Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Song of Songs 4) transports me a thousand years back in time to an isolated clearing in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northern France, where a young Cistercian monk has been sent to start a new monastery. The Cistercians were known for their emphasis on austerity, manual labor, and architecture, but the most famous of their order was this one monk who ventured out into that clearing to start his monastery, which he named Clairvaux. The young monk, known now as Bernard of Clairxaux, came to fame more for his mystical love than for his manual labor. He was enamored by Jesus, and wrote volumes out of that love affair.
Like many mystics, Bernard gravitated toward the romantic poetry of scripture; his favorite book was the Song of Songs. He wrote and preached a total of 86 sermons on the imagery from this book. For Bernard, sensuality and spirituality couldn’t be separated. It all belonged to God, and was part of his experience of God’s love. In his Song of Songs sermon series, he preached more than once on the imagery of the lover’s breasts, on her captivating complexion, and on various aspects of kissing. At times this French holy man sounds more like Steve Holy singing about a brand new girlfriend, playin’ kissy-kissy smoochy-smoochy and talkin’ mooshy mooshy.
Spend that much time meditating on scarlet ribbon lips and fawn-like twin breasts feeding among the lilies, and you’re bound to start having some pretty intense dreams. One bizarre dream-like legend about Bernard made it’s way into lots of classical religious artwork – the lactation miracle. One version of the story describes how Mary appeared to the saint during prayer and sprayed milk from her breast to his lips, showing him that she is the mother of humanity. The second version describes how Bernard fell asleep praying, and Mary appeared, putting her breast into his mouth so he could receive the wisdom of God. I’ll have to confess, I was raised with a heavy dose of modesty when it comes to sexuality, so this stuff makes me blush. For that matter, so does the steamy Song of Songs’ public display of affection in praise of the beloved’s body parts. I know that there’s not much modesty left in the world, and descriptions like these are tame by today’s standards. But finding them in the middle of scripture still seems a trifle shocking. Passages like this were probably included in the canon of scripture just for modest folk like me, who have a difficult time integrating the out-of-control lusty love of the romantics with the in-control thoughtful love of the theologians.
I got some help when the passage transported me from Bernard’s 1,000 year-old experience in Champagne’s isolated clearing to a more recent experience in an isolated clearing outside of Cincinnati, this one found in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. Maybe I got to this place because the term of endearment, beloved, is used more than 30 times in the Song of Songs. In Morrison’s clearing, an old woman, Baby Suggs, preaches a sermon to the slavery-scarred folk who have gathered there. Like Bernard of Clairvaux, Baby Suggs preaches a sensual love that integrates flesh and spirit: Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. more than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
A friend of ours read this passage at my wife’s ordination into the ministry. At first blush it might have seemed so out of place, but after blushing, the idea of loving our flesh and our bones and our hearts and having this be part and parcel of loving God really was a gift worth setting apart, a grace gift. Maybe this is the prize.
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