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(A short paper I wrote for OT 230. April 15, 2009. Edited slightly.)

Song of Songs: Notebook on Theresa, Walsh et al

(n.b.—I got a little carried away and deviated slightly from the text; didn’t get to Theresa, but perhaps this page could be read by a charitable reader as an echo of Theresa’s style—pastoral reflections birthed from the Song but not tied to it in any strict sense, reflections written for the sake of my “sisters,” or if not them, for the sake of my own soul!)

I was drawn to read Carey Walsh’s little essay, “In the Absence of Love” because its title in some ways suggests the theme I have been drawn to time and time again in reading the Song and its commentators. The precariousness of love– or perhaps, rather, the precariousness of the physical presence of the lover, of the experience and sensation of love (for Love itself is stronger than death, etc.)– has seemed to me one of the strangest elements of the Song as well as one of its most fruitful theological lessons. Indeed, Walsh notes that “desire itself, rather than consummation drives the poem” (286)— and for her, also drives our reading of the Song. Indeed, “Language is our effort to drawn near to what we do not have” (286). (In which case, prayer and songs of worship are language par excellence, for in these forms of language we attempt to draw near to the ultimate person for whom we long. The interesting thing is that language does not bring consummation. If language is “our effort to draw near” to what we desire, language alone cannot fulfill our desires. Perhaps we must be spoken to….. perhaps we must be sung over with– by—Love; we must be addressed, identified, we must close our mouths and, perhaps, repent of our efforts to fulfill our desires through our many words.)

Walsh’s emphasis on the necessary role of lack within the Song points to what I believe is an immensely important theological and pastoral understanding. If we follow some of her insights as we read the Song theologically, what do we learn from the absence, the lack, the unsatisfied desire, the fleeting hints of consummation but their ultimate disruption? I would suggest, first of all, that the nature of humanly love in all its forms is precarious, unstable, never complete, etc. Even in the warmest of marriages, with a husband and wife covenantally bound together, desire is never totally absent. There is still a sense of longing—there is no point when the two have had enough (either physically or emotionally), there is no point when the two are totally comfortable, totally known and understood…. There is no static point, petrification or fossilization. Perfect consummation between even husband and wife lies somewhat out of reach, somewhat inaccessible.

As a woman who has spent the past two months up to my elbows in wedding planning magazines and websites, I can say that the wedding industry packages and sells weddings as perfect days. It is “your perfect day,” your fairy tale, a day you control, contrive, and ultimately, through your thousands of dollars spent on photographs and videos, possess. These magazines and websites (almost) never talk about the marriage itself.  Women are rigorously trained to be in control and to seek perfection and satisfaction of desire through their production of a wedding. Women are trained to place their desires in the material components of the wedding itself; when the wedding is over, desire can be transferred to the new house & gifts, and soon after to the babies and their paraphernalia…. Perhaps under all of this lies the sleeping beast, the twinge of unfulfilled romantic desire, of a sense that the husband-to-be does not heal their wound of longing. This might sound anti-romantic, and not something that an engaged woman should be writing about… After all, we are taught to find the “perfect” dress, “perfect” invitations, color schemes, menus, lighting, music….. Implicit is that the groom is also a perfect accessory, one whose value lies in his ability to fulfill our desire, grant us the kiss of peace, so to speak… If he does not manage to fulfill us—if he cannot penetrate the lattice, the doorway, the wall[1] of our existence—then we will read infinite numbers of articles about perfecting our wedding day smile, about etiquette, hair-dos, favor ideas, bridesmaids’ dresses, china patterns, thread count, etc. etc. The wedding-magazine rhetoric explains in an unequivocal manner that “our” day is to be perfectly polished—and that it is within our control to effect it—and that such perfection will be the crowning consummation of the wedding-day-desires that have been inculcated in us (largely by the genius of the wedding industry itself) from girlhood.

It is perhaps a little self-referential to spend so much time thinking about weddings, but if there is one thing we learn from commentaries on the Song (as seen so poignantly in its feminist interpretations), the book can function as a witness to almost anyone’s situation. I would like to suggest that the Song actually disrupts constructions of romance (as embodied in wedding industry propaganda) that teach us to expect fulfillment and satisfaction. This expectation, when (as it inevitably will be) thwarted, leads to so much unfaithfulness and divorce. The Song, rather, points to the interruptions, gaps, and points of disharmony that are woven into the very fabric of romance. The undulations, the precariousness, the pangs of yearning even within marriage—these are signs, not that one has selected the incorrect spouse and must, for the sake of one’s happiness, find another, but of the lattice, the barrier, that exists between all of us. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves (and subsequent animal skins) remain with us, the barriers to intimacy that prevent us from true and lasting consummation of desire.

I have written too much already, but I must conclude by at least pointing to the element of the divine in all of this. Walsh seems to leave us with the reality of lack and unfulfilled desire. She points to the “allure of milk and honey in the Song… coupled with the intoxicating properties of wine” (291). Noting that milk and honey are a “strong biblical trope,” evoking the promises of Canaan’s abundance and peace. She says that in the Song, milk and honey are “recontexualized” and present the woman’s body as the new “Promised Land” (291). Indeed, “the Song’s language about desire is a fine balancing act between Lack and flamboyance” (or jouissance). It seems that the Song does not simply commandeer imagery of milk, honey, and wine from its divine context to a merely human one. If the Song points to a “Promised Land” flowing abundantly with richness, it seems rather that God himself is the Land, the source of flowing wine (Is. 25, 55, etc.). Walsh speaks again and again of “desire” and “absence,” but it does not become clear until the very end what—or, rather, Who we desire, and Who is absent. Indeed, “The absence of this Other… fuels the biblical quest. The Bible is desire—it is interpreting the ineffable through language, a task surely as bold as it is unending” (293). The Song, then, in all its complications, its interpretive and textual riddles, its total frustration of our attempts to control it, draws us, as Walsh beautifully states, “to the Ark of the Covenant’s empty Mercy Seat, where absence marks divine presence” (293).

Walsh’s insight that the Song’s co-opting of Biblical “milk and honey” language points to a body as the new site of promise and grace offers a faint glimpse of what might be very close to the truth. There is, perhaps, a body that is the new Promised Land, the new stream of milk and honey, the new source of well-aged and abundant wine. There is, perhaps, a body that bore in its very flesh our own diseases and iniquities, that was bruised, crushed, and wounded, who was trampled like grapes for rich wine. Julian of Norwich, for example, speaks of the abundance of milk that flows from Christ’s breasts to nourish us, as well as the abundance (which seems to be one of her favorite words) of his blood. I hope my reader will forgive the Christological readings to which I seem perpetually unable to avoid in my readings of these texts. Ultimately, I suppose, I must hope that the pangs of our desires will be satisfied by the gracious hand of our Creator, that the wounds of longing, the pains of shame and fear, will be healed by the hesed of one whose Words have the power to create, heal, and restore. To this God we can only approach with our impotent words, and open mouths, praying, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” If we do receive his kiss of peace (the milk, honey and wine; the grace; the Eucharist) we will know that it is a gift, and one that we have not captured of our own competence, devotion, and striving. For we exist as ones exiled, trapped behind lattices, bound in locked gardens, covered in animal skins, barred from the intimacy we desire and the fulfillment that eludes us. Perhaps He is able to rend in twain the barriers and to bring us—at some point—into the consummation that lies ever ahead.

[1] Song 2:9, 5:2-6. The lattice, window, doorway, etc. should perhaps be read not primarily as sexual images, but as symbols of the barrier that exists necessarily between lovers who, even in the midst of their most intimate union, never can be totally united in a way that precludes loss, instability, lack, absence, etc.