Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 21st
The Song of Songs is nothing if not a love song. I have always enjoyed love songs, principally among them “Hey There Delilah,” and I probably always will, because God made me a hopeless romantic. Of course, the Song of Songs is more than a love song: it is also, unlike most contemporary love songs, an epithalamium, or a marriage song. This fact presents a formidable obstacle to my own ability to understand the Song of Songs—I know very little about love, and even less about marriage. Therefore, I make no promises here as to the degree of enlightenment the reader may possibly glean from what follows.
When I read something I don’t understand, I normally seek out what somebody smarter than me has written about it. By an odd coincidence, as I was preparing to write this reflection and struggling to understand the Song of Songs, I happened to notice on my bookshelf a volume of Origen’s commentaries and homilies on the Song of Songs, and I thought (the whole excommunication thing notwithstanding) that this might do nicely for a start. I enjoyed Origen’s remarks for the most part, except that his translator renders the Greek adelphidos—which we generally see translated today as ‘lover’ or ‘beloved’—as ‘nephew’, and I, for one, am glad we stopped doing that. Imagine reading the Song of Songs, except that in every place one expects the word ‘lover,’ there is instead the word ‘nephew,’ and one quickly develops a general distaste for nephews.
In spite of all this, I was impressed by Origen’s cleverness in interpreting some of these lines: he points out, e.g., how the ‘young stag’ image evokes the snake-crushing-yet-cute-and-cuddly child Jesus, and how ‘gazing through the windows’ reminds us of Saint Paul’s ‘through a glass darkly,’ and so on and so forth. Normally I’m all for these kinds of symbological and hermeneutical exercises, but for some reason, in this case, it all left me feeling rather dry.
Love may have the highest being-written-about to being-understood ratio of any concept. It escapes any neat characterization or generalization of the sort we have come to expect from the natural sciences, yet also defies the merely sentimental approaches of the Hallmark Channel and Christian rock. When it is absent, everything is, in a word, bad. When it comes ‘springing across the mountains’ and ‘leaping across the hills,’ it can make the most stolid of men turn to poetry and carving little hearts on trees. So while I appreciate the value in philosophical treatises on love, and while I almost always enjoy reading biblical commentary (even, occasionally, from heretics like Origen), the truth about love appears to go much deeper than symbology and hermeneutics.
Having said all that, for me to say anything about love now might seem like an illegitimate use of apophasis, rather like promising never to call someone ‘short and fat,’ and then doing so. But this is precisely what I intend to do.
Once, after an especially lengthy Confession, a priest instructed me, for my penance, to look up at the cross and tell Christ I loved him five times; one “I love you” for each of His wounds. This was probably the closest I’ve come to understanding love. I cannot describe much more of this experience, in part because I lack the requisite literary proficiency and in part because the experience may have been essentially ineffable. But I encourage anybody who has time for such things to try this himself, and in general, to use prayer as an opportunity to practice loving.
Our understanding of God’s invisible things, including love, bears some relation to the state of our soul. Love cannot exist side by side with falsity and deceit—when this happens, love disrupts; it upsets and unsettles, it is itchy and annoying rather than warm and sweet. If we were free from sin and safe from all worldly distress, we would also have a perfect understanding of love. As things stand, however, sin and pride cloud our judgment; we separate ourselves from God by our own swollenness, and in order for our souls to ascend to His truths, we must first descend by humbling ourselves and keeping His Commandments.
In this way, our behavior or virtue relates to our understanding of love, but, conversely, love also affects the way we act. A child with a crush changes his behavior in the presence of his beloved—he alters his behavior, under the expectation (or threat) of her gaze, in such a way that he expects will better align with the things she likes. I am certain of this principle because I was once in middle school, and this boy was me, and this girl was in my Language Arts class. Every day in sixth period, I became the Justin that I thought she’d like; ever-mindful of her presence, I strove, not unvaliantly, to have neater handwriting and a better vocabulary (to this day I’ve achieved only a very limited understanding of what women like).
Imagine, then, the ramifications of this principle for our lives if our beloved is God. Jesus told Lazarus (a dead person) to get up, and Lazarus (previously dead) came out for a morning stroll. Jesus tells me (a homozygote for the nocturnal variant of the PER1 gene, but alive), ‘Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,’ and the proper response would seem to be for me to jump out of bed, kiss the floor, and announce, ’Serviam!’ I do not always respond this way, because man is a great deep, and I am a bad lover. Jesus loves me anyway, because He is Love. It would be a contradiction in terms for Him to do anything else, and yet it is a miracle that He does.
I’ve done a lot of silly things for what I thought was love, including poetry and tree-carvings and various failed (but would-have-been-glorious) promposals. I will, in all likelihood, continue to do silly things, in spite of several protests from my parents and my prom dates. I take some solace in the fact that Our Lord seems to have an affinity for making grand appearances and dramatic gestures of love on top of mountains (including the ‘springing’ and ‘leaping’ from today’s reading). But I also pray that discipline and obedience to God’s law will lead me to a better understanding of love, and that love of God—and, more importantly, God’s love for me—will make me a more virtuous man.
In summary, while I have oodles of respect for the Plain White T’s and for everyone else who’s ever attempted to write about love, I’m not sure lovelier lines have ever been written than these, from the Creator to His creation:
‘Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.’ (Song of Songs 2:14)
Justin Sanchez ’17 concentrated in Neurobiology and lived in Eliot House. He is an alumnus of the Ichthus.