Biblical Studies · Spirituality

Of love, compassion and the unexpected angel of mercy

Without passion there’s no compassion. In the same way there has to be eros in the mixture if there is to be agape as well.

Thus open this morning’s ‘Lent Daily Reflections’ by the World Community for Christian Meditation. Both those sentences ring entirely true to me. It is through suffering that we learn to be compassionate; and true love is always marked by agape and eros.

The reflections then refer to Luke 22:41-44:

[Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. He said, ‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.’ Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.

I have quoted this passage from the fairly new Common English Bible. Anyway, the reflections conclude:

This is no fairy tale. For any mature person it resonates with our own experience. Aloneness, anguish, fear, physical symptoms, the unexpected angel of mercy. But at the heart of it is the love [Jesus] felt holding him, which empowered him to love those he did not even, at that instant, consciously know.

There are two insights in this that resonate deeply with me: that we are empowered to love by being held in/by love ourselves, and that it is particularly in those experiences of intense suffering that we meet the unexpected angel of mercy.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs II

My second reason for reading the Song of Songs is connected with the book’s decline in popularity, which I mentioned in my previous post on this topic. I have always been puzzled by the fact that preachers would rather talk about the Parable of the Prodigal Son for the 47th time than explore some new territory. Now I do of course realise that the Song of Songs is not an easy text to preach on, nor is there anything wrong in principle with another sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (provided it’s a good one), but I have always been attracted by the texts that others ignore. The Old Testament features many fascinating texts that hardly ever get a look in, but few perhaps as fascinating as the Song of Songs. Personally, I have been intrigued by this book for over twenty years and so have finally decided to give it some proper consideration.

I’m afraid, my second reason for reading the Song of Songs is therefore just as prosaic as the first: it is that the book tends to be ignored by others. I would like to think though that my reasons for devoting time to the Song (currently, I can think of twelve) are not all as banal as the first two but are getting progressively more interesting as we go along. That’s the idea anyway.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs I

So why do I read the Song of Songs, or more to the point, why am I spending so much time with it? Having raised the question a little while ago, I am conscious that I still owe an answer. Or maybe several.

Here’s my first, which is probably self-evident. Then again, it doesn’t seem to be, at least not to most people. As a Christian, one might have thought that the book being part of the Bible would be reason enough to read it. Sadly, that is not, or perhaps it’s best to say no longer, the case. Having been one of the most read, preached and commented upon books of the Bible in medieval times, the Song of Songs features hardly at all in contemporary Christianity and spirituality.

It is easily demonstrated that the decline of the Song’s popularity began precisely at the point when it was increasingly recognised that it celebrates human love and sexuality rather than being concerned primarily, or even exclusively, with spiritual matters (of course, this is not to deny that there is a deeply spiritual side to our sexuality).

So does the Song of Song’s celebration of human love and sexuality (and the body!) lessen its relevance and importance? I would have thought not. Quite the opposite. But that is a different matter that I shall have to come back to some other time.

For the time being, my first answer is quite simply that I read the Song of Songs because it’s in the Bible.

Biblical Studies · Spirituality

There is no choice then

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful
or arrogant
or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

Love never ends.

These words from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8) have to be among the most challenging but also the wisest and truest comments ever made about love, true love, that is, love that fully deserves that name.

In ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God’, an essay I have referred to before, Anne Carson offers her own reflections on love, self and God in connection with the mysticism of Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. She notes, rightly, I think, that almost everything that passes as love is little more than self-love.

True love is characterised by patience and kindness. It cares for the Other, whoever that Other may be (love does not discriminate between who is, and isn’t, lovable), and does not insist on its own way. It bears, believes, hopes and endures everything; and it never ends. Now that is a challenge!

Yet, says Paul, I can have all knowledge and understanding, all faith even, but if I ‘do not have love, I am nothing’. There is no choice then, is there? It also is the most worthy of goals.

Biblical Studies

Why read the Song of Songs?

I am hoping, in due course, to share some of the fruits of my engagement with Song of Songs 4:1-7 with readers of this blog. However, before I get on to that, I thought it interesting to address the question why we would want to read this book in the first place. It is, after all, quite an ancient text, which originates from a different time and culture and, being full of rather bizarre-looking metaphors, is not an easy read either. So why might we want to read the Song of Songs?

There won’t be any suggestions just yet. I am happy simply to pose the question for now, although I will be back with some thoughts.

Biblical Studies

When you are given the gift of being delighted in

The lover’s gaze of appreciation and his verbal rendering of what that gaze sees offer to the beloved his appreciation of her and, in making that offering, give to her a state of being she would not have given herself. That is the condition of being a beloved. … when you are given the gift of being delighted in, you are made new by it, transfigured in its light.

This is Paul J. Griffiths again, commenting on Song of Songs 4:1-7. I love the way he describes the transfigurative effect that love has upon the beloved.