Gregory the Great, Christ, the Church and the Soul in the Song of Songs
The Song of Songs is a fascinating book of Sacred Scripture, and one that has an equally fascinating interpretive history. It has the form of an erotic poem of love between a man and a woman, but nearly all commentators have understood it as an allegory of the love between God and His people. For Christians, this has included any or all of the following: The love between God and the Church, between God and the soul, and between God and the Virgin Mary.
As many commentators have warned, the Song of Songs ought not to be read by the spiritually immature, lest they be inflamed by the literal text without grasping its spiritual significance.
The Song is also called the Song of Solomon and Canticles or the Canticle of Canticles. It is attributed to Solomon and therefore regarded as an unusual yet very deep form of Wisdom literature. Solomon ruled in the tenth century before Christ, and indeed the book could be that old. It betrays Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek influences, but it is notoriously difficult to date. In any case, the attribution to Solomon may be symbolic. Academic estimates of its date of composition tend to vary between 1000 and 200 BC.
I find it interesting that Christians accepted this book as canonical from the first, even though it was not formally added to the Jewish canon until a little later, in the second century AD. The second century also saw the beginning of extensive commentaries by both Jews and Christians. Again, when accepted as a religious text, the Song has always been interpreted allegorically, for nobody would suppose it was included in Scripture for prurient reasons. Extensive commentary stems back to Origen, who wrote between about 210 and 250 AD.
It is only with the rise of academic analysis by those who lack the Faith, particularly in the 20th century, that there has arisen a misguided insistence on taking the text literally, as if those who first received the text had no basis for their understanding of it. This is very similar to what might happen if the Chronicles of Narnia were read by someone who had no knowledge of Christianity. Such a reader would insist that it was a rather baffling story about a lion. The insistence on shutting out faith in Scriptural interpretation invariably yields an impoverished and faulty exegesis.
Still, I suppose some of these secularized results can be useful. Feminist scholars, for example, typically see the Song as a ringing endorsement of equality between the sexes, for it is a love story which betrays no hint of God’s infinite superiority. Reading this insight back into the proper context, it becomes a telling witness to both the condescension of God and the divinization of the soul and the Church in Christ.
Benefitting from Gregory’s Work
Pope St. Gregory the Great (ca 540 – 604), often called the last of the Fathers, solidified the interpretation of the Song of Songs with a complete commentary in which he both uses and expands upon earlier work by Origen, St. Augustine, Apponius, St. Ambrose, and St. John Cassian. Somewhere along the way, however, St. Gregory’s commentary was cut off after verse 8 of chapter 1, which is all that has survived for us to read today.
Fortunately, we know what is missing from other sources. Paterius, a bishop of Brescia who died in 606, devoted himself to compiling previous Christian works, most notably those of Pope St. Gregory, who had been one of the most learned men of his time, and a brilliant writer. The sole surviving work of Paterius is in fact an anthology of Gregory’s Biblical exegesis. Similarly, St. Bede (the Venerable Bede, 672-735) also mined and anthologized Gregory’s works. Between the two of them, a fairly complete collection of the great pope’s interpretation of the entire Song can be cobbled together.
The pièce de résistance was provided by the famous theologian and mystic William of St. Thierry (ca 1085 – ca 1148), who probed Gregory’s works even more thoroughly. Moreover, instead of merely anthologizing them, he put all interpretations on the same verse together (for Gregory often offered multiple possibilities), adding connective language to provide context and a smooth presentation. In this way, William has left us with the most complete and useful substitute for the missing work.
I mentioned that Gregory was more than capable of seeing multiple meanings in the Song of Songs. To take but one example from the manuscript that he actually wrote, he interprets the first verse and half in three different ways. The Scriptural text is: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your breasts are better than wine, and the odor of your ointments surpasses all perfumes.” (Note: Some editions number as verse 1 the introductory statement, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”, in which case the quoted passage would be verse 2 and part of verse 3.)
Gregory offers the following interpretations:
- Holy Church yearning for the coming of the Incarnate Son (“Let him kiss me…”), and suddenly becoming aware of His presence through his sublime teachings (“better than wine”) and his mighty works which have imparted spiritual gifts to all the saints (“the odor of your ointments”).
- Our Lord’s interior presence in each soul (“Let him kiss me…) which imparts sublime wisdom as compared with worldly wisdom (“better than wine”) and authentic virtue rooted in Christ (the odor surpassing all perfumes), as compared with the sinner’s effort to appear virtuous.
- The compunction of the soul when it truly draws close to God (“Let him kiss me…”) instead of having only an abstract interest, leading to a contemplative enjoyment of God (“better than wine”) or perhaps an appropriation of the spiritual riches of the Church (“better than wine”), in anticipation of the even greater delight to come in heaven (which “surpasses all perfumes”).
Gregory wrote the equivalent of about seven modern pages explaining these three interpretations of a mere verse and a half. All of his exegesis draws deeply on other passages from Scripture, which he uses to illuminate the text in question.
In the centuries following Gregory, allegorical interpretations of the Song flourished (including the addition of interpretations relating to the Blessed Virgin). These reached their peak in the famous work of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other Cistercians in the twelfth century. Bernard, widely regarded as the most brilliant and capable man of his time, gave entire homilies to his monks on each passage of the Song—eighty-six sermons in all, which still make wonderful spiritual reading.
But St. Bernard managed to work through only to the first verse of chapter 3 before his death in 1153. Subsequently, Abbot Gilbert of Hoyland wrote forty-eight more sermons, carrying the work through the tenth verse of chapter 5, before he died in 1172. And finally Abbot John Ford wrote another 120 sermons, completing the cycle before he died in 1214. Still, given the manuscript history for St. Gregory, St. Bernard remains the best single source for spiritual reading.
All of this and more is unveiled in a superb introduction to and presentation of the texts by Mark DelCogliano, including new translations of the works I have mentioned by Gregory, Paterius, Bede and William of St. Thierry. Entitled Gregory the Great On the Song of Songs, this impressive study is newly published by Cistercian Publications. Note, however, that this is not designed as spiritual reading; rather, it is a work of outstanding scholarship with substantial spiritual benefits. For those with special interest, then, it earns my highest recommendation.
For spiritual reading, a four-volume collection of St. Bernard's sermons is also available from Cistercian Publications, but I have included a link below to an affordable selection of Bernard’s works which includes a good sampling of his Song homilies.
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