Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the mystical marriage

Love is sufficient of itself,
it gives pleasure by itself
and because of itself.
It is its own merit,
its own reward.
Love looks for no cause outside itself,
no effect beyond itself.
Its profit lies in its practice.
I love because I love,
I love that I may love.

Love is a great thing
so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead,
flows back to its source,
always drawing from there
the water which constantly replenishes it.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 83 on the Song of Songs

There could hardly be someone with more zeal for the monastic life than Bernard of Clairvaux, doctor mellifluus–the honey-tongued teacher. When he entered Citeaux at 23 years old, a mere 15 years after its founding, he brought 30 others with him. And then at the age of 25 he took twelve monks with him and founded a new house at Clairvaux of which he was named abbot. When Bernard preached his fiery sermons about conversion, he wasn’t trying to convert people away from sin or to Christianity. He was preaching conversion to the monastic life. Pope Bendict writes about him in his encyclical Spe Salvi, how it was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. But Bernard had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and for the whole world. In one place he quotes pseudo-Rufinus saying: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish...” Even more, Bernard was convinced that mystical pleasures were not just about eternal life, and not just to be read about, but were meant to be experienced now through the contemplative life.

On a few occasions I have been asked to teach a World Religions class both for a Catholic high school and for Mount Madonna School, which is at the yoga/retreat center run by Baba Hari Das’ followers. I am always trying to find some kind of a clear line to show not just the similarities between traditions but, respectfully, also the differences. Last year I decided that the clearest way was to speak about differing understandings of the self.

For Hinduism, at least the strict advaita Vedanta that many people gravitate to in our neck of the woods, they teach that at the end of our spiritual search we discover that our own self is Brahman, or Brahman is Atman, and tat tvam asi–You are that! And so one can say Aham Brahm’asmi–I am Brahman. Now that doesn’t mean that I, Cyprian, am God; it means I, Cyprian, am only an illusion; I don’t really exist. Only the Great Self, Brahman, really exists. And this is when we escape the endless round of births and death; when this ignorance is cleared up and we realize this, then we are free. The Buddha goes one step further; a foundational doctrine for him is anatta, translated “no self” or “not self.” Not only is there no abiding self of me, neither is there an abiding Eternal Self that can be grasped. Everything is in flux and all things arise co-dependently, and so there is nothing to grasp at. As a matter of fact, that grasping at some kind of “self” is the cause of dukka–suffering––which is the second noble truth of Buddhism. The Christian mystic will have an experience like this, but it will be considered a working of grace, so much so that 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––
that comes not from human feelings,
but a heaven-sent conversion.
But for the Christian mystic, this annihilation is a passing phenomenon, like Jesus’ death on the cross preceded the resurrection. The mystical union does not ultimately mean the annihilation of the human self, or waking up to the fact that there is no self, or the swallowing up of the finite human into the divine infinity or endless flux. For the Christian mystic, not only is there a self, but that self remains, eternally, in relationship to Ultimate Reality, who we call God.

Fr Bede was very much in this tradition, not only in distinguishing Christianity from the religions of Asia but even in distinguishing himself from Abhishiktananda. He said that the mystery of communion in God and with God is that “the Father and the Son become a total unity and are yet distinct, and that is true of [human beings] and God as well. We are one, and yet we are distinct. There is never a total loss of self.” Even if in consciousness there could be, or could seem to be, pure identity, “in love there’s never pure identity because love involves two, and yet the two become one. That’s the great mystery.” Hence, he said, for the Christian the Indian metaphor of the ocean and the droplet that re-merges with the ocean “is not adequate”: "You can say the drop merges in the ocean, but you can also say the ocean is present in the drop ... In the ultimate state the individual is totally there, totally realized, but also in total communion with all the rest."

This is where St Bernard comes in very strongly. The mystical union, Bernard says, is when the soul is married to God and, though of different substances, it 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.

I think it’s notable that Bernard is sometimes referred to as the last of the Patristic era; and also notable that he is just on the cusp of the dawning of Scholastic theology. We often talk about the three centers of gravity in the human person: the gut, the heart and the head. If I am not stretching this all too far, I like to think of the early monastic tradition and fathers as the gut, rooted in practical spirituality, close to the earth and close to the movements of their own inner beings. And of course it is not a far stretch to see the Scholastic era well represented by the head. But on the way from the gut to the head, it was necessary to pass through the heart; and somehow Bernard represents that for me. A great gush of affective spirituality on the way to the heady Scholastic era.

Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs is considered a mystical masterpiece and his own capolavoro. It’s comprised of 86 different sermons offering a verse-by-verse commentary, and he had still only gotten to the third chapter! Interpretation of the Song of Songs of course already had a long venerable history by the time Bernard got a hold of it. The rabbis saw it as a metaphor for the covenant between God and Israel; that’s why they included an erotic love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Christians see it as a song between Christ and the church, the whole church. And then Origen, followed by Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory the Great, begin to see it as a love song between God and the individual soul. Bernard certainly knew this tradition and drew on it. But in his hands the Song of Songs becomes something new again. It’s almost as if he created a whole new vocabulary for the Western mystical tradition, with a whole new set of images and themes. He was convinced that erotic language was the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. The Song, Bernard says in his first sermon on it, “…expresses the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in figurative language pregnant with delight.” (SCC 1.7-8) From Bernard on this kind of language will stay in the Western mystical tradition, and perhaps come 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 on the Song he writes:
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. (SCC 83.3)
One spirit with God! Now, he is only echoing St Pauls' language here, but still this is an astounding claim! God, in Christ, and the soul become one spirit! 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.

Let him kiss me with the kiss of his lips, the Song says. What does this mean to be kissed by the kiss? Well, 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’ function as Word made flesh: to kiss us, 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.

We’ve been on retreat all week and this is a nice way to end the week. Our conferences were excellent, offered by Columba Stewart, OSB, undoubtedly one of the world’s experts on early monastic sources. But they were a little academic, and it took some time for them to sink down into the gut. St Bernard serves as a reminder that on the way from our head to our gut (or from our gut to our head) we should make sure we don’t hurry too quickly past the heart, and let God kiss us with the kiss of his lips, let Jesus invite us to the wedding chamber, to the wedding banquet, so as to make of us one spirit with God.

The sad thing is that, after allowing himself to get lured into spending the better part of his career involved in the politics of the church––including preaching an ill-fated Crusade!––, shortly before his death Bernard wrote in a letter that he was a sort of “modern chimera, neither cleric nor layman. I have kept the habit of a monk, but I have long ago abandoned the life.” History has judged him differently, but it is too bad that he himself was not tasting the sweetness of union with God as an old man. The good are always tempted by the good, my spiritual director tells me. Let’s make sure we don’t get caught up in the “stuff” of religion––whatever tradition––to the expense of the real stuff.