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Feeding Among the Lillies

My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the bed of aromatics, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I to my beloved, and my beloved to me, who feedeth among the lilies. (Song of Songs, Ch. 6, Vs 1-2)

Traditional exegesis of this text – from Gregory of Nyssa in the late fourth century through to the Cistercian John of Ford in the early thirteenth – has seen the garden as the soul in which the Lord delights, the lilies being the virtues, the bed of aromatics being the fruitful repose of contemplation (Gregory, Sermon 15; John, Sermons 44-5). And yet as Ivan Illich’s masterful book In the Vineyard of the Text (1993) shows, Scripture itself, in this period, was increasingly seen as a garden – aromatic with wisdom, nourishing of virtue and a source for teaching. Reading Scripture was seen as savouring, feeding, and gathering. And, most of all, the one who “feedeth among the lilies” is led to a relationship with the beloved. Above the sense of smell, taste, and touch there is the sense of hearing: John of Ford’s great model St. Bernard writes, “If you prepare your interior ear […] and keep your inner senses open, this voice of your God will be sweeter than honey and the honeycomb” (Letter to Thomas of Beverley). Speaking specifically about the Song of Songs Bernard says, “Enjoying their sweetness, I chew them over and over, all my internal organs are replenished, I’m fattened up from inside and all my bones break out into praise” (Sermon 16 on the Song).

St. Bernard and The Music of the Heart

Bernard proposed The Song of Songs as the culmination of a threefold Lectio for the savouring, feeding, and gathering of ‘Wisdom’. First he assigns three books of Scripture to the three stages: Ecclesiastes which enlightens the mind so we can savour wisdom, Proverbs which teaches discipline so that we can begin to “digest” wisdom into our lives, and finally The Song of Songs which corresponds to the release of wisdom as life and vitality in the way we relate to God and to others (Sermon 1). This may put people off using the Song of Songs for Lectio Divina, as there is so much in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs that we may never feel ready or worthy to ‘progress’ to the third. Bernard, however, felt that of the three the Song of Songs was key, even more important than the Psalms (which were the staple of monastic practice): “This is a song,” he writes, “that by its extraordinary worth and sweetness excels all these others […] and with every reason I call it the Song of all Songs, since it contains the completeness and consequence of all others” (Sermon 1). Lectio Divina is a dialogue with God through the words of Scripture. Click To Tweet

The value of the Song for Bernard was that it is all about relationship, and for him, learning, discipline, and contemplation are all relational when it comes to God. They all come from experience of God. Right from the beginning of his Sermons on the Song he says that,

Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning. It is the very music of the heart. It is for the experiences to verify it, for the inexperienced to ardently desire to experience it, and not just know about it. (Sermon 1)

So, later in his Sermons he puts the three ‘fruits of Lectio Divina’ – enlightened devotion, ardent practice, and contemplative union – as contained within the Song of Songs itself. They are ‘the kiss of the feet’, ‘the kiss of the hands’, and ‘the kiss of the mouth’ (Sermon 3). These are the anointing of the feet, the anointing of the head, and the anointing of the whole body that the women of the Gospels, at different times, set out to do (Sermon 10). All are contained in the Song as all are movements of the heart in response to God. And in his last Sermon on the Song he emphasises again that the key to the Song is not in its metaphor or symbolic meanings (of which he saw many) but rather in that it expresses love:

In this marriage-song it is the affections behind the words that are to be pondered even more than the words themselves […] For love speaks in it everywhere; if anyone desires to grasp these writings, let him love! For he who does not love will hear and read the Song in vain; the cold heart cannot grasp its burning eloquence. (Sermon 79)

Lectio Divina: A Dialogue

Let us jump now to a modern Cistercian: Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain uses the image of planting and sowing as expressing the effect of reading scripture:

God often talks to us in scripture. That is, he plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and suddenly undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.

But later, Merton records how, as an inexperienced novice in the monastery, he jumps in the deep end, taking up The Song of Songs, as his Lectio Divina: “I […] devoured three chapters, closing my eyes from time to time and waiting, with rafish expectation, for lights, for voices, harmonies, savours, unctions, and the music of angelic choirs. I did not get much of what I was looking for.” One might ask why did he not get what he expected out of the Song? Was he looking for the wrong thing? He may not, at this time, have been aware of Bernard’s advise that really the only things to be looked for, and found, in the Song is love.

Lectio Divina is a dialogue with God through the words of Scripture. It is not about gathering information but about a heart to heart encounter expressed perfectly in the line we opened with from the Song: “I to my beloved, and my beloved to me.” The poetry of the Song is the language of relationship, full of finding and separation, longing, and loss. Mystics throughout the ages have found in the Song a perfect expression of their own feeling of fullness and absence – sometimes in quick alternation – that is the experiential side of their relationship with God. It is a shame, maybe, that most of our exposure to the Song in the liturgy is only at weddings and is of the ‘finding’ aspects of the Song. There is as much in the Song about letting-go so as to enter a deeper union. The Song’s use in Irish monasteries in ninth century asketikons was for it to be chanted when a monk was dying or immediately after his death. The mystic St. John of the Cross seems to have spontaneously revived this practice on his deathbed in 1591. John’s disciple and biographer, Crisogono de Jesus, writes that,

John interrupted the prior of the Carmelites who had started to read the prayers of recommendation for his departing soul and gently implored, ‘Tell me about the Song of Songs; this other thing is of no use to me.’ And when the verses of the Song were read to him, he commented as if in a dream: ‘Oh, what precious pearls!’

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Stefan G. Reynolds

Stefan G. Reynolds is Retreat Director at Mount Melleray Abbey, Co Waterford, Ireland. He has a PhD from London University in Christian Spirituality and two MA’s in History of Christianity and in Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the author of Living with the Mind of Christ : Mindfulness in Christian Spirituality (DLT, 2016) and The Wisdom of Love in the Song of Songs (Hikari, 2018). He teaches Christian Meditation and is author of the online Roots of Christian Mysticism Course.

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