God's lovers

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 3.10.03

Excerpted from a sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton to the First Parish in Concord, February 14, 1999.

I opened to my love
but he had slipped away.
How I wanted him when he spoke!

— Song of Songs 5:6a (translated by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, 1995)

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.

— Psalm 42:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

The readings today illustrate something profoundly important. The religious quest, the desire for the divine, involves us not in a rejection of the world, not in a rejection of the human, not in a rejection of life. In the end, we learn to love by being alive, by living embodied in the world, by being human. Love relates us. There is, in the end, no way to draw clear boundaries between the love of God, the love of the world, and the love of the human.

Jacob Trapp said, "Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond." The biblical texts say the same thing, they say that love is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond.

The Song of Songs is a love poem. More than that, it is a love poem of extraordinary eroticism, the only surviving example of ancient Hebrew love poetry — a curious work in the Bible because, like the Book of Esther, it never mentions God. The Song of Songs is about desire. Although some readers are tempted to see in it only the erotic, and although many have tried to read the sexual dimension of the poem away, the amazing feature of the book is that Jews and Christians have seen something profound about the love of God in the book — as well as something wonderful about human sexuality.

In the Song of Songs, a young woman and a young man celebrate the goodness of the human body, the beauty of physical love. The book opens with the words, "Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine" (1:2). The voice belongs to a bold young woman. She describes her lover in words like these: "My beloved is milk and wine, he towers above ten thousand. His head is burnished gold, the mane of his hair black as the raven. His eyes like doves by the rivers of milk and plenty. His cheeks a bed of spices, a treasure of precious scents, his lips red lilies wet with myrrh" (5:10-13).

He watches her dancing, and says, "How graceful your steps in those sandals, O nobleman's daughter. The gold of your thigh shaped by a master craftsman. Your navel is the moon's bright drinking cup. May it brim with wine!" (7:2-4). Does this sound like the Bible you know?

In the passage I read earlier, the young woman has gone to bed, when she hears her lover knock at the door. He wants to come in, but she complains, "But I have taken off my clothes, how can I dress again? I have bathed my feet, must I dirty them?" Then, she tells us, "My love reaches in for the latch and my heart beat wild." Full of desire, she goes to the door. She says, "I opened to my love but he had slipped away. How I wanted him when he spoke!"

She rushes out into the streets of the city, looking everywhere for him. She calls out his name, but hears no answer. Then, in a startling passage, the young woman running through the streets late at night is caught by watchmen who beat and bruise her, who tear the shawl from her shoulders. Vulnerable as a woman in a male-dominated culture, she has rushed out into an even more vulnerable situation looking for her lover in the night. But their cruelty does not diminish her desire for her lover, nor can their violence deter her from the reality of her love. The passage ends with this appeal, "Swear to me, daughters of Jerusalem! If you find him now you must tell him I am in the fever of love" (5:2-8).

Like the Song of Songs, Psalm 42 expresses a kind of loneliness born of having known a deep love. "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (v.1). Perhaps this is a less universal craving than the young woman's sexual desire. You may not think often or at all about God, at least not in conventional terms. But could it be that the poet's desire for God is just as universal? "Deep calls to deep" (v.7): the poet yearns for the living God as one with a deadly wound in his body yearns for a cure (v.10). Deep calls to deep: the mystery in us reaching out toward the mystery beyond, life desiring life, even though each life is destined to die. This is an honest poem. "Why have you forgotten me?" (v.9). The poet thirsts for an eternal spring. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God" (v.5).

The texts in our service illustrate that the love of God, the love of the world, and the love of the human spill over into each other. They illumine each other. It is almost a cliché among religious liberals that the Bible to us is metaphoric, not literal. When we speak of God, we say we speak metaphorically. But what does it mean to speak metaphorically? Thomas Troeger has written a wonderful hymn about the biblical metaphors for God.

Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,
Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light,
Judge, Defender, Mercy, Might, . . .

Word and Wisdom, Root and Vine,
Shepherd, Savior, Servant, Lamb,
Well and Water, Bread and Wine, . . .

Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove,
Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire,
Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love, . . .

— Thomas H. Troeger, in Borrowed Light:
Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems
(Oxford UP, 1994, 26).

The metaphors, of course, are drawn from the natural and human worlds. Not one of these words applies only to God. And so Troeger concludes each verse with this refrain:

May the church at prayer recall
that no single, holy name
but the truth that feeds them all
is the God whom we proclaim.

One Christian text from the sixth century explains that "everything we can truly say about something God has created can be stretched out towards the representation of God . . . This is because in its creation each thing is the stretching out of God towards it." There is no such thing, for this writer, as specifically religious language. Instead, when "ordinary language [is] stretched to the limit of its significance . . . talk about creatures comes to be talk about God." 1

Poets and religious people stretch language, so that talk about things — specific things — comes to say something more. The language boils over. Our metaphors take us only partway, but only then do we see that we are at the limits of our understanding; the mystery expands, "no single, holy name but the truth that feeds them all is the God whom we proclaim."

This takes me to the heart of why I am preaching this sermon. When I first turned my attention to the Song of Songs a month ago, I was struck by the fact that the lovers describe each other using language that boils over. The young man, in the pitch of exaggeration, says, "The curve of your cheek [is] a pomegranate in the thicket of your hair. Your neck is a tower of David raised in splendor, a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the shields of the warriors. Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field of lilies" (4:3-5).

How do the lovers speak about each other? By speaking about food, animals, smells, politics, architecture, gardens: the whole world becomes an expression of their love for each other. How do you describe love? No words are ever enough, but everything in the world has something to say.

I was struck by this: Divine love and human love spill over into every region of life. Why should we treat them separately?

There is a strong tendency in our culture for "spirituality" to take on a disembodied quality, an other-worldliness. For many people, spirituality is entirely individual, but religion is about connection. Faith must be embodied, it must be shared. There is also a strong tendency in our culture to treat the body as a commodity, to treat the world itself as so much stuff. Doctors treat the body, but not always the person. Churches sometimes revere the spirit, but fear the body.

But the love that is proclaimed in these biblical texts resists both of these tendencies. One cannot properly love God without loving the human; we live this life embodied, and only embodied do we first taste love, human or divine.

We don't use metaphors because we're trying to be clever, nor because we are being indirect. We use metaphors because we are stretching our speech about the world to the point where it spills over and says something more. We are taking our understanding to its limit. We are speaking as God's lovers. We stretch language until it spills over and conveys transcendence. One cannot love another person without that love implying an entire universe of connections. Love implies the world.

Deep calls out to deep, the mystery in us reaches toward the mystery beyond us, life desires life even though the deadly wound is in us. As embodied beings, we live for love — we are, at the very core of our being, related. To love life, whether in the simplest form of gratitude for breath itself, or in the love that brings two people together, or in the love one feels among creatures and forests, or in the love that joins the soul and God — to love life is to live in the divine life. Not to love it selfishly, or greedily, not to love it for some other end, but to love for love itself. The greatest experience is love, said Bernard of Clairvaux eight centuries ago in one of his sermons on the Song of Songs. "Love is its own fruit, its own object and usefulness. I love," he said, "because I love; I love, that I may love" (Sermon 83, 4).

"Bind me as a seal upon your heart, a sign upon your arm," says the young woman at the end of the Song of Songs, "for love is as fierce as death, its jealousy bitter as the grave. Even its sparks are a raging fire, a devouring flame. Great seas cannot extinguish love, no river can sweep it away" (8:6-7). To love another person is a mystery that does not diminish even when that person is in your arms; to love the world is a mystery even though it surrounds us; and to love God is to love that mystery.

What love is this the young woman describes? I would like to meet the person who thinks that they can draw the lines hard and fast. Love relates us. In it, the soul and the world are joined in the divine. As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.


1. The words are those of scholar Denys Turner, writing about a sixth-century namesake, the so-called "Denys the Areopagite," in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Cistercian Publications, 1995, 53-54. back

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Philocrites | Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu