In the twelfth century St Bernard of Clairvaux taught his monks to see themselves as Spouses of Christ.  If you thought that this phrase was never used of anyone but nuns, you may now begin to relish the image of those strong monks, with muddy boots from working the land, as Spouses of Christ.  Imagine them in procession!  And the smell of the soil!  Brides of Christ. 

“Real men don't eat quiche,” it used to be said.  But I think many are beginning to take a nibble now.  I wonder who made that rule anyway.  Or who made the rule that real men are tough and silent, that they are typically competitive and ruthless, that they are at their best when they are knocking back pints of beer in the company of other men, or boasting of their conquests of women, that they bear even the worst tragedies dry-eyed and unfeeling, that they wouldn't be seen dead in a kitchen or doing ‘women’s work’?  Hollywood films certainly reinforced it, even boys’ comics and innocent-looking cartoons reinforced it.  Generations of boys have grown up with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood as icons of manhood.  You can recognise the swagger, the boastful talk, the cult of toughness.  What a tragedy for them and for the women who live with them!  Yet I am suspect that most of those mediaeval Cistercians were much tougher men than they.

But those films and comics only reinforced something that was already in place.  I remember the greatest embarrassment that I suffered in primary school: for misbehaviour I was made to join the girls for sewing class!  I remember feeling like a leper, a freak; I remember my face alight with shame; nature itself must rebel at the injustice of it: a boy in a sewing class!  At an early age, no doubt, we try to find our identity by saying who we are not, but this game goes too far: it follows many into adult life and old age.  As young adults we should already be quite secure in our identity as men, and not needing to play this game anymore.  Only when we stop playing it do we become free to allow qualities we used to identify as feminine: gentleness, receptivity, intuition.... A man who is lacking in these is not yet an adult, no matter how old he is or how tough, or how many pints of beer he can put away.

St Bernard was once the most powerful man in Europe: more powerful than the Pope, who was a former monk of Bernard’s community.  Yet for almost twenty years he poured out sermon after sermon on The Song of Songs, a book that contains some of the most tender love poetry ever written.  In the opening verses it is the Bride, the Beloved, who is speaking (or singing):
            Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth –  
            for your love is more delightful than wine.
This Bride, Bernard said, is “the soul which thirsts for God.... No names can be found as sweet as those in which the Word and the Soul exchange affections, as Bridegroom and Bride, for to such everything is in common, nothing is the property of one and not the other, nothing is held separately.”  The soul is ‘feminine’ to God, in the sense that discipleship is primarily a listening and a receptivity; it is a communion of being, not a feat of will-power.  This does not mean effeminacy in a man: proof of it is Bernard’s monks!  Look around at them: farmers, blacksmiths, builders.... They would put us to shame as males.  They are so secure in masculinity that they have no need to act the role of tough men. 
            Set me as a seal on your heart,
            as a seal on your arm,
            for love is as strong as death.  (Song of Songs, 8:6)

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.