It seems like we rarely hear about the Song of Songs anymore. At Mass, we read from this book only a couple times of the year – during Advent, on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and at weddings. The few times we do hear this book at Mass, I’ve observed that the priest usually avoids preaching on it, and instead focuses on the Gospel reading or on marriage in general. So, many of us have limited exposure and knowledge of the Song of Songs. We relegate it as fodder for Catholic pick-up lines. We pass it off as being some weird love poem, and a confusing love poem at that. I mean, the bridegroom compliments the bride by talking about sheep and fruit!
“Your teeth are like a flock of ewes to be shorn, which comes up from the washing…your cheek is like a half-pomegranate behind your veil” (Songs 4:2-3).
Woolly teeth? A half-pomegranate cheek? Awkward!
The Song of Songs can come off as extremely weird, so it can be easy to push aside. But today, I invite you to reconsider the Song of Songs. With just eight, power-packed chapters set in the middle of the Bible, this book is short, sweet, and to the point. The more I read, pray with, and learn about these pithy verses, the more I realize that we need to make the time to pray with this book. There are numerous benefits and reasons behind this, but let’s just talk about a few of them:
Some very epic saints thought that the Song of Songs was a Pretty Big Deal. I want to be a saint, so I try to follow their good examples. I’ve discovered that St. Gregory of Nyssa gave several homilies on the Song of Songs. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote over eighty sermons on the Song of Songs. St. Francis de Sales wrote about this book, too. Oh, and St. John Paul II devoted an entire section of his Theology of the Body audiences to this biblical love poetry. If these extremely holy saints all spent a great deal of time praying with the Song of Songs, then maybe we should consider doing the same. Furthermore, praying with this book is a lot less daunting than other tried-and-true spiritual classics. Let’s be real: it is way easier to pick up the Song of Songs than St. Augustine’s Confessions or St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul (both of which I recommend, but they make for some pretty heavy reading).
The Song of Songs is packed with layers of meaningful goodness that apply to us no matter what our vocation is. From the outset of the book, we can see a couple different ways to approach the Song of Songs. For example, we can view it as a poetic expression of spousal love between a bride and a bridegroom. Or, we can read it as an allegorical poem that shows God’s love for His people. Both of these approaches convey tons of meaning, which deepen our understanding of the spiritual life and marriage. St. Bernard of Clairvaux looked at the Song of Songs as portraying the spousal love between God and the soul. He wrote that, “it was a special divine impulse that inspired these songs of his that now celebrate the praises of Christ and his Church, the gift of holy love, the sacrament of endless union with God.”
On the other hand, St. John Paul II took a different route, for he discussed the Song of Songs as exemplifying the spousal love between a man and a woman: “The love of bridegroom and bride in the Song of Songs is a theme by itself, and in this lies the singularity and originality of that book.” Both of these approaches can benefit all of us. It’s a win-win situation!
We see the depth of self-gift we are called to. No matter which way you take this book, you cannot ignore the call to self-giving love. For example, the bride is called a “fountain sealed.” With this phrase, St. John Paul II notes that “The bride presents herself to the eyes of the man as the master of her own mystery.” The bride cannot be taken, she is sealed away. But, she can give herself fully to the bridegroom.
The Song of Songs emphasizes the body. We have the Seven Sacraments. We believe in the Resurrection of the Body. We receive the Body of Christ at Mass. Physical bodies are a big deal to Catholics! Not only does the Song of Songs talk about the body, but it shows us how to truly see another person. In the Song of Songs, the bridegroom goes on and on about the bride’s body. Yet, although his words are concentrated on the body, we don’t get the impression that only the body fascinates him. Rather, the subject, the “I,” the bride herself, is being manifested in the body. The bridegroom is caught up in all of the bride, not just in one specific part of her. As St. John Paul II put it, “The words of love spoken by both of them are therefore concentrated on the “body,” not so much because in itself it constitutes the source of reciprocal fascination, but above all because the attraction toward the other person—toward the other “I,” female or male, which in the inner impulse of the heart gives rise to love—lingers directly and immediately on it.”
The Song of Songs can make us uncomfortable. At first glance, when we spy strange analogies and heavily nuptial themes, we can feel very lost. But don’t let unfamiliarity keep you from this amazing section of Scripture! Pick up a Bible, pull out a good commentary (I highly recommend St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body audiences!), and take it all to prayer. Let God romance your heart through the words of the Song of Songs. Learn about self-giving, total love. God beckons; will you come closer to Him?
My lover speaks, He says to me, ‘arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!’ (Songs 2:10)