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!’
Reading with the Past for the Present
But how are we to read the Song today? To answer that we must first know how it has been read as Lectio Divina in the past. For Christians the Song has traditionally been read as a dialogue between Christ and the soul (as Jewish exegetes generally read it as an expression of love between God and his people). The Song was an extremely popular book in the early centuries of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism and remained one of the most popular right through to the eighteenth century. In the twelfth century, for example, there were (excepting St. John’s Gospel) more Christian commentaries on the Song than on any book of the Bible, we know of thirty monastic commentaries in this century alone. This reflects its use as a text for personal reflection. On the Jewish side, the Mishnah records Rabbi Akiva (c.50-135) professing, “All the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies,” and even that, “all other writings are a commentary on the Song.” And yet, the fact is, the poem does not mention God at all.
To understand this, we have to appreciate how Christian readers (as well as Jewish readers) approached Scripture in this era. Scripture could be read not just at a literal but at a symbolic level. In fact, exegetes from the early centuries of the Common Era saw alongside the historical/literal three levels of symbol: allegoric, moral and anagogic. The classic medieval distich was:
littera gesta docet
quod credas allegoria
quid agas moralia;
quo tendas anagogia.
The literal teaches events
what you believe is allegory;
what you should do is the moral;
where you are going is anagogical.
An example of this, from the Christian viewpoint, is given by St John Cassian (360-435 CE), analysing the word Jerusalem:
The one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history, it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory, it is the church of Christ. In moral terms it is the soul of the human being. According to anagogy, it is the heavenly city of God, which is the mother of us all. (Conferences, 14:8)
Commentators on the Song from the ancient to early modern era used this schema (though not always with a strict fourfold hermeneutic). St. Bernard, for example, gave eight sermons on the first line alone, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” During these (trained as he was by the Fathers) he says that the line has four meanings: Literally, it speaks of the Bride’s desire for a kiss. Allegorically, it speaks of the Incarnation – “the mouth that kisses signifies the Logos, the Word of God who assumes human nature; the nature assumed receives the kiss; the kiss that takes its being from both the giver and receiver is a person formed by both [namely] Jesus Christ” (Sermon 2). Tropologically, or morally, it speaks of the final stage of mystical union – “for one who is joined with Christ in a holy kiss becomes, through his good pleasure, one spirit with him” (Sermon 3). Finally, anagogically, it speaks of the inner life of the Trinity – “for the kisses of the mouth are between the one who begets and the one who is begotten, between the Father and the Son, but the kiss itself, the breath that passes between them, is the Holy Spirit, in these words the Bride prays for the gift of the Spirit and is kissed by the kiss” (Sermon 8).
In the twelfth century there were (excepting St. John’s Gospel) more Christian commentaries on the Song than on any book of the Bible. Click To Tweet The Song is distinct from other books of Scripture in that neither Hebrew, Greek, or Latin commentators focus on the historical sense: if they did (like Origen or Theodore of Mopsuestia) it was assumed that the Song was about the marriage of Solomon and the daughter of Pharaoh. On the whole it was assumed the characters in the Song were figurative. The inclusion in the Song in the Hebrew Scriptures implies that it was read spiritually from a very early age. Whether this was the author’s intention remains unanswerable but it seems the early Rabbis had to veer somewhat toward a hyper-spiritual reading in order to get it accepted into the Canon of Scripture (Council of Jamnia 90CE). The Christians followed suit. Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE) went so far to say that, of all books in the Bible, the Song alone had no historical or literal sense:
We must come to these sacred nuptials of the Bride and Bridegroom with the understanding proper to interior love, not mentally fixing on things that are outside of us […] It is the same with the words and meanings of this sacred Scripture as it is with the colours and subjects of a painting; anyone who is so intent upon the colours in the painting that he ignores the real things it portrays is immeasurably silly. (Exposition on the Song of Songs, Ch. 3)
The “real things” for Jewish and Christian commentators were the Song’s hidden meanings. For medieval writers, words that express physical things could carry symbolic meaning because of similarities of association: for example, ‘the sun is luminous, Jesus Christ is luminous; hence the sun can signify Jesus Christ.’ It is in this light that most of the imagery in the Song was read.
Divine Reading in Light of Modernity
Yet, since the eighteenth-century Biblical scholarship took a turn toward the trying to make sense of the historical/literal basis of texts. To look for the natural sense of the text appears quite normal and sensible today. To the modern reader the system of associations in medieval exegesis seems arbitrary. Often it seems like a simple substitution of the heavenly or inner soul relationship for what, in actual words, expresses an earthly relationship between two flesh and blood lovers. Despite what Gregory the Great says, no painting can be interpreted apart from the colours used in it. Certainly, giving the Song only a spiritual meaning has drained it of much of its flesh and blood. The lovers have been sacrificed on the altars of ideals (however sincerely held). The Song is not about philosophy – that would be love of wisdom – it is about the wisdom of love. And yet, on the other hand, the human love depicted in the Song – emphasising great physical beauty – can seem quite idealised and lofty, to a level with which most, if not all, human relationships cannot relate. The imagery in the Song is distinctly Jewish, speaking of an era long ago, and the resonances can seem today quite bizarre, even comic – “thy teeth are like flocks of goats…” Modern scholarship hasn’t really helped, either, to give back the real story of the lovers. Veering either toward a dry deconstruction of the poem into “unconnected fragments” or dressing it up as a romp through the fields of sexual liberation, modern readings leave the lovers either emaciated or a little too hot-blooded than fits the text. Modern analysis has primarily sought to strip back much of the symbolic ‘overlay’ that has been ‘put onto’ the Song, either to focus on the human relations between the two lovers or to deconstruct the poem, denying any consistent narrative. Either way, this lyrical jewel has become trapped between polarised branches of interpretation.
Since this heart-felt tract has influenced the faith of at least three faith traditions for the best part of 2000 years, it would be a real loss if its capacity to inspire dried up. Despite its ancientness the Song remains perennially fascinating, nourishing each generation. If it is approached as a religious text it has the great asset of bringing passion, sexual love, and the flow of libido back into faith. The diminished presence of the Song within contemporary culture is more illustrative of the breakdown (since eighteenth century rationalism) of a long tradition of mystical Eros. Eros is not the only way to love God and it is certainly not the only way to love our fellow human beings, but if we lose one of what C. S. Lewis called “the four loves” – empathy, friendship, the erotic and the altruistic – we would lose part of our capacity to love, whether that be God or each other. In terms of poetic inspiration as well, to consign such a seminal text to the catacombs of history is a major impoverishment.
The richness of the Song is that it is a poem that can be intelligible on two registers: Human love speaks of Divine 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. This way of reading is particularly appropriate to a song which has as a refrain, “I to my beloved, and my beloved to me.” St. Bernard remains a helpful guide for the modern reader. He is part of traditional exegesis in that he sees the Song as primarily a spiritual dialogue of Christ and the soul, and yet he links the stages of mystical union with Christ with levels of the reading of Scripture. Bernard describes how, in the Song, the soul is led, progressively, into ‘the garden’, ‘the cellar or storeroom’, and thence into ‘the bedroom.’ But he continues, “The garden represents the plain, unadorned historical sense of Scripture, the storeroom its moral sense, and the bedroom the mystery of Divine contemplation” (Sermon 23). And he gives each an important place: In the garden the wine and the spices of virtues grow, in the cellars they are made aromatic and palatable for others, in the bedroom the virtues of the soul are united to their Divine source in peace and enjoyment. Bernard in his Sermons is consistent in giving a spiritual as well as a reading on the level of human affections, or even literal sense. For example, commenting on, “Tell me, O Thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest thy flock, where Thou reposest at noon”, he first points out the love does seem to be primarily of the soul but goes on to make an apposite natural observation:
Notice first how beautifully the Bride distinguishes spiritual love from the affections of the flesh. She says not merely, ‘Thou whom I love,’ but ‘Thou whom my soul loveth.’ Consider secondly what it is that delights her in his place of pasturage; and do not overlook the fact that he speaks of ‘noon’. I take it that the mention of reposing denotes great security; in that land, the shepherd need not stand forever on the watch to keep the sheep from harm, but can himself repose beneath the trees, while they roam freely in the meadows. (Sermon 32)
Bernard has noticed that Shepherds keep watch at night, but at midday there are no wolves around, so they can relax. Thus, it is at this time of simply being that the Bride wishes to be with her lover.
The story of the Song at the human level shows how the literal and the spiritual meaning are in fact interwoven. Click To Tweet The story of the Song at the human level shows how the literal and the spiritual meaning are in fact interwoven. The Song can be read on several levels at once and the reading of the text on one level doesn’t prohibit its meaning at any other level. Jewish tradition has always affirmed the human side of the covenant with God. The covenant is expressed in the way we relate to each other (c.f. Leviticus 19:18). As a record of loving relations, the Song is sacred. As Origen (184-253 CE), a very early Christian commentator on the Song, wrote, “Just as a human person consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does scripture” (On First Principles, Bk. 4, Ch. 2). Origen felt the Song had been transmitted through human and angelic ministration to reveal how God relates to the soul. Through the spiritual senses the mutual longing of God and the soul in the Song could be heard, tasted, touched and inhaled. For Origen the ‘spiritual senses’ acted as the bridge between the outer and inner person, between carnal and heavenly love. Through these senses the spiritual meaning lying behind the images and language of the Song could be savoured. Those who read the Song, he said, must pass through the words to the very breath of the one who speaks.
So Human, Yet So Divine
Bernard took up many of Origen’s themes in his sermons on the Song but emphasised that it was not through denial but through the redirecting of carnal love (cupiditas) that we come to real affection (affectus/amor). The sensual nature of the Song was so that God might draw ‘carnal love’ and deploy it toward himself: “[…] that He might draw to Himself the love of those who are not yet able to love save in a carnal manner, and so to lead them, gradually on to spiritual love” (Sermon 20). Nothing is left out of our love of God. And, moreover, in this light the Song far from being only for the higher stage of mysticism is useful for the beginnings of ascetic practice. “The tender, wise and strong affection” of the Song, for Bernard, was a valuable tool for overcoming “the sweet enticements of the sensual life”:
Sweetness conquers sweetness as one nail drives out another […] Love affectionately, discreetly, intensely. We know that the love of the heart, which we have said is affectionate, is sweet indeed, but liable to be led astray if it lacks the love of the soul. And the love of the soul is wise indeed. (Sermon 20)
Reading the Song of Songs in the context of prayer is the very best place to integrate the human and Divine aspects of Scripture. No better place to start than this poem that is so human and yet so Divine. And, as grace builds on nature, the spiritual meaning of the Song comes out. As it is a meaning we find in relationship it will always be personal. Half of the story is us. When we start reading the Song we imagine we are outside, like Solomon at the door of the Shulamite’s house, peering in through what seems the disconnected lines of the poem. As we pray, however, we realise that the Song is lattice-work – it is in and through the gaps between the words that we see within. At times we feel blessed and anointed by the dew of refreshment, at times we feel left out in the night. But if we return to to the Song, often, knocking, the door only gently opens from the inside. We ponder and wait, patiently, until one day we hear a sound of the bolt opening. Then with the door slightly ajar and we catch a glimpse of the one inside the house. We reach out (from the ingrained habit of trying to understand) but what we catch is not an idea or belief, it is a fragrance, the fragrance of Wisdom that we must follow.