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Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams
6 May 2018 – 4.00pm Evensong
Song of Solomon 4:16- 5:2, 8: 6-7 Revelation 3: 14-end
When my grandmother died, we found her diary. She began it just after the Second World War; so that my dad, who was six when his father’s ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat, would have something to remember him by. She wrote it all down: how they met in a Baptist youth group when she was seventeen, married against the wishes of her father, and were separated by war when my dad was still only a toddler. She obviously began it wanting him to know the whole story: but as she revisited it all, somehow it became too personal to share. She described in terrible detail the arrival of the telegram, the disbelief, the grief and numbness- and then, for decades, there was only silence.
My grandmother lived for another 57 years, but she never married again, and she never did bring herself to talk to my dad about his father; and a great emotional rift opened up between them as a result. She hoped he would one day read the diary and understand- but it was too late. My grandfather’s body was never found, but my grandmother’s grave is marked with both their names, and a quote from the Song of Songs: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. It was believing that, for 57 years, which kept her going.
What the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is doing in the Bible at all is open to question. It’s the only book in the ordinary canon of Scripture which never mentions God. Scholars have tried to explain it away by understanding it as an allegory; God’s love for his people, or Christ’s love for his church. In mediaeval times it was hugely popular among preachers, and also among female religious and mystics, who perhaps saw themselves reflected in it as nowhere else in Scripture. The woman in the Song of Songs is neither a virgin, nor a mother, nor a prostitute, so she escapes all the usual stereotypes attached to her gender: she is allowed to express her desire in unambiguously erotic language, as indeed is the man. ‘Love one another fervently’- yes, certainly; but ‘with a pure heart’? Not so much. For this isn’t an allegory of desire: it’s the real thing. Passion fierce as the grave, love strong as death, raging flames: if this just sounds like a collection of Mills and Boon clichés, well, read the rest of the book and it doesn’t leave much to the imagination.
There is no doubt that the Song of Songs does work as an allegory if you want it to, because this is precisely what desire feels like. There is no other book in Scripture which so graphically describes what it feels like to want- whether what you want is another person, or God; or for that matter a career, a vocation, or music, or safety, or death. But the Song isn’t just about the wanting; it is equally graphic about the end of the search. Satisfaction. Consummation. No wonder it had to be explained away as theological allegory; for the Christians who decided this book did belong in the canon of Scripture had also inherited a terrible ambivalence about anything to do with bodies or sexuality. Love is OK as long as it is kept pure and spiritual: agape or philadelphia are permissible, but eros becomes steadily more and more suspect. We still know what it is to want, but we are taught that we shouldn’t want certain things- or certain people. Sex itself becomes theologised into something shameful, something less than pure; until we reach the point where God is supposed to satisfy all our needs, so how dare we still want?
Of course that’s not the whole picture. There have been brave theologians down the centuries who have let the Song speak on its own terms. The experience of desire, including sexual desire, is enormously powerful in helping us to understand different ways in which it might be true that God loves us; different ways in which we might feel empty or incomplete without God. If we are lucky enough to know human love in our own lives, we may well find in it a window on to the love of God; for those of us who do not, perhaps it is the image of the wanting and searching that speaks most powerfully not just of what it is to want, but also to be wanted.
‘If one offered all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned’ (Song of Songs 8:7) What is there for which you would give everything you had? Another person? A job? An idea, a principle? This vision of love, potently physical and embodied as it is, is not all about us and our own feelings: it is also about the separate reality of the objects of our love and desire. If we turn the people we love into mere extensions of ourselves, projections of our own feelings, that is not reality. For they too have feelings, experiences and desires which are just as powerful as ours- and when the two don’t match up, the result can be extraordinarily painful.
When my grandmother died, her brother said to me that he’d often wondered over the years what would have happened if my grandfather had survived the war and come home. We’ll never know. The vision of him in her diaries is so clearly idealised that it’s impossible to get a sense of who he really was. But the sense of s passion fierce as the grave remains. The waters in which he died did not quench love, but they ended up costing my dad more in emotional terms than he could afford.
Love is not for the faint-hearted. That’s the charge laid against the church in Laodicea, in our second reading. They are too lukewarm, too dispassionate. There may be purity in their hearts, but there is no fervour. God’s love demands more. It is uncompromising, bringing with it ‘reproof and discipline’ for those who do not give everything. But it is not self-indulgent. For God’s love treats us as absolutely real. God wants our fulfilment, our satisfaction and completion. God wants us to be who we are, who we are called to be; complete with our unruly bodies and our messy desires. Whether it is a person or a principle we want most, to love them- with a pure heart, fervently- is the most Godlike thing we could ever do.
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