Arise, my love ... and come away

August 29th, 2018

In this meditation on Song of Songs 2:8-13 I'm going to interpret it, not literally, but allegorically, like the ancient and medieval Christians so frequently interpreted the Song. Reading it this way, it's a mystical romance between the reader and Christ, with the reader (of whatever sex) playing the part of the female lover and Christ in the part of the male lover, or Solomon. Indeed, if the literal or historical sense of this book is interesting, the allegorical or mystical sense of this book is far more so. Literally, the Song of Songs is sexy ancient love poetry.* But allegorically or mystically, it's sexy love poetry between the soul and the Lord, which, though it utterly exceeds the understanding, has got to be far better.

The approach

"The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills" (2:8).

These mountains can be understood, in one sense, as challenges, griefs, trials in our lives. Your Beloved leaps and bounds over these, past these, to be with you. There's no mountain so great that the voice of God your beloved can't go over it, and there's no challenge that can keep you from God's coming to you. Jesus Christ, in death and resurrection, has passed through all challenges to come be with you — and here he comes, over the hills.

This verse can also be understood as saying, even more specifically, that the Beloved crosses over the hills to come be with you in the valley beneath. On Mount Horeb and Sinai God comes down, it says, or descends to talk with Moses, to make Moses the deliverer of his people from slavery, and to give the laws by which they'll live in covenant with God. Yet, to do the delivering, God doesn't just come down to the peak or heights of the mountain, but God comes down into the valley of slavery, to deliver the people in the depths of the wilderness, and from Pharaoh's army through the Red Sea. In that way, God in Jesus Christ doesn't just call to you across the mountains, or call to you from the top of the mountains. God leaps across the mountains and crosses the hills for you, lover of God, going down further, all the way down, down to the valley. Like Jesus after his transfiguration goes down the mountain to do the work of healing. And Jesus goes down all the way to the cross, to suffer and die on the cross, to unite us all to God since even our sin, suffering, and death has been enfolded experientially in the mercy-filled love of God.

Twelfth century theologian and mystic Hugh of St. Victor praises divine Love like this:

You [Love] are the road of the human to God and the road of God to the human.... God descends when He comes to us; we ascend when we go to God. Yet neither God nor we are able to go to the other except through you. You [Love] are the mediator, uniting opposites, associating the disconnected, and leveling in a certain way dissimilar things. You bring God low and lift us high. You draw God down to the lowest and lift us up to the highest.... O [Love], how great is your victory! First you wounded the One [i.e. Jesus Christ], and through Him subsequently you have overcome all.**

The LORD is leaping over the hills, and coming down into the valleys, for you, brought low by Love.

Praise for the Beloved's energy and strength

"My beloved is like a gazelle, or a young stag" (2:9a).

In this verse, the soul praises the energy and the exuberance and speed with which God in Christ pursues it.

But why, the soul must wonder, does God pursue it with such youth and energy?

The LORD pursues your love with such energy because you're worthy. You're beautiful.

I'm not beautiful in terms of all my choices — and maybe you aren't either.

I'm not beautiful in terms of all my fears — maybe you aren't either.

Nevertheless, the LORD has made you beautiful, "very good" (Gen. 1:31), and the LORD is making you beautiful still.

The LORD has given you the Holy Spirit, without measure.

In the past, sins and fears have driven you; now the LORD's Spirit moves you toward that which is truly beautiful, to that which is truly Good. You pine for the imageless LORD beyond all things, the unimaginable LORD revealed and made visible in Jesus Christ, who reveals the LORD's intimacy with you in a vulnerability and a suffering which transcends all things, enfolds all things, redeems all things.

The LORD, pouring in you the Spirit, is building in you the virtues, the habits, the strengths and beauties of character you need for every day.

All of this and more is why I say that the LORD is making you beautiful still. This beauty God is making in you is itself the reason God loves you and pursues you with the eager-for-life leaping strength of a young stag.

Glimpsing and longing

"Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice" (2:9b).

This verse brings to mind the longing of perhaps high school romance, or first love. The LORD here is imaged almost as a teenage boy, excited and eager to catch even a glimpse of his beloved, walking out of his way to go past her house just in case she might look out the window as he's going by, just so he might catch one fleeting glimpse which will be more to him than all the world.

Even so, what a gift it will be, what a gift it will be, when we'll be freed from the distractions and fears and pains which lord it over us so unfairly in this life, when we can be united to the Lord, when the wall comes down and the lattice separating us is no more.

The call of the Beloved

And then, the call comes. This is the call of the Beloved, which is the call of God.

"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away" (2:10).

Listen to that call now. This Song is not about some love in the distant past. If you but listen it breaks into this very moment. Don't miss this moment, this moment in which the Beloved's call comes through sound and silence, comes through speech and singing, comes through boredom and discomfort, comes through the bodies of the people around you and the dead wood of church pews. "Come away with me," God calls in your soul, with a whisper which deafens all noise, silencing sound, silencing silence into song.

"for Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone" (2:11).

That the winter is past means that the time of sin's victory is past, the time of your avoidance is past, our paralyzing lethargy is past. The winter of our weakness and sloth is past.

The rains that kept us from journeying to God are at an end — so arise. Rise up and go, like Abram and Sarai, like Matthew and Mary Magdalene, follow the One you know without seeing, the beloved who fills you with inexhaustible and glorious joy.

"The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land" (2:12a).

Flowers of beauty have grown up in your soul. The rain, that before prevented you from being with your Love, the rain that was a struggle, has brought forth flowers, gifts, good and perfect gifts from above. The Son's light makes them possible. The Son of God is the Light of God refracted through and overcoming the darkness of our struggles and sins; and flowers spring up in his midst; flowers of inexpressible beauty, like Mary who said, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum — "let it be to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38).

Let it be with you, dear reader, according to the Word of the LORD, for the time of singing has come.

"The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land" (2:12b).

The turtledove is a kind of dove whose behavior towards its mate appears deeply affectionate. When the turtledove sings, love songs are heard in the sky, all around. It is the music of uniting.

When the flood was over, the dove brought an olive branch back to Noah; there is peace to be had beyond the flood of this life.

When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him like dove, manifesting in history the eternal relationship of Love or Spirit between Father and Son. That's the eternal Love that calls us into the circle.

"The fig tree puts forth its fits, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance" (2:13a).

All good things are ripening, becoming sweet, giving off their beauty; taste and see that the LORD is good.

"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away" (2:13b) sings God, blooms God, ripens and fructifies God your soul...

What more can I say? What more is there to say? The words in Song of Songs 2 beyond this passage speak of delights between the soul and God, between your soul and God, too secret and lovely to reduce to my words. But, if you've known God, you've known them or started to know them.

So arise,  stand up, stand out of your fear, out of your sin, out of your dying body, and bring all its goodness with you, and let us rise, and follow, and follow, and go, and go away into the dark, into the secret where God sees, into an enigma, into the place of union where we're hidden with Christ in God.


* Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011) xxiii.
** Hugh of St. Victor, On the Praise of Charity, sections 10 and 12, in Hugh Feiss OSB, ed., On Love (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2012), 163-5.

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