Everything Bernard of Clairvaux was involved in—promoting the monastic life, preaching crusades, condemning heretics, advising popes, intervening with kings—sounds so fully “medieval” that it seems strange that Protestant pastors of the Reformation era would respond favorably to this zealous 12th century Catholic monk. The reason lies mostly in Bernard’s emphasis on the Bible. From the time of his entrance into the monastic life around 1113 until his death 40 years later, Bernard spent more than half of each waking day reading, singing, and meditating on Holy Scripture.

Life Around the Word

Holy Scripture was the focal point of Bernard’s life. This was not unique to him; he shared this practice with thousands of other devout monks. Bernard belonged to the Cistercians, an order of reformed Benedictine monks dedicated to the restoration of the ancient discipline in complete solitude and isolation. Their lives were devoted to prayer, and they assembled in choir eight times each day. Their days began long before sunrise.

For Benedictines prayer meant, and still means, the saying or chanting of Scripture, especially the Psalms. Some biblical verses and stanzas were chanted every day of their lives. But at the very least all 150 Psalms were recited aloud once a week, in a recurring pattern that shaped their whole inner life.

The Psalms, though the heart of Benedictine prayer, only marked the beginning. All medieval churchmen learned to read (which means, learned to read Latin) by way of the Bible. The language of Scripture was therefore imprinted upon their earliest memories, and they could hardly express themselves apart from the language of Scripture. Everything they wrote, from treatises and sermons to letters and poems, echoed the Bible at every turn, much as the language of the King James Bible influenced subsequent English literature.

Beyond the cycle of prayers and psalms, Cistercian monks said or attended mass each morning. This meant that the readings assigned to each day of the year by the church, one from the Old Testament, one from the Gospels, and one from the Epistles, would likewise become second nature to them.

Monks assembled in the refectory for their main meal around noon. They sat in silence while one monk read to them, often from a devotional book or a saint’s life. Sometimes Scripture was read here too, but in any case Scripture was quoted, paraphrased, and echoed all through the chosen devotional texts. What time remained to monks between mass, meals, and the cycle of prayer, they were expected to spend in work and meditation.

Work also proceeded in silence, whether in fields, gardens, or workshops. In an age when books were generally rare, expensive, and cumbersome, these people developed a keen and large capacity for memorization. What monks heard and sang continuously in public worship, they pondered all through the day in their hearts. Scriptural phrases and images sank into the innermost recesses of their lives, and accompanied them in their everyday thoughts.

Cistercians monks were encouraged to spend part of each day in private reading and meditation. This inevitably involved reflection on Scripture. They might read a book of the Bible on their own—Bernard was specially noted for reading the whole Book through from beginning to end repeatedly—or they might make their way slowly through some Bible commentary or devotional work by a Father of the Church.

Finally, before retiring in the evening, the monks followed a course of nighttime readings. Here whole books of the Bible were read in sequence, Isaiah at Advent, Jeremiah at Lent, and so forth. Again, there was almost no part of the day when a conscientious Cistercian monk was not reading, singing, or reflecting on Holy Scripture.

Preacher and Teacher

But what contemporaries found most astounding and attractive about Bernard was his facility to preach and teach Scripture. His Latin prose echoed Scripture in every line. His style was as elegant, playful, and moving as any medieval Latin ever written. The sheer beauty of it was part of the attraction for later readers, including such self-conscious stylists as John Calvin.

In nearly all of his extant writings, including some 500 letters, Bernard employed Scriptural phrases and images. But in certain works his task was clearly and specifically to interpret Scripture. He preached regularly to his monks and sometimes to the people. Some one hundred of his sermons have come down to us, most of them on the Gospel or Epistle texts prescribed for feast days in the church. A few were delivered on special occasions, such as a series preached in Paris in 1140 to convert students to the monastic life, and a related Lenten series on Psalm 91. Bernard’s most famous interpretation of Scripture, however, is found in his 86 sermons on the opening chapters of the Song of Songs, preached between 1135 and 1153.

Bernard had an exceedingly high view of Scripture. The Bible contained the very words of Christ or, as he put it more often, of the Holy Spirit, who spoke directly to him and to all the faithful. While God spoke through his apostles and therefore his later ministers as well, it was one of the peculiar joys of the monastic life, as Bernard understood it, that dedicated monks could hear Christ speaking directly to them in the words of Holy Scripture. It was indeed the Spirit himself who spoke; yet only the “spiritual” could truly hear and take it in. Bernard often quoted to his monks his version of a Pauline text (I Corinthians 2:13): These were not human words but the Spirit teaching spiritual things to spiritual persons.

Bernard’s Bible was the Latin translation of Jerome known as the Vulgate. He knew neither Greek nor Hebrew and never troubled himself over that. He was confident that the words, as he read and learned them, were shaped by the Holy Spirit in a particular way and for a particular purpose.

Cistercian monks were concerned about the text of the Bible, and undertook to prepare beautiful handwritten copies, free of textual errors and confusions. Some of these huge folio volumes in two columns still exist. (Handy printed versions, fitting into one hand were unknown as yet, and would probably have been considered somehow vulgar, or worse.) These were weighty and precious tomes, resting on a lectern or bookshelf and possibly chained to it, another sign of the great wealth represented by just one of these handwritten books. If monks were to carry Holy Scripture around—and Bernard certainly expected that they would—it was to be in their memories; he would also have said, in their hearts.

Bernard accepted the authoritative text of Scripture, and was convinced that every word bore a special meaning. But he assumed rather than argued the doctrine of inspiration, in the strict Protestant sense. The form of inspiration that concerned him was that by which the Holy Spirit, the author of the text, moved mysteriously in the heart of a believer to make that text plain. By this “in-breathing,” God spoke directly to those who meditated upon His Word. In this way too, Christ came, not just once in the flesh, but daily in the Spirit to save souls.

For this experience of spiritual inspiration through Scripture, Bernard had numerous choice expressions, mostly borrowed from Scripture itself. This was to exult in the Lord, to overflow in the spirit; Scripture was the font of life pouring forth its streams of water. More daringly, this experience was to bear Christ in your very womb, in your soul. A Spiritual man would know in this way the ardor which the bride feels toward her bridegroom.

The work of interpreting Scripture, it should be evident, was at the very heart of the religious life in Bernard’s view. But this assumes that Scripture is susceptible to this kind of interpretation, that it has the power of the Spirit moving within its text. To understand how that might work, we must put into context Bernard’s views on exegesis.

Interpreting God’s Word

Bernard learned to understand Scripture, first of all, by reading the Fathers of the Church. Though he wished for each of his monks a personal experience of “inspiration” through Scripture, he insisted equally—against Peter Abelard, for instance—that monks should follow in the footsteps of the Fathers. Their interpretation was to remain authoritative, their insights the well-springs of the spiritual life.

Bernard read widely in the Church Fathers, but two figures in particular, as scholars have reconstructed it, largely shaped his reading of the Bible: Origen and Gregory the Great. Origen, who was a Greek father of the mid-third century, is known to moderns as the father of “allegory,” and to medievals as the ingenious interpreter of difficult Old Testament books. His writings taught Bernard always to look for the spirit hidden within the letter of the text. Gregory the Great was the great monk-pope from about 600. He taught Bernard to find in that spirit especially the moralia, a Latin term which in this context meant not so much “the moral” as “the inner spiritual life”—that which pertains to the truly contemplative.

Bernard found great delight in exploring the mysteries of Scripture, but his fascination was not primarily intellectual in character. Indeed he repudiated, for both himself and his monks, all approaches of that kind to Scripture. To penetrate the mysteries of Scripture was to be an experiential matter. By way of the Spirit, the spirit within the letter recalled the deepest mysteries of God, and touched inexpressibly the innermost parts of spiritual men.

This is what counted as true understanding: not an intellectual experience of the text’s meaning, but a spiritual experience of God himself by means of the text. This was for Bernard the highest delight, the ultimate goal, of the monastic life, and it was to this end that Bernard preached Scripture to his monks each day.

The Kiss of the Bridegroom

Perhaps the best way to pull all this together is in Bernard’s own words. He set out his views plainly in the famous opening sermons on the Song of Songs, especially the third and fourth. In his second sermon he explained the “kiss” of verse one, the union of bride and bridegroom, which he referred first to Christ’s union with human flesh and then to the subsequent union between the Incarnate and His faithful people, His bride and body.

In the next sermon Bernard turned, in his own words, to the “book of human experience.” What can it possibly mean, especially for monks, he says, to open a book of the Bible beginning with the words: “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” This cannot be truly understood, he says, except by those who have experienced it, who have been kissed by the mouth of Christ. For the sake of his charges, Bernard undertakes to explain it.

Kisses come in three forms, he noted, drawing on common scenes from his own day, the kiss of the feet, the kiss of the hand, and the kiss of the mouth. Initially, none of us should presume anything more than to kiss the feet, a form of supplication. The Word is a two-edged sword penetrating to the marrow of the heart, and conscientious souls, on hearing it, can only do penance, pleading for mercy and hoping for forgiveness. This is to kiss the Bridegroom’s feet.

Second, we may kiss the hand. This is to be raised up and supported, following penance, so that we may gain confidence and assurance through fitting works of mercy and piety. Without these we will fall back into the mire, and soon be pleading again for mercy at his feet. But with works of mercy we will grow in grace and confidence, our love will become more ardent, and we can enjoy the kiss of the hand.

After the kiss of the hand we may begin to long for the kiss of the mouth. God is spirit, and the Spirit of God dwells before His face. To enjoy the kiss of the mouth is to experience what it means become one in spirit with God himself, to have His spirit enter into the depths of our being. This, Bernard notes, is a rare experience and a fleeting one in this life, but it is the goal of the pure in spirit who hope to see God.

To understand the full meaning for Bernard of the kiss of the mouth we must recall earlier remarks. The essential way in which God communes with the pure in spirit is through His Word. Patient meditation on the Word in silence, reflection on that which the monks carried around with them in their heads and hearts, was the means by which their spirits and the Spirit moving the text of the Word could be joined. This, for Bernard and his followers, was the ultimate experience of the religious life.

John Van Engen is a Professor of History in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.