Divine and Human Love in the Song of Songs10 November 2019
Reading the Song in the light of the Tradition of the Church and the experience of the holy Fathers, we can tell ourselves: It’s abundantly clear that our Lord Jesus Christ loves us, who are His parts, who are His Body, the members of His Holy Spouse and that each of us has been called to love Him in the same way, with a unique love.
The ‘Christian couples’ who have stamped their love with the seal of Christ can reveal and experience this love through the mystery of conjugal love: ‘men love your wives as Christ has loved the church… this is a great mystery’ (Eph. 5, 25; 32). This Apostolic saying shows us the majesty of Christian marriage and also how much closer it is to the monastic ideal than the merely human concept of conjugal union.
But as Elder [now Saint] Paisios used to say, a monk or nun is ‘someone who has preferred spiritual pleasures above all those of the secular world’. They’re people who’ve understood that the love of Christ is enough to fill their hearts.
We need only to feel just a little how much Christ loves us and how much He’s waiting for our love and immediately such love can fill our lives. He’s not satisfied with anything less than complete, exclusive surrender, which includes the giving up of life itself. This is what the end of the Song means, where passionate harshness contrasts with the idyllic calm of the preceding dialogues, simply to make known the powerful flame which was secretly animating them: ‘for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave’ (8, 6).
Just as Christ’s love found its supreme expression in His death on the Cross, so our love for Him finds its most perfect expression in martyrdom, or, at least the total acceptance of pain and death at the time and in the manner that God has determined.
It was for precisely this reason that the holy Fathers taught us that ‘those who love God participate in Christ with all their actions. That is they put a little martyrdom into everything they do’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). In this sense, which has nothing of the ‘doloristic’ about it, the notion that you can best serve God through pain (Saint Gregory the Theologian, referenced by Saint Gregory Palamas). The acceptance of pain, our reconciliation to it becomes the expression of complete internal denudation. Just like the ‘mystery’ of our total surrender of our self to passionate love. One of the Fathers said: ‘If sickness is accepted with patience and thanks, it receives the same halo as martyrdom’.
In the life to come, when death is overcome forever, this total surrender of our self in love with be effected through the transformation of the whole of our body and soul, by divine glory, beyond pain and death. In this sense, Christ, in the glory of the Resurrection, is in an equally ‘substantial’ situation as that He was in on the Cross. But in the state of the world as it is today, Christ’s victory over pain and death, the consequences of sin, of our intentional estrangement from God, is confirmed not with their removal but with their transformation into evidence of supreme love, with the power of the Holy Spirit and the active participation of our own free will. The joyful zeal of the martyrs, the fervor with which they shed their blood for Christ is the most striking proof of this love.
The Song of Songs is a poem inspired by the Holy Spirit, a beverage that can be enjoyed only by those who’ve been initiated into Christ’s love: ‘Eat, friends, and drink abundantly, brethren…’ (Song 5, 1). ‘The holy things to those who are holy’. Let’s respect the mystery. Let’s not seek to understand, to explain everything. Any excessive commentary on it would run the risk of detracting from its divine power, relegating it to mere allegory. May the Holy Spirit grant that we, too, might experience what an elderly monk on the Holy Mountain said: ‘When I read the Song of Songs, my brain doesn’t always understand the meaning of each phrase, but my heart burns within me, as did the hearts of Luke and Cleopas when the Lord explained the Scriptures to them on the road to Emmaus’.