The details are hazy to me, but there is a story about a Winnipeg priest guilty of pedophilic abuse. Alongside the legal questions was the question of his priesthood – what was his vocation now he was convicted? Those concerned consulted another priest with wisdom in pastoral matters. His response? Chain him to the organ – keep him away from kids – and let him learn to sing the gospel in his chains. It is the answer they generally don’t teach you in pastoral care 101. But there is some blunt truth in it.
I am not in the same position, but I know enough – I am a sinner. And though the chains I feel are more psychological and subtly psychosocial than material in this way, they keep me fast nonetheless. I’m not going anywhere. In the words of Hopkins, “Birds build, but not I build.” Nonetheless, there is something I can do. However alienated and lonely and unChristian I feel, I can sing what I don’t fully understand. I can sing the gospel out of my chains.
But I’m going to begin at a rather odd Scriptural place. The gospel is not found in the gospels alone, and I suspect there are many “little gospels” strewn throughout the Bible and awaiting discovery through Christ who is the key of interpretation. For me, the gospel I return to again and again is the triad of Solomonic books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Canticle. Not that this is in any way a different gospel than those we find in the gospels proper, but rather that we find in these books the body of Christ proclaimed in those gospels.
But what is the gospel in this triad? Traditionally, these books have been considered in terms of a mystical ascent. Proverbs holds social day-to-day morality, Ecclesiastes is the ascetic confrontation with the vanity of the world, and the Song is the mad love story that is our erotic life with Christ. And all this must of course be understood as something different than a merely secular Platonic ascent – it all takes place in, with, and through the body of Christ.
For the longest time, my “place” in this gospel has been Ecclesiastes – the stubborn and dogged attempt to map the hollow footprints God has left upon the earth to frustrate us. And it has been good – the next best thing to approaching the presence of God is approaching His absence and touching the indentation his body left in the bed while he was lying beside you and you knew it not. Yet recently, I have seen something else. I have begun to discover what it means to move from the via negativa of Ecclesiastes toward the more kataphatic. – though no less frustrating therefore – Song of Solomon.
I have always trusted that the Song is something I would eventually understand, but till now I think I had neither a full enough grasp of Christology and ecclesiology, nor had I inclination on account of the juvenile fantasies that have grown up among Christians and tried to present the Song as a Christian Kama Sutra. Nonetheless, something unlocked in me as we approached Easter this year, and I began realizing that the Song is best understood contextually within the Passion narrative – for there too we have not only longing and love and pain and pleasure, but the very definitions of these things in Christ. And this answered one of my reasons for deferring engagement with the Song: a fear that it would gloss the difficulties and frustrations of life with a flip romanticism proclaiming ” You think you have problems, but really all you need is to get laid.”
But what I was happy to find is that the Song is honest. It is not a dissolution of frustration through sexuality, but rather a translation. Life for those in the Song isn’t any less vexing than life for those in Ecclesiastes. But they are in love – confusing, complicated, inscrutable love – and this is the key. The dead end of Ecclesiastean vanity is translated into the purgatorial love longing of the song. Things are not easier. But I am my beloved’s, and he is mine – even though there’s no end to the ways he drives me nuts.
Most recently, I have been trying to capture this shift in poetry. And though the entirety of the poem is probably, as they say nowadays, NSFW, I would like to share a conclusion of one of these poems reflecting on the frustrating tension in the Song between individuated, jealous love for Christ and the seemingly mutually exclusive fact that Solomon has concubines and Christ has the rest of His church – their loves are not exclusive at all. I know it may sound like a rather frustrating conclusion to some. But please be patient with me – to begin finding Christ and the conclusion of His Song annoying rather than not finding him at all is a significant thing for me:
But though I warned him I would forget,
It is he who has now forgotten.
When I learned of his litter
Lathered with love
For the daughters of Israel
– harlots without number –
It was not enough to tell me
I was the only jewel of my mother –
I would be His alone.
“I will be to you like a hart on the mountains,”
He said in reply –
And indeed he has been
As inscrutable as that.