The Song of Songs

Today’s first Mass reading is taken from the Song of Songs, although a reading from the Book of Zephaniah may be used as an alternate first reading. I wonder if the reason for including the alternate reading is that so many Catholics (and other Christians) aren’t all that comfortable with the Song of Songs and don’t quite know what to do with it.

There is a tendency at times to talk about God’s love in very passionless and sterile (read: safe) terms. And there is nothing sterile about the Song of Songs. In today’s reading, we hear

Hark! My lover – here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag…My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!…O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”

That is language that has some people squirming. It is almost erotic, full of passion, running counter to the tendency of many to think of God’s love like the kiss on the cheek one gets from an elderly uncle.

But those who have had deep experiences of God understand this language. When I read today’s reading, I was reminded of Teresa of Avila’s description of her mystical experience that is given image in the statute titled The Ecstasy of S. Teresa di Avila. Terea describes an angel appearing to her in bodily form who seemed to be on fire. She writes

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God.

The passionless chaste love of the elderly uncle does not set our soul afire. It is the love Teresa experienced, the love illumed in the Song of Songs that leaves one “utterly consumed by the great love of God” and that makes the soul “content with [nothing] but God.” That is the love we ought to pray to experience.