when self is forgotten

“The Song of Songs,” by Arthur Sussman.

There could hardly be someone with more zeal for the monastic life than Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today. He was born in 1090, and entered the Abbey of Citeaux when he was only 23 years old, only 15 years after its founding. He also brought 30 of his relatives and friends with him. And then at the age of 25––two years later––he took twelve monks from Citeaux and founded a new house at Clairvaux of which he was named abbot. But besides his influence on monasticism, it is his teaching on mysticism that strikes me the most. Bernard was convinced that mystical pleasures were not just about eternal life, not just to read about, but were to be experienced now through the contemplative life.

This year the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux coincides with Matthew’s version of the story of the rich young man.[i] There could be no finer example of the call to spiritual poverty than this story of the man who went away sad, because he had many possessions. Of course we immediately think of material possessions––fine clothes, a nice house, plenty of good things to eat, maybe a servant or two. But what are the subtler things that we possess, that we hold on to? Our opinions, our view of the way we think the world ought to operate––the really poor in spirit are those who can also hold on loosely to those things as well. And maybe the ultimate possession we hold on to is our very “self,” our sense of self, our I-ness, our ego. Remember, Jesus asks us to deny our very selves.

At lunch last Saturday I was at table with two of the brothers who were talking about this very thing––spiritual poverty and the sense of self, the death of self and the loss of self. One of them quoted that beautiful line from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians which has become a bit of a mantra for me––I have been crucified with Christ and I, no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me[ii]––and then he said a line almost verbatim to how I heard it and learned it from a Sufi saying: “When self is forgotten and God is remembered.” That of course is the language of love and love always implies relationship. It reminded me of that great Sufi story: the Lover goes to the home of the Beloved and knocks on the door. A call comes from within, “Who is it?” And the Lover calls out, “It’s me!” “Go away!” And this is repeated day after day––“Who is it?” “It’s me!” “Go away!” “It’s me!” “Go away!” “It’s me!” “Go away!”––until finally one day the Lover knocks on the door, and the call comes from within, “Who is it?” and the Lover calls out, “It’s you!”––and the door opens. As Rumi says it, “There is no room for two ‘I’s in this house.”

One of the differences that I always like to point out between other mystical traditions and Christianity is our notion of the self. For the Hindu and the Buddhist, either the self disappears into the Great Self of the Divine or there is no self at all, a Divine or human self. The Christian mystics also have an experience similar to this––and even speak of a death of self, a death of the self that will be considered a working of grace. St. Bernard will write at one point: “To lose yourself as if you no longer existed, to sense yourself no more, to be emptied, virtually annihilated, “and he says that, “this comes not from human feelings, but from a heaven-sent conversion.”[iii]

The death of self is a heaven-sent conversion, a working of grace! The difference is that for the Christian mystic this death of self isn’t a permanent state. It’s a passing phenomenon, like Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t end in the grave but in the resurrection. The mystical union does not ultimately mean the annihilation of the human self, or of waking up to the fact that there is no self, nor the swallowing up of the finite human into the divine infinity or an endless flux of impermanence. For the Christian mystic, not only is there a self, but that self remains, eternally, in relationship to God. It’s just forgotten when God is experienced in the beatific vision.

This is where St. Bernard comes in. Bernard says that the mystical union is when the soul is married to God and becomes one spirit with God. If there is a way to sum up Christian mystical experience, this is undoubtedly the most sublime: that we become one spirit with God in a mystical marriage.

Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs is considered his own masterpiece. It’s comprised of 86 different sermons offering a verse-by-verse commentary, and he had still only gotten to chapter 3! He thought that erotic love language was the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. In the first sermon St. Bernard says that the Song of Songs “expresses the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in … language pregnant with delight.”[iv] There had already been a tradition of commentary on the Song of Songs before Bernard (see for instance Gregory of Nyssa), but Bernard gives it a whole new language. The notion of the mystical marriage will stay in the Western tradition, coming to its apogee in the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, but it is with Bernard that it gets its first real push. In Sermon 83, for example, he wrote this beautiful passage: “When she loves perfectly, the soul is wedded to the Word… Truly this is a spiritual contract, a holy marriage. It is more than a contract, it is an embrace: an embrace where identity of will makes of two one spirit.” [v]

Notice here, it is not even an annihilation of our will, but an identity of our will with God’s. Nothing of us is lost. If God and the soul “cohere with the bond of love” we are “said to be of one spirit” with God.

The Song of Songs practically opens with the bride saying, ‘Let him kiss me with the kiss of his lips.’[vi] What does this mean to be kissed by the kiss? Well, Bernard teaches, Jesus is the kiss of God. Just as we are the image of the image, so we are kissed by the kiss, kissed by the Word, kissed by Jesus. That’s Jesus’ role as Word made flesh: to kiss us, to unite us with himself so that as one spirit with him we can be of one spirit with God through him, with him and in him.

And speaking of possessions, when the Lord asks us to leave everything let’s hope that we can say to the Beloved the words of the psalmist: [vii]

Let’s let God kiss us with the kiss of his lips and accept Jesus’ invitation to the wedding banquet and then to the bridal chamber, so as to make of us one spirit with God through him, with him, and in him.

cyprian, 20 aug 18

[i] Mt 19:16-22.

[ii] Gal 2:20.

[iii] De diligendo deo, 10:27

[iv] SCC 1.7-8.

[v] SCC 83.3.

[vi] Song 1:2.

[vii] Ps 73:25-26.

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