The theme of the necessity of the feminine in the work of salvation recurs in one of the final sermons on the Song of Songs. Throughout his earthly life Jesus took pleasure in the company of Martha and Mary. In their presence his heart and mind found rest, and he was comforted by these women’s virtues. How wonderful that he, in all his majesty, loved the familiarity of these pure souls and chaste bodies, even though they were only earthly beings, members of the weaker sex. He gave courage to their shyness, joy to their humility, nourishment to their devotion. The pleasure that Jesus took in the feminine sex was a sign of his own humility and his ability to forgive. Thenceforth the Son of God has never ceased coming into this world. Yet he manifests himself, not with power, as the one who is to judge the world, but as he once appeared, ‘like a little child, born for us of this feminine, this weaker, sex’. That he should be born of a woman is a sign of his goodness, of his will to forgive, of the gentleness he will show on the day of his wrath. These qualities are not found only in women, but. According to Bernard, it is in women that they are more frequently seen. Even the weakness of their sex is a natural fact which, though not recognized as a positive value by literary and philosophical tradition, is transformed in Mary, and changed into a symbol of salvation.

His insistence on the presence of feminine qualities, through Mary, in the mystery of Christ and our relations with him, is probably the only really original contribution Saint Bernard made to mariology. Not that he invented Mary’s role in the birth of Christ, but he presented it and its consequences in a way which seems to have been largely unique to him and to have expressed his reaction to the culture around him. It is as though in a violent society where men exercised physical and material force, he saw a need for a compensating non-violence, something he attributed to women, and particularly to Mary. The two kinds of equality he saw in her were the opposites of the failings for which women were generally reproached. On the one hand, women were supposed to lack courage because they were weak; that was why Bernard was fond of quoting Solomon’s ‘valiant woman’. On the other hand, traditional misogyny reproached women with being arrogant, moody, and shrewish, talkative and fond of spicy gossip. Bernard believed that women – Martha, Mary her sister, and the Virgin Mary – were capable of calmness and kindness and holding their tongues: he praised the Virgin’s silence. She is not the only woman to have these qualities; they are found in others as well. But in her, the Mother of God, they are present perfectly and symbolically.

Jean Leclercq, Women and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1989)


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