The Song of Songs: Yearning for fulfillment
St. Augustine’s great insight into the spiritual life is perhaps most aptly captured by this famous statement which he addressed to God: “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (Confessions, Book 1). If we were asked to identify a single work of literature which most fully captures that insight, it would have to be the next Biblical book in this series, namely The Song of Songs. This text is very difficult to interpret in consistent detail, but one thing is certain: It captures the intense longing of the beloved for her lover, and the nearly unbearable frustration of their separation.
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. [3:1-2]
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Hark! My beloved is knocking….
I had put off my garment,
how could I put it on?
I had bathed my feet,
…how could I soil them?
My beloved put his hand to the latch,
and my heart was thrilled within me….
I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but found him not;
I called to him, but he gave no answer. [5:2-6]
What could better express our yearning for love’s fulfillment, in ways that we mostly do not understand? What could more realistically pinpoint our tendency to respond just a little too slowly when that love is just within our grasp?
The full title of the book is “The Song of Songs Which Is Solomon’s”, and it is sometimes referred to as “the Song of Solomon” or, using what strikes me as a more delightful translation, “The Canticle of Canticles”. It has troubled readers down through the ages. Many have failed to extract any spiritual meaning from the Book; others fear it is dangerous for younger readers because of its “erotic” character; still others suggest it be read only by relatively advanced souls, and preferably under spiritual direction.
So noted. But I would not be ruled by any of these concerns. Even for boys, images such as “breasts like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies” cannot pose a much greater danger than “teeth like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing.” The imagery is not only decidedly pastoral but decidedly far-fetched. It is just this imagery, however, which gives an almost cosmic flavor to the Song, pointing to some deeper sense. It persuades the reader that this is something more than an ordinary love song. It is a song that seems to include the whole universe.
The book has only eight short chapters. For those who read spiritually (as they should), it has always seemed to be about more than two human lovers. The Jews took it to refer to the relationship of love between the LORD and His people, and this has found its normal fulfillment among Christians, who understand it primarily as referring to Christ and the Church. The Song can be applied at least in some senses to the relationship between God and the Virgin Mary and, as I indicated above, it can be read with great spiritual profit as an exploration of the relationship of love between the Blessed Trinity and each person, a love which can and should grow within each soul.
While a number of images are repeated, the line used most often in the Song is very perplexing. Three times, after expressing her constant search for her lover, the beloved insists: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem…that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4). The one other verse that begins “I adjure you” reads as follows: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love” (5:8). These verses form a strange contrast, suggesting an awareness that the Providential instant of nuptial fulfillment depends in large part on Love Itself, on God’s redemptive moment.
With this in mind, but with absolutely no exegetical justification beyond free association, I like to connect these passages with this verse from Matthew’s gospel: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63). This is demanded of Christ by the hostile high priest, but when it comes to our restless souls, is it not precisely this assurance that we seek?
Scriptural interpretation can be elusive, especially with inspired poetry. In the Middle Ages, exegetes relied a great deal on typology for insights into the sacred text. In contrast to our present functional view of everything (“this is of interest only for what it does here and now”), medieval culture tended to be preoccupied with hidden meanings (“what does this signify, that I may learn its spiritual or moral meaning?”). The tendency was to assume that everything in Scripture, in addition to its literal meaning, was a sign of something relevant to the ways of God in the Church, or the Christian community, or the human soul.
In this context, it is a wonderful experience to read the extensive commentary on the Song of Songs by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Regarded in his own time as the most intelligent and competent man in Europe, Bernard was pulled out of his monastery repeatedly to advise high-ranking officials and undertake sensitive diplomatic missions. Yet over the last eighteen years of his life, he composed eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs for the edification of his brethren. He died while composing the last one of these, and he had reached only the third verse of the third chapter—though in the course of the series he did manage to quote at least something from all eight chapters.
Since the original collection of sermons fills about a thousand pages., and is commonly regarded as too dense (and perhaps not sufficiently unified) for modern tastes, I have used and can recommend the highly abridged Talks on the Song of Songs, edited by Bernard Bangley in 2002, a small paperback which you can still purchase for a song (so to speak). But Cistercian Publications did bring out the entire set of sermons in English and Latin between 1971 and 1980 (four volumes). I’ve provided all the links below.
I believe it is the deliberate intention of the Holy Spirit that we should not fully understand this particular book of Scripture (assuming we can fully understand any of them). It seems to me that the book is designed to mirror our own yearning for God, and God for each of us, which will not be entirely fulfilled in this world—yet should be the guiding motive of all our lives.
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