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My beloved is mine and I am his

· The book in which God speaks the language of lovers ·

“There is nothing more beautiful than the Song of Songs” [Song of Solomon]: these words are spoken by one of the characters in The Man without Qualities, the masterpiece of Robert Musil, an Austrian writer who died in 1942 and was an important witness of the European crisis in the 20th century. They express the unconditional admiration enjoyed by this small book of the Bible, of only 1,250 words. It is a short poem that well deserved its title, Shir hasshirim, Song of Songs, a Semitic way of expressing the superlative: the “song” par excellence, the “sublime song” of love and of life.

Karl Barth, the greatest 20th-century theologian, did not hesitate to call this writing “the Magna Carta of humanity”. Nevertheless this “carta” of our being as people who are capable of loving and enjoying, but also of suffering, was not always interpreted in the same way for it has facets as multiple and variegated as those of a precious stone. A rabbi of ancient times, Saadia ben Joseph (882-942), seems to have hit the nail on the head when he compared the Song to a lock whose key has been lost: many attempts must be made to open it.

However the indispensable key with which to unlock this casket is, as often happens, the closest one to hand. To understand the basic meaning of this book in which God speaks the language of lovers it is necessary to use the key of his poetic words, that is, of what people used once to call “the literal sense”. In fact, the work contains the joyful dialogue of two people who love one another, who call one another 31 times dodî, “my beloved”, a term of endearment very like the pet names for each other privately coined by lovers.

Salvatore Dalì, “The Song of Songs” (1971)

In the Song of Songs the woman and the man discover the full freshness and intensity of a relationship that they themselves are living and experiencing through the eternal miracle of love. It is an intimate personal relationship, built on personal pronouns and possessives of the first and second person: “mine/yours”, “I/you”. The spiritual and “musical” leitmotif of the Song of Songs is contained in that dazzling exclamation of the woman: dodî lî wa’anî lô: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). This exclamation is then reiterated and varied: ’anî ledodî wedodî lî, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3). It is the formula of pure reciprocity, mutual belonging and reciprocal self-giving without reservation.

This perfect intimacy passes through three levels. It experiences sexual bipolarity that is seen as an “image” of God and a “very good/beautiful” reality – according to Genesis (1:27, 31) – that is, a living portrayal of the Creator through the couple’s generative capacity and love. But sexuality by itself is merely physical. Man can climb to a higher level, intuiting in sex eros, in other words the fascination of beauty, the aesthetics of the body, the harmony of the creature, the tenderness of feelings. With the eros, however, the two beings still remain something of an “object” outside each other.

Full human communion that illuminates and transfigures sexuality and eros is unleashed only at the third stage. Moreover of all living beings it is only the woman and the man who can pass through all these stages and reach the perfection of intimacy, dialogue, self-giving and total love.

The first level of interpretation we must adopt in order to peruse this enchanting poetic score is therefore the nuptial level and, of course, with all the colours and symbols of the East. In 1873 Johann Gottfried Wetzstein, Consul of Prussia in Damascus, attempted to compare the nuptial ceremonies of the Bedouins and the Syrian farmers with those that are mentioned in the Song of Songs: seven-day festivities, the coronation of the bridegroom and the bride with the title of king and queen (in the Song the beloved is sometimes identified with King Solomon); the nuptial table called “throne”, the dance before “two armies” (cf. 7:1), descriptive hymns of the physical beauty of the bride and the power of the bridegroom.

In the Song of Songs, therefore,tender,“springtime” love is on stage; it is not only present in the beautiful couple, two young people in love but, we might say, also in the unchanged tenderness of an elderly couple still in love. Primacy is assigned to femininity above all, because in the Song the woman plays the lead rather than the man, despite the firmly entrenched Eastern male chauvinism from which the work was born.

Important for our topic is the attention paid to the two lovers’ faces. The whole body – meant as a sign of communication – is of course included in the poem: the arms, the hand and the fingers, the heart, the breast, the belly, the navel, the legs, the feet, caresses, dark skin. The face, however, all of whose features are described, is central: from the head to the neck, from the cheeks to the eyes, from the mouth to the lips, from the palate to the teeth, from the hair to the curls. The face is the most vivid and authentic sign of dialogue, of encounter, of communion of life, thought and feeling.

Furthermore the Song is a continuous hymn to the joy of living: when the sky is overcast – Paul Claudel wrote – the surface of a lake is flat and metallic; when the sun shines it is transformed into a wonderful mirror reflecting the tints of sky and earth. So it is in fact with human life when love is kindled: the panorama is always the same, work is always monotonous and alienating, cities are anonymous and cold and one day is identical to the next; yet love transfigures all things and then there is love and all things are seen with different eyes, because the man knows that in the evening he will meet his woman.

Human love nonetheless also experiences crisis, absence, fear, silence and loneliness. In the Song there are two nocturnal scenes (3:1-5 and 5:2 - 6:3), taut with tension, in which the man and his woman are distant from each other and seek each other desperately to no avail. The apex of the biblical poem is in 8:6, where love and death are set in dialectical tension: “for love is strong as death, / jealousy is cruel as the grave: / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / a most vehement flame” (curiously it is the only verse of the Song in which the divine name Jah/Jhwh resounds). In that extreme duel the sacred poet is sure that love must prevail, since God triumphs over death and evil.

The Song is thus first and foremost the celebration of human love and marriage. Yet in this love the biblical poet glimpses as it were a seed of the eternal, perfect love with which God loves his creature. Indeed, let us not forget that in the eighth century before the Christian era the Prophet Hosea made use of his dramatic matrimonial and family experience, transforming it into a parable of God’s love for his people Israel (Hosea, 1-3). This thematic-symbolic transmutation also appears implicitly in the Song.

Within human love – and not disregarding it, as has been done instead in the so-called “allegorical” interpretation which reduced the Song to a spiritualizing zombie — we must perceive a further sign, that of God’s transcendent love for his creature. It is the second level of interpretation through which the Song also became the text of Christian mysticism: let us mention only St Teresa of Avila’s Conceptions of the Love of God and The Spiritual Canticle, the literary and mystic masterpiece of St John of the Cross, both of which drew nourishment from the Song of Songs.

The most famous sculptural depiction of this spiritual interweaving is perhaps Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa, in the Roman Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria: an angel lets fly the arrow of divine love towards the saint who is immersed in a physical ecstasy of the loftiest spiritual and sensual intensity. The loving virgin abandons herself to God through an incandescent love that pervades her whole being, also her physical being.

This motif runs through the Bible itself. In addition to the above-mentioned chapters 1-3 of the Prophet Hosea, we should read chapter 16 of the Prophet Ezekiel, certain very tender passages of Isaiah (54:1-8 and 61:10-62, 5), and also Paul’s appeal to the Ephesians: “Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:28-32).

However the text in the Bible that makes the marvel of human love and its value as a theological symbol the most resplendent is, precisely, the Song. Indeed God, as St John’s First Letter teaches, “is love”. An ancient Judaic text commented on Israel’s journey through the Desert of Sinai with these words: “The Lord came from Sinai to welcome Israel, as a man betrothed goes to the woman he is betrothed to, as a bridegroom embraces his bride”.

The Song must therefore accompany lovers in both the dark and the serene stages, in the laughter and the tears of that marvellous event which is their love. But the final aim of the Song is the supreme figure of the love between God and his creature, and this explains why it has become a fundamental text, especially for all believers. Origen of Alexandria, the great Christian writer of the third century, was therefore right when he wrote: “Blessed is he who understands and sings the canticles of Sacred Scripture! But far more blessed is he who sings and understands the Song of Songs!”.

Gianfranco Ravasi

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