christ which often

circumvented orders from confessors and the wishes of bishops

and others.


7. hearing the confession of a monk and granting him


8. performing miracles.

9. envisioning herself caring for and touching Christ.

10. showing reluctance to enter into mystical union with the


Since we will be reading the signs of her subversion, we need to

admit a definition of the term. It is of some importance to establish

what its meaning will be here because some of its multiple meanings

are of relatively recent acquisition. To be "subversive," there must

be an order one wishes to overcome. Western patriarchal society is

such an order. It is a hierarchy of gender propagated by the Hebrew,

Christian, and Muslim religions. God is male power. God is good. He is

the law. This law, we know, allowed men to "marry" many women. Solomon

had nore than three hundred wives. Yet for any married woman who had

sexual intercourse with another man, even if it were rape, the

punishment was death by stoning (Dt 22: 23-25), a practice continued

in the days of Christ (John 8: 1-8). From this beginning, the

Christian religion extended God's power by using the body of a virgin

as a creative tool for the man-God, Jesus. The duality of Christ was

even mirrored in the duality of treatment of women in the Middle

Ages--Eve and the Virgin Mary. Whereas in Hebrew tradition women were

property which reflected the good/evil of their owners

(fathers/husbands), in Christian tradition they are seducers--symbols

of sin, whom Christ forgives. Islam, too, shares a gendered hierarchy

of good and evil. The Qur'an declares women's inferiority except in


their superior sinfulness caused by a sexuality which they must hide

rather than be the means by which "pure" men could sin. One Sura8,

as quoted in Stone, says:

Men have authority over women because God has made the one
superior to the other and because they spend their wealth
to maintain them. So good wcmen are obedient, guarding the
unseen parts as God guarded them. (4: 31)

The sexuality of men, thus, translates into an index of their power

and wealth; the sexuality of women translates into a sin punishable by

death. This patriarchy, then, is the order Margery's tears and

activities subvert.

Though subversion is usually a term which we denote as upsetting

or overthrowing an existing government, Margery's language displays

that element which seeks to displace traditionally male modes of

representation with her female one. Done quietly on her own or within

the devalued feminine institutions of the convents, such displacement

might not be viewed as unusual; done loudly within the male-dominant

social community and distracting the male-ordered religious community,

Margery's activity must be considered subversive. That she was

subversive in at least ten different ways-from refusing the way of

silence to performing miracles and to holding back from mystical

union-should, then, qualify her as an arch-subversive.

Before exploring those subversions, though, we should give

further attention to her chief means of subversion-the tradition of

Christian tears. The medieval audience would have been familiar with

the Sermons on the Mount wherein Jesus explains his approach to tears

and laughter. His third beatitude (after the poor and the hungry) is

for those who cry: "Blest are you who are weeping; you shall laugh"


(Luke 6: 21).9 He does not describe the extent of the weeping nor

its social acceptance, but does accept it as a means for his blessing.

Margery did not speak much about the goal of laughter which weeping

brings except that upon her first audition of paradise she said, "It

is ful mery in Hevyn" (11). Laughter in the other world was a premise

that she received. Heaven might be a place of laughter and

merrymaking, but this world was not. On occasion Margery was

admonished for laughter because it was not a holy custom. She was also

much criticized for her crying, mostly because of its abundance and

its loudness. St. Bernard's sermon, "On the Steps of Humility and

Pride" (Bernard 99), well-received in English monastic communities,

rebuked laughter and noise, so the criticism of her was within Church

tradition, too. The Bible certainly shows little laughter, but various

examples of tears are there. Luke's gospel shows Jesus in the home of

the Pharisee where a woman

known in the town to be a sinner . stood behind him
at his feet [Jesus was probably dining in the recumbent
fashion], weeping so that her tears fell upon his feet.
Then she wiped them with her hair, kissing them and
perfuming them with oil. (Luke 7: 37-38)

Her weeping did not appear to bother Jesus; in fact, he used her as an

example of love and faith. It will not do, however, to equate the

apparently quiet tears of the woman known to be a sinner with the

tears of Margery Kempe. The sinner's weeping, for instance, was not

continuous since she was able to dry his feet; nor, to be perhaps

unduly realistic, was it loud, or Jesus would not have been heard

telling the parable of gratitude.

But we might equate the tradition of this sinner with Margery's

difficulties. Folk tradition, despite Church protestations, identifies


the sinner as Mary Magdelene. She inspired Christ's forgiveness, as

when he said:

I tell you that is why her many sins are
forgiven-because of her great love. (Luke 8: 44-47)

Mary Magdalene's human unions produced no known offspring, the only

justification recognized by the Church, but her intercourse promotes

forgiveness. The Virgin whose "being proclaims the greatness of the

Lord" (Luke 1: 46), on the other hand, produces a child of divinity

without sexual intercourse. This patriarchal Christian legacy to women

clearly demonstrates the Madonna-whore syndrome which is one more

cause for tears. Either the woman keeps producing children for only

one male without sullying herself by sexual intercourse, which makes

her "good," even divine; or she has no children and desires many men,

which makes her "bad" and in need of forgiveness from the divine male.

By default, then, all women are "bad" and need forgiveness. What is

different about Margery in such cultural conditioning is that she does

not seem to require forgiveness from any man except the Christ in her


We should not, however, equate Christ's thrice-mentioned tears in

the gospels with Margery's tumultuous weeping any more than we

identify her torrents with the sinner's quiet tears. Christ's approach

was circumspect rather than profuse in the incidents of disillusion,

death, and apprehension-the only identified scenes in the gospels of

Christ weeping. For instance, in his messianic entry into Jerusalem,

"Coming within sight of the city, he wept over it .. . [because

JerusalemJ failed to recognize the time of . visitation" (Luke 19:

41-44). There may, however, be an unrecognized similarity in the cause


for tears. Jesus's weeping, like Margery's, acknowledged the lack of

faith, not only in Pharisees, but also among the Hebrews. Again, in

discussing the "Raising of Lazarus," John's gospel does not indicate

loudness but deep emotions:

When Jesus saw her [Mary, sister of Lazarus] weeping,
and the Jews who had accompanied her also weeping, he
was troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions.
(John 11: 33)

Jesus's empathy caused his sadness, but the Jews' tears were for

the ironic situation which they perceived. In their estimation Jesus,

the Christ who could have saved Lazarus, had not arrived in time to do

so. Theirs was a logical assumption since Lazarus had been dead four

days, but they lacked faith. Such a demonstration revealed, then, a

further reason for Jesus's tears was the Jews' lack of faith. They

were unable to conceive of a savior who could restore a man who was

dead and explained that "Jesus began to weep" because it was a measure

of "'how much he loved him'" (John 11: 35-36). It is not a question of

how many tears are shed. It is a question of faith over logic, the

same choice that St. Bernard had made choosing rhetoric instead of

dialectic as an affective decision. Christ shed tears when he

perceived the lack of faith. Margery Kempe recognized the choice and

shed tears at what she perceived to be her own lack of faith and that

lack in others.

Just as tears express the mind's perceptions, they also express

the physical pain felt by the body. Thus, the third instance of

Christ's tears occurred on the Mount of Olives/Garden of Gethsemane

(Mt/Mk) just prior to his Passion. This instance provides the now

familiar metaphoric grouping of "blood, sweat, and tears." From the


body's pain, Christ's sweat of blood may be perceived as tears, which

symbolically presage the blood and water that fell from Christ's side

during the crucifixion, and-lest we forget-may be perceived as

parallel to a woman's flux during childbirth:

In his anguish he prayed with all the greater
intensity, and his sweat became like drops of blood
falling on the ground. (Luke 22: 44)

Christ's mental "labor," perhaps even foreknowledge, produces physical

pain. His sacrifice for love and of love takes tangible form, and as

the delivery of death is imminent the pain moves him to "tears." In

Mathew's gospel, Jesus spoke from the garden: "My heart is nearly

broken with sorrow" (26: 38). Similarly, in Mark's gospel, he told his

disciples: "My heart is filled with sorrow to the point of death" (14:

34). The Synoptic Gospels expose emotional anguish as motive for

Jesus's tears-a familiar reason. But John's gospel proposes the

content of his prayers prior to arrest without any exposition of his

physical or emotional state. The language presents these tears in

terms of great physical suffering, but the question remains: were they

the result of actual physical distress or the anticipation of it? The

answer that emerges is that Christ's tears were co-optive,

participating parts of the pain he was experiencing in his body-a

pain that was far worse than any to be inflicted upon him. Like Jesus,

Margery agonized by her foreknowledge of the damned, experienced the

bodily pain that produced tears. Unlike Jesus, Margery's tears loudly

demanded attention.

But clearly, sign of grace as they may have been, the sound of

tears did not appeal to men of the medieval Church. The sound of

tears, related to actual physical suffering, offended them. The Church


tradition of accepting tears as a sign of grace supposedly influenced

Margery's second scribe to accept her crying himself, despite a

Franciscan's preaching to the contrary. The scribe's attention had

been drawn to a precedent established by Jacques de Vitry's (1215)

vita on Mary of Oignies which taught tolerance of weeping to a priest.

Recently, Patricia Kurtz identifies this vita and one on Christine the

Marvelous as "anti-heretical documents" meant to affirm behavior as

orthodox which the Cathars had discredited. In the vita a priest

requested Mary of Oignies to leave the church because her loud crying

disturbed his mass. We might acknowledge here that the Franciscan did

the same to Margery. There is no evidence, however, that Mary cried

for twenty-five years or more, as did Margery, nor evidence that she

rolled and writhed in paroxysms of tears, as did Margery, despite the

tears of anguish which accompanied her self-imposed starvation due to

Christ's death, her sins, and those of others. She, too, cried "as a

woman in childbirth," but died singing (193). Kurtz also provides

evidence of Mary using her wits and her prayers to foil demons in

others, including the same priest who had excluded her. Afflicted with

a single case of drenching tears during mass, this priest received an

ironic lesson in compassion.

Christine, the Marvelous, on the other hand, had such strange

experiences that crying could almost be discounted by comparison.

Thomas de Cantimpre recorded what seems to be her near-death

experience. During her funeral, witnesses described her "astonishing"

flight about the rafters of the church. Our own vision of masochism is

raised to new heights when we consider some of Christine's acts of


penitential violence: baking herself in ovens and boiling herself in

cauldrons, even hanging herself for "a day or two" (192). For all

these reasons she experienced anguished crying "as a woman in

childbirth" (189). It seems an interesting trope paralleled by both

Mary and Christine's male biographers that the wetness of tears which

cover the ground is described in terms of the product of sexual

intercourse-the breaking of water in childbirth. Their pathway to

mystical union, was the way of women, as men who followed Bernard's

conception described that way in metaphoric terms.

Margery Kempe, unlike the male biographers, experienced the

physical realities of childbirth. Married at about the age of twenty

to John Kempe, Margery said that she gave birth to fourteen children

by about the age of forty. Since lawful progeny is the Church-declared

purpose of the procreative act and confirms the sanctity of

motherhood, it seems odd that Margery referred to only one of her

children-the first-in just the painful terminology of traumatic

delivery. It is true that she mentioned the conversion of her married

son and his subsequent death at her house later in the book, but there

is a possibility that he was the same child generated in the opening

pages of the book. In fact her first sentence told of the child's

conception, and her second sentence delivered him:

And aftyr pat sche had conceyued, sche was labowrd
wyth grett accessys tyl De chylde was born, & pan, what
for labor sche had in chyldyng & for sekenesse goyng
before, sche dyspered of hyr lyfe, wenyng sche mygth
not leuyn. (6)

Christ's appearance at her bed cured the post partum illness she

suffered for some time after this delivery. Nowhere else are her

children mentioned. Nowhere else does she reveal her human motherhood,


though she does recount Christ informing her of the pregnancy of her

fourteenth child and his promise that the child would be her last. But

if she had known that this traumatic initiation of her body would be

repeated fourteen more times, the racking tears of her later years,

which would be her salvation, would have begun sooner than on Calvary

c.1413 during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Why does Margery say nothing of her children? Perhaps pain like

that can only be felt and not described. Certainly, it was a Calvary

that Bernard could only have observed. As he established God's

activity of mothering, purity of doctrine flows from the preaching

breasts of the Bride. His use of "maternal imagery for male figures"

(Bynum God 138) appropriates a mother's influence on children. But he

can only write about motherhood; Margery experienced it. The later

Middle Ages, though, present us with even more complexity as misogyny

escalated and clerical roles were more firmly articulated as the male

dominion.10 In any case, Margery Kempe was a singular individual, a

human being finding her own way to God. She may have been fourteen

times a mother, but that identity was not the spiritual identity

expressed in her autobiography.

Margery gave birth to herself. We can see this, first of all, in

the way she refers to herself. If naming is part of the creative

process, we may well ask: to what extent does she give birth to

herself? She begins her book by calling herself the creature. We can,

of course, accept this particular naming as just one of the quirks in

a quirky book. But with our present-day knowledge, it seems a rather

nonchalant sort of scholarship that stops short of exploring a


self-assumed title. At face value, the word signifies an animal, which

shows how debased she felt. The word choice might satisfy the male

hierarchical requirement for humility (a too-convenient method of

control). It might present the contrast between herself and the

hero-figure of Christ. On the other hand, the word contains much

larger implications. For instance, it also denotes anything which is

created, so that the persona of Margery may be revealed by this word

choice as a "creation." An interesting cultural offshoot from the

Latin is the Spanish word criar (to nurse). The creature is the

handiwork of the creator and is both child and mother, nursing and

nourishing. Bernard's full-breasted Bride is, thus, contained in

Margery's epithet. Whether she sees herself as created by the society

in which she lives, by the God from whom she distanced herself, or by

her own imagination is left to the reader to decide.

An etymological point of further interest is that "creature"

derives from the feminine Late Latin creature, as does "create." The

other Late Latin word which means the same as "create" is the

masculine creator/ creators (OED). By selecting the creature

appellation, Margery Kempe initiated a division within the book-an

implicit questioning of her role as creator of children and of

language opposing the imposition of her role as created thing and as

debased feminine animal. Given such opposition, it can be inferred

that she subverted the male position of "creator" by creating her book

from the inky flux of her male amanuenses. This birth metaphor might

be continued through the breaking of her waters-the tears that

persisted for more than twenty-five years. Margery's first act of

subversion, then, was to call herself a creature of God.


The second act was vocalization. She would be heard at a time

when men preached, ordered, satirized, and castigated women in order

to muzzle them and keep them subordinate. Hope Allen says that

Margery, together with Julian of Norwich, broke "a long tradition of

feminine silence in England" (Meech & Allen, 1xii). This point cannot

be emphasized enough. Her voice-woman's voice-pierced the mystical

tradition of silence, echoed through the cloistered Cistercian walls,

and was taken up by other women. It was only after Margery and Julian

that the affective tradition was widely translated into a literary

vision for women's mystical experiences. The difference between these

two women, though, is approach. Margery was loud. She was obnoxious to

the system and would be obnoxious to modern sensibilities. Julian, who

followed the more conventional path of becoming an anchoress,

presented a quiet, more acceptable form of mysticism. On the back

cover of Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (Image, 1977), for

instance, a modern advertiser informs us that Julian was "no would-be

visionary, but a responsible, serious woman." The "would-be visionary"

must have been Margery, who was Julian's contemporary and as unlike

Julian as another woman could be. The noisy, vocal Margery's

seriousness was questioned, and she was charged with

"irresponsibility" by various clerics of her day. She emphasized the

second stage of mysticism, illumination, wherein the soul-Aquinas

identifies as mind--participates in visions, sounds, or spiritual

colloquies. Though Julian, too, experienced visions or "showings," she

emphasized mystical union--the goal of all contemplative experience

and one bereft of sensuality, and, one assumes, overt-and


audible--evidence that union had been accomplished. Margery, the

subversive, refused the role of silence.

What was really loud about Margery was her crying. Her tears were

the crux of the problem for her, for her contemporaries, for her

readers. Though she identified her "crying" stage as lasting ten

years, her weeping life totaled about twenty-five years and went

through several stages: profuseness, loud crying and uncontrollable

paroxysms, and gentle tears. The profuse weeping started during the

three years of sexual temptation11 which followed her first audition

of heavenly music, probably between 1407 and 1410. This dating is

enabled because Margery's two business ventures--brewing and

milling--were concluded before the audition.12 The "crying" stage,

with its attendant birthing throes, as previously mentioned started on

Calvary c.1413:

Fyrst whan sche had hir cryingys at Ierusalem, sche had
hem oftyntymes, & in Rome also. &, whan sche come hcm
in-to Inglonde . as God wolde visiten hir, sumtyme
in pe cherch, sumtyme in pe strete, sumtyme in pe chawmbre,
sumtyme in De felde whan God wold sendyn hem, for sche
knew neuyr tyme ne owyr whan eei xulde come. & pei come
neuyr wyth-owtyn passyng gret swetnesse of deuocyon & hey
contemplacyon. (69)

The quiet tears came later in her life and continued, presumably,

until her death c.1439. It is possible, therefore, to posit between

twenty-five and thirty-two years of penitential weeping to Margery.

Margery herself, dictating to her scribes, tells how her weeping

disturbed the masses given at St. Margaret's Church in Lynn. She

described how the congregation became disgusted by her loud

interruptions and urged the priests to eject her from the Church. For

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