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Come, my beloved

Peter Chave
8 August 2018

“Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields and lodge in the villages” (The Song of Songs 7:11).

I led a day retreat for the clergy of a Local Ecumenical Project — Baptist, Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic. We left the city behind for the gentle embrace of the Cornish countryside. We took with us that much-neglected book The Song of Songs and checked it out with plenty of time spent in the grounds of the retreat house: “…The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come…” (2:1l–12). But The Song of songs is just a human love song, isn’t it? Scholars have proved it, haven’t they? Anyone who has not got a tin ear must always have recognised that: and it is wonderful that embodied, romantic, human love is celebrated in Holy Scripture.

There were Fathers of the Church (the tin-eared ones) who said: “It cannot mean anything so impure and profane. It must be an allegory” — by which they meant a coded story about something quite different, viz. God’s love for us, Christ’s love for his Church.

But there were others — St. Bernard is the crucial one — who said “It is because human love is so wonderful that it may serve us as an allegory (one love mirroring another) for the love between God and us”. In that spirit we began our day by asking ourselves whether our relationship with God has anything like the intensity of that between the man and woman in The Song of Songs. We are cold fish, often enough: only mildly enthusiastic about our Lord. “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand”, she says (5:10). But how keen is the Church on Jesus?

The most genuine love can cool down if it constantly gets edged out by all sorts of concerns and duties. Retreat time enables us to feel the love we truly do have, and to let it grow. The greatest re-kindler of our enthusiasm is realising how much, and how extravagantly, God loves us: “The voice of my beloved! Look he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” (2:8). “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10). Here is the amazing realisation James Alison records as so life-changing: “God actually likes us”. Our group of professional Christians found itself challenged. We do the job. But are we in a love affair with God?

The leaping gazelle or young stag comes to a halt: “Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows through the lattice” (2:9). Taking an idea from a sermon by C. H. spurgeon, we imagined Jesus Christ coming into our space and looking through the windows of our church. What would he see, and what would he think of it?

There is an episode in which the male character knocks at the door and the female character, as much as she longs for him, dithers and delays: “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet, how could I soil them?” (5:3). By the time she gets her act together: “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone” (5:6). That passage gave lots of scope for private thought and for discussion together on our sluggishness and the excuses we make. It is important to recognise — and to counteract — our strange reluctance to accept what we most long for. This is the “save me, but not yet!” syndrome.

Important questions arise: Can one miss the crucial moment? Can it be too late? Does God really go away? We need to clarify our lived theology on these urgent matters.

The female character does zealously seek the departed male, more than once, through the city at night. She even gets beaten up by the night watch while doing so (5:7). I think that act of violence is a false note in an otherwise up-beat poem — especially as no one even comments on it! I think it was added by an ill-tempered scribe. The allegory does ask us, however, how much effort we will put in, how much risk we will take, to find God when he seems far away.

The emphasis, though, should be not on the difficulties of our relationship with God but on its glorious reality: “Many waters cannot quench love” (8:7). But thought does need to be given, ’ere we quit the world of allegory, to the difference as well as the similarity when our lover is God.

What is the equivalent of the kisses and the compliments and the cuddles — when it us and God or the Church and Jesus we are thinking of? We spent time admiring the creation — prayer before a square foot of the flower bed! Wittgenstein’s comment came to my mind: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists”. However, reviewing with a thankful and wondering mind the contents of that piece of garden was also a piece of affectionate attention from us to God. In addition to rejoicing over creation we could spend time in gratitude for our redemption.

I think Karl Rahner came up with the best-ever definition of God: “The whither of the transcendent in humanity”. But that is not an easy thing to cuddle. We can resolve, though, to be true (or at least truer) to the best we know and to push onwards, projecting faith, hope and love into a beyond that is holy and, of necessity, mysterious.

This small book — The Song of Songs — has more material than one can use in a day. There is still, for example, 8:12 “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself”, which raises questions about the rights and proper care of self. God doesn’t want us to lose ourselves in him, does he?

The book should send us back as well to celebrating human relationships. Why not write a version for your own. I close with part of one I wrote in the International Year of Older Persons:
She: I am grey but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem.
He: Your spectacles are framed in choicest tortoiseshell.
The thread behind your neck securing them is saffron:
Like sword-dancers clashing, it gets tangled with your pearls.
She: My beloved bounds across the golf course,
Like a spaniel, in its late maturity.
Hark! The voice of my beloved: he is calling for his supper.


James Allison (2003) On being liked, London, Darton, Longman and Todd.

Peter Chave “Towards a not too rosy picture of the Song of Songs”, Feminist Theology 18, May 1998. In the course of this article I erroneously ranked St Bernard with the tin-eared or those afraid of sex. He is in fact one of the “goodies”.