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Part Two of Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J. | The Introduction to The Cantata of Love | Part One

The Witnessing of the Fathers of the Church and the Mystics

For centuries, the vast majority of the Christians did not read the Song otherwise. Very early, the Fathers of the Church developed what will be called the allegorical interpretation or spiritual significance of the Song. "This little book is understood from beginning to end as expressing the heart of the revelation diffused in all of Scripture: it celebrates symbolically the great mystery of love, the union of God and man, foreshadowed in Israel and achieved through the Incarnation of the Word." [7]

Origen, in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Ambrose in the fourth century, as well as Saint Augustine at a later date and Gregory the Great in the seventh century, can be described as unanimous in perceiving in the Song the poem of the marriage of God with his people, of God with the Church, of God with any soul intent on loving him." 'The mystical preaching' of this 'divine book' is understood by all [the Fathers] in the same way when it comes to its essentials.' [8] They will not be quoted here because the book is replete with their commentaries. We can only mention one name, as we did earlier: Theodore of Mopsuestia, who deviated from their opinion in the fifth century.

How can we also not admire the fact that, in the wake of the Fathers of the Church, mystics of all times were always attracted and fascinated, as it were, by the Song, discovering in these burning verses the most personal expression of their love? There is no inhibition, not the slightest reticence, among the purest and most transparent of them when they address God with the images and words – apparently overloaded with human passion – of the Song. This can be seen in Ruysbroeck, Tauler, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross – but we would have to quote almost all of them. Francis de Sales was only seventeen years old in 1584, when he took a course in Paris with Génébrard on the Song of Songs. He was dazzled. "The Song of Songs", says Henri Bremond, "became his favorite book. No one perhaps has 'lived' it as he did." [9] His Traité de l'amour de Dieu bears witness to this in almost all its pages.

Such a love for the Song of Songs is characteristic not only of the contemplatives who have left the world. Marie de l'Incarnation, an Ursuline sister from Tours, who can be seen as one of the greatest figures of the missionary epic and whom John Paul II, in his beatification speech, was to call "the mother of the Canadian Church", had no dearer book for her private prayers. "In the words of the Song which she read in its entirety in 1631 or 1632 [i.e., during her novitiate], she recognized, as is pointed out by Dom Oury, her excellent biographer, a description of her personal experience.... And from then on, the book of the Song was to be the most often quoted by her when writing about her inner life.... Dom Claude Martin [her son] even states that in her conversations 'the words of Scripture that were heard the most frequently in her mouth came from the Song of Songs.' Submistress of the novices, she suggested to them topics that came generally from Holy Scripture and especially from the Song of Songs." [10]

It was very daring; and we find this again in Thérèse of the Child Jesus, proclaimed patron saint of all the missions by Pius XI. She too was submistress of the novitiate when she was about twenty years old, and we know from the testimony of Mary of the Trinity at the beatification trial that she had wished – at her age, to novices, and in those days! – to explain the Song of Songs. "If I had the time," she confides, "I would like to comment on the Song of Songs. I have discovered in this book such profound things about the union of the soul with her beloved." Father Hans Urs von Balthasar was able to say from the pulpit of Notre Dame that "the Song of Songs, which for thousands of years has been, as it were, a secret sanctuary for the Church, stands at the center of Thérèse's spirituality."

And so it was already at the core of the spirituality of her father, John of the Cross, of whom it is said that at the point of death "he interrupted the prior of the Carmelites who had started to read the prayers of recommendation for the soul. 'Tell me about the Song of Songs (los Cantares!); this other thing is of no use to me', he gently implored. And when the verses of the Song were read to him, he commented as if in a dream: 'Oh, what precious pearls!'" [11]

Would it be possible that the Holy Spirit had thus let entire generations of mystics err in good faith, by permitting them to take as a word of his love what was in fact a wholly human passion? That he could have allowed to such a degree in their hearts, aflame with the sole love of God, a song that would have been born of nothing but love between man and woman and would have no other object? That he communicated interiorly to his friends, in order to draw them to himself, such a spontaneous and deep taste for stanzas composed for the intentions of newlyweds at their marriage feast? Was it then through such a detour that the beloved of God were going to him, without being aware of it? But how could the mystics themselves, these beings who are so sensitized to what comes from God and so instinctively aware of what is not from him, not have discerned that they were being duped when they spoke so lovingly to God in the language of the Song?

Let us suppose now that they did not already have this strong instinct: their familiarity with God's Word would have been enough to strengthen them in their conviction that by reading the Song they were reading the love letter of God to his people. The countless links between the Poem and the other books of the Bible do indeed testify all the time that, under the rich apparel of the symbols and the fantastic poetical incantation, it is the very Word of God that is heard. The Song is not an isolated poem in Scripture. From this viewpoint, the parallels that were quite suggestively drawn between the Song and the love songs of the Near and Middle East, especially those of ancient Egypt, are not by far as compelling as those that definitely tie it with prophetic literature.

First, with the Book of Hosea, Henri Cazelles points this out quite objectively: "The Song", he writes, "belongs in fact to the theological thinking of the prophet Hosea, who was the first to compare the relationships between Yahweh and his people to those that obtain between a man and his wife." [12] "It is also now my personal conviction", writes Father Tournay, "that it is impossible to account for the complete text [of the Song] if one does not see it as a lyrical transposition, full of fantasy to be sure, of the traditional prophetical theme of the wedding between Yahweh and Israel. And only the nuptial allegory as it appears in Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the second and third parts of Isaiah can give a normal and homogeneous meaning to all the parts of the Song." Which enables André Robert to say for his part and without the slightest exaggeration: "The Song is superlatively biblical." In the same vein, did not Origen already point out that "located in the middle of the Bible, the Song lifts to its height the great fundamental image, going from the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation: mankind has become the bride of God"? And it is indeed because he reads the Song with the eyes of all the Fathers of the Church and her mystics that Pope John Paul II, while talking to French women Religious on May 30, 1980, was able to tell them so clearly: "Your personal journey must be like an original new edition of the famous poem in the Song of Songs."

Flesh and Spirit

However, even though they were convinced that the Song, in its first and literal meaning, is the poem above all others of the wedding of God and man, the Fathers of the Church and mystics throughout the centuries were always conscious of the serious problem posed by the Song for the unprepared reader. "Such passages," writes Saint John of the Cross, "if they are not read in the simplicity of the spirit of love and of intelligence that fills them, might seem to be rather extravagant and not a sensible discourse; as can be seen in the Songs of Solomon and other treatises of Holy Scripture in which the Holy Spirit, not being able to express a deep meaning in common and vulgar words, uses veiled terms with images and strange similitudes." [13]

The risk is in fact so great that if the eyes are not sufficiently purified, one can be trapped by the sensual aspect of the images and words.

It is after all possible to read the Song at a very human and even gross level. It is unavoidable for those who still live under the sway of the senses. Teresa of Avila deemed it necessary to warn her Carmelites: "It will seem to you that in these Songs certain things might have another style. Our stupidity is such that this would not surprise me. I heard certain people say that they would rather avoid listening to them. Merciful God, how great is our stupidity!" [14]

Among "certain people", there was probably a place of honor for Father Diego de Yanguas, who was so shocked by Teresa's "thoughts" about the Song that he wrote immediately to her: "Throw this into the fire! It is not decent for a woman to write about the Song."' [15]

God is the one who, in his desire to touch the heart of man, does not hesitate to use the language that is the most accessible to his sensibilities. "He stooped", Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, "to the language of our weakness." [16] Just as the Word had one day to empty itself in our flesh and to take on the lowliness of our condition, he did from the start of his revelation empty himself in his written word, committing himself to our words and carnal images. "In order to inflame our hearts to his sacred love," as Saint Gregory the Great states in his magnificent style, "he goes as far as using the language of our crude love, and, stooping thus in his words, he raises up our under standing; indeed, it is through the language of this love that we learn how strongly we must burn with divine love." [17] If God had not dared to speak the most human and ardent language of love, would we have had the audacity to believe in the passion his Heart contains for us? This is also why, far from being reserved to certain privileged souls, "the Song is a book for all people, a book that makes us rediscover and walk the way of love's journey." [18]

We must however be warned about this pedagogy; we must not at the beginning of the score of divine music change the key indecently; we must not come to the wedding without wearing "a wedding garment" (Mt 22:12). If, consequently, as Gregory of Nyssa puts it, "the soul of certain people is not ready to listen [to the Song], let them listen to Moses admonishing us not to dare start the climb on the spiritual mountain.... We must," Gregory adds, "when we want to devote ourselves to contemplation [of the Song], forget thoughts related to marriage ... so that, having extinguished all carnal appetites, it will be only through the spirit that our intelligence will simmer lovingly, warmed by the fire that the Lord has come to bring on earth. " [19] Then, as Origen had already affirmed, "one will not run the risk of being scandalized by images depicting and representing the love of the Bride for the heavenly Bridegroom." [20]

After these serious warnings about the Song, we are quite startled, not to say discouraged, when we read Saint Bernard reiterating them while addressing his monks. Here is how he opens his preaching on the Song before his brothers at Clairvaux: "Saint Paul says: 'We preach wisdom to the perfect'; I would like to believe that you are perfect! . . . One cannot start reading this book [the Song] unless he has reached a certain degree of purity. Any other reading would be unworthy if the flesh had not been tamed, if it had not yet been submitted to the spirit by an exacting discipline.... Light is useless to the eyes of a blind man, and the animal in man does not perceive what comes from the Spirit of God." [21] How could such words not affect us? If monks might not be pure enough to receive the Song worthily, how could we be ready to approach it?

It seems to us, though, that in the back of one of the last stalls of the abbey choir, while Bernard is speaking, a small Cistercian novice, still callow and poorly initiated in the Word of Wisdom, quite new to the science of love, is however listening to the words of his abbot with delight. He does not bother to ask himself whether he has reached the necessary degree of purity and maturity. Quite simply: he is happy. And when he hears Brother Bernard exclaim at the end, "Who will break the bread of the Word? Here is the father of the family! Recognize him who is breaking the bread; it is the Lord!", the little monk has no hesitation: it is for him, above all for the smallest among them, that the father of the family has broken the wonderful bread.

With the same daring trust and the same avidity, we in turn would like to receive even a few crumbs of this bread since we are still very imperfect children, but also loving ones.


Note: This introduction did not touch upon the composition of the Song of Songs. Does it make any sense in this case to talk about composition? Many exegetes believe that there is no order to be sought. Rather than one Poem, the Song would be only a collection of poems of various origins, an "anthology of songs" (Dhorme), grouped together only because of their common inspiration and beauty. Still, we will attempt to show in the following pages that the division into five poems, preceded by a Prologue and followed by a Conclusion – as adopted by André Robert–is fully justified.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, La gloire et la croix, Vol . 3 (Paris: Aubier, 1974), 115 - 116, 124; quoting the viewpoint of Gerleman.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Émile Osty, "Introduction au Cantique des Cantiques", La Bible (Paris: Seuil, 1973), 1356. (See also the New Jerusalern Bible, 1028.)

[4] Ep 5:31-32. Note f in TOB: In a very compact sentence, Jean-Paul Audet expresses this very clearly: "The apparent theme of the Song is the love between the Bridegroom and the Bride; but its real theme is the prophetic theme of the love of Yahweh for his people." Jean-Paul Audet, Revue Biblique, no. 62 (1955): p. 207.

[5] Henri Bergson, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, Oeuvres (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970), 1010.

[6] André Chouraqui, "Introduction au Poéme des Poémes", La Bible (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1975), 27.

[7] Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, pt. 1, vol. 2. (Paris: Aubier, 1959), 560.

[8] Ibid., 560.

[9] Henri Bremond, Sainte Chantal, coll: "Les saints" (Paris: Victor Lecoffre, 1912,), 56.

[10] Guy-Marie Oury, Marie de l'Incarnation, vol. I (Quebec/Abbaye de Saint-Pierre, Solesmes: Presses de I'Université Laval, 1973), 234.

[11] Crisogono de Jésus, Jean de la Croix, sa vie (Paris: Cerf, 1982), 383.

[12] Quoted by Raymond Tornay in "Les affinités du Ps XLV avec le Cantique des Cantiques; et leur interpretation messionique", Supplements to Vetus Testamentum IX, Congress Volume (Bonn, 1962), 168-212.While maintaining very firmly the essentially messianic perspective of the Song, Tournay questions however certain "very important points" that he had once held in common with Andre Robert. He explains this quite clearly in the preface of his recent work: "It was during the Persian era that an inspired poet selected old love songs of Egyptian origin and incorporated them with many other texts of diverse origins into his original poetic work meant for believing Jews of his time. Being perfectly initiated in the history and traditions of their people, the faithful of Yahweh needed them to be stimulated and strengthened in their messianic waiting, which was running the risk of getting weaker and even of disappearing because of the apparently indefinite delay in the advent of a new Solomon, son of David. We can then understand why certain parts of the Song, which undoubtedly had a purely erotic significance, acquired a new and genuinely biblical meaning through their insertion in a booklet expressing the requited love of the new Solomon, the longed-for messiah, and of his betrothed, the daughter of Zion." Quand Dieu parle aux hommes le langage de amour (Paris: Gabalda, 1982), 45.

[13] Saint John of the Cross, Cantique spirituel, Prologue, Oeuvres completes, Bibliothèque européenne (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1958), 525.

14 Saint Teresa of Avila, Pensees sur l' amour de Dieu, Oeuvres completes, Bibliothéque européenne (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964), 1:3, 562.

[15] Ibid., 1146nn.

[16] Saint Gregory the Great, Moralium, XX, XXXII; PL 76, 175A.

[17] Saint Gregory the Great, Expositio in Canticum Canticorum 3; CCL 144, 4.

[18] André Robert, "Le Cantique des Cantiques", La Bible de Jérusalem (Paris: Cerf, 1958), 25.

[19] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, In Canticum Canticorum, Homily I, PG 44, 763 ff.

[20] Origen, In Canticum Canticorum, PG 13, 75-76.

[21] Saint Bernard, Sermons sur le Cantique des Cantiques, Oeuvres mystiques, Sermon I (Paris: Seuil, 1953), 85-86.

Blaise Arminjon, S.J. was for many years the provincial of the Jesuits of the Lyon province where he oversaw the formation of young Jesuits and was a renowned master of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, giving them to religious and laity alike throughout Europe.

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