“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” A love poem, that’s what scripture offers us in this passage — an ancient, middle eastern paean to passionate, fervid, even erotic love! So what’s this love song full of lush and vivid imagery doing in the Bible? This book of earthy, lyric love songs in eight chapters never once even mentions God! Here’s the answer: it’s there because it teaches us in very human terms how to be in love with God, how to be in love with a Lover who passionately loves us first, last and always. This love song of love songs is an antidote to some very skewed attitudes about how God relates to us, and we to God.
People have a way of dumping God into the category of ‘religion,’ thus keeping God at a very safe distance. Because the word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin root ligare, meaning to bind, to tie up, to strap down, we’ve gotten the idea that a religious person is someone tied to a set of sacred rules and bounden duties. Understood this way, religion turns God into a kind of insufferable heavenly taskmaster, a kind of detached, patriarchal uncle in the family who may sum up all our ideals but is not really somebody we’d ever want to spend much time with; (oh, the holidays, maybe; Christmas and Easter, perhaps!). Who could get excited about relating to such an unpleasant and tedious figure? No, it’s best that we both keep our distance, this grim, binding God and me: that’s how many regard ‘religion’ today.
People will often say to me, Pastor, I try to be a good person, but I’m not very religious. And I say to them: “Neither am I!” Who would want to live such a constrained, pious life trying to stay on the right side of a remote and obscure God, if that’s what we mean by religion? What a boring waste of everyone’s time! It’s not for me, it shouldn’t be for any of us and, if we credit the Song of Songs, it’s certainly not something that God would be interested in!
There is another, deeper understanding of what it means to be ‘religious’ that is far more interesting. The binding of religare isn’t primarily about being bound by divine laws and fulfilling sacred obligations; it’s not especially about forms and practices at all. Religion is essentially about a relationship. To be truly religious is to be linked and bound, body and soul, in an intimate union with an insistent Lover who first seeks us out to love. That is why this extended love poem is in the Bible, to remind us that God, above all else, is an impassioned Lover seeking us out to be the beloved.
This Song of Songs summarizes the core message that all of scripture is in fact a love song; it is God’s hymn of longing for us, inviting us to fall headlong in love with God. Nowhere else in the Bible, (except, perhaps, in the Psalms), is it more vividly portrayed that to be authentically religious is really to be involved in a great love affair, the love affair of our lives! This exotic love song is a claim upon our hearts, an invitation to enjoy our religion, a call to respond in love to the Beloved’s voice, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come . . . “
But there are times when we have trouble hearing that impassioned voice. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that we could be loved so well, cared about so deeply, accepted so unconditionally, affirmed so generously. Too often we listen to other voices sounding loud in our hearts, voices that play on our insecurities and keep us from falling in love with our Beloved. There is, for example, the voice that seduces us into thinking that all we have is ourselves — that’s all we have to rely on. But the strong, confident voice of this Song reminds us that we are meant for God and that we will never be complete without our Beloved.
There is another God-distancing voice within that we sometimes listen to: the insecure sound of own self-loathing telling us that we’ll never be good enough, we’ll always be worthless failures. “How could anyone at all, let alone God, consider me lovable?” we think. But the smitten, besotted God of this Song of Song does not say to us “I will love you, if . . . “ There are no if’s in this God’s heart. The Song reminds us that God’s love for us does not depend on how attractive we are, how well-regarded and well-respected we might be, not even on how good we try to be. God’s ardent, forgiving and restoring love is always there for us; it existed before we were born and remains forever ours.
Then, too, there is the disenchanted, bitter voice that sounds when we become disillusioned with God, when we feel let down by a God who doesn’t really seem to love us after all. In times of struggle we tell ourselves that God should do more, should protect us from so much pain and suffering. But not even God’s love comes with a guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to us.
What we are assured of is that God will always be there for us throughout the bitter and crushing times. Then it is that our Beloved stands by the wall of our grief, gazes in at the windows of our devastated hearts, looks through the lattice of our personal defenses and seeks to console our aching hearts. Through it all, the Beloved still sings that beautiful and beguiling song: ‘“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Come away from your sad and self-centered life and let yourself be loved!’
Embracing this great affair is not especially arcane or difficult. As the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton put it, “It is simply [a matter of] opening yourself to receive. The presence of God,” he continues, “is like walking out of a door into the fresh air. You don’t concentrate on the fresh air; you breathe it. And you don’t concentrate on the sunlight; you just enjoy it. It is all around.” (From Merton’s recorded lectures at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.)
It’s as if God has chosen us as partners in what Merton calls a cosmic dance. “We do not have to go very far to catch echoes . . . of that dancing,” he writes. “When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the newness, the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance . . . Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.“ (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 296-297)
So come away, away from whatever is holding you back from this great love affair. Come, sing this Song of Songs in your heart, for it comes to you from the very heart of God who claims you as his own beloved. Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills, to shower you with his love.
© Edward R. Dufresne 2015