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Physical relationship with mother should reflect our relationship with God

      And now for something completely different.

      Yes, this is the month of Mothers’ Day, but I’m willing to wager that few, if any, bring together momma dearest and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot, hobnobber to popes and Doctor Mellifluus.

      So allow me.

      Bernard’s tenth sermon on the Old Testament’s Song of Songs (Bernard wrote 86 sermons on the Song that covered not quite all of the first two chapters of the eight chapters that comprise the book) is entitled “The Breasts and Their Perfumes.” Mind you, this sermon was preached to Cistercian monks in the 12th century.

      In this sermon Bernard draws an analogy between the breasts of the bride and the virtues of compassion and sympathy. Writes Bernard: “But we must return to the subject of the bride’s breasts, and see how the milk of one differs in kind from that of the other. Joyful sympathy yields the milk of encouragement, compassion that of consolation, and as often as the spiritual mother receives the kiss, so often does she feel each species flowing richly from heaven into her loving heart.”

      Now, you know this. Wasn’t your mom full of compassion and sympathy? When as a child you did something wrong, did you not run to mom as opposed to the old man? Why? Because you knew mom would cut you some slack.

      All Bernard has done, here, is to allegorize that. The Bride is the Church. The “kiss” is the Holy Spirit. The Church feeds us with both sympathy and encouragement through her sacraments. What is that sympathy and encouragement like? Well, says Bernard, it is like the milk of a mother’s breast: warm and nourishing.

      Now, when a mother breast feeds her child, how close is that child to its mother? Well, that’s how close God is to us.

      Furthermore, Bernard makes an assumption, here, that cannot be presumed today. He just assumes  there is a correlation between being a bride and becoming a mother. That assumption can no longer be presumed. For Bernard, though, the correlation was as obvious as rain. The bride becomes a mother, and just as a mother gives life, her breasts sustain life.

      In this particular sermon Bernard puts the whole dynamic between God and humanity in terms of mother and child. In his other sermons on the Song Bernard puts the dynamic between God and humanity in terms of husband and wife. In other words, Bernard’s analogies deal with flesh and blood, the physical.

      Which is, for my money, right on target. If your mother is still alive, your relationship with her is a physical one: you touch her, laugh with her, cry with her, perhaps even yell at her. If your mother is dead, you have photographs of her, an article of her clothing, a visual and/or vocal recording of her. I have the hair brush my mother used.

      My point is that the relationship between you and your mother is a physicalone. Why should the relationship between God and us be different?

      Bernard understood that. He understood the relationship between God and us is like the relationship between husband and wife, mother and child: physical. Yet, we too often consign God to the abstract, to “proofs.”

Balderdash! Prove to me that you love your mother. Go on, try. Convince me.

      Ludicrous, right? Well, it is just as ludicrous to “prove” God. You love your mother, you don’t “prove” her. Ditto for God.

      Bernard is just the man for our times. People today don’t desire “proof,” they desire a relationship. A relationship we all have, or have had, is a relationship with our mother. A relationship most of humanity has is a relationship with a spouse. And those relationships? They’re physical, not pretense, and they smack of God.

      Let’s finish with Bernard: “There is no pretense about a true mother, the breasts that she displays are full for the taking. She knows how to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to be sad with those who sorrow, pressing the milk of encouragement without intermission from the breast of joyful sympathy, the milk of consolation from the breast of compassion. And with that I think we may desist from further discussion on the breasts of the bride and the milk that fills them.”


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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