A Practical Application of Satin Bernard of Clairvaux’s Concept of Love: Preaching Designed to Deepen the Spiritual Maturity of the Faithful


This essay considers sermons an essential element of spiritual formation and of the movement from loving God for one’s own sake toward loving oneself for God’s sake. Loving God for one’s own benefit is primarily developed by sermons emphasizing prosperity and is based on the individual’s hope for wealth, success, and health. Sermons of this type are generally related to fulfilling believers’ needs and healing their pain and suffering through God’s grace and love. Loving oneself for God’s sake is stressed through sermons that focuses on union of the individual’s and the community union with the divine, relying on the mature growth in the love of God. This focus is designed to purify and deepen the soul’s love of God.

The Centrality of Love in Bernard’s Homilies on Song of Songs

Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs will be expounded upon to show the significance of the theme of love is in deepening the spiritual maturity of the believer.[1] The key point of Bernard’s teachings of love can be summarized as follows: “What a great thing is love, provided always that it returns to its origin; . . . flowing back again into its source it acquires fresh strength to pour itself forth once again.”[2] These two lines clearly show the two basic premises of Bernard’s spiritual program: human love is to be directed to God, and God’s grace restores the power that clings to humans and enables them to discover again the dignity of their origin.[3] Along with this understanding, an analysis of Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs will proceed on the basis of the five essential ways in which love is regarded as a motivating factor in the holy life of the faithful.

In Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs, the first way of love, which is considered a factor in deepening a believer’s spiritual maturity, is that the relationship between God and humans requires the harmony of orderly love. Bernard describes this in more detail as follows:

For it is not a melody that resounds abroad but the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills. It is a tune you will not hear in the streets, these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings––the lover and the beloved. It is preeminently a marriage song telling of chaste souls in loving embrace, of their wills in sweet concord, of the mutual exchange of the heart’s affections.[4]

Bernard here emphasizes that an essential principle in the relationship between the lover and the beloved is to share the same goals and aspirations: in other words, to some extent they are inclined to want and enjoy the same things. This view of the relationship does not alter when a person is a considering union with God. This means that the person should first order her/his love in such a manner as to yearn for that which the divine desires. If the beloved one is in complete accordance with the divine, this will be able to play a role in preventing issues that would arise when the person is only partially in harmony with the will of God. Thus, a spiritually mature person who seeks to bear fruit under the inspiration of God, understands love as a union in order to be in consonance with God’s will.[5]

The second way of love that needs to be highlighted in Bernard’s teachings is that a person is allowed to satisfy God by pure love.[6] According to Bernard, this love can be found in the bride’s way of loving, standing at the highest degree of love. Bernard describes in detail the love of the bride as follows:

Children love their father, but they are thinking of their inheritance, and as long as they have any fear of losing it, they honor more than they love the one from whom they expect to inherit. I suspect the love which seems to be founded on some hope of gain. It is weak, for if the hope is removed it may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return. Pure love has no self-interest. Pure love does not gain strength through expectation, nor is it weakened by distrust.[7]

According to Bernard, the pure love of the bride is not loving the bridegroom for any gain but loving the bridegroom himself. All that will please and satisfy the bride is the return of this love from the bridegroom, not any benefit that the bridegroom brings to her life. Bernard accentuates this attribute of God’s love, which does not consider human appearance and possessions as an essential value.[8] God does not ask the believer for anything other than this pure love of the bride, and only this love will satisfy God.[9] This nothing other than love, “holy and chaste, full of sweetness and delight, love utterly serene and true, mutual and deep, which joins two beings, not in one flesh, but in one spirit, making them no longer two but one.”[10]

The third way of love revealed in Bernard’s homilies is that the faithful are required to understand that love is the primary source of spiritual insight.[11] Bernard is convinced that a person who falls in love with God will naturally aspire to spend a great deal of time meditating upon the Word of God and will then give birth to greater spiritual insights than a person whose love for God in not as deep. This is possible because, according to Bernard, the soul who is in love with God “leaves even its bodily senses and is separated from them, so that in her awareness of the Word she is not aware of herself.”[12] Bernard underscores that this occurs “when the mind is enraptured by the unutterable sweetness of the Word, so that it withdraws, or rather is transported, and escapes from itself to enjoy the Word.”[13] Bernard accordingly encourages his audiences to practice meditation regularly as a way to a better understand the precepts of God.[14] Bernard describes the abundant fruits of such meditation:

I have said that wisdom is to be found in meditating on these truths. For me they are the source of perfect righteousness, of the fullness of knowledge (Isa. 33:6), of the most efficacious graces, of abundant merits. Sometimes I draw from them a drink that is wholesomely bitter, sometimes an unction that is sweet and consoling. When I am in difficulties, they bear me up, when I am happy, they regulate my conduct.[15]

Through spiritual insight, the faithful are helped to grow closer to God and form an intimate relationship with God in their everyday life. Therefore, time spent dwelling upon the Word will significantly promote the spiritual maturity of the faithful and grow the bond between God and God’s people.[16]

The fourth way of love to be learned from Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs is that the believer experiences the deepening of spiritual maturity through love, which is the way to enjoy God in bliss.[17] This means that the small pleasures and happiness the faithful can enjoy in this life ought to come through a close relationship with God. Bernard emphasizes that genuine pleasure and enjoyment can only happen in an intimate relationship with the divine, which is formed by love. Bernard puts it this way: “There is far more pleasure in going aside to be with the Word” (2 Cor. 5:13).[18] He continues, “This is what I spoke of before, when I said that the final reason for the soul to seek the Word was to enjoy him [God] in bliss.” Although this type of bliss lasts a short time and is rarely experienced, the faithful will be able to experience a deepening of spiritual maturity if they truly and blissfully love God.[19]

The last way of love taught by Bernard in his homilies on the Song of Songs is that the faithful’s love should be directed toward others with an ordered love. Bernard tells his audience in his fiftieth homily:

Give me a man who loves God, before all things and with his whole being, who loves self and neighbor in proportion to their love for God, who loves the enemy as one who perhaps some day will love, who loves his physical parents very deeply because of the natural bond, his spiritual guides more generously because of grace. In like manner let him deal too with the other things of God with an ordered love. . . . Give me such a man, I repeat, and I shall boldly proclaim him wise, because he appreciates things for what they really are, because he can truthfully and confidently boast and say: He set love in order for me’ (Cant. 2:4).[20]

The genuinely humble person knows her/himself and thus what they are. Bernard highlights that one who is truly acquainted with one’s own human condition will also have empathy for that of others: “We must look for truth in ourselves, in our neighbors, in itself. We look for truth in ourselves when we judge ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31), in our neighbors when we have empathy with their sufferings (1 Cor. 12:26), in itself when we contemplate it with a clean heart” (Matt. 5:8).[21] Bernard argues that one who has experienced one’s own limitations has the ability to empathize with others: “Fellow-sufferers readily feel compassion for the sick and the hungry. For just as pure truth is seen only by the pure of heart, so also a brother’s miseries are truly experienced only by one who has misery in his own heart.”[22]

Furthermore, according to Bernard, for a truly humble person who knows that she/he is weak, the weakness of others plays a role in prompting a reaction of gentle empathy. Bernard describes it in this way: “Following the wise counsel of Saint Paul, he must learn to love those who are caught in habits of sin (Gal. 6:1), not forgetting that he himself is open to temptation.”[23] Bernard believes that this compassion which results from humility leads to love:

Is it not in this very thing that love of neighbor is rooted, as the commandment reveals: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27)? For it is in intimate human relationship like this that fraternal love finds its origins. . . . A man will not think of denying to a fellow man, who shares the same nature, the good he naturally desires for himself.[24]

The love of the faithful consequently ought to be complemented and fulfilled by God’s grace, which perfects nature by yielding the empathy that leads to love for others.


This essay has explored the insights into the deepening of the faithful’s spiritual maturity in love that are culled from Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs. The five practical applications, which consider love as a motivating element in the godly life of the believer, have been provided through an examination of his sermons on the Song of Songs in order to clarify his concept of love. The five practical ways can be summarized as follows: first, cultivate a constant awareness of one’s shared goals and aspirations with God; second, actively seek the pure love of the bride, standing at the highest level of love in order to satisfy God; third, enjoy and spend a significant amount of time meditating on the Word, which is the source of the advancement of the believer’s spiritual maturity; fourth, perceive the pleasure and enjoyment that stems only from an intimate relationship with God established by pure love; and last, be a humble person who is truly aware of his/her own human condition and be attentive to the needs of others with a properly directed love. These five practical applications for preaching designed for the spiritual formation of the faithful with Bernard’s concept of love should be considered an essential element of sermon preparation.


Woori Han

Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Theological Union


[1] Bernard started writing homilies for the Song of Songs in 1135 and continued to develop them until his death in 1153. He worked on eighty-six homilies and was only able to complete the third chapter of the Song of Songs. The work that Bernard had begun was eventually finished by his disciples in the monastery. See Dennis E. Tamburello, Bernard of Clairvaux: Essential Writings (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000), 104.

[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs IV, trans. Irene Edmonds (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980), 83:4

[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, Song of Songs I, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), ix.

[4] Ibid., 1.11.

[5] Ibid., 1.11–12.

[6] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs IV, 83.I.3.

[7] Ibid., 83.II.5.

[8] Ibid., 83.I.3.

[9] Ibid., 83.II.5.

[10] Ibid., 83.III 6.

[11] Ibid., 85.IV.13.

[12] Ibid., 85.IV.13.

[13] Ibid., 85.IV.13.

[14] Bernard of Clairvaux, Song of Songs I, 7.V.

[15] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs II, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1983), 43.III.

[16] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs IV, 67.IV.7.

[17] Ibid., 85.IV.13.

[18] Ibid., 85.IV.13.

[19] Ibid., 83.III.6.

[20] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs III, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979), 50.III.8.

[21] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sancti Bernardi Opera, vol.8, ed. Jean Leclercq, C. H. Talbot, and Henri Rochais (Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1957), 3:20.

[22] Ibid., 3:21.

[23] Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs II, 44.III.4.

[24] Ibid., 44.III.4.

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