Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Pictorial Allegories of the Love of God Inspired by the Song of Songs - Part 2

How do you paint the love of God? Love is not something we will ever see directly, and so this creates difficulties for artists who work in a purely visual medium. The answer for many who wish to represent the greatest virtue has been to look for inspiration in the allegorical account of God's love in the Song of Songs.

This is the second of three personal reflections on the nature of love as described in the Song of Songs and how it has inspired artists. Part 1 was The beloved is in the garden, the beloved is the garden: this is a reflection on the implications of the symbolism of the garden; and next week, Part 3 will be A garden enclosed, a sealed fountain - Mary the great lover, and most beloved of God. 

Part 2 - The beloved is the lover, and the lover is the beloved - a Christian response to Marxism, critical race theory, and radical feminism inspired by the Song of Songs. 
See how fair is the maid I love! Soft eyes thou has, like a dove’s eyes. See how fair is the man I love, how stately. Green grows that bower, thine and mine, with its roof of cedars, with a covert of cypress for its walls. (Song of Songs 1, 14-16)
It is interesting that in the course of the Song of Songs’ 8 chapters, the voice of the lover switches. The book is written as a first-person narrative, in which the lover describes the beloved to the reader or addresses the beloved directly. This style never changes. But what does change periodically, without warning or explanation, is the subject who is speaking. At one moment the narrator addressing us is the bridegroom speaking to and of his bride; the next the narrator is the bride herself, addressing the bridegroom. This flipping of the subject occurs several times. When I first noticed this I found it confusing and assumed it was a mistake, arising perhaps because the best version of the Song of Songs we have is in fact a patchwork quilt of a text, pieced together from different and incomplete manuscript copies.

Nevertheless, I reflected, this is a book that has been judged by the Church to be divinely inspired in the form it comes to us, so I persevered.

Now, I now see something profound and radically enlightening in this literary device. It is for me a key to understanding an aspect of the Christian ideal of love that is exactly contrary to the caricature that is given by ardent critics of Christianity today, especially the idealogues of the neo-Marxist and socialist left, and of the radical feminist movement.

Christian or not, few, I suggest, would argue with the idea that when true love exists between two people, both are lover and beloved in the relationship, interacting in a dynamic exchange of love. The literary device employed by the writer of the Song of Songs that I have referred to, that regular change of narrator, communicates to us that natural mode of loving interaction between two people who are both lover and beloved.

The constant, unchanging element is the love that exists between them. I say unchanging, but it is paradoxically an unchanging dynamism. It is an emergent order that isn’t apparent to us until the lovers love each other, but it is in fact the final cause that existed before the lovers even existed, and called them to be lovers from the time of their conception. This love can be compared to a fountain that is so perfect in its operation that it appears as a static, suspended piece of gossamer or lace in which every strand is a fine stream of ‘living’, that is moving, water. This is the font of wisdom and wellspring of life and love that sustains all that is created. It is as though this canticle is not so much about the lovers as it is about the love that flows between them.

The best way for us to participate in such a love ourselves is not by studying what love is from a book, (even if the book is the inspired text of the Song of Songs), but rather by engaging with God lovingly, and most profoundly, of course in the Eucharist. To know God’s love by this means, through God’s grace, is to know God. This is means to the joy we all seek in life.

If the interpretations of the Church Fathers are correct, and the Song of Songs is an allegory of God’s love for his Church, then it affirms that I, in common with all humanity, can participate in an intimate and intense love with God, that places me closer to Him than the two lovers portrayed in the Song of Songs are to each other.

This is not, contrary to what bitter critics say of Christian love, a love in which one party dominates or bullies the other into doing his or her will - for that is not love at all. Rather, this is a love in which we are raised up to divine status as so as to be fitting lovers of God. No person is exempted from this opportunity, though sadly many reject it.

Those contemporary critics of Christianity, particularly Marxists and radical feminist theorists, claim that the Christian idea of love is a deceit designed to promote the exercise of power, in which the male ‘lover’ dominates the female ‘beloved’; and this unequal and distorted relationship is the primary source of tyranny in society. The Marxist argument, from which modern Critical Race Theory draws its ideas, is that Christianity alone of all religions promotes a power game in human relations, in which white males assert privilege through power. It is in the family that this supposed paradigm of oppression is established by the father, who dominates and enslaves his wife and the children. This is why Black Lives Matter, for example, openly stated on its website that its goal was to destroy the nuclear family and with it, the whole structure of Western society.

To the degree that the love described in the Song of Songs is a type for Christian love, we can say that the leftist characterization of the Christian ideal of love between men and women is false. Far from being the source of the imposition of patriarchal domination, the Biblical conception of love is in fact the source - the only source - of emancipation from such domination and subjugation, which would reign supreme were it not for Christianity.

Christian love elevates all people - both male and female - to the status of divine lovers and divine beloveds, as part of the Church and as part of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is Christianity alone that offers us the path to this supernatural gift.

God’s love is the ideal that all are called to accept and respond to, and as such is the type for all lesser, human loves. God’s love cascades down into all human interaction and permeates society.

While asserting that the left has mischaracterized Christianity and Christian love, Christians themselves should acknowledged that no human love is pure, and to the degree that love is absent from any relationship, domination might well become, in part, the modus operandi. The dominant party can be male or female, pale-skinned or colored.

Jean Le Noir: Two Fools. Miniature from the Psalter of Bonne of Luxemburg, 1348-49
However, it is utterly false to claim that Christianity is the source of this inequity. As stated, Christianity is the sole antidote to it.

The left sees something imperfect and wants to destroy it, that is why they want to destroy the nuclear family along with Western culture. Our response as Christians to an imperfect expression of love, on the other hand, should be the same as that to any other injustice, that is to seek to transform it by reaching for a greater love, that is, to seek God.

Through God’s grace, we can be perfected, and our imperfect relationships can be transformed and elevated in accordance with the standard of the divine pattern. A society founded on anything less than this reality will inevitably introduce not less, but yet more oppression, domination, division, conflict, and injustice. It is the exclusion of God’s love from human interaction will cause greater rupture, not less. The path to the justice and freedom that Marxists and radical feminists claim that they yearn for is to be obtained, paradoxically, through the very institutions they seek to destroy: Church and family.

Such a perversion of good and evil must surely be diabolical in its inspiration, and arises from the Fall - the first such occasion in which this occurred also took place in a garden, and ruptured the harmony of all relationships, which can only be restored by Christ.

I chose to show this aspect of Christian romantic love with this painting, which is an historiated initial from the opening of the book of Song of Songs in an 11th century bible that is in the library at Winchester Cathedral in England.The Latin text accompanying the initial says in translation: Here ends the book the He called Ecclesiastes. Here begins the book that is called in Hebrew Shir hashirim, in Latin Song of Songs. The voice of the church as she longs for the coming of Christ. The O is the first letter of the words Osculetur me - let him kiss me - which open the book.

The Latin text accompanying the initial says: Here ends the book which is called Ecclesiastes. Here begins the book that is called in Hebrew Shir hashirim, in Latin Song of Songs. The voice of the church as she longs for the coming of Christ. The O is the first letter of the words Osculetur me - let him kiss me - which open the book.
Contrast the picture of harmony in the garden with that of disharmony in the garden, as in the Temptation of Eve by the 18th-century English artist (and poet) William Blake.

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