The Erotic Poetry Mirrors the Mystic’s Yearning for God.
I sometimes wonder how the Song of Songs made it into the biblical canon. It is lushly erotic poetry. Bible translators often label the lovers in the poem the bride and the bridegroom, but it is not crystal clear that the lovers are indeed married. The poem may be celebrating pre-marital, not marital love.
The poem, with its slightly risqué flavor, does not seem like something sober rabbis and church fathers would find appropriate in holy Scripture. Yet there it is, with images that are so evocative of sensual pleasure.
One reason why it did get included in the canon is that many of those rabbis and church fathers read the poem as allegory. The real theme of the poem, they contend, is the passionate love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church, or between God and the awakened soul.
Many modern scholars dismiss this allegorical interpretation as simply eisegesis, an interpretation that reads a meaning into the text that simply is not there. Yet we must deal with the fact that spiritual writers, especially of the mystical sort, have been drawn to this text from almost the time it entered Scripture. Through the centuries, spiritual writers, especially monastics and mystics, have written scores upon scores of commentaries on the Song of Songs. It could vie for the most popular book in the Bible during the Middle Ages.
Why? What is the connection between the text and those who are intense in pursuing the spiritual journey?
The Evocation of Desire
One of the striking things about the Song of Songs is that it says almost nothing explicitly about the sexual act itself. In verse 8:5, the poet writes, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you.”
If this is a reference to the act of sexual union, it is a highly allusive one. It hints, but does not describe. It leaves a lot to the imagination. This contrasts dramatically with all the explicit descriptions of sexual acts that we find in modern novels.
What we find instead in the Song of Songs is repeated description of erotic desire. The lovers are constantly searching for each other, longing to be together. And when they do seem to meet, almost immediately one of them, usually the male lover, mysteriously vanishes away.
Here is one example from chapter 5:
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
“Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one…
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but did not find him;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
What makes the Song such powerful poetry is this ability to evoke the experience of desire, intense desire that lovers can feel for each other.
Spiritual Experience as Desire
This is the feature of the poem that so draws mystics to the Song of Songs, I believe. For in the lovers’ intense erotic desire for each other, mystics see mirrored the similar intense desire they feel for God. They long for God with deep longing. And the best analogy for this deep spiritual longing is the erotic longing the lovers feel in the Song.
The psalmist uses a different analogy to describe this intense spiritual longing. In Psalm 42, we find the psalmist writing:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
In the psalm the longing for God is compared to a basic physical need. In the Song, the longing takes on a more deeply personal character. But both texts highlight the ever-continuing experience of desire, a desire that has yet to be consummated.
This is what attracts the mystic to the Song, as a moth to the shining light bulb. Desire lies at the heart of the mystic’s experience. So much so that the mystic’s experience can often be described as a never-ending search for union with the divine.
In fact, the early church father Gregory of Nyssa believed this spiritual longing will never be completely satisfied, even in the next life. In the fourth century, he wrote, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.” [Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978, page 116] Whether Nyssa is right or not, he highlights that central place desire has in the spiritual journey of those who have developed a particularly close personal relationship with God.
So it may be eisegesis for the mystic to read the Song allegorically, but does that really matter? For the Song of Songs lays bare the dynamic of the mystic’s experience with God.