Some years ago an undergraduate student asked to talk. She was part of a large religion class at a small religious college. We sat and got acquainted. Then she began to cry. Some people have very little experience in crying and you can tell because they are so surprised at the physical sensation of it. The more she tried to stop the harder the tears came. The more she apologized (she needn’t have of course, what are tears for if not to be shared?), the harder they came. The more she protested, ‘this never happens to me’, the more the torrent fell. She had been an independent, very strong, very successful person, student, friend, and worker. When her boyfriend decided to ‘start seeing other people’, she took it in stride. Or thought she had. Yet several weeks later, she found herself mired in melancholy, and seeking out the counsel of a teacher she hardly knew.
Boxes of Kleenex later, she left with a smile, a bit of gentle and wise self-mockery to undergird her wonder and vulnerability, and her feet underneath her again. She would be OK. But as she said, those weeks taught her something. Love is real, and hurts. If you love, you may get hurt. Hearts break. There is something overwhelmingly potent in the actual, lived experience, particularly when we are young, of loving someone. Love is real and can really hurt.
Most churches have prayer request cards and boxes. Sometimes a prayer will come through that more than most makes you stop in your tracks. (The BU ‘post-secret’ project, now in its second year, is a kind of prayer request box, or at least an anonymous and therapeutic confessional. ) In one community we received a written prayer request in these words: ‘Why is marriage so difficult? Does it get easier? Please say a prayer for us to help us get through our differences. Help me find forgiveness.’ Love hurts. Love means having to say you are sorry.
Last autumn our choir and choir spouses and groupies went out after practice for some refreshment. The evening went along pretty well, until someone in the alto section raised the question of the greatest movie ever made. Someone in another section said, ‘Love Story’. This produced mayhem, most present not having ever seen the film, and most who had decrying its quality. A few hardy, courageous and insightful souls stood in the breech and defended the movie, or at least Allie McGraw. But even these marines of the spirit could not finally defend the movie’s proverb: ‘love means never having to say you are sorry’. Love is all about sorry, and more sorry, as we know.
You will have your choicest choices. Here are two:
And come away;
For lo the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.
(Song of Songs 2: 10-12)
Behold you are beautiful, my love
Behold you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
Behind your veil
Your hair is like a flock of goat
Moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate…
…(YOU CAN READ THE REST YOURSELF!!)..
You are all fair my love;
There is no flaw in you.
(Song of Songs 4: 1-8)
Saddled with other challenges for a few decades, the historic church may have lost of some of our voice about love, human love, sexuality, human sexuality, and the ardent themes of the Song of Songs, the meta-song of the Hebrew Scripture. While our own straitened conditions in the church, and our inwardly turned attention to the details of liturgy may constrain us, all about us the culture calls out for the good news of these chapters. It is still the same old story.
The verses of this book may have arisen as wedding songs. They celebrate love leading toward marriage and love established in marriage, without a great deal of distinction between the two. They acknowledge the power of love. They drape their music in the imagery of the natural world. They shout for joy for the joyful shout of love, human love. As a pastor, father, friend, now minister to a University community, I might have wished a little more didactic material had found its way into the Canticle. A little admonition about commitment. A little recognition of selfishness. A little sober admission of imperfection. A little paternal warning about regret and regrets. Well, we shall have to find these in other pages of the Scripture, for these songs are flying to other places. They reflect the human experience of the ages. They delight in delight. They delight in delight!
Yes, I could interpret and amend these passages to make sure that we include partnership and friendship as well as covenant and marriage. Yes, we could dwell for a moment on the difference between the literature here and that in the rest of the Bible: ’there is no overt religious content corresponding to the other books of the Bible’ (IBD op cit). Yes, I could remember the sectarian Jewish warning that the book should only be opened and read after age thirty. We use when we should love and vice versa. Thus, though, I would miss the point. The Song of Solomon sings of blessing!
Human love is blessed.
Another Solomon song sings of love divine.
The allegorical, cultic, dramatic and other non-literal readings of the Song of Solomon have less influence today. In any case, they fall fairly quickly in the face of the ardent, strong sensuality of the collection. The rabbis early allegorized the Song to refer to Yahweh and Israel. The church early followed suit, and allegorized the Song to refer to Christ and the Church, or to God and the soul. Hosea had already used the allegory, in his beautiful chapters, the 11th being perhaps the loveliest in Scripture. But he done so forthrightly, intending and intoning the allegory directly. ‘When Israel was a child I loved him.’ As a reading of the text, it must be said today, that the allegory superimposes something not apparent or present.
What is dethroned from Scripture, however, experience re-crowns. It is not without wisdom that this bit of wisdom literature has been taken to refer, in a Lenten fashion, to the love of the soul for God, to the love of God for the soul, to the love the church for Christ, to the love of Christ for the church. After all, how are we ever going to picture, to propose the relationship of the human being to God?
Here is today’s gospel message:
What can prepare us for intimacy with the divine, if not human intimacy?
What can prepare us for covenant with the divine, if not human covenant?
What can prepare us for fellowship with the divine, if not human fellowship?
What can prepare us for love of the divine, if not human love?
Where else are we going to learn the rhythms of relationship that prepare a community and its individuals, an individual and his communities, for ultimate relationship?
No wonder Plato wrote so tenderly and toughly about friendship. No wonder John the Evangelist epitomized discipleship in the portrait of one ‘beloved’. No wonder Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Songs and never got past the second chapter! No wonder that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila took Italian love poetry and formed their religious poetry on their models. No wonder that even today there is a returning interest in ‘nuptial mysticism’, a recognition that love, friendship, partnership, marriage shape a soulful habit of living. It is in the relationship of lover and beloved that we plumb the depths of experience.
In the mountains northwest of Madrid, you will find nestled the little old Castilian village of Segovia. I spent only a year there. I walked its cobbled streets during the evening paseo. I was befriended by its teenagers. Adios Roberto. Adios Marie Carmen. Adios Celia. Adios Eduardo. I gazed out at the mountain range that had inspired Hemingway. I ate the baked lamb and drank the red wine of that region. I admired its aqueduct. I photographed its castle. I learned the language, the humor, the humors, the history, the heart, the soul of a noble people. I walked in the dark late night rain and greeted the town crier and constable: ‘Adios’. Someday I hope to return. I find that Segovia appears with more regularity in my dreams now than it has for thirty years past.
I visited there the resting place of St. John of the Cross. I read and remembered his poetry: en una noche oscura, con ansias en amores inflamadas, o dichosa ventura!, sali sin ser notada, estando ya mi casa sosegada.
Our hearts are restless, restless, until they find their rest in the divine, the second song of Solomon. Such a word of longing! Is there anything, any theme more perennial than that of longing!?!
As a seal upon your arm;
For love is strong as death,
Jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
A most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love
All the wealth of his house
It would be utterly scorned.
In earshot of the two Songs of Solomon, love divine and human both, let me invite you to a better life.
Let me invite you to cherish friendship, and to bathe friendship, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to honor partnership, and to bathe partnership, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to enjoy affection, and to bathe affection, like a lover, in warm baths of time and attention. Let me invite you to revere marriage, and to bathe marriage, like a lover, in the warm baths of time and attention.
For such friendship may frame your soul in communion with the divine. Such partnership may prepare your soul for commerce with the divine. Such affection may prepare your psyche for intimacy with the divine. Such marriage may open you…to God.
“Love is strong as death and hard as hell.” (SOS 8:6)
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music