The Embrace of Love (Part 3 of 3)

The Embrace of Love (Part 3 of 3) October 5, 2016

Visit of the Queen of Sheba with Solomon by Edward Poynter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba with Solomon by Edward Poynter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This is the third part of a three part series reflecting upon the universal spiritual significance of love mysticism. For the first part, click here, for the second part, click here.

Some of the greatest theological reflections on the mysticism of love is to be found in the Song of Songs, traditionally attributed to Solomon. Wisdom moved him; whatever failings he had in his life, he overcame them and was able to present his search and love for God through the depiction of his personal love life. Divine love manifested itself perfectly in earthly form through his literary masterpiece, giving us a clue to the relationship between God and creation.[1] Solomon in his wisdom showed us that wisdom is glorified not through honors and earthly concerns (which Ecclesiastes notes is vanity), but through the glory of love, and the love which is known in and with God. This, St. Bernard of Clairxaux said, was the foundation for the Song of Songs:

We must conclude that it was a special divine impulse that inspired these songs of his that now celebrate the praises of Christ and his Church, the gift of holy love, the sacrament of endless union with God. Here too are expressed the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in figurative language pregnant with delight. It is no wonder that like Moses he put a veil on his face, equally resplendent as it must have been in this encounter, because in those days few if any could sustain the bright vision of God’s glory. [2]

Yes, there is an earthly love, a drama between Solomon and his bride, but Solomon as a mystic understood that his earthly play was but a manifestation of the divine play between God and creation. We can and should read it with an eye to see the relationship between Solomon and his earthly bride, because only when we can understand a holy earthly love can we be opened up to the higher, heavenly love veiled in such play. We come to the story with our own natural desire to love and to be loved; this is a Godly emotion given to us meant to shape us and transform us in and through its engagement. Those who practice it in purity and in truth find themselves loving not just their earthly beloved but God in and through them, and so see the glory of God manifested and shared in the midst of their earthly union.

This desire for love, as Origen pointed out, is so much at the core of who and what we are:

At the same time we ought to understand also that it is impossible for human nature not to be always feeling the passion of love for something. Everyone who has reached the age that they call puberty loves something, either less rightly when he loves what he should not, or rightly and with profit when he loves what he should love. [3]

God is at work in and with us, in and with our earthly cares, so that he can use them to lead us to him. We can see him at work in and through all engagement with love. We want to be loved, and the expression of that desire is found in literature all over the world, and this is why such literature can be an important starting place for us to discern what love is and to let it lead us first to some earthly form of love, and then when we understand its limitations, to a higher, greater form of love. The problem is when we find ourselves stuck in and with only the lowest forms of love, of love expressed in its most base form. While even it has its pleasures and joys, it does not give us the full glory available to love itself because it will not be a love which lasts; what is merely earthly is only temporal. And so, while it is natural and good, we must make sure we use it to direct us upward toward God, to love the beloved in the Beloved and not the beloved independent from the source and foundation of all love, God, as Origen hinted at as well:

God, the Maker of the universe, created all the emotions of the soul for good; but because of the way in which we exercise these emotions, it often happens that things which are good by nature lead us into sin through our bad use of them. One of the emotions of the soul is love; and we use this emotion of love well if its objects are wisdom and truth. But when our love descends to base levels, then we love flesh and blood. Do you, then, who are spiritual, listen in a spiritual manner to these words of love that are sung, and learn to direct your soul’s emotion and ardour of natural love to better things, according to the saying: Love her, and she shall preserve thee; encompass her, and she shall exalt thee. [4]

Thus, our souls are to leap up when we see our beloved, and in that union with our beloved, we should the see the image and likeness of God. We should be able to love God in the midst of our love for our earthly beloved. We should recognize the glory of husband and wife is a manifestation of the glory between God and us. The cries of love, the sorrows of separation and longing, the fear of losing our love, the joy in its consummation – all of this is manifested in the Song of Songs to show us the glory of love and the glory which is to be had in our love with God. And so in our relationship with God, we are often living out the words of the bride:

Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please (Song of Songs 3:1-5 RSV).

And yet, there are times which we feel the kiss of God’s love in our lives and it changes us. Absent from him, we stay awake waiting him, with him, we are awake in bliss. The first is to motivate us and prepare us for the second so that like Rumi, we can say:

When I am here with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.

Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.[5]

Sacred Heart by By José de Páez, Mexico, 1727-1790 (http://arttattler.com/archivelatinamerica.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sacred Heart by By José de Páez, Mexico, 1727-1790 (http://arttattler.com/archivelatinamerica.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We are told that the love is the love as strong as death. We are awakened by love, enlightened by love, transcend ourselves by love, so that the intoxication of the Spirit seals us with God’s love, leaving us entirely engulfed in the flames of love:

Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in travail with you, there she who bore you was in travail. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned (Song of Songs 8:5-7 RSV).

Death to the self, alive in love, all that remains, therefore in the union is that love:

Only love remains,
ask and it shall answer for me.[6]

Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar explained:

God remains the center, and man is drawn beyond himself toward the absolute as it manifests itself. He “possesses” love only insofar as love possesses him, which means that he never possesses love in such a way that he could describe it as one of his powers, which lies at his own disposal. [7]

All that is false is burned away in the greatness of God’s love. All that hinders us from that love is ultimately fueled by the delusion of sin. We must give it up, throw it, and ourselves, to the fire of that love. Then we become one with that fire, a little fire of love united with the everlasting fire of God’s love.  In that union with love, we become as it were, the master of all things because all things are manifested and created in the love of God:

In that passion, I am the master of my time
and I love without shame.
In the love of the beautiful ones,
my life and my art are spent.
In the gloom of night,
my moon came to me, invisible to the eye.[8]

Therefore, when we have yet to cast off the self, when we are still tied to the poisonous delusion of sin, we must cry out to God, for his intoxicating kisses:

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you (Song of Songs 1:2-3 RSV).

Such intoxication is able to push us away from our misdirected engagement with the world which keeps us tied to delusion, so that, when it is put aside and we no longer think through the logic of sin, we can then experience the truth which is love. We are to put on the mantle of the servant, following the beloved who has already come to us as the Suffering Servant of love, whereby we will follow him in his steps of love, ascending the staircase of virtue with the glory of his love:

He who wants to live forever,
dies to self-delusion.
He recasts himself
in the image of a servant,
and ascends
the staircase of the meritorious.[9]

Let us, therefore, drink the wine of God’s love; let us put aside all earthly cares as we revel in his love. Only those who have drunk their fill of the well of God’s love will find the rest which satisfies their restless hearts.


 

[1] There are many complementary ways to read and understand the relationship between Solomon and his ride, including but not limited to, God and the Church and God and the soul.

[2] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs I. trans. Kilian Walsh OSCO(Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981),5.

[3] Origen, Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. trans. R.P. Lawson (New York: Newman Press, 1956), 36 [Commentary].

[4] Origen, Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, 284 [Homily II].

[5] Rumi, The Essential Rumi. trans. Coleman Barks et. al. (New York: Quality Paperbacks Book Club, 1995). 106 [From the section, Being a Lover].

[6] Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, “Only love remains” in Songs of Love and Devotion. trans. Lourdes Maria Alvarez (New York: Paulist Press, 1999),56.

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible. trans. D.C. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 134.

[8] Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, “The lover’s visit” in Songs of Love and Devotion. trans. Lourdes Maria Alvarez (New York: Paulist Press, 1999),59.

[9] Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, “Robbed of my senses” in Songs of Love and Devotion. trans. Lourdes Maria Alvarez (New York: Paulist Press, 1999),60.

 

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