The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Photo Copyright: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
(Jastrow) – used with permission.
The Interior Castle uses metaphors related to marriage and sexuality to help us understand the intimacy and ecstasy we can have with God. These metaphors, of course, have limits and are completely spiritual: “The spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Using metaphors related to marriage and sexuality wasn’t new with Teresa of Avila. The Bible and Judeo-Christian history regularly used these metaphors and connected them to the spiritual life. The Song of Songs is a prime example.
Eugene Peterson, in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work*, discusses the Song of Songs and its connection to spirituality. Peterson challenges the modern tendency to read the Song of Songs simply as a book about sex. Peterson doesn’t ignore the sexuality of the book, but sees the Song of Songs as something that also includes intimacy with God.
“Modern scholars who have assumed that the reason that the church allegorically spiritualized The Song of Songs because she was prudish, simply don’t understand the ancient mind, or the poetic mind for that matter, which is aware of the deep inner connections between the sexual and the spiritual.” (Peterson 40-41)
Prayer and Sexuality
Peterson notes sexuality and prayer “are both aspects of a single, created thing: a capacity for intimacy.” (Peterson 24)
“All horizontal relationships between other persons, when they achieve any degree of intimacy at all, are aspects of sexuality. All vertical relationships with persons of the Godhead, when there is any degree of intimacy at all, involve prayer. And since there are never instances of merely horizontal relationships and never any solely vertical relationships — we are created in both directions; there are no one-dimensional beings — both sexuality and prayer (or either sexuality or prayer) can be used to explore and develop personal relationships of intimacy. (Peterson 24-25)
Exodus and the Song of Songs
Peterson explains the ancients connected salvation from God (Exodus) to intimacy with God by reading the Song of Songs at the Passover celebration.
The “repetition of the [Passover] celebration carried with it a danger, the danger that salvation itself should be ritualized and institutionalized.”
“In order to protect against this danger someone with pastoral genius assigned the Song of Songs for reading at Passover. The central act of Passover celebration is the eating of a ritual meal. The meal concludes with the reading of the Song of Songs. . . . The reading of the Song in the context of Passover is a demonstration that the glorious, once-for-all historical event of salvation in which God’s people are established in the way of God’s love is workable in the everyday domestic settings of intimacy between persons. It bridges the transition from Exodus event to daily activities so that there is no loss of wonder, intensity, or joy. . . . It draws attention from the historical setting to the inward relationships. No lyrics, ancient or modern, communicate the intimacies and the exuberances of being whole and good in relations to another — that is, of being saved — more convincingly than the Song.” (Peterson 29-30)
Life-changing love, massive and overpowering in the history of the Exodus, is celebrated in the domesticities of personal relationship in language everyone can understand and in an experience that is no farther away that the bedroom. The love lyrics of the Song are a guard against every tendency to turn living faith into a lifeless ‘religion’. . . . The Song . . . insists that however impressive the acts of God and however exalted the truths of God, they are not too great or too high to be experienced by ordinary people in the minutiae of the everyday.” (Peterson 32-33)
Genesis and the Song of Songs
“In [Karl Barth’s] exegesis of Genesis 2 he examines the sexual nature of humanity, ‘created male and female,’ and demonstrates that the human being is created in such a way that covenantal relationships can be engaged and developed. Much of what follows from Genesis 2 in the Bible tells of the disruption of the covenantal base. Sexual metaphors are used in the Bible most frequently to describe humanity’s unwillingness and inability to sustain a faithful love relationship with the faithful God of love. Adultery and harlotry are the usual metaphors for describing humankind’s role in the covenant. In other words, the well-known disturbance and corruption in the relationship between the sexes is used to describe the sin-crossed relations of the people of God.” (Peterson 33-34)
But, Peterson says, the Song of Songs takes the sexual imagery in a different direction than the prophets and uses the “language of sexual relationship . . . in Genesis 2 to describe the internal basis of the covenant” to bring about intimacy.
Peterson goes on to explain creation (Genesis 2) and salvation (Exodus) are relational (Covenental) and therefore the life that flows from creation and salvation are relational. This is highlighted by the intimacy of the Song of Songs. “Covenant, the structure that God uses in his work, requires people live in relationship if they are going to live in terms of their creation and salvation. Since all creation and all salvation are relational (covenantal), the life that grows and develops from that base in that environment also must be relational (covenantal). . . . Genesis 2 plus Exodus 15 equals The Song of Songs.” (Peterson 36)
The Song of Songs and Devotionalism
But if the most striking feature to modern exegetes of the Song is its eroticism, the most striking feature in the history of its interpretation is its devotionalism. ‘Romantic love has always sought mystical sensations in the Song of Songs.’ For as far back as we have any evidence, both Jews and Christians have read it as a description of the devotional life — the life of meditation and prayer.” (Peterson 37)
No book of the Bible has been served so badly by its modern interpreters (unless it is Revelation). They have made their way through the text like flat-footed Philistines. They have taken it apart and flattened it out in explanations that are about as interesting as a sex education chart in an eighth-grade hygiene class. They have assumed that the long centuries of the book’s interpretation of allegorical, typological, and devotional expositions have been misguided–pious attempts to cover up explicit sexuality by a veneer of devotion. These assumptions, and they recur throughout the scholarly literature, are breezy arrogance.” (Peterson 39)
“The common practice in the Christian church to use the language of romantic love in the Song as a way of understanding and developing a daily life of intimacy with God is not at all outlandish. All the intimacies possible to man and woman in love are an index to both the ecstasies and difficulties in our loving response to the God who loves us.” (Peterson 39-40)
“‘Sex and religion are intricately interwoven.’ And they are interwoven because they are dealing with the basic elements of intimacy and the stuff of ecstasy. Modern scholars who have assumed that the reason that the church allegorically spiritualized The Song of Songs because she was prudish, simply don’t understand the ancient mind, or the poetic mind for that matter, which is aware of the deep inner connections between the sexual and the spiritual. (Peterson 40-41)
“The context in which The Song of Songs comes to us is also the context for its interpretation, and that context is a story of covenant, the relationship between lover and beloved, in which the lover is God and the beloved is man, ‘male and female.’ The erotic content must be read in the theological context. The ancients did not read the Song devotionally because the we’re embarrassed by its sexuality, but because they understood sexuality in sacramental ways. Human love took its color from divine love. Reductive secular exegesis of the Song is an admission that our understanding of human love is unrelated to all that we have learned about God’s love. If we read the sexual language of the Song in terms different from the divorce court, the popular play, and the glossy magazine, that may not be evidence that we are afraid of sex, but that we are bold with God.” (Peterson 42).
For additional material on this topic:
- Marriage as s Spiritual Metaphor
- Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
- I highly recommend a short video from Kahn Academy about the Bernini sculpture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKcJvjP9zgY (Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker)
*Eugene Peterson: Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1980.
– Eugene Peterson is also the author of the Message Bible and many books on pastoral ministry. He is commonly called the pastor’s pastor.