We Shall Run Again

From Commentary on the Song of Songs, 21.9-11 (ca. 1140)

Where is the wonder that she needs drawing who chases after a giant, striving to catch him as he goes “leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills”? “His word runs swiftly.” She is not able to match his running, cannot compete in swiftness with him “who exults like a giant to run his race;” it is beyond her own strength, so she asks to be drawn.

“I am tired,” she says, “I grow weak; do not desert me, draw me after you or I shall begin to stray after strange lovers, I shall be running aimlessly. Draw me after you, for it is better that I be drawn by you… A day will come when I shall not need to be drawn, when we shall run with a will and with all speed. For I shall not be running alone even though I ask that I alone be drawn: the maidens will be running with me. We shall run at equal pace, we shall run together, I in the odor of your ointments, they under the stimulus of my example and encouragement, and hence all of us running in the odor of your ointments.

We are drawn when we are tested by temptations and trials; we run when inwardly suffused by consolations, breathing in the ointment-scented air. Therefore when I encounter what is hard and austere I confine it to myself, being strong and healthy and perfect, and I speak in the singular: “Draw me.” What is pleasant and sweet I share with you, the weak one, and I say: `We shall run” . . . I will have them as companions in hours of consolation, but not in times of trial. Why so? Because they are frail, and I fear they may tire and lag behind.

‘It is me that you must correct, my bridegroom” she says, “me that you must test, put on trial and draw after you, because I am ready for the lash and strong enough to persevere. Apart from that we shall run together; I alone shall be drawn, together we shall run.

So let us run and run, but in the odor of your ointments, not by trusting in our own worth. We pin our hopes for the race, not in the durability of our powers but in the abundance of your mercies. For although when we ran we did so willingly, it depended not upon man’s will or exertion but upon God’s mercy.

Let mercy but return and we shall run again. You with your giant’s power can, run with your own strength; we can run only when your ointments breathe their scent. You whom the Father has anointed `with the oil of gladness above your fellows,’ run by virtue of that anointing; we run in the odor it diffuses. You enjoy the fullness, we the fragrance.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was one of the most influential preachers and spiritual writers of the Middle Ages. An important leader in the Cistercian reform, he was abbot at Clairvaux and an important advisor to other church leaders. His verse-by-verse Commentary on the Song of Songs, probably his most influential work, is based on a series of expositional sermons he began in the monastery in 1135, and at his death, the cycle remained incomplete. St. Bernard’s feast day is August 20.

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