Marriage in this World and the Next
I could have gone in one of two directions in this second installment on marriage and church in Scripture—which are two sides of a priceless coin in the currency of evangelization. Going in one direction, I might have devoted this installment to the evils, including estrangement from God, which follow the departure from the Divine understanding of marriage. But before we look at what we might call the world without marriage, it is probably better to strengthen our conception of marriage by going a step beyond the basic natural and supernatural outline I presented in There is the World, and there is the World with Marriage.
That outline was rooted in a recognition of man’s conjugal nature, by which he most perfectly mirrors God and through which men and women are most clearly called to walk with God. But there was a possible misunderstanding in this initial recognition. It might almost seem that if God so values marriage between a man and a woman, then each man or woman is called to marriage. But as a Catholic I do not believe this, given the Church’s teachings on the single state, the consecrated life, and the desirability of a celibate priesthood. What stops me from seeing a conflict between what I have already outlined and Catholic teaching?
In the very first place, it is the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon, which the best scholarship suggests was composed in the fifth or fourth century before Christ, must be interpreted very carefully. On its literal level, it is a somewhat lascivious love poem, so it is not surprising that exploration of the book has often been reserved for mature Christians under expert guidance, such as that of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in his Talks on the Song of Songs. But Jewish tradition has always regarded the Song as an ecstatic love poem about the relationship of God and Israel, and Christian exegesis has consistently regarded it as dealing with the relationship of Christ and the Church on the one hand, and God and the individual soul on the other.
I will take up the relationship of Christ to the Church in a future commentary drawing on the New Testament. The relationship of God to the individual soul will occupy us here, for by focusing on it we can see not only that God enjoins spousal love between men and women as an integral part of His saving plan, but also that He Himself espouses each person, each soul. This is the first, and to us very probably the most obvious, meaning of the Song of Songs.
The Song is a very short Scriptural book, containing just eight chapters. Without doing justice to its depth and richness, we can summarize those chapters as recounting the following:
- The desperate seeking of the soul for God;
- The ardent seeking of God for the soul;
- A brief foretaste of union followed by a comparison to the glory of Solomon;
- God’s reflection on the beauty of the soul he so ardently seeks;
- The soul's sluggish response to God (the beloved), such that she finds Him gone when she opens to Him;
- God’s renewed passion in seeking union with the soul, which He has known since she was the “darling of her mother” (how much is packed into the text here!);
- God’s proclamation of the beauty of the soul, and His ravishing union with the soul amid all the good things of the earth;
- A closing reflection on the immature and mature states of the soul, ending in the typology of the perfect vineyard, which is more to be prized than all the riches of Solomon himself (cf. 3).
The Song of Songs is not a systematic treatise but a love poem. It therefore presents the interpretive difficulties of poetry. But as soon we understand, in the context of the inspired books of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, that the Song can be properly understood only in a spiritual sense, its portrayal of love revolutionizes our understanding of our relationship with God.
Three brief passages will highlight this point. The opening lines begin with the soul’s desire and expectation for union with God.
O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you. (Song 1:2-4)
Here the union appears about to be consummated, but there are many passages which express the confusion of this desire, the difficulty of finding and holding on to God, or even of recognizing Him properly:
Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” (Song 3:1-3)
In a similar way, we find many passages in which God expresses an even more ardent (and far more knowledgeable) love of the soul:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! (Song 4:9-10)
Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in travail with you, there she who bore you was in travail. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death. (Song 8:5-6)
Again, there are many interpretive possibilities in this poem: God and Israel; Christ and the soul; Christ and the Church; Christ and Mary; and certainly all four at once. But in any case we receive here valuable instruction about one fundamental fact of human life: The destiny of the human person is a destiny of nuptial union with God.
This is why some may be called to be celibate, to be eunuchs or virgins for the Kingdom of God, without in the least derogating from the honor due to marriage in God’s plan. We begin to see human marriage not only as a natural end in itself but as a sign and foreshadowing of an even deeper union, as both a means and a prefiguring of an even greater nuptial end. In this sense, as we will see more clearly later in this series, marriage points to the ultimate meaning of church, and church to the ultimate meaning of marriage, in the ecstatic union of both the individual soul and of all the saved with Christ himself.
This confirms our extraordinary dignity, noted in several verses of the Song of Songs, as both sister and bride. And in this we see a hint of glories yet to come.
Previous in series: There is the World, and There is the World without Marriage
Next in series: The World without Marriage
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