—Written by one of my spiritual directees who entered women’s religious life.
The Song of Songs illustrates the journey of the Bride, a journey toward love. A journey involves a process, a traveling toward something which one desires but has not yet attained. Highly susceptible to losing his way on a long journey, a pilgrim often encounters numerous and varied obstacles. The Bride in the Song of Songs is no exception. One’s first outlook on the Song of Songs may circulate around the book as brimming over with vibrant images and profound expressions between two lovers. Although this description definitely defines the Song of Songs, it does not include every aspect of this unique book of scripture. The Beloved’s incessant tones of love reach out to a struggling and wounded Bride who displays throughout the book her journey from exile to restoration, hurt to healing, infidelity to consummation. The Bride is far from perfect and her journey toward complete union with the Beloved is a journey that each Christian embarks upon. It is a passage from brokenness to healing, a healing brought about by Christ Himself. As Christ invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain to behold His transfigured glory, so he calls to the Bride in the Song of Songs to come and allow Him to transform her wounds. This invitation revealed in these passages of scripture urges each Christian to respond to the love that Christ desires to give. The Song of Songs and the mystery of the Transfiguration manifest the transforming power of Christ who alone can guide the Christian through the obstacles encountered on the journey of life.
The first poem in the Song of Songs depicts the suffering of the Bride. “I am black but lovely, daughters of Jerusalem…Take no notice of my swarthiness, it is the sun that has burned me. My mother’s sons turned their anger on me, they made me look after their vineyards. Had I only looked after my own!” The Bride laments her condition. Scarred at the hands of others she has neglected the garden of her heart. However, her sorrow clings to a belief that beauty still breathes under the smoke of suffering and sin. The gaze of the Bridegroom penetrates through her swarthiness to reveal her beauty. She knows that she has not completely lost her beauty but it is beyond her power to recover it. He alone can reveal the beauty that is marred by sin. “Since her darkened face does not repulse the one she loves and does not prevent her from being loved, how could she not be beautiful, beautiful because she is loved, simply beautiful because he looks at her?”1 It is his gaze that transforms her. Her darkened condition impels him to gaze upon her because he desires to draw forth the beauty within her. Christ desires to transfigure all those who are darkened by sin. The journey of love begins with a realization of sinfulness. All people, wounded by original sin, can relate to the condition of the Bride in this first poem of the Song of Songs. Although this passage points to the darkness of sin it also proclaims a message of hope as the Bride argues, “I am black but lovely!” She implants in the sinner the courage to admit his sinfulness but to not dwell in it but to cling to the hope that he is beautiful because of the One who loves him. In the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, Christ invited Peter, James, and John up the mountain. Unaware of the impending event, they followed His invitation and consequently beheld his glory. The fear of one’s sinful condition could paralyze one from going up the mountain, but the step of faith in following the Beloved results in receiving his transfiguring gaze. “All powerful and transfiguring look of the beloved! What is essential is to remain in this look. Therefore it is impossible to despise and depreciate oneself because one cannot see oneself anymore but through the loving and transfiguring look.”2 As one lifts his eyes from his darkened condition to gaze on the Beloved and be gazed upon by Him, the beauty of the Christian soul is revealed and is illumined by the light of that powerful gaze.
The Beloved invites all to come into his gaze! He sees the darkened condition of the Bride and “…he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills.” He makes the initiative toward the Bride. Despising any quiet gesture, he bounds toward her with the giddiness and excitement of a young lover. Nonetheless, his love is no shallow emotion but a transfiguring gift that he wishes to bestow upon her if she will respond to him. “See where he stands behind our wall. He looks in at the window, he peers through the lattice.” He can hardly contain himself so eager is he to bestow love and healing. He repeatedly invites, “Come then, my love, my lovely one come.” Perceiving the beauty of the Bride as he peers in her window, he desires to draw her forth so he can first show her that she is beautiful and then unite Himself with her. She must respond and come out of herself in order to receive His gift. “My dove, hiding in the clefts of the rock, in the coverts of the cliff, show me your face.” In the mystery of the Transfiguration Christ reveals his glory, but to be transformed by it one must gaze upon it. If Peter, James, and John had not followed him up the mountain they would not have witnessed his Transfiguration. Likewise, the Bride is invited by the Bridegroom to come out of herself so that he can transfigure her. This is the same call each Christian receives from Christ. “A very ancient mystical tradition has always seen in the cracks of the rock the new retreat where the Bride must now dwell, passing from her poor refuge within herself, where she had been hiding, to this very deep cave in the body of Christ, our ‘rock’ (1 Cor 10:4), which is the wound in his Heart (Jn 19:34).”3 Sin builds a cave around the heart. Often one finds security in this cave, consequently avoiding the cave which is the Heart of Christ where true security is found. The cruelty of a sword impelled by sin reveals the ultimate refuge for the sinner himself, the pierced Heart of Christ. Christ’s invitation to dwell in His Sacred Heart entails a big release of all other securities. One cannot dwell in two caves at the same time.
Responding to this profound invitation, the Bride leaves her cave to receive the love of the Bridegroom. “Awake, north wind, come, wind of the south! Breathe over my garden to spread its sweet smell around. Let my Beloved come into his garden, let him taste its rarest fruits.” His invitation is irresistible. “The Bride can say at the same time ‘my garden’ and ‘his garden’, for it is the same. She belongs to herself because she belongs completely to him. The more she is his, the more she is herself. All her desire from then on is to yield to his presence in total self-surrender.” 4 He awakens the beauty within her and stirs up her desire for love, for union with Him who will fulfill her every longing and transfigure her wounds. His loving presence gives birth to a deep joy within her as she invites him to penetrate the neglected garden of her heart. Recognizing him as the source of her own beauty, she discovers herself more fully through her union with him. She has invited him into her garden to water it, renew it, and make it fruitful. United with Supreme Love, her happiness knows no bounds. It seems that what should follow is that they “lived happily ever after,” but the Bride is weak.
The ensuing passage of the Song of Songs reveals the reality of wounded human nature. The Bridegroom is once more outside, knocking to be let in. He has withstood the night and cold, waiting patiently for her to let him in, but she replies, “I have taken off my tunic, am I to put it on again? I have washed my feet, am I to dirty them again?” What befell her initial response of acceptance and delight? Laziness has replaced her fervor. Allowing physical comforts to obstruct her Beloved, the Bride reveals the shallowness of human love and its inclination toward lesser goods. All Christians desire union with God but become easily distracted by obstacles on the journey that impede their prompt response in following the voice of the Beloved. How often does one proclaim His undivided love but the next moment refuse to rise from the couch to spend time with the Beloved! In the Transfiguration account, the Father proclaims, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him.” Although sleepy, the disciples forced themselves to stay awake in order to witness the profound mystery of His transfigured appearance and the wisdom of His conversation with Moses and Elijah. The voice of the Beloved may be quiet within one’s soul, and it becomes harder to hear the more one is immersed in comforts and distractions. Christ does not force Himself into any soul but waits for the soul to make the decision to come out of itself in order to belong fully to the Beloved and listen to His voice. However, the Bride delayed to let Him in, and she lost Him! “I opened to my Beloved, but he had turned his back and gone!” Realizing her extreme folly and unfaithfulness, she runs out to find him. The reality of the treasure she had lost by her hesitation impacts her fully and her laziness transforms into intense activity as she runs without abandon through the streets seeking Him. The grace of repentance spurs her to search for Him, and her inquiry concerning Him actually serves as a means for evangelization. She asks the daughters of Jerusalem, “Have you seen Him who my heart loves?” She begins to describe Him as “fresh and ruddy,” accenting his brilliance in contrast to her darkness. “In fact, we have, in his face, the union of sah (white) of the light—as is said about the clothing of Jesus during the transfiguration…with red, crimson (adom) , which is the color of love.” 5 Certainly as she describes him, her desire for him only heightens, her repentance deepens and her search for him intensifies. Now the daughters of Jerusalem desire to know him too! Ironically, brokenness and sin can become the means to leading not only oneself but also others to the Lord. The Christian must not despair over his infidelity but use it as a catalyst for deeper union and participation in the mission of the Beloved. The Lord delights in the soul that seeks Him.
The Bride discovers that “the one she was looking for was nowhere else but in her own heart…the Bridegroom, during all the time that his friend was calling him and running after him in desolation, had not run away to the end of the world. He silently retreated to the heart of his love.”6 Burdened by the dispossession of the Beloved, one must simply peer within his heart to discover that He has been there all along. The fear of separation subsides in front of the realization that Christ’s fidelity does not mirror the measure of the soul’s fidelity. St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy contains this message of hope: “If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny Himself.” It is not the frantic running through the streets of Jerusalem that reveals his presence but the quiet epiphany that the Bride experiences within herself. No infidelity outweighs the love of Christ. He remains, although perhaps hidden, until the soul discovers the silent presence of the Lord within and chooses to enter into that quiet place of reunion. The Transfiguration occurred on a mountain, apart from the busyness of the city. The apostles spent every day with Jesus, but it was only in the silence and solitude of Mount Tabor where he was transfigured before them. The Bride’s reclusion of self-absorption disappears as she absorbs herself in the recesses of His heart. “Today she wants to be totally his, as he is hers. ‘I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine’ can therefore appear as the exact and fervent response, in the terms of the renewed covenant, to the horrible formula of divorce that had once been uttered.”7 Repenting of her infidelity, she returns to his embrace, awakened by his merciful presence and unremitting love. Like the Apostles on Mount Tabor, she experiences the transfiguration of God. What follows from this awesome encounter?
The event of the Transfiguration is a mystery of faith. “By His transfiguration, Jesus strengthens His disciples’ faith, revealing a trace of the glory His body will have after the Resurrection. He wants them to realize that His passion will not be the end but rather the route He will take to reach His glorification.” 8 Having experienced His glory, they must follow Him down the mountain and participate in his ministry and experience his Passion. This depicts the reality of a transfigured life. If the Christian can say with the Bride, “My Beloved is Mine, and I am His,” can he also say with the Bridegroom, “I will climb the palm tree…I will seize the clusters of dates”? The Bridegroom’s desire to climb the palm tree prefigures the Crucifixion where Christ mounted the cross9 for the salvation of the world. The Apostles followed in the footsteps of Christ. Transfiguration demands action. A soul truly united with Christ must live his transfigured existence by embracing the suffering that comes from union with the Beloved. Marriage involves an immense joy but also sacrifice. The union of the Bride with her Bridegroom calls for a continual affirmation of love that will withstand through all trials. The soul truly converted must ask himself, “Am I willing to not only bask in the light of His transfiguring glory but to embrace anything that will come as I follow Christ?” The converted soul has been called forth from the clefts of the rock to become one with Christ. Although still possessing one’s weak human nature, grace perfects this nature to enable one to live a supernatural life. The journey of the pilgrim Christian involves a daily assent to living a transfigured life. Fear of falling through weakness is replaced by a deep faith in the constancy and mercy of the one who transfigures and never grows weary of guiding the pilgrim along the journey to complete Beatitude.