Two events led me to start thinking about, praying with, and making art in response to the Song of Songs. The first was a Bible study during a clergy quiet day. We were reading Jesus’s Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13). As we sat in a circle, annoyed and shocked that Jesus would tell his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal habitations,” I began wondering whether I had ever done exactly that. My mind traveled to the early days of my relationship with my future wife. We met when we were twenty-two and still in college. Neither of us really knew who we were, and we acted out different social roles, imitating our peers or images in the media or, at best, some vision of who we hoped we would be someday. There was something dishonest about the way we presented ourselves to each other – not in a conniving way, just in the fact that we didn’t know who we were, and therefore didn’t have much chance of being authentic in our relationships with anyone. It was through falling in love and being faithful to each other that we learned who we were, and everything that’s real in our lives and relationships now is the result of our patience with each other as we fumbled around and made mistakes and presented ourselves falsely. Reflecting on this as I sat in that circle of priests, I realized that my wife is my dishonest wealth, and I felt how miraculous it is that she should love me, and I her, a true gift of patience and luck and grace.
The second event that led me to the Song of Songs was a planning meeting. We were at the Edge House, the Lutheran campus ministry that serves the University of Cincinnati. A trapeze company had set-up in the park across the street, and as we talked young people were flinging themselves into the air. We were trying to decide on a theme for an autumn retreat, and we started by wondering which questions our students were really asking. After a considering pause, one of our group said, “Well, I think they’re wondering who they’ll love, and how they’ll love that person well.” This was so basic and obvious that it was astounding that we had never addressed this question with our students. We turned to our Bibles and leafed through them, wondering whether scripture really spoke to this question at all. Maybe in Genesis, in those scenes when Isaac meets Rebecca, and then later Jacob meets Rachel. But more obviously, and certainly more extravagantly, in the Song of Songs.
It’s a primal question – “who will I love, and how will I love that person well?” The way we answer this question will affect not only our earthly relationships, but our relationship with God. This is what the early and medieval commentators on the Song understood so well. Until the Enlightenment, the Song of Songs was the second most preached about and commentated on book of scripture, surpassed only by the Gospel of John. It was treated as an allegory for the soul’s relationship to God, in both the Christian and Jewish traditions. To this day, many Sephardic communities chant the entire Song of Songs before Shabbat services every Friday. For Origen, and Teresa of Avila, and Bernard of Clairvaux, it was a text for celibates, a passionate enactment of human/divine relationship that could take the place of any earthly need for sex. But the Enlightenment, and the 18th and 19th century Biblical scholarship that followed it, questioned this way of reading it. The Song might be any number of things – wedding choruses, songs for fertility rites, court poetry – but it was, decidedly, not about God.
Last summer I led an adult forum on the Song of Songs, and when we came to those passages that compared a woman’s breasts to twin gazelles and bunches of grapes, one of the participants asked “should this even be in the Bible?” It seems so lascivious, and it is. But the fact that it is in the Bible should tell us something. It seems possible, and even likely, that those who compiled and canonized scripture understood that the Song of Songs is about God, while understanding that it’s also about sex. Perhaps they knew what we’ve forgotten, that the passion we bring to our earthly relationships is a training ground for the passion that we will, through much prayer and worship, eventually bring to our relationship with God. “Who will I love and how will I love that person well?” The Song of Songs suggests that the way we answer that question in our human relationships has everything to do with how we’ll learn to love God. Perhaps, through fidelity and patience, we might all come, eventually, to recognize and give thanks for the dishonest wealth we receive as we form each other in relationship, and through this recognition, come to dwell, spiritually, in eternal habitations with God.