Published on 04 Sep 2012
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2012
The Rev. Chris Dierkes
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio MP3 of this sermon.
Our first reading this morning is from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is a love poem written as a dialogue between a bride and a groom. It’s commonly read at Jewish (and sometimes Christian) weddings. Interestingly it is the only book in the Bible not to mention God by name. It could be argued the text, in our language, is completely secular.
The poetry is (in some places) how shall I put it, not exactly the kind we are accustomed to. For example, “I compare you my love to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.” Telling a spouse they look like a horse would not exactly be seen as a compliment today – in fact it would likely end up with the person who said it sleeping on the couch for a number of nights.
Nevertheless other portions of the poetry do speak to us in a very poignant way. In Chapter 6 the groom proclaims of his bride:
“Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, and bright as the sun? My dove, my perfect one.”
While the Bride says of her groom in Chapter 5:
“His speech is most sweet/and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend.”
It is straightforwardly a love song between a bride and groom, beautiful and moving. How are we to understand this book?
One answer I think is that the inclusion of this text in The Bible is speaks to an important part of the human condition: falling in love and seeking to establish a mutual bond of affection with a beloved. At one point, The Groom has to go away to tend his flocks and The Bride speaks to her deep heartache and pain in their separation. An experience many, if not all of us, know. This whole arena of heart challenging, complex, beautiful, and at times painful part of human existence is validated–it finds its resonance in this text from The Bible.
The second response comes from reading the text on a mystical allegorical level. The Song of Songs has through Jewish and Christian history been seen as one of, if not the most, spiritual and mystical book in The Bible. Again without having ever actually referred to God. I started by saying that the book is a straightforward love poem. I think it’s very important to remember that it is that. I think the mystical interpretation of the text is a valid one–(stress on a valid one) and we’re going to look at that in a second. But there has been a tendency historically to spiritualize away the literal meaning of The Song of Song as too provocative with its frank praise of human desire, romance, and passion. This is an area that historically the church has been very poor on so while we are going to look at the mystical interpretation I don’t want to reintroduce this false notion that the spiritual exists on a plane up and above the human world of love.
So the mystical reading of The Song of Songs. As early as the 3rd century the great mystic and theologian Origen there has been a tradition of reading The Song of Songs as a love song between God and the soul (or God and The Church or in the Jewish tradition God and Israel). St. Bernard of Clairvaux revived this tradition in the Western church in the 11th century and during the Middle Ages it became profoundly influential reaching its apex in the writings of the two Spanish mystics and Doctors of the Church (and friends) St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross who lived during the 16th century. Now there’s some interesting to note there.
The allegory works by imagining God as the Groom (in the Christian tradition this is Christ) and The Soul as the Bride. Now notice that the same parallel is used when either men or women write them. It’s particularly interesting around the men (like Bernard, or John of the Cross). They refer to themselves in the poetry as women (they speak as the Bride). Does this mean they are transgendered? They are men writing about falling in love with another men. Does this mean they are gay? Perhaps the women and the men are trying to indicate that all of us can fall in love with God whatever our gender sense or orientation?
One of the central reasons why they use the imagery of marriage as a metaphor for uniting with God is that in marriage two individuals join as one union. They remain forever two distinct beings but they have become one bond. In a healthy marriage the couple are not subsumed by that bond (to the loss of their individuality) but neither are they ever separate from that bond either. That bond is indelibly linked to who they are. The bond calls out the deepest truest self in each by lovingly sacrificing for the other.
The two remain two and yet become one. And this the mystics say is in some mysterious way the reality of mystical union with God. God is God and the Soul is the Soul and yet the two have joined into one bond. And this bond is Love. The example they come up to merely approximate or get in the ballpark of that connection with God is human marriage.
Deep spiritual connection with God is kinda like being in a marriage. Both sides love each other, both sides drive each other crazy. Believe me God drives me nuts constantly and I can’t even imagine what God must have to go through with the way we humans operate. Both sides may at times struggle with feelings of failure or shame, and fears of rejection or abandonment. There are number of passages where God expresses deep hurt and tenderness for feeling rejected by humanity. The Psalms include poignant cries from humans who feel abandoned by God.
The relationship deepens when the two sides intentionally spend time gazing at one another. In the spiritual version that’s called prayer. Gazing upon God and God gazing upon us. And if a person follows the grace of this path they will reach a point where their identity is marked by this loving relationship with God.
So yes the relationship with God is kinda like being in married.
But then again it really isn’t like being married. Like all analogies, the mystical marriage analogy breaks down on a number of points. Remember this is a powerful analogy but it should not be taken too literally. In particular for those who have gone through a divorce it should not be read as a failure to be bonded with God.
And the mystical marriage is only one of a number of metaphors that are applicable to the Divine-Human relationship. God may be experienced as friend and the love as approximated in the love of our friends (different than our spouses). The Bible is full of language in relation to the human-God relationship that is familial (Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister). This kind of familial love is different still and also works as an analogy.
Still, all those caveats mentioned, the mystical marriage analogy is a profound one.
To give just a flavor of the mystical marriage tradition, I’d like to share a poem by John of the Cross. The poem is modeled after The Song of Songs.
The Poem (The Dark Night) John of the Cross:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
–ah the sheer grace!–
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
–ah, the sheer grace!–
in darkness and concealment,
my house now being all stilled.
On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
that the one that burned in my heart.
This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
–him I knew so well–
there in a place where no one appeared.
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved into her Lover.
Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I part his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out my from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.*
We don’t have nearly enough time to go through the intricacies of that poem. John of the Cross spends about 200 pages in his book explaining it. I’ll just leave these as pointers as we each follow The Holy Spirit to unite with our Beloved, The Divine.
There is no other light or guide ultimately than the one that burns in our heart and it will lead us (like a homing beacon) to where God already is–within the deepest part of ourselves (“there in a place where no one appeared”).
The path of following that burning heart is a dark one. Love is a purifying fire. This burning fire unites the Lover (God) with his beloved (us) transforming the beloved (us) into her Lover (God). We become like God through God loving us. We become like who we love and who we allow to love us.
And in special moments of prayer when two are united in that way:
“I abandoned myself and forgot myself, laying my face on the Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”
This is the special experience of ecstasy in God (known as The Cloud of Unknowing) where we lose all sense of time and space and drift fully into God.
So I encourage everyone to read and meditate upon the Song of Songs–it’s a short eight chapters or so. Read it once through on its plain level as a wedding hymn between a bride and groom. And then read it through a second time in this other way–as a love song between God and the soul. If we re-read our passage from this morning in this second way here is what we get.
This is the bride speaking (that would be us in this mystical way of reading):
The voice of my beloved!
Look he comes
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks to me and says…
The Beloved is God. God is here about to speak and I want everyone to imagine this as God speaking directly to you.
“Arise my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now 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.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
Our prayer today is that God give us the grace to experience ourselves as the love and fair ones of God and to go away with God.
* –from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translation by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington, D.C. 1991 pp. 358-359
Enjoyed this post?