betrayal, Bible, biblical wisdom, ecclesiology, love, sexuality, Solomon, Song of Solomon, suffering
The worst wounds are the wounds caused by other Christians. In direct persecution, one can at least identify someone doing something evil to one. In general adversity, one can rage at the turn of events without needing to mold them into a neat narrative. But pain and betrayal that we experience from other Christians are of a different order. They are of a different order because the person doing the afflicting is part of the same body as the afflicted. To hate the other – the wounder – is in a sense to hate someone who is part of you, which one cannot do. And so these matters remain so often unresolved. We cannot cut ourselves off from the body, nor can we take control of it. And so it is that such wounds lead to deep confusion and perhaps far deeper lasting effects than any other kind of wound. When we are hurt from the outside, we can cleave to the body of Christ; but when those in the body of Christ hurt each other, to what can we cling?
This, I think, is why betrayal is such a central problem in the Biblical narrative, perhaps even more than the more recent and modern problem of evil: “Even my friend, who has shared bread with me, has lifted up his heel against me,” says the Psalmist. Job too is about the betrayal of friends, with the central question being God’s apparent betrayal of his friendship with Job. Indeed, the Old Testament is a narrative of a faithful God dealing with a treacherous people, with the determining moment being the crucifixion scene when creatures perform the ultimate act of betrayal against their creator. Given such a narrative, it is not surprising that Dante reserves the deepest pit of hell for traitors, particularly the archetypal Judas who is the model of intra-ecclesial wounding. Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come.
But to return from types and archetypes to the matter at hand, my purpose in this post is to hazard – and I do so gingerly and tentatively, because I don’t want to say more than should be said – that wounds between Christians are a little like the spiritual counterpart of sexual violation. Because sexuality is a locus and crossroads for so many parts of ourselves, sexual abuse and violation assault that very core of ourselves that might give us fortitude and strength when facing less intrusive wounding. Even so, wounds dealt within the church are dealt in a space of intimacy, and therefore throw into conflict that very faith that might otherwise be our mainstay – they affect a spiritual nexus of faith that shapes and channels our identities, even as sexual abuse affects the psychological and existential nexus that converges in matters of sexuality.
Indeed, even if one is not a romantic, and knows that “such things must come” among Christians – even then, no amount of cognitive anticipation can prepare one existentially. The kiss of Judas is always expected, yet also, by its very nature, always a surprise. And we are devastated. And what I want to talk about here are some partially formed thoughts I have been having on these matters and the Song of Solomon. As per Christian tradition, I will be taking the relationship between Christ and his church as the primary meaning of this, and the more overtly erotic interpretation as the secondary meaning (even as marriage is sacramental before it is erotic). The relevant passage is below, from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 5:
2 I sleep, and my heart watcheth: the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights.
3 I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?
4 My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch.
5 I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.
6 I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me.
7 The keepers that go about the city found me: they struck me: and wounded me: the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him that I languish with love.
9 What manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, O thou most beautiful among women? what manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, that thou hast so adjured us?
10 My beloved is white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.
11 His head is as the finest gold: his locks as branches of palm trees, black as a raven.
12 His eyes as doves upon brooks of waters, which are washed with milk, and sit beside the plentiful streams.
13 His cheeks are as beds of aromatical spices set by the perfumers. His lips are as lilies dropping choice myrrh.
14 His hands are turned and as of gold, full of hyacinths. His belly as of ivory, set with sapphires.
15 His legs as pillars of marble, that are set upon bases of gold. His form as of Libanus, excellent as the cedars.
16 His throat most sweet, and he is all lovely: such is my beloved, and he is my friend, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.
17 Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou most beautiful among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside, and we will seek him with thee?
I am not going to lay out the meaning of these passages verse by verse, but it is enough to say that what we encounter at the beginning is an invitation to intimacy, exposure, and vulnerability. Regardless of whether we take this as simply a late night bedroom visit, or whether we take the language of keyholes, head, dew, and bowels in a more suggestive direction, the “beloved knocking” is seeking vulnerable intimacy with the primary speaker. However, what happens to her is what lovers exposing themselves most fear – her beloved and the context of trust that accompanies him disappear just as she responds to him, and her response without an answering context of trust and safety leaves her exposed and feeling foolish in the streets – again, an image subject to a variety of interpretations, but at bottom representative of the intimate vulnerability that is the pleasure of love in the presence of the beloved, but the cause of deepest shame and embarrassment when exposed to the public eye. Indeed, in this moment of intimacy, when she is, so to speak, caught in the act, she is not only shamed, but physically harmed – to make things worse, beaten by those who are supposed to protect the city, the keepers of the walls. “Who watches the watchmen?” indeed!
To clarify from the start, I do not intend to interpret this story as a model for how Christians should respond to sexual abuse anymore than I would follow some in mistaking the Song for the Christian version of a Kama-sutra-like sex manual. It is neither, and to force it to be either obscures the deeper meanings of the book, even as it straightjackets those who hold it as such into a shallow imposed formula not at all designed to deal with human complexity.
What I do want to suggest though is that, in its primary mystical sense, it does present a suggested response to abuse, but this abuse is of the spiritual kind – the identity shattering wounds described above which are the spiritual counterparts of bodily sexual violence. To be clear again, I do not mean in doing this to offer the Christian response to such wounds, but rather to use the text as a way of unwrapping and thinking about ways it might help us navigate our own moments of discovered shame, vulnerability, and wounding in the church.
To be part of the Christian church is to be intimate with Christ and His body. For those of us from an Evangelical background, we know this intimacy best through the beautiful, dangerous, and holy experience of pouring our hearts out to fellow Christians. For those of us who are Catholic, such intimacy, in my experience, comes through the sacrament of reconciliation, or the fact of baring our souls before the blessed sacrament during adoration or the celebration of Eucharist. In any case, regardless of the manifestation of our experience, there is always risk, because we are vulnerable in the body of Christ amidst His people – and some of them may wound us in exactly that place where we experience intimacy most deeply. This does not in the least discredit the church; the first lesson in ecclesiology is Christ’s words that some will arise within the church to distort the truth, and charging the church with hypocrisy in her body is to forget that she prophesied it well before we were around to notice.
Expected though it may be, however, the toll on the wounded individual is grave and disorienting indeed, and this leads me to the question I think the aforementioned passage from the Song of Solomon can help us think about: I After such deep wounding, can we ever fall in love again, that is, into something that is more than intellect and assent of the will? Can we know the intimacy of Christ on this side of heaven? Or are we stuck in wariness and confusion till the present age passes? To be clear, my question is not whether those so hurt can be Christians and part of the church – of course they can. My question is rather whether they will be allowed in this world to feel again. I don’t have an answer, and indeed, the answer probably varies depending on the individual in question and the depth of wounding.
What I do suggest though is that this passage in the Song offers an example of recovery in such an instance. And there are a few aspects of this recovery I think we can learn from. One thing that we can notice is that the initiation of healing is on the side of the beloved herself, but it is also very brief and inadequate. She knows enough of her woundedness to be able to identify herself as sick of love, but is able to say little more. And this is where it is the business of fellow Christians to step in, figured here as the daughters of Jerusalem.
It is their job – and therefore ours – to respond to an inarticulate cry of pain and take up the burden of negotiating that pain. The beloved herself is too wounded in too intimate a place to be able to do this, and so the rest of the church takes up this burden for her. And the nature of this burden is to help the beloved see her lover again, to help her, if we might recall the Lacanian phrase to its Augustinian roots, never give up on her desire. She is catechised concerning the beauty of the lover, and presumably this allows her, at least partially, to recall and re-experience her love for Him. When the beatific vision of the lover is eclipsed for the beloved – that is, for the Christian – by fear, it is the rest of the church’s job to recall to her His image which will in turn recall her to adoration.
This will probably not be exactly the same kind of love as before – love raised to life after shame differs from its former form, even as the resurrected body of Christ differs from His former body. But it does suggest there may be hope for those of us blundering about in the dark after all the candles have been snuffed in the Cathedral. We for our part can do what we can do – produce a feeble and confused cry of pain – and we can only hope that there are those in the church who will respond to that incoherence and love us back to life. For it would seem to be God’s purpose that wounds that can only be opened in the intimacy of the church can also only be mended in that same intimacy by those willing to hear the intention rather than the matter of a cry of pain that is also a prayer.