Reflections on the Song of Songs

By: Christopher West


When I first discovered John Paul II’s “theology of the body” (TOB) in 1993 — a collection of 129 talks on human love in God’s plan — I knew that I was holding a revolution in my hands.   I also knew I would spend the rest of my life studying it and sharing it with the world.  A few years ago, Pauline Books and Media released a long awaited “critical edition” of the TOB, freshly translated by biblical scholar Michael Waldstein.   This brightly polished edition of the TOB has only increased my appreciation for John Paul II’s dazzling, mystical vision of the human person and reinvigorated me to continue promoting and teaching it. Among this new edition’s many improvements, perhaps most exciting is the inclusion of six undelivered talks never before translated in English.   Waldstein discovered them in the Vatican archives as part of his research. Wow — new undelivered material from John Paul II on the theology of the body!!??   To somebody like me (a TOB “geek”) that’s like Indiana Jones discovering the lost ark or the holy grail.   And the contents of these never before translated talks — mostly on the Song of Songs and the Book of Tobit — truly are a treasure.   They fill in a critical gap in the previous editions of TOB.

Song of Songs

These reflections are based on the recently completed, new edition of my book Theology of the Body Explained (released by Pauline in September of 2007).  Why is the Song of Songs the favorite biblical book of the mystics?   Why have the saints written more commentaries on the Song of Songs than on any other book in the Bible?   Because the erotic poetry of the Song provides a language — certainly inadequate, but in the experience of many of the greatest saints, the least inadequate — for expressing the burning passion of God’s love and the experience of union to which all are called with God.   God’s eternal plan, as the mystics often put it, is to “marry” us — to live with us in an eternal union of love that the Bible compares to a marriage. Thus, the fact that Sacred Scripture celebrates erotic love should not surprise us.   If it does, it seems an indication that we have been influenced more by Manichaeism (a heresy that views the body as evil and opposed to “spiritual things”) than by an authentically Christian/incarnational view of the world.  Christians should be the first to recognize that the erotic themes of the Song of Songs contain, as John Paul II wrote, an “essential sign of holiness” (TOB 109:2).   Sadly, because of the tenacious grip of Manichaean attitudes, many Christians have difficulty putting “sex” and “holiness” in the same sentence.   While that may be understandable in a pornographic culture like ours, we must  work to reclaim the holiness of the body and of spousal love.   Prayerful reflection on the Song of Songs can help.

The Song the Body Sings

Holiness does not reject the body.   Holiness, instead, as John Paul affirmed, is what enables us to express ourselves deeply with our own bodies, by making a gift of our bodies as did Christ.   It is in our bodies, the Pope insisted, that men and women feel the call to holiness (see TOB 19:5).   In fact, the original spousal unity of man and woman — “naked without shame” (Gen 2:25) — is the sure sign, according to John Paul, that “holiness has entered the visible world” (TOB 19:5).  Through the witness of the lovers’ duet in the Song of Songs, we come to understand that the body “speaks” a language of divine love, of holiness.   Not only does it speak — the body sings.   And it not only sings, but it sings the greatest of all songs — the Song of Songs. Or, at least, it is meant to do so.   Sin introduces a sour note to the song.   The good news is that Christ comes into the world to restore the true Song in our hearts precisely by redeeming our bodies.   We’ll continue our reflections on the Song of Songs in part II of this series. In light of various misunderstandings and controversies surrounding the “erotic” nature of this biblical book, how are we to understand it?   We might begin with a passage from St. Paul: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Unfortunately, some churchmen throughout history have seemed to think these words of the Apostle do not apply to the erotic poetry of Solomon’s Song. As John Paul observes, to many this book has seemed “profane.” Its reading has often been discouraged and even forbidden (see TOB 108:2).   Such a perspective seems to stem from what the Pope called the “interpretation of suspicion” (see TOB 46).   By that he meant an obstinate inability to see the body through the prism of anything but lust.

Don’t Exalt the Spirit

The Song’s unabashed celebration of erotic love should be seen as the precise biblical antidote to such suspicion.   The Song of Songs teaches us to love human love with the original good of God’s vision. Remember God looked at everything he made and called it “very good” (Gen 1:31)?   With just such a love, the greatest mystics (those saints who engaged in a life of contemplation and prayer in order to achieve a supernatural state of perfection during Earthly life) have drawn lasting inspiration from this sacred, erotic poetry and the Church has inserted its verses into her liturgy (see TOB 108:2).  We must understand that this mystical and liturgical (pertaining to worship in Mass) tradition — rather than the parallel history of suspicion — reflects the authentic mind of the Church regarding the Song of Songs.   For as the Church prays, so does she believe. John Paul observes that the marital love of the Song is connected in some way with the whole biblical tradition of the great spousal analogy. It certainly serves to illuminate the prophets’ description of God’s spousal love for Israel. In turn, the Song of Songs also sheds light on Christ’s union with the Church, as St. Paul describes in Ephesians 5. However, the Pope immediately adds that the “theme of spousal love in this singular biblical ‘poem’ lies outside that great analogy. The love of bridegroom and bride in the Song of Songs is a theme by itself, and in this lies the singularity and originality of that book” (TOB 108:1). Quoting from various biblical scholars, the Holy Father is critical of those who rush to disembody the Song, seeing it only as an allegory of God’s “spiritual” love. It is “the conviction of a growing number of exegetes,” the Pope maintains, that the Song of Songs is “to be taken simply as what it manifestly is: a song of human love” (TOB 108: note 95). For “human love, created and blessed by God, can be the theme of an inspired biblical book” (TOB 108: note 97).

Don’t Deny the Body

John Paul seems to agree with the view of one scholar who writes that those who have “forgotten the lovers” or “petrified them into pretense” have not interpreted the Song correctly. “‘He who does not believe in the human love of the spouses, he who must ask forgiveness for the body, does not have the right to rise higher….With the affirmation of human love, by contrast, it is possible to discover the revelation of God in it’” (TOB 108: note 96). This confirms an essential element of incarnational/sacramental reality. Grace — the mystery of God’s life and covenant love — is communicated through the “stuff” of our humanity, not despite it. Quoting another scholar, John Paul says that “a faithful and happy human love reveals to human beings the attributes of divine love.” This means “that the content of the Song of Songs is at the same time sexual and sacred.” When we ignore the sacred, we see the Song merely as a secular erotic poem. But when we ignore the sexual, we fall into allegorism. “It is only by putting these two aspects together that one can read the book in the right way” (TOB 108: note 97). The Song of Songs demonstrates the integral relationship of the sexual and the sacred.  It is a classic blunder of “religious” people (in fact, a heretical error) to think one must reject sexuality to reach the holy and the sacred.   What we must reject is only the distortion  of sexuality, not sexuality itself.   The erotic poetry of the Song of Songs evokes all that is true, good, and beautiful about sexual love as God created it to be “in the beginning” — before sin distorted it. In the beginning, man and woman experienced sexual desire as nothing but the desire to love as God loves, in God’s image.   This is what enabled them to be “naked without shame” (Gen 2:25).   Adam’s fascination with Eve — “At last, you are the one!   You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (see Gen 2:23) — serves as a precursor to the Song of Songs.   John Paul II observed that what “was barely expressed in the second chapter of Genesis…in just a few simple and essential words is developed here in full dialogue” (TOB 108:5).

Enchanted by the Body

In the Song, a wonder, admiration, and fascination similar to Adam’s runs “in a peaceful and even wave from the beginning to the end of the poem” (TOB 108:5).   And just like Genesis, the “point of departure as well as the point of arrival for this fascination–reciprocal wonder and admiration–are in fact the bride’s femininity and the bridegroom’s masculinity, in the direct experience of their visibility.” The body reveals the person and the body summons them to love. Thus, their words of love are “concentrated on the ‘body’” (TOB 108:6). Fascination with the human body in its masculinity and femininity–often considered innately prurient (having excessive interest in sexual matters)–is here, in the Bible’s Song of Songs, a means “for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), that is, for training in love.   Lust has certainly distorted our vision and our sentiments. Yet, when we tap into that deep well of human desire and fascination that remains beyond the distortions of lust, we discover that our attraction to the body is God-given.   And, behold, it is very good (see Gen 1:31).  Sin and lust do not define us.   Throughout the TOB, John Paul II insists that the heritage of our hearts “is deeper than the sinfulness inherited.”   And the good news is that Christ came to “re-activate that deepest inheritance and give it real power in human life” (TOB 46:6).   The lovers in the Song witness beautifully to the God-given glory of sexual attraction, desire, and union.

A Heartfelt Look

Of course attraction to the body in an integral sense must always be and always is attraction to a person. It is a vision of another person not only with the eyes but with the heart. A look determines the heart within the one who looks, and it determines whether or not he sees the heart of the person at whom he looks.   To the degree that one’s heart is pure, so is his look.   And to the degree that a person looks with purity of heart, he sees not just a body, but somebody. In the inspired duet of this Song, the lovers not only “look” at each other.   They see each other.   Their attraction towards the other’s body is an attraction toward the other person.   And seeing the other person, they do not use the person as an object of egoistic gratification. Rather, as John Paul says, this attraction which lingers directly and immediately on the body generates love in the inner impulse of the heart (see TOB 108:6).  How can we ensure that our attraction to the body inspires love and not mere lust?   As we continue our reflections on the Song of Songs in future articles, John Paul II will give us some keen insights. We will look now at the lover’s expression, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden closed, a fountain sealed” (Song of Songs 4:12).  Before I present some of John Paul’s ideas, I should alert you that — like many other mystics who have commented on the Song of Songs — John Paul’s intimate reflections may scandalize some.   But such “scandal” only points to how deeply we are in need of reclaiming the holiness of sexuality.   That’s the precise goal of John Paul II’s TOB.   It is certainly not  to titillate, but to sublimate — to show how sublime, how holy the union of husband and wife truly is.

The Sister, the Bride, the Mystery

John Paul first comments on the importance of the lover calling his beloved “sister” before calling her “bride.” This demonstrates that the lover respects her as a person who shares the same humanity.   It demonstrates that his desire for her as “bride” is not one of lust but of love.  The normal man recoils at the idea of lusting after his sister — and so should a man recoil at the thought of lusting after his bride.   Marriage, after all, does not justify a man using his wife as an object for his pleasure.   Marital intercourse is meant to express divine love, not base animal instinct. It’s precisely the lover’s recognition of his wife as “sister” that allows him to approach her with selfless tenderness (see TOB 110:2).  The groom demonstrates the genuine character of his love all the more with the expressions “garden closed” and “fountain sealed.” These indicate, as John Paul II poignantly observes, that the “bride presents herself to the eyes of the man as the master of her own mystery” (TOB 110:7). The groom must respect the fact that he cannot dominate or control his bride.   She is in control of her own person; she is master of her own “mystery.”  The point is that authentic love affords a certain “entering” into the mystery of the other person without ever violating the person (see TOB 111:1). If a person’s “love” violates the one loved, then it is not love and should not be called love.   It is love’s counterfeit — lust. If the lover is to enter this “garden” and participate in the woman’s mystery, he cannot barge in or break down the door.   Nor can he manipulate her into surrendering the key.   If he is to respect his beloved as “master of her own mystery,” all the lover can do is “knock at the door” and respectfully await her response.

Self-Giving Love: the Key that Unlocks the Mystery

The lover in the Song initiates the gift, making his desire clear: “Open to me, my sister, my love” (Song of Songs 5:2).   And she hears him: “Listen, my beloved is knocking” (5:2).   But he puts “his hand to the latch” (5:4) only with her freely given “yes” — given without any hint of being coerced or manipulated. In total freedom, she surrenders to him; she opens her garden to him, making it his: “Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad.   Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16). Thus, as John Paul II observes, in the course of their dialogue, “the ‘garden closed’ opens up in some way before the eyes of the bridegroom’s soul and body” (TOB 111:4). And with profound reverence, he beholds her mystery unveiled. He comes to her delighting in her gift, remaining ever in awe of her freely opened mystery: “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk” (5:1).  In response to those who consider this erotic poetry “profane,” we must recall that this is God’s word.   As John Paul says, the Song of Songs reveals an “essential sign of holiness” (TOB 109:2). Lord, please teach us the true meaning of holiness!   Please restore in our hearts your true plan for the love of man and woman.   Amen. The Song of Songs has been commented on by more saints and mystics than any other book in the Bible.   Volumes and volumes have been written about this divinely inspired erotic poetry.   Over the past several articles we’ve looked at only a few of its treasures.   Much more could — and should — be said.

Marriage: Love Stronger Than Death

In his Theology of the Body (TOB), John Paul II observed that in the course of their loving duet, the bride “opens” her garden “before the eyes of the bridegroom’s soul and body” (TOB 111:4).   He reverently enters, and their love is finally consummated.  In this way “the man and the woman together … constitute the sign of the reciprocal gift of self, which sets the seal on their whole life” (TOB 111:5). Consummation of the marriage is the specific moment in which the marriage bond becomes absolutely indissoluble by anything but death.   This is the power  and meaning  of sexual intercourse as God designed it.   Sexual intercourse has a “language” that proclaims: “I am totally yours unto death.   I belong to you and you to me until death do us part.” It’s not just that sex belongs “in” marriage.   Rather, it’s that sex — as God designed it — has an inherently marital meaning.   That’s why sexual intercourse is called the marital embrace.   Sex is only what it’s meant to be when it expresses a love that is “strong as death.”   The bride confirms her knowledge of this when she says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart…for love is strong as death….Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.   Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (8:6-7).  John Paul says that these words bring us to “the peak” of the Song’s declaration of love.   They seem to present the final chords of the Song, the “final chords in the ‘language of the body’.”   When we read that “love is strong as death” we discover “the closure and crowning of everything in the Song of Songs that begins with the metaphor ‘garden closed’ and ‘fountain sealed’” (TOB 111:6). With these words, the lover had presented himself to his beloved not as one superficially attracted to her body.   Rather, he presented himself as one who was captivated and fascinated by her entire mystery as a woman, as one ready to uphold the whole personal dignity of her sex, as one desirous of honoring her as a feminine person, as a sister and a bride — unto death.  Here we see that a woman can only open her “garden” to her lover and remain inviolate if she is assured that he is ready and willing to commit his entire life to her, if she is assured that he has set her as a seal upon his heart, if she is assured that his love will be strong as death.   The love that is strong as death is called “marriage.”

STOP! In the Name of Love…

Do you remember that 1960’s song by the Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”?   Listen to these poignant lyrics:   “Is this a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure?   Tonight the look of love is in your eyes.   But will you love me tomorrow?”   — Oh the ache in the feminine heart!!   If any woman reading this column ever finds herself wondering the same thing when a man is putting the moves on her, here’s the song you should be singing: “Stop, in the name of love, before you break my heart!”   And every man out there should “think it o-o-ver….” The Church does not impose on us the idea that love should be permanent.   Permanence is what the heart longs for.   In her teaching that sex is meant to express permanent love (that is, marital love), the Church is simply inviting us to be true to the “song” that wells up from the deepest recesses of our souls.   Listen to it!   It is the Song of Songs….

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