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SONG OF SONGS

A CISTERCIAN RETREAT

FR. ALBERIC
FARBOLIN, NEW MELLERAY ABBEY





Fr. Finbar, Pluscarden Abbey, and Kids


Friday night: “THE CONVERSION TO FORMS”


t happens one night that,
A Cambridge professor engages a student
In a very lively and absorbing philosophical discussion that lasts
Into the wee hours of the morning.
Says the professor at one point:
“A little puppy dog suffering from rabies
Would probably struggle for life as we were killing it . . .
But if we were kind – we should kill the puppy.
Likewise – a truly omniscient, all knowing God,
Would put US out of our pain.
He would simply strike us dead.”
Reflecting a moment, the student asks his teacher:
“Why doesn’t God strike us dead?”
“Because - He is dead himself.” answers the philosopher,
“And THAT is why God” is truly enviable,
“To anyone who thinks deeply,
The pleasures of this life, trivial and soon tasteless,
Are simply bribes to bring us into the torture chamber.
We all see that for any thinking man, mere extinction is actually . . .
 
The professor stops in mid sentence, his eyes widen; his jaw drops.
The student with whom he’s been engaging in philosophical debate
Has just produced a gun and is pointing the gun – at him.
The professor screams: “My God! What are you doing?”, lunges backward,
Scrambles over a chair toward the window and
Manages to climb out, only to find himself a moment later
Perched on top of a gargoyle unable to go any further.
 
Just then, just at this moment, on the last morning of his life,
The sun rises, bathing the world before him in an enchantment of color.
All at once, an amazing abundance of shapes and FORMS APPEAR,
Bathed in the most exquisite nuances of pinks, and blues and violets, . . .
A thousand variegated FORMS blooming splendidly all around him,
In the silence before dawn . . .
 
“Let me come down off this place . . . PLEASE”
The professor begs miserably,
“I can’t bear this!”
“Do I understand you to say,” says the man with the gun “That
You want to come back to life?”
“I would give anything, absolutely anything to come back.”
Says the philosopher.
“Anything!” says the student, “Really!”
“Then I’ll have a song damn you.  Sing for me.  I said sing!”
At which point the professor eeks out a rather plantive song
Taught to him when he was a little boy:
“I thank the goodness and the grace,
That on my birth have smiled,
And perched me on this curious place,
A happy English child!”
After which, the student obliges his teacher
To present to God an itemized thanksgiving list
Of all the beautiful things he can see from his perch
On top of that gargoyle outside the window:
For the ducks on the pond,
For houses just becoming visible
For light shimmering on rain puddles,
For sticks and rags and bones,
And for spotted curtains glimpsed through framed windows.
 
Later that day giving a deposition to the police,
The young man charged with attempted murder,
Says to his teacher:
“It was absolutely necessary for me to know what you really believed
I trusted you.”
 
And as they’re parting, turning finally to the professor he says:
“What you realized sitting on top of that stupid gargoyle
Was that the world is a beautiful place:
I know that because – I SAW IT at the same moment you did:
When the sun came up and the grey clouds turned pink,
Then I saw the little gilt clock in the space between the houses . . .”
I saw the little gilt clock in the space between the houses
And it was THEN I realized . . .
IT WAS THOSE THINGS
IT WAS THOSE INDIVIDUAL VERY PARTICULAR THINGS
YOU HATED TO LEAVE – NOT LIFE,
WHATEVER THAT IS.”
 
 
This story, fortunately, is not a true story,
It is taken from the novel “Manalive” by G.K. Chesterton.
 
“It was THINGS you hated to leave . . .
Not life, whatever that is.”
 
What is the student saying?
He is saying: “life” as a topic for philosophical debate;
Something we can contemplate as an abstraction,
Regard with detachment; weigh in the balance and find wanting . . .
“Life” – is NOT THE POINT:
It was not “life” the professor was afraid to lose,
It was THINGS – all those beautiful and manifold created THINGS!
The ducks, the gilt clock, the sticks and rags and bones of this world.
It was things, CREATURES the professor loved
And cleaved to with all his heart; so much so he was moved to say:
To his would-be assassin,
“Please – Oh, please let me come back!”
 
I took a risk beginning a quiet contemplative retreat
With this rather disconcerting story,
A story in which you yourself have been, in a sense,
Forced out a window and made to perch on top of a gargoyle.
Having pushed you out the window on to that gargoyle,
I’m going to take another risk,
And recommend as your retreat director that – YOU STAY THERE.
I’m going to suggest that imaginatively but really,
You spend the whole of the next two days perched on that gargoyle.
 
I’m aware it’s not a very comfortable place to sit,
But it is, for all that, such a wonderful place to sit – isn’t it?
BECAUSE OF THE VIEW IT AFFORDS of life; of the created world,
And of the mystery of the human heart,
Awakening to the reality of God – IN THINGS.
 
Stay there, this weekend, brothers and sisters;
Stay perched on top of that gargoyle as the sun comes up
Shedding its kindly beams on the world,
And make your own the vitally important lesson learned
By our poor terrified Philosopher:
What did he learn?
 
He learned that THIS WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL PLACE
And that what he loved; loved so much it made his heart ache,
Was the very individual particular things
That make up this world.
His training as a philosopher led him to believe that
Because creatures are finite, limited, and destined to pass away
They have no value!
But this was a monstrous conceit of his intellect – was it not?
Because no matter what philosophy may conclude,
Life teaches us that creatures; THINGS that are finite, limited, and passing
Are beautiful, precious . . .
They are magic PRECISELY AS things that are finite and pass away.
Note that!
They are invaluable to us precisely because they are passing away.
That’s why we love them!
As the sun came up on what he believed was the last day of his life,
The professor experienced a CONVERSION TO THINGS:
With that gun pointed at the back of his head,
He had a whole new perception and appreciation for
Ducks, clocks, rags, sticks and bones . . .
Beautiful, indescribably beautiful precious and desirable all of them,
So long as they last and precisely because THEY WILL NOT LAST . . .
This is what our HEART teaches us about the beauty of the world:
The heart wrenching paradox that
The Eternal God MANIFESTS HIMSELF TO US
In the BEAUTY OF FINITE THINGS PASSING AWAY . . .
 
Our particular object of contemplation this week-end
Is the Song of Songs.
If you are going to benefit from this meditation,
It will be absolutely necessary
For you to let your HEART tell you
As ONLY YOUR HEART KNOWS, all about the beauty of things
The finite, limited things of this world which are passing away.
 
Three years ago, I gave this group a talk on asceticism
Which just happened to be scheduled about a week before I went to Rome
To spend three months studying.
In my talk I proposed the life style of the Romans,
Which one author has called the simple pursuit of pleasure
As the opposite of the ascetical life.
And I strongly recommended the latter.
This week-end, I’m going to be pressing almost the opposite point,
And encourage you, accompanied by the Lord and his Holy Spirit,
To suspend somewhat your ascetical impulse to dismiss or devalue
The passing and finite things of God’s creation,
And take another look, a long contemplative look
At the beauty of creatures:
Of nature, of human love, of human bodies, touch, affections, speech, song,
 
The task, I propose for you this week-end is that
While savoring A FEW BASIC TRUTHS OF CHRISTIAN REVELATION
And from your seat on that gargoyle,
TO LOOK AT THE WORLD WITH NEW EYES.
I’m going to propose that revelation has the power to open your eyes
To the truth of HOW THINGS REALLY LOOK;
To the beauty of God’s creation whose whole purpose is to speak –
Rather to sing of what has been revealed to us about God
In Jesus Christ.
God’s creation is haunted and shimmers with the light
That burst on the world in Jesus’ passion death and resurrection.
 
Some of you were curious to hear me report on my experience in Rome.
I will simply say the experience changed my life.
At the end of the program, I spent a week in Florence
And one day, a little shell-shocked by the mobs converging on Florence in the Spring,
I turned down a quiet nearly abandoned street near the Duomo.
As I walked, my nerves a little frazzled,
I felt a space suddenly open up to my left,
A cool, shady, dark space and I turned my face toward it.
I was looking into a doorway beside which was a brass plaque
That read simply: “Dante’s Church”. 
I shortly learned that I was standing in the original 13th cent.
Parish church where Dante and Beatrice went to church on Sunday as children,
The church, amazingly, is virtually intact in its original condition,
And as I seated myself on a very primitive looking wooden bench,
I imagined Dante sitting on that bench, spotting Beatrice seated
A few rows ahead of him and gazing at her.
Giving myself to this reverie,
I glanced at the wall to my left and saw, only inches away from
Where my knee was resting against the wall a few stone plaques
Bearing the name “Portinari”, and on one the name
Beatrice Portinari. 
Inside that stone wall against which me knee was resting,
Dante’s beloved Beatrice.
 
This experience was a kind of culmination of my whole Italian experience.
 
Dante is one of the greatest poets of all time,
Whose greatest work, by his own testimony,
Was inspired by the beauty of a girl
A girl he saw for the first time when he was nine years old.
 
Her name was Beatrice.
I was sitting in the original parish church where on Sundays
Dante would have met and gazed in awe at the young Beatrice.
 
Dante’s experience of Beatrice
Has been for many years, at the center of my reflection about God.
One incident in particular.
One day in May 1285, about nine years after D and seen B for the first time,
He passed her on a street in Florence
And the 18 year old Beatrice spoke to him for the first time,
Seeing Dante, frozen in his spot as she passed by,
She smiled – and, gave him a nod: a simple greeting,
Or, as Dante will later write in the language of love:
“My lady greeted me with ineffable courtesy such that
I then seemed to see all the terms of beatitude . . .
 
Feeling uniquely blessed by God, in B’s greeting,
Dante returns home, falls asleep, and has a dream:
In the dream, Love himself holds Beatrice in his arms,
Love gives Beatrice Dante’s heart to eat
And then Love begins to weep
And slowly ascends with Beatrice up into heaven.
The dream, as it turns out, is a prophecy
Revealing that the world will not long know
The beauty of this girl – she will die very young.
 
Awakening,
Dante records the dream in a sonnet.
Copies of which quickly circulate all over Florence.
 
Among the written replies to his poem,
The most important came from a young man D. called,
“The first among his friends” – the poet and mentor
Guido Cavalcanti.
Cavalcanti replied with a sonnet of his own
Whose opening words I read for the first time in college,
And which have haunted me ever since:
 
“VEDESTE, AL MIO, PARERE, OMNE VALORE.”
 
Referring to Dante’s encounter with Beatrice he says:
“What you saw, in my opinion, was a vision of all worth.”
 
A stunning declaration.  What is Cavalcanti saying?
He is saying:
 
EVERYTHING GOOD AND WORTHY
THAT GOD HAS EVER CREATED
EVERYTHING THAT IS BEAUTIFUL
BE IT PHYSICAL, MORAL, INTELLECTUAL OR SPIRITUAL
WAS MADE VISIBLE TO YOU – IN THE FIGURE
OF THAT BEAUTIFUL GIRL.        
 
What you saw – was a vision of ALL worth!             
 
A short time later, Dante passes Beatrice on the street again,
Walking with a few girlfriends.
Seeing his face blanche
And evidence of the reverential awe with which he regarded her,
Beatrice behaved the way one might expect most teenage girls to behave,
In circumstances like that:
She giggled, teased him a bit, and moved on.
 
The  moment, was a turning point for Dante.
He was, of course, crushed – deeply, deeply distraught . . .
He had been mocked . . . by Beatrice,
And lying on his bed in agony, it all at once became clear to him,
It was not his fate to be Beatrice’s lover or husband
Or to possess or enjoy Beatrice as a man might wish who is in love.
His vocation, he realized was what he would call:
“Praise of my lady”.
He would be a poet.
As a poet, Dante would explore
The insight given him that day in May 1283
On which occasion he saw in Beatrice: “All the terms of Beatitude”.
The result was The Divine Comedy,
One of the greatest works of art ever created,
In which Beatrice presides over Dante’s
Moral and intellectual rehabilitation
Accompanying him through Purgatory into Paradise,
Ushering him finally into the Beatific vision itself.



Amalia Ciardi Duprè, Beatrice and Dante
Bozzetto/Model for Statue, 'English' Cemetery, Florence

 
* * *
 
I am fascinated by Dante’s experience of God and beatitude,
Because it seems to have been made possible for him
In the experience of the beauty of a girl.
He was, able to, as it were, “read off” from Beatrice’s physical image,
The vision of God and Paradise described in the Divine Comedy.
 
Dante is proof that,
If you are steeped in the truths of Christian revelation,
And look with the proper disposition of faith and humility,
At the beauty of just one of God’s creatures,
This experience of your physical senses
Can awaken your spiritual senses and lead you
To a vision of the God  revealed in Jesus Christ.
This is a radical proposition:
That contemplation of the beauty of physical forms
Can be a revelation of the God revealed to us
In the man Jesus Christ.
 
I remember sitting in my choir stall at Vigils one morning
As a young novice who had come to the monastery
Without having ever having read the bible,
And hearing a monk get up to read:
 
“Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
You are beautiful!
Your EYES are doves, behind your veil.
Your HAIR is like a flock of goats
Streaming down the mountains of Gilead.
Your TEETH -  are like a flock of ewes to be shorn,
Which come up from the washing,
All of them big with twins, none of them thin and barren.
Your LIPS are like a scarlet strand
Your MOUTH is lovely,
Your CHEEK is like a half pomegranate behind your veil.”
 
The graphic descriptions continue of
The bride’s neck, and her breasts . . .”
 
And I’m a novice sitting there thinking
What on earth are we listening to?
Is that the bible?                                                                                            
Why is the bible describing with undisguised delight
The various parts of a beautiful woman’s body . . .
And why are we reading this in church?
 
It would be a long time
And only with the help of Hans Urs Von Balthasar,
That I would learn of the existence of: “THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS
Theological aesthetics is the study of beauty inspired
By contemplation of God’s form given us in Christian revelation.
God is a form – that is because at a moment long ago
When the night was midway through its course
And the whole world was still,
God’s almighty Word leapt down from heaven to earth
And became A FORM.
God became a newborn child and on that night,
Theological aesthetics was born.
Theological aesthetics says:
All reflection about aesthetics; all consideration of anything
That is truly beautiful,
Takes as it’s starting point THIS mystery:
That in the person of Jesus Christ and most especially
In the events of his passion, death, and glorious resurrection from the dead,
GOD HUMILIATED HIMSELF OUT OF LOVE FOR US . . .

And in God’s humiliation, shown to human eyes, in Jesus Christ,


BEAUTY WAS BORN.
God became a form; a sensible form in the presence of witnesses;
A motley little band of eye witnesses
To whose eyes was shown the beauty of God. 
 
Here, brothers and sisters, is really the SCANDAL OF CHRISTIANITY,
Which I offer as an object of reflection for you this week-end:
Imagine, just imagine . . . we are a people who profess the belief
That by becoming flesh
GOD IS KNOWN MORE PERFECTLY
Than if he had never become incarnate, and remained pure spirit.
Think about that.
In flesh and form, God is more perfectly and more fully known
Than the angels knew him as pure spirit in heaven.
The garment of human flesh actually uncovers God;
Sensible form exposes the depths of God’s mystery to human eyes,
And makes pure transcendence a relatively superficial experience of God.
Imagine!
 
Gregory of Nyssa, ventures this amazing opinion - that
The angels in heaven know God better now after having seen Him
Visible in the person of Jesus Christ
And in the church of Jesus Christ
In us!  Amazing!
 
* * *
 
So – what I propose for you this week-end
Is that you stay perched on top of that stone gargoyle
And with our friend the philosopher, look around you with new eyes
At the splendor of God’s creation as if you were
Enjoying the sight for the very last time.
 
 
Having disposed yourself to be receptive to the beauty of God’s creation
I hope to help you to a deeper appreciation and understanding
Of what you are actually looking at in the beauty of the world around you.
The secret to this understanding is offered you in the Song of Songs.
In what follows, I’m going to draw on the writings of
Hans Urs Von Balthasar and of the Mystic Denys the Areopagite
To illumine for us how meditating on the Song of Songs
Can be a path to contemplation of not just human
But divine Beauty.
 
Contemplation on the poetry of The Song of Songs
Is going to draw you into the mystery of all mysteries:
That the eternal God, creator of the world and of the starry heavens
Walked among us as a man, and he was beautiful.
This weekend I invite you to look at his beauty,
Beauty not the beauty of an angel or a Platonic idea
Or artistic imagining;
But the beauty of a human being percieved by human senses,
And to celebrate his beauty with the Bride of the Song of Songs
Who sees him too and sings:
“His arms are rods of gold, adorned with Chrysolites.
His body is a work of ivory covered with sapphires.
His legs are columns of marble resting on golden bases.
His stature is like the trees of Lebanon,
Imposing as cedars. 
His mouth is sweetness itself; he is all delight.
Such is my lover, and such my friend.”
 
          
 
 
Saturday a.m.  VISION OF SPIRITUAL MARRIAGE.
     Wedding of GRACE and NATURE . . .
 
ast night, by way of ushering you into this weekend
Contemplative retreat, I pushed you out a window
And left you perched on top of a stone carved gargoyle,
And I recommended that you stay there for the duration of the retreat,
Because that uncomfortable perch is where our Cambridge professor
Realized, that sensible things like ducks and sticks and rags and clocks,
Are revelations of the infinite mystery of God.
Our professor experienced what I am going to call
A CONVERSION TO FORMS,
By which we mean, that poignant and sudden, heart stopping awareness that
Forms, the sensible forms of creatures destined to pass away
Are precious, precious things, of inestimable value –
And that, precisely AS sensible forms that are finite,
      imperfect, and destined to pass away,
They are revelations of the eternal God.
This conversion to forms; I believe, is required of anyone
Calling himself a Christian: a follower of Jesus Christ
In whom the eternal God appeared in a sensible form.
 
By way of helping you toward this conversion to forms,
I invited you to reflect on Dante’s experience of Beatrice . . .
A Florentine girl in whose beauty Dante is said to have seen
A vision of all worth – of everything good, worthy, and beautiful.
In the Divine Comedy, fidelity to this experience
And years spent contemplating the beauty of Beatrice
Will lead Dante to the beatific vision,
A face to face encounter with God.
 
This brings us to an interesting question.
If, at the end of the Divine Comedy,
Dante stands in Paradise; ecstatically joyful
Because is soul is inundated with the fullness of the light of God’s glory
Pouring into it  . . . – why is Beatrice still there?
Why is Beatrice still standing next to Dante
On the threshold of the beatific vision itself?
Should not the memory of a pretty girl
Have been somehow left behind, dispensed with at this point,
Superseded or - dissolved in the light of beatitude?
 
For me, the question became very personal and urgent
That morning at Vigils as a novice
Believing that, having entered the monastery,
I had left all that behind; come to the threshold of the absolute,
Only to hear an elderly monk at 4:00 in the morning
Intone in the darkness:
“Your lips . . .”
 
And I said to myself . . . it’s Beatrice.  She’s back!
How did Beatrice get in here?
 
* * *
 
I invite you to reflect on that question this week-end.
Why, as Dante approaches the ultimate fulfillment of all human desire,
In the enjoyment of the Beatific Vision,
Why – is Beatrice still standing beside him?”
 
It is a question that will prepare you to deal with
Another question; perplexing in the very same way:
What is a poem like the “Song of Songs” doing in the Bible?
 
The Song is the last of the five books traditionally grouped together
As “Wisdom” books – in the O.T. – note that:
Ancient Israel regarded the Song of Songs as a book of “wisdom” . . .
But it is quite unlike any book of Wisdom
Or any other book in the whole bible – why?
Because it is the only book in the entire bible whose expression
Is entirely secular.
There is here not a single mention of Yahweh,
Or Israel, or even of religious belief.
The poem is a straightforward very explicit celebration of physical love
Between a man and a woman.
What is this book doing in the bible?
 
This was precisely the question I asked myself as a novice,
And I asked the question with a certain urgency.
I needed an answer and quickly because the simple fact is
The poetry of the Song of Songs was awakening in me
Deep feelings – of the sort a newcomer to monastic life
     Is apt to regard with some anxiety.
The Song of Songs, almost in spite of myself,
Was calling forth from me a response,
It was awakening and stirring my heart certain feelings,
Feelings that have potential to carry a man away,
Carry him outside himself toward an uncharted destiny.
 
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
More delightful is your love than wine!
Your name spoken is a spreading perfume – that is why all the maidens love
      you!
Draw me!  We will follow you eagerly!
Bring me O King to your chambers!”
 
So opens the Song of Songs.
 
It is the song of a woman in love
In love with a man who is at moments elusive
And at other moments appears quite suddenly and unbidden.
Her lover’s tendency to appear unexpectedly
And just as unexpectedly, disappear,
Has the effect of intensifying the woman’s desire,
Filling her with longing and moving her to sing a song
That is an unabashed and expansive celebration of desire.
 
The Bridegroom likewise lends his voice to this song of desire:
 
“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come . . .
Oh my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
Let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet – and you are lovely.”
 
On this one point – all commentators on the Song of Songs
     are in agreement:
Jewish, Christian, all pre-modern scriptural exegesis,
The ancient rabbis; later Jewish commentators,
The Fathers of the Church, medieval mystics,
The Reformation commentators – all of them maintained
THIS POEM BELONGS IN THE BIBLE
BECAUSE . . . . THE LOVERS SPOKEN OF HERE
ARE ISRAEL AND YAWHEH
     Later: CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH, 
                OR CHRIST AND THE BELIEVING SOUL . . .
 
Well that’s nice.  That’s -  good to know . . . really, that’s quite helpful!
That helps guide us in interpreting the symbols in the poem . . .
It probably will NOT help us much with the task
Of integrating into our prayer life
The powerful FEELINGS; the erotic feelings awakened in us
By the poem. 
 
Having identified God as the Bridegroom and Israel as the Bride . . .
We have not yet addressed the real challenge posed by this poem have we?
The challenge is not that it is symbolic,
But that the symbols it employs are explicitly EROTIC.
The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic desire
And succeeds so well at this, that it actually awakens
In you and I an erotic response.
The challenge, the real challenge,
Of the Song of Songs for that novice sitting in choir
At 4:00 in the morning was not keeping straight
The meaning of the symbols in the poem
It was that the symbols given such lively rendering awakened in him
The memory of that girl in his Chaucer class at Hunter College,
He hadn’t thought about her in years – suddenly there she was!
That beautiful girl who came to class one morning
Adorned in that little wisp of a gold necklace
With the tiny pendant that contrasted so exquisitely with the black hair
Falling all over her shoulders; that pendant bouncing and shimmering
Amidst that ineffable fuzz of her lavender colored angora sweater,
From which a sweet scent arose that wafted all around me,
The effect of the whole making her look at that moment just slightly prettier
Than Christ coming in glory.
 
The erotic poetry was awakening in the novice
An erotic response.
It is the power of the Song of Songs as poetry
To elicit from us actual erotic feelings
That makes this book of the bible a challenge
For most of us – a challenge especially if we seek
As our Cistercian fathers did to read the Song of Songs
As a pathway to contemplation.
 
How can erotic poetry this effective,
Poetry that awakens THESE kind of feelings in us . . .
Be a pathway to contemplation?
 
“You - are a garden enclosed, my sister, my bride,
A fountain sealed
Like a park that puts forth pomegranates and all choice fruits
Nard and saffron and calamus and cinnamon,
With all kinds of incense Myrrh and Aloes
And all the finest spices!
Arise, north wind! Come south wind!
Blow upon my garden
That it’s perfumes may spread abroad.
Let my lover come to his garden
And eat its choice fruits.”
 
Oh my.
 
You and I believe that God has summoned us
Together with all His holy people
To enjoy with Him a relationship of covenantal intimacy – forever . . .
Our destiny is to be in covenant and to be intimate with God.
If every other book in the bible helps you to know and think about
This mystery of God summoning you to intimacy,
The Song of Songs makes you FEEL that mystery;
You feel God summoning you; feel it viscerally . . .
Listening to this poem, We feel God’s summons
Welling up from inside us; from the deepest darkest recesses
Of our sexually differentiated human bodies.
The Song of Songs is an invitation to respond to God
With your intelligence, your feelings, your spirit, and your body . . .
WITH YOUR WHOLE HUMANITY.
 
Now, I have a hunch some of you might be feeling tempted, at this point,
To draw back a bit, from this somewhat provocative discussion. . .
Tempted to run up those back stairs; up into your brain,
Into that warm, quiet and secure study: your intellect.
Listening to me talk, you may be tempted to relocate from the heart,
Back up into your head where you can regard this whole erotic experience,
With a bit more detachment.
Having gone “upstairs”, into your head, you may, if you like,
Begin to reason with yourself:
“Yes, yes of course Alberic – the divine “Ms. Angora . . .”
She was the beatific vision twenty five years ago,
What do you suppose she looks like now?
Surely, you are aware Alberic, a woman’s beauty is fleeting –
And changes . . . Oh so quickly – think about that . . .”
 
If, as you read and meditate on the Song of Songs this week-end,
You hear this voice begin to speak to you . . .
Remember – who you are.
You are a Cambridge professor sitting on a gargoyle.
That’s what we agreed – right?
We were all going to spend the weekend sitting on that gargoyle.
You have just been forced out a window at gunpoint
And are watching the sun come up over the Cambridge campus
A world of beautiful forms just beginning to be defined
Before your wonderstruck eyes.
Be that Cambridge professor sitting on a gargoyle,
And when Reason says:
“Oh - Pomegranates – schmomogranates!
Nard, saffron, calamus, cinammon, myhrr and aloes . .
Oh brother!  What are all these, a bunch of – weeds!
Here for a while and gone – gone . . . Alberic
All destined to wither and die and pass away,
And so too the goddess in the angora sweater”
 
Be the Cambridge professor, and
You will know how to answer this voice:
“Oh yes, yes - I know her beauty will pass away,
And it is precisely that thought which here and now
Makes the sight of her so enchanting as to be almost unbearable,
So that in defiance of reason; in defiance of time itself
My heart cries out to her cherished image before me:
“Oh stay a while – please . . . please . . . you are so beautiful!”
 
I’m going to encourage you this weekend to be receptive
And welcoming to the feelings awakened in you by the Song of Songs
And to peacefully and joyfully savor those feelings
Even if at moments it allures you with a beauty
That is actually painful.
This pain isn’t going to hurt you and, accompanied by faith,
It can be an incentive to surrender – surrender to God.
Surrender, I would suggest, is where erotic feelings
Are supposed to take you.
 
And so, having invited you to enter deeply
Into the feelings expressed in this erotic poem from the bible,
I’m going to invite you to surrender to these feelings
Inwardly, in contemplative wonder and with faith
That God will guide you in this sweet darkness.
 
* * *
 
A human guide that God has sent us
For precisely this dark passage in our journey
Is the mystic Denys the Areopagite,
A name you may not be familiar with.
Von B suggests he may be the most inspired aesthetic theologian
In the history of Christianity,
The Doctor of divine beauty par excellence.
 
From his writing, I now offer you an insight
I would go so far as to say that in the context of our week end together
This is THE KEY INSIGHT; the key to the mystery of the Song of Songs,
And the guarantee of your efforts to make the Song of Songs,
A pathway to contemplation.
If you remember nothing else I say this week-end
Remember this insight of Denys Areopagite
Who now joins us on our retreat,
Who will accompany you in your reading and prayer
And addresses you now very personally.
Listen to a spiritual master who understands so well
Better than just about anyone, the depth and intensity of the erotic feelings
Awakened in you by this poetry and as a friend and guide
Says to you across the ages:
 
HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED THE POSSIBILITY THAT
THE DEEPEST DESIRES OF YOUR HEART
HAVE THEIR SOURCE IN THE HEART OF ANOTHER.
 
Listen to what the master of divine beauty is saying:
 
HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED THE POSSIBILITY THAT
THE DEEPEST DESIRES OF YOUR HEART
HAVE THEIR SOURCE IN THE HEART OF ANOTHER?
 
These erotic feelings of yours; so very deep, so secret,
So intensely personal as to seem unutterable
You are sure they must be entirely your own – actually
Nothing seems more your own than these erotic stirrings in your flesh;
So that paradoxically, you never feel so alone as when experiencing
These obscure erotic movements and you feel certain
These feelings as nothing else ever could be
Are completely YOUR OWN. . .
 
What if they were not?
That is what Denys is asking you to consider.
Doubtless these erotic feelings are yours as EXPERIENCED by you . . .
But what if you were to discover that these erotic feelings
Had their source in the heart of One who is not you?
 
Denys is pointing to the possibility of a new ending
A completely new ending to the story of the Cambridge Professor,
An ending much better than the one Chesterton wrote.
 
Close your eyes and imagine this new ending to the story:
You are perched on that gargoyle watching the sun come up
You say to the man holding the gun “Let me come down. I can’t bear this:”
He is just about to accommodate you when
A powerful wind rises up out of nowhere and buffets you
On your precarious little perch; you wobble – oh no!
You’ve lost your balance and you begin to fall . . .
And as the story ends, you are falling
Falling not to your death but into a new kind of life
Which you were swept down into by that sudden rush of wind.
 
The wind that just knocked you off your perch
And sends you plummeting into an abyss of beauty and desire
Is this amazing insight of Denys.
And I invite you now to be still and let this wind
Buffet you; Let that wind beat against you,
Until it beats down all your powers of resistance:
Denys has just revealed to you how to make the Song of Songs,
This poem of erotic desire, a pathway to contemplation.
Only consider the possibility, that:
 
THESE DEEPEST DESIRES OF YOUR HEART
EVEN THESE EROTIC DESIRES AWAKENED IN YOU
BY THE POEM
HAVE THEIR SOURCE IN THE HEART OF ANOTHER.
                                          
* * *
                                                                            
To appreciate fully what Denys is saying
We need to stop and consider that the word “Eros”,
Long before that term was appropriated by our culture
To designate a cheap thrill,
Was a term used by philosophers and had a very precise meaning.
For Plato and his followers, “Eros”
Was that power inside us that draws us upward and out of ourselves
Toward God.
Eros was the name of our distinctively human capacity to be transported;
Transported outside ourselves toward another – ultimately, toward God.
 
With the coming of Christ into the world
And the inspiration of the Holy Spirit working in the saints,
A new possibility emerges and Denys is a spokesman for it.
With Christianity is introduced the notion of “Divine Eros.”
God’s desire for us.
God’s capacity to be transported OUT OF HIMSELF
TOWARD US!
 
Denys writes:
“The divine eros brings rapture,
not allowing them who are touched by it to belong to themselves,
but only to the objects of their love . . .
and hence, the great Paul, constrained by divine eros
and having received a share in its ecstatic power,
says with inspired utterance: “I live – and yet no longer I,
but Christ lives in me.”
These are the words of a true lover,
Of one who, (as he himself states), WAS BESIDE HIMSELF
Out of his senses and unto God;
Not possessing a life of his own
But the life of this Beloved;
As life surrounded on all sides by ardent love.
 
For we must dare to affirm, (for it is true),
That the creator of the universe himself,
In his beautiful and good eros towards the universe is
Through his excessive erotic goodness,
TRANSPORTED OUTSIDE HIMSELF,
In his providential activities towards all things that have being,
And is overcome, (God is overcome!)
By the sweet spell of goodness and love and eros.
In this manner God is DRAWN FROM his transcendent throne
Above all things, in accordance with his super-essential
And his ecstatic power whereby he nonetheless does not
Leave himself behind.
 
Here, I believe is the revelation of what is going on in the Song of Songs:
GOD TRANSPORTED OUT OF HIMSELF TOWARD US
BY HIS SWEET EROTIC LOVE
AWAKENS IN US THE RESPONSE OF EROTIC LOVE
AND MOVES US TO BE TRANSPORTED OUT OF OURSELVES
TOWARD ANOTHER AND ULTIMATELY TOWARD GOD.
We have all, at some time in our lives
Been “transported outside ourselves”.
We have seen a beauty that caused us for a moment
Or a day to be “away from ourselves”
So absorbed in the beauty and attractiveness of another
That we failed to take any thought of ourselves
Our self-interest or even well-being,
And were happy to repose completely in our
Enchantment with the beloved other.
It is the experience we call in our culture “falling in love”.
 
It is easy enough to recognize it in the poetry of the Song of Songs.
We feel this man and this woman falling
Succumbing each of them to the mysterious power
Which we remember on a day took us away from ourselves
In a sweet intoxication in every minute detail of
The physical presence of a beautiful human being.
The Song of Songs speaks to us, because the experience
Of erotic love, of being transported outside oneself
Is a universal human experience.
This makes the Song of Songs a place where we can meet other human beings
From other places and epochs,
And all of that is wonderful . . .
But we are still, at this point, talking about a human mystery.
It is not yet clear how this savoring of the power of erotic love
To hurl us out of ourselves toward another,
Is absorbtion in anything more than human experience.
And it is not yet clear how immersion in the intoxication
Of this distinctive human way of loving,
Given expression in the Song of Songs,
Could be a pathway to contemplation of divine reality.
 
Here, the contribution of Denys is indispensable,
Because Denys, inspired by something more than human insight,
Has just suggested that GOD’S LOVE IS EROTIC.
GOD IS TRANSPORTED outside himself by erotic love,
BY DESIRE FOR US.
Do you realize what that means?
That means God, as the source of our very being,
Is himself the origin of all OUR erotic feelings.
In our erotic attractions; in those seismic shifts deep in our human nature
IT IS GOD’S going out of himself, and returning through us to himself,
Moving through our very being like energy waves through matter,
God’s erotic LOVE making its way into the world
Passing through our sexually differentiated bodies,
And returning to God.
 
Now - look again at the erotic feelings awakened in you
With a new understanding.
Denys is suggesting these erotic feelings which seem to arise
From the depths of your being,
Actually have their source in the heart of another.
Your erotic feelings, though experienced by you,
Are not finally your own.
 
Note – our methodology here:
Denys is communicating to us the content of divine revelelation:
God transported out of himself in the incarnation
Erotic love “drawing God down” from his throne
To show himself in human flesh . . . to show us his body.
Enlightened by revelation, we then revisit our own erotic experience
Those erotic responses awakened in us by the Song of Songs.
We begin with revelation – and THEN reflect on our erotic experience.
We do not begin with erotic experience
We do not commence our search for God by promoting
Savoring and pursuing a more intense erotic experience
In the hopes that by this means we will somehow “ascend” to
Prayer and an experience of the transcendent God.
It has been said addiction is actually the desperate and misguided
Search for a spiritual experience an experience of the absolute . . .
Cultivating erotic experience as a path to God
Is probably what the sex addict is doing.
We are doing theological aesthetics:
Taking first the consideration of Christian revelation
And inviting God to shed new light and meaning
On our erotic experience.
Only with revelation guiding our way, is eroticism
a gate to contemplative experience;
Only as believers sounding the depths of revealed truth
Can we hope to “repose” or come to “rest” in erotic experience,
As contemplatives.
We do not put erotic experience first as something to be sought
As a good in itself, that would be to
Attempt to manipulate and force God’s free revelation of himself
To anticipate God’s eros before it were actually revealed to us in his Son.
Rather, in theological aesthetics, we dispose ourselves to receive the Son,
To wait in reverence before the unfathomable mystery
Of our divine lover and allow ourselves to be allured; drawn into
God’s shadow; into God’s embrace where at last we rest serene,
As does the Bride beneath the apple tree in the poem:
 
“As an apple tree among the trees of the wood
So is my lover among men.
I delight to rest in his shadow,
And his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
He brings me into the banquet hall
And his emblem over me is love.
Oh . . strengthen me with raisin cakes,
Refresh me with apples – for I am faint with love.
His left hand is under my head
And his right arm embraces me.
 
I adjure you daughters of Jerusalem,
By the gazelles and hinds of the field,
Do not arouse, do not stir up love -  before its own time.”

 

 
Saturday afternoon: THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD’S HIDDENESS,
IN SONG OF SONGS – IN OUR CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER . . .
 
n my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves
I sought him but I did not find him.
I will rise then and go about the city;
In the streets and crossings I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.
I sought him but I did not find him.
The watchmen came upon me
As they made their rounds of the city:
“Have you seen him whom my heart loves?”
 
The Song of Songs is not a poem about unrequited love . . .
It’s love story with a happy ending – but like any good love story
There is an anxious moment or two when the happy ending
Appears to be in doubt . . .
Where as, in most of the poem, the Bride is singing ecstatically
Of the joy in possessing and physically enjoying the beloved of her heart,
One night – she loses him, and we need to attend very thoughtfully
To what exactly is happening here;
In just what precise sense does the Bride “lose” the Bridegroom . . . ?
 
“The watchmen came upon me
As they made their rounds of the city:
“Have you seen him whom my heart loves?”
I had hardly left them when – I FOUND HIM whom my heart loves.
I took hold of him and would not let him go  . . .
 
Interestingly, this scene parallels a much more famous scene
From the gospel of St. John:
Mary Magdalen on Easter morning; stands weeping outside Jesus’ tomb
Two angels appear to her and ask her why she is crying:
“Because they have taken away my Lord,
And I don’t know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this – she turned around
AND SHE BEHELD JESUS STANDING THERE
BUT SHE DID NOT KNOW IT WAS JESUS.
Again she is asked; “Woman, why are you weeping”.
Mary replies to a man she thinks is the gardener,
“Sir, if you have removed him, tell me where you have laid him
And I will take him away.”
“Mary”
“Rabboni!”
 
Mary was looking for someone who had gone away . . .
But he was THERE – he was standing right there beside her!
It seems HER BELOVED WAS NOT AWAY but somehow
Concealed from her sight . . . . HE WAS . . . HIDDEN.
So with the Bride in the Song of Songs:
The Bridegroom, it seems, is “HIDDEN” from her at moments.
When suddenly she sees him again,
There is not word about where he was – where he went off too . . .
Because . . . he didn’t go anywhere – he was there . . .
He was with her – and somehow hidden from her sight.
 
Taking the Song of Songs as a whole,
This difficulty of the Bride in finding the Bridegroom at moments,
Seems to belong to the ESSENCE OF THIS ROMANCE.
And, as people entering into this poem as a path to contemplation,
We have to come to terms with this disconcerting aspect of the poem:
NOT THE BRIDEGROOM’S ABSENCE,
But the fact that, at moments, the Bride can’t see him –
And then, a moment later, she sees him.
 
This is no minor matter.
In the context of an erotic and romantic relationship
The LOSS OF THE SIGHT of the beloved is a crisis – am I right?
It’s about the worse thing that can happen.
So - why, in this otherwise blissfully happy poem of fulfillment . . .
Why is there introduced into the poem this curious business
Of the Bridegroom’s periodic invisibility?
 
The question is related to one of the deepest questions any human being
Can put to God – a question as old as religion itself:
“My God – where were you?”
It is one of the deepest most anguishing questions of the human heart:
WHERE DOES GOD GO WHEN WE DON’T SEE HIM.
AND IF HE IS THERE – IF HE WAS RIGHT THERE ALL ALONG,
WHY DID IT SEEM HE HAD DISAPPEARED?
Where does God go, for days, for weeks, for months sometimes . . .
Where does God go, when we can’t find him?
Faith assures us God does not go away,
But experience teaches us again and again that
His presence is quite concealed from us.
 
I propose beginning our reflection on this question,
Of the Bridegroom’s concealment with a simple affirmation:
The God we believe in, IS a hidden God.
God does not only seem to us hidden –
The God we worship IS hidden from us,
He is eternally transcendent; ever greater; ever more mysterious;
The horizon ever receding before us.
 
“Have you seen Him whom my heart loves?”
 
The mystery of God’s hiddenness, brothers and sisters, is a mystery I believe,
Only a baptized and believing Christian can fully enter into.
This is a mystery whose fullness is realized with God’s incarnation in flesh.
To enter wholly into the mystery of God’s hiddenness,
You have to believe; really believe fervently in the incarnation;
And then you will begin to understand that
It is IN THE INCARNATION ITSELF: God’s coming in the flesh,
That His absolute hiddeness is given final, unsurpassable confirmation,
And in the most astonishing and unexpected way:
GOD’S HIDDENESS IS REVEALED ULTIMATELY
BY HIS APPEARING TO US.
 
There is a concealment darker than the darkest darkness:
It is that darkness experienced in the discovery that God is
Standing right in front of you – in the person of a gardener
It is the darkness entered into when
God, having come in the flesh, suffered our human death,
And then, having been raised bodily from the dead,
Stands visible before Mary’s eyes on Easter morning as a gardener.
 
God is NEVER MORE HIDDEN, brothers and sisters;
Never more hidden or more a mystery
Than at that precise moment Mary will refer to later when she says:
“I have seen Him – I have SEEN the Lord.”
Mary SAW HIM . . . saw God standing in the garden,
And seeing him there knew as she had never known before
That God she worships IS A HIDDEN GOD.  
 
This is a mystery that can be fully grasped only by a believing Christian.
 
V. B. writes: “Every other religious project
Is certain that one has to leave all forms behind
In order to experience infinite light . . .
Christianity is the ONLY RELIGION
IN WHICH PERCEPTION OF FORM
IS NOT OPPOSED TO THE EXPERIENCE OF INFINITE LIGHT
THAT IS BECAUSE WE BELIEVE GOD, WHO IS INFINITE LIGHT
FREELY SHOWED HIMSELF TO US IN A FORM.
 
What are the implications of all this?
What consequences does it have for our understanding
Of God’s hiddeness in the Song of Songs
And in the practice of contemplative prayer?
 
It means that, we might need to revise or expand our notion
Of contemplative prayer only as an experience of formlessness.
We need to consider the possibility that, like the Bride of the Song,
We are called to respond to our Beloved
With our body and our senses as well as our intelligence;
With our WHOLE HUMANITY.
The Song of Songs does not begin as a story of Platonic love,
And it will not end as one.
The Bride is not interested in communing with her lover
In a Cloud of Unknowing,
It is true, she spends a few anxious moments in that cloud,
With nothing but her desire driving her madly through the darkness . . .
But there is not the slightest suggestion in the poem that she ever considered
Abiding in the darkness, resting there;
Savoring sightlessness as compensation for his absence.
On her bed at night she seeks him whom her heart loves
She seeks – and does not find him . . . .
Does she turn over in bed and embrace the darkness?
Is the darkness to be her lover?
She’ll have none of that.
“I will rise”, she says, and walk all over the city;
In the streets and in the crossings I WILL SEEK HIM whom my heart loves.
 
There is no ambiguity here, she is only passing through the darkness
In an effort to find someone; to enjoy again the sight of him
Whom her heart loves,  
And she doesn’t look very long when she finds him
And cries triumphantly:
“I TOOK HOLD OF HIM AND WOULD NOT LET HIM GO.”
 
* * *
 
The challenge of the Song of Songs for us as contemplatives, then,
Is it’s celebration of God’s hiddeness in a form.
GOD’S HIDDENESS IS REVEALED TO US ULTIMATELY
NOT IN FORMLESSNESS AND EMPTINESS … BUT IN A FORM.
 
For many spiritual seekers living in North America today
This idea is a novelty.
That is because of a widespread belief arising from various influences,
That a  “pure” experience of God;
A “direct”, “true”, ultimate” experience of God
Must be one unmediated by sensible forms;
For one seeking direct experience of God, sensible forms
Must be “transcended” and finally, dispensed with.
 
This investment in super sensible experience has been attested to
By our mutual friend Fr. Michael Casey,
Who, in recent years, has spoken of the importance indeed
The central importance of that experience of God
Unmediated by any sensible form: which he calls: “META-EXPERIENCE”.
 
Meta-experience is experience of reality, of ultimate reality – of God,
Unmediated by sensible forms or thoughts about forms,
In what follows I’d like to examine this concept of “meta-experience”.
The term is useful, and I think this is why he has hit on it,
Because it is a very general term that can designate
A very wide range of super sensible experiences:
Anything from that of the seasoned Asian mystic
To that of a person sitting outside on her deck one evening
Watching the sunlight filter through the leaves overhead
And having an experience of totality and goodness . . .
 
A conviction that “meta-experience” is the purest, most direct
Experience of God
Is going to put you in a bind in your efforts to make the Song of Songs
A pathway to contemplative prayer.
It will not do to say: “Oh – but, meditating on the
Beautiful images in the poem could be a PREPARATION
For the more direct experience of God in the prayer of emptiness . . .
This is to succumb to a fundamentally un-Christian idea:
That God’s manifestion of himself in the humanity of Christ
Is only A PRELIMINARY MOVEMENT toward a more mystical and direct
Contact with God which finally dispenses with Christ’s humanity.
That will not do.
As Christians we believe that Christ HAS ASCENDED BODILY to heaven
And sits at the right hand of the Father adorned with his glorified body,
With which he will remain for all eternity.
Furthermore, it is hard to see how, in preparation for prayer without images,
One would want to feed one’s imagination with
Exceedingly vivid and erotic images of love between a man and woman.
 
Basil Pennington one of the best known teachers of C.P.
Was my abbot for two years and I watched him direct C.P. workshops.
Frequently, a participant would propose doing Lectio Divina
As preparation for C.P.
Basil consistently discouraged people from doing this.
He insisted that Lectio and C.P. are two distinctly different
Ways of praying and you need to make up your mind to do one or the other.
Lectio is prayer with images, C.P. prayer that lets go of all images.
C.P. is a meditative practice which cultivates metaexperience
Lectio has as its aim not meta experience,
But what I am going to call “ARCHETYPAL EXPERIENCE”.
I’m going to propose that if we are to make the Song of Songs
A path to contemplation we need to think of contemplative prayer
As a quest not of “meta-experiencne”
But of “ARCHETYPAL EXPERIENCE”.
 
This is a concept I’ve taken from the writing of Von Balthasar.
What is the difference between the two?
In both meta experience and archetypal experience GOD IS HIDDEN.
That is because the God we worship is a hidden God.
In meta-experience God is hidden in formlessness.
In archetypal experience, God is hidden in a form.
 
What do we mean by “archetypal?”
Archetypal is that which is first, seminal and primary,
That which determines everything that comes after it.
What is archetypal is so good, so true, so beautiful, so ultimate,
That the only valid response to it is imitation.
 
The supreme archetypal experience
The supreme experience of God’s hiddeness in a form,
Is Jesus’ Christ THE MAN’S experience of God,
Jesus Christ’s HUMAN experience of God.
Take a moment and reflect about this:
 
You can think of all BIBLICAL EXPERIENCE as
As governed by the fact that the essentially invisible
And unapproachable God enters the sphere of visible creatures
And NOT by means of any intermediary being:
He enters HIMSELF. 
GOD BECOMES VISIBLE.
The entire bible, Old and New Testaments, proclaims that
Ours is a Hidden God – and yet, a God, who has freely and lovingly
Elected to show himself to us.
That’s the good news of the Old And New Testament taken together.
God has shown himself to us – first in signs
And finally in shown us his very self unmediated
In the person of his Son: Jesus Christ who will say to Phillip:
“He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
 
What does all this mean: it means -
God does not become flesh so that we can become divine
In some SECOND PROCESS that follows afterward.
God’s incarnation is not merely preliminary to a second
More “mystical” and direct encounter with God.
You and I SHARE GOD’S DIVINE LIFE precisely IN
This one only process of God becoming flesh.
It is clear then that the world – THIS WORLD
The world unfolding before the eyes of our astonished Cambridge professor
On the last morning of his life;
THIS WORLD is the stage on which God has ordained  
An encounter between the whole God and the whole human person.
 
Jesus Christ, our beloved Bridegroom, IS THE FORM;
THE SENSIBLE FORM . . .
Of the encounter between God and human beings in THIS world;
Precisely as an individual human being living in the flesh.
The man Jesus, then, a human being like you and I,
IS THE ARCHETYPE and makes possible for you and I
A direct encounter with God in his ARCHETYPAL EXPERIENCE
Of God as a man;
His experience of God’s hiddenness in a form.
 
Jesus’ archetypal experience of God has been made accessible to you and I
Through the testimony of EYE WITNESSES,
Men and women who saw him, touched him, ate with him,
Heard him preach; saw him heal; work miracles and raise the dead.
These EYE witnesses’s SENSIBLE EXPERIENCE
Of the incarnate word of God; their archetypal experience
Is communicated to us in the life of the church
In the sacraments in her doctrine and preaching
In christian fellowship and in good works;
You and I share in “archetypal experience” of the Apostles;
The original human experience of God in sensible form.
 
Carol Houselander, an English-born mystic of the last century
Said: “The characteristic repression of our time,
Is the repression of Christ in the hearts of men and women.”
What Houselander is suggesting is that we today are people
Who tend to “REPRESS” archetypal experience:
The experience of God become visible in the person of Jesus Christ.
The appearance of Jesus in the world, changed everything
And most of our contemporaries live as though the Christ event
Never took place.
Banished from polite conversation, Jesus Christ begins to fade
In people’s consciousness and “disappears” –
He does not go away – HE IS THERE, but we don’t see him.
When we repress a reality, we do not eliminate it,
We simply block it from consciousness and in so doing,
Make it ten times more powerful influence in our life.
If you are a man repressing your sexuality,
Nothing in this world will so unglue you
As the sight of a pretty girl walking by in a summer dress.
When modern people repressed the Christ event,
They become “Christ haunted” – like sleepwalkers
Wandering the streets at night asking every passing stranger:
Have you seen him whom my heart loves?
 
But he has not gone away, He is there.
 
Brothers and sisters, the God we worship IS a hidden God,
But that does not mean we are banished to a life lived in darkness.
I would like to suggest that contemplative prayer
Nurtured by the poetry and images of the Song of Songs,
Is to the prayer of emptiness what Spring is to Winter.
In the Song of Songs, our lover’s voice becomes audible:
The Bridegroom of the poem is calling us not to meta-experience,
And experience of God in formlessness and emptiness,
But to archetypal experience; to that original moment in history in which
God made himself visible in the humanity and life circumstances
Of Jesus Christ and his apostles.
Here, in the first appearances of God on earth,
Archetypal experience opens up to the contemplative
A lovely and flowering garden full of fascinating forms and textures,
Sounds, colors, and sensations,
Like the world unfolding before the eyes of our Cambridge professor
Perched on his gargoyle.
The poem is calling you to a renewed sense of wonder in
The life of forms and their capacity to reveal to you the living God.
All of this richly celebrated in the life of the church in her doctrine
Her liturgy and her sacraments.
Let the voice of the Bridegroom enter your heart and allure you
Guide you back to the richness of an experience of contemplation that
Engages your whole humanity in an erotic encounter with the whole God
That you may sing with the Bride:
 
“Hark my lover, here he comes springing across the mountains,
Leaping across the hills
My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows
Peering through the lattices,
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come!
For see, the winter is passed; the rains are over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of pruning the vines has come,
And the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
And the vines in bloom give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!”
 

 
                          
Sunday Morning:  The Song of Songs and the Ordinary.
 
he talks you’ve had this weekend
Have been presented at a fairly high EMOTIONAL PITCH:
We began with a dramatic story of a Cambridge professor’s
“Conversion to forms” as he watched the sun come up
Over the Cambridge campus sitting on a gargoyle
With a gun pointed at his head.
We moved from this reflection on the beauty of sensible forms in general,
To the unique beauty of a Florentine girl; Dante’s Beatrice
In whose beauty he beheld a “vision of all worth.”
We reflected on how Dante’s passion for Beatrice ultimately
Transformed him and turned him into a poet . . .
All this by way of entering into the passionate and erotic world
Of the Song of Songs which we undertook to read
As a path to contemplation of divine mysteries. 
 
I have invited you repeatedly to allow yourself to be touched and stirred
By the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs;
To let yourself revisit images and experiences from your past
In which were awakened your own capacity for erotic experience . . .
And having encouraged you to revisit these powerful emotions,
I introduced you to the prophetic utterances of
Denys the Areopagite – the great mystic and theologian of God’s beauty.
 
Finally, I offered you the notion of “archetypal experience”
As an alternative to “meta-experience” so that
Reading the Song of Songs, you might enter deeply
Into contemplative prayer without necessarily turning away
From the world of forms, which would basically negate
The whole intent of the author of the Song of Songs.
I ended by sounding in your ears the voice of the divine lover himself,
So evocative and alluring – beckoning to you: “Come my beloved . .
The dark winter now has ended,
Spring is here and it is time for love.
 
I hope this exercise of revisiting deep intense feelings;
Of opening ourselves to the erotic language of the Song of Songs
And to the possibility of a deeply contemplative and yet
Fully human even sensual experience of God in contemplative prayer,
Has been fruitful for you . . .
 
But I can imagine one of you saying at this point:
“The poetry is gorgeous, Fr. Alberic, the eroticism is all very stimulating,
The prospect of our being romanced by the incarnate Word
And reveling in “Gods’ desire for us” as with a lover in the Spring time . . .
All this is quite thrilling as a possibility that might be realized in our prayer,
But frankly, the life most of us are leading, simply isn’t lived
At that pitch of emotional intensity.
Life, real life in the real world, lived out day by day,
Is for most of us, not exactly what you would call an erotic adventure.
We are plodding along, doing the best we can to perform well in our careers,
Raise children, deal with aging, and health issues . . .
In general, trying to make a decent life for ourselves and our families
In the time remaining to us in this world.
It’s all very fine to spend a week-end delving into
The stirring erotic imagery of the Song of Songs,
But it’s not clear to us how the rapturous adventure imagined in the poem
Is to be realized for ordinary people living ordinary lives.
 
It is a challenge worth addressing on our last day together,
And what I propose is to look at one way in which
GOD’S EROTIC passion for you and yours for God
Might actually be realized, and was in fact realized
In the context of a very regular and outwardly uneventful life.
 
I’m talking about the life of St. Anthony the hermit,
The granddaddy of Christian monasticism.
Now, you may say, St. Anthony was an altogether extraordinary man
Who led an extraordinary life – and it’s true his heroic witness has inspired
Disciples and imitators for many centuries . . .
And yet, I would venture to say, Anthony’s actual daily life,
The manner in which he lived alone in the desert over the course
Of so many long years, was quite routine, undramatic and mundane.
There was most certainly passion in Anthony’s life,
But what was Anthony’s singular overriding passion?
It was his almost superhuman commitment to and passion for
What he called: “THE DISCIPLINE.”
Anthony was in love with “the discipline”,
By which he meant the discipline of the monastic way of life.
 
Actually, we are told, in the early pages of St. Athanasius’
“Life of St. Anthony” that:
Following Anthony’s conversion and retreat to the desert:
“ALL THE DESIRE AND ALL THE ENERGY HE POSSESSED
CONCERNED THE EXERTION OF THE DISCIPLINE.”
Hear that – hear what Athanasius is saying:
 
We’ve talked a lot this week-end about DESIRE,
Anthony’s desire, “all the desire he possessed” was for the discipline.
In light of everything we’ve said this week-end concerning
The power, and depth and intensity of erotic desire in us
And more important GOD’s overflowing erotic desire for us . . .
This is an amazing statement by Athanasius:
“ALL the desire Anthony possessed was devoted to
the exertion of the discipline.
 
Something has happened to Anthony’s human and erotic desire;
Something radical and transforming has taken place in this man.
 
What happened to Anthony?
 
As you may know, Anthony was orphaned as a young man.
We are not told the exact circumstances but, it seems
He lost both parents at once and quite suddenly
And, though this may not have happened to us
We can empathize with what must have been
His feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty
Concerning his future well-being.
 
We can likewise imagine what it might have been like
For this young man, recently orphaned whose world
Had suddenly become so dark and uncertain,
To hear the words of scripture read in church one morning:
“DO NOT BE ANXIOUS ABOUT TOMORROW”,
Words from the gospel of Matthew that, according to Athanasius,
Set in motion Anthony’s conversion.
 
Is it possible that this devout young man
Already steeped in the practice of his faith,
Recently devastated by the loss of both his parents
With responsibility for a younger sister suddenly thrust upon him . . .
Is it possible that when Anthony heard these words, they
ADDRESSED VERY POINTEDLY THE EXISTENTIAL FEAR
GRIPPING HIM AT THAT CRUCIAL MOMENT IN HIS LIFE?
“Do not be anxious about tomorrow – Anthony. . .”
May Anthony have seen in these words
A VISION; a vision of God’s beauty in a super-abundant mercy
Being offered to him very personally?
 
This is a little speculative – but also supported by the text . . .
What if, hearing this scripture passage read,
ANTHONY SUDDENLY BEHELD A VISION OF GOD’S BEAUTY
THE BEAUTY OF A GRACIOUS GOD
WHO PROVIDES FOR ALL ONE’S TOMORROWS
RIDDING ONE’S HEART ONCE AN FOR ALL OF ANXIETY?
 
Would Anthony at such a moment have not been quite ‘POSSESSED”
By an experience of God’s SWEET EROS communicated to him
In the midst of this personal crisis?
 
We have heard Denys the Areopagite say that
God is TRANSPORTED out of Himself by His erotic love and desire for us.
Might the reading of this scripture passage from Matthew
Have been the occasion for Anthony’s being
TOUCHED, DRAWN UP AND POSSESSED BY GOD’S DIVINE EROS;
Was this the moment ANTHONY WAS VISITED
BY THE DIVINE BRIDEGROOM
PEERING IN THROUGH THE LATTICE AND SAYING:
“Arise my beloved – arise and come!
The winter is ended.  It is Springtime!?”
 
If I am right about interpreting Anthony’s experience this way;
If his famous hearing of Matthew’s gospel: “Do not be anxious about . . .”
Really was the moment when he was siezed by the awareness,
That God, transported out of himself by his good eros
Was, that moment, passing through him – then,
On the basis of all we’ve said about erotic love,
God’s eros should have caused Anthony to be likewise
Eroticized - transported out of himself
In an intense erotic response of his own.
 
Anthony, at that moment, would have “fallen in love with God”
And falling in love with God would ache with all his being
To give expression to his own erotic desire for God . . .
And so – what does Anthony do
Having been possessed by God’s erotic love?
Does he seek out the company of a woman?
Does he, like Dante, become an inspired poet?
HE DOES NONE OF THESE THINGS.
ANTHONY BEGINS THE PRACTICE OF THE MONASTIC DISCIPLINE.
 
Athanasius’ narrative is really striking at this point:
Immediately following the narration of his conversion
Following the reading of St. Matthew’s gospel
Athanasius writes: “He devoted himself from then on to the discipline . . .”
And again: “He disciplined himself in isolation . . .”
And finally: “All the desire and all the energy he possessed concerned
The exertion of the discipline.”
Suddenly, without further adieu
The basic foundation stones of the monastic way of life
As we know it today begin to appear one after the other in the narrative,
All at once, like the birth of a child the monastic way of life arrives,
As almost a finished product:  we read:
“He worked with his hands
He spent what he made partly for bread and partly on those in need.
He prayed constantly.
He paid close attention to what he read in scripture.”
 
Note what’s being narrated here:
 
ANTHONY SIEZED BY THE SWEETNESS OF GOD’S EROTIC LOVE
RESPONDS BY THE COMMENCING THE PRACTICE
OF THE MONASTIC DISCIPLINE.
 
Here is the point I want to stress,
That, for the Grand-daddy of all Christian monks,
The expression of an intense, overpowering experience
Of God’s erotic love took the form of
A commitment to a regular, disciplined life of
Manual labor, almsgiving, regular prayer and lectio divina.
THE WHOLE WEIGHT OF ANTHONY’S EROTIC RESPONSE
TO GOD TAKES FORM IN HIS COMMITMENT TO A
RATHER MUNDANE REGULAR MONASTIC LIFESTYLE.
 
In light of all this,
We might return to the image of our traumatized Cambridge philosopher
And imagine him climbing down from his gargoyle,
Coming back in the window,
Calling the police; making his report;
Seeing his assailant taken away in handcuffs;
Deciding to take a shower, have some breakfast,
And sitting there quietly sipping coffee afterward . . .
Reflecting on how he will live from now on?
His life has been changed in a moment,
What life will he make for himself in light of what has happened?
Maybe, he’ll decide to become a monk!
 
His decision would be a shock to everyone who knew him,
But, in light of our reflections this weekend
Would it be such a big surprise to us?
Think about it.
 
Due to the trauma he suffered; the terrifying and rude awakening,
Our professor was quite truthfully, beside himself on that gargoyle,
Transcending his old self, he became a new man.
Did his experience not remind you very much
Of that described by Denys the Areopagite
In the text we looked at yesterday?
Go back to the image of our friend sitting on the gargoyle,
Watching the sun come up
His heart aching with wonder at the newly discovered splendor
Of the world all around him,
And recall these words of Denys:
 
“THE DIVINE EROS BRINGS RAPTURE
NOT ALLOWING THEM WHO ARE TOUCHED BY IT
TO BELONG TO THEMSELVES
BUT ONLY TO THE OBJECTS OF THEIR LOVE . . .”
 
Erotic love, God’s erotic desire for us - transports US out of ourselves
So that, we belong no longer to ourselves but to THE OBJECTS of our love,
And here I want you to note especially Deny’s use
Of the PLURAL “Objects” – touched by God’s erotic love,
We feel ourselves drawn powerfully to many, many diverse objects:
To gray clouds turning pink;
To ducks, to shimmering rain puddles, to rags and sticks and bones,
To the gilt clock glimpsed in the space between the houses.
The Cambridge philosopher is becoming more like St. Paul
At this moment of whom Denys has said:
“He was beside himself – out of his senses,
And unto God; not possessing a life of his own,
But the life of the Beloved;
A LIFE SURROUNDED ON ALL SIDES BY ARDENT LOVE.”
 
Now, in Chesterton’s narrative, the philosopher
Does not profess belief in the Christian God,
But it is clear, he was overwhelmingly drawn to the beauty
Of many objects as though suddenly aware that
His life was surrounded on all sides by ardent love.
 
The point here, is that, the experience of Divine Eros touching his heart,
Had the effect of
TRANSFORMING THE PHILOSOPHER’S EXPERIENCE
OF THE WHOLE CREATED ORDER
His relationship with the student was transformed,
Because his relationship with everything in existence had changed.
Imagine for a moment how changed is the philosopher’s experience
From that morning afterward
Of every lamp and pencil and spoon he picks up.
He will come to every object with a renewed reverence and wonder
And seeing objects this way will use them differently
And relating to every object and every person he meets
With these new eyes and heart full of wonder,
He will in subtle ways begin to transform those objects
And transform those people he is meeting.
Divine Eros having transformed him, will begin
Discreetly and gently to transform everything and everyone
He comes in contact with.
 
And so – why should he not become a monk?
 
I am going to suggest that the question of
How the philosopher will live following his transforming
Experience of God’s divine eros sitting on the gargoyle,
Is the same question Anthony had to address
Following his encounter with Divine Eros
In Matthew’s text: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow”.
How would Anthony order his life following such
A transforming experience?
THE ANSWER WAS – WITH THE DISCIPLINE.
Anthony’s life, from that moment forward,
Was concerned with the exertion of the monastic discipline,
And having committed himself to this path,
Something really extraordinary begins to happen:
Everything Anthony picks up and everyone Anthony meets
Are subtly transformed by their encounter with him.
The transforming power of Divine Eros
Has found, in Anthony, an outlet and is now seeping into the world
Transfiguring everything it comes in contact with.
And so, working with his hands, praying regularly,
Giving alms to the poor,
Quietly reading and meditating on sacred scripture –
The great transformation begins,
And we read a few lines later in Athanasius’ narrative:
“ALL THOSE, THEN, WHO WERE FROM HIS VILLAGE
AND THOSE GOOD PEOPLE WITH WHOM HE ASSOCIATED
SEEING HIM LIVING THUS,
BEGAN TO CALL HIM “GOD LOVED”
AND SOME HAILED HIM AS “SON”
AND SOME AS “BROTHER”.
 
Do you hear what his neighbors are calling Anthony?
They are calling him the very same names given to JESUS CHRIST.
Anthony is becoming before their eyes another Christ,
And everyone he comes in contact with him is being drawn
Into discipleship and new life in Christ.
 
And so – why should the Cambridge philosopher not become a monk,
And being a monk – become a tributary
Where people come to drink the sweet transforming waters
Of Divine Eros?
 
And if him – then . . . why not you?
 
You gave up the opportunity to spend this weekend
Enjoying yourselves with various diversions in the world
To make a contemplative retreat spent sitting on top of a gargoyle.
By God’s grace, this was not a pointless exercise,
But will help open your eyes to the realization that
The Song of Songs is a beautiful poem,
Because this world truly is a beautiful place – indescribably beautiful,
As the place where God’s desire for us
Is seen, actually seen, taking form in countless objects
All beckoning to us to draw nearer to the Bridegroom
Who approaches us from all sides with ardent love.
 
I want to say in conclusion that
Long before this week-end, your eyes were already opened
To this mystery.
What makes Cistercian Associates distinctive,
What makes you very special people; people graced in a unique way
Is this instinct all of you share;
This intuition that God has spoken to you intimately
And moved you emotionally, even erotically to draw nearer to Him,
And that, an effective and loving way to do this
Is to embrace greater discipline in your life;
To order your life more deliberately according to
Insights and practices developed by monks over the centuries.
 
You are, in other words, already living the romance.
Entering into the mystery of the Song of Songs
As a path to contemplation does not mean your life
Has to become a dramatic erotic adventure,
Or your days filled with intense emotion.
The romance is playing itself out in your life already,
And has been for some time.
Thanks be to God for his good gifts to each of you!
Take what I have shared this week-end as encouragement
As quickening you along the way you have already chosen,
Relish the sweet company of your Beloved
And know that by these intimacies experienced
In the most secret recesses of your heart
You are affecting and changing the world around you
Giving delight to God
And winning the admiration of your Cistercian brothers and sisters
In the monastery
May God bless each of you!  
 
 
 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

ON THE MYSTERY OF GOD’S BEAUTY.


ans Urs Von Balthasar has said that the three traditional “transcendentals” of Scholastic Theology: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, might be thought of as three sisters.  During the past two hundred years or so, in the Catholic church, these three sisters have been journeying together toward Christ, but,– alas . . . one of them has been left behind.  Beauty, somehow got left behind by Catholic theology and she is screaming.  Why?

Because, Von Balthasar says, “SHE WILL NOT BE SEPARATED FROM HER SISTERS!”  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are SISTERS. They are intimately, permanently, irrevocably related. Sisters belong together, and if you try to separate them – you will be sorry. There’s going to be a scene.

In light of this evocative parable, and by way of disposing yourselves for a
deep encounter with the poetry of the “Song of Songs”, reflect on the following questions:
 
What is MY OWN RELATIONSHIP with the “third sister”?
 
When and how do I ACKNOWLEDGE HER role:
     In my reflection about my faith?
     In the living of my life as a Christian and Associate Cistercian?
 
When was the last time I SEATED MYSELF AT HER FEET in all humility
      and with rapt attention and invited her to teach me her secrets?
 
Is Beauty a WELCOME COMPANION on my journey?
 
Do I view Beauty as a TRUSTWORTHY GUIDE, as I most assuredly do her sisters Goodness and Truth?
Do I TRUST Beauty?



DENYS THE AREOPAGITE

he Divine Eros brings rapture, not allowing them who are touched by it to belong to themselves, but only to the objects of their love, and hence the great Paul, constrained by Divine Eros, and having received a share in its ecstatic power, says with inspired utterance: “I live – and yet, no longer I, but Christ lives in me. These are the words of a true lover, of one who, (as he himself states), was beside himself – out of his senses and unto God; not possessing a life of his own, but the life of the Beloved; a life surrounded on all sides by ardent love.”

For we must dare to affirm, (for it is true), that the Creator of the universe himself, in his beautiful and good eros towards the universe is, through his excessive erotic goodness, transported outside himself, in his providential activities towards all things that have being, and is overcome by the sweet spell of goodness and love and eros. In this manner, God is drawn from His transcendent throne above all things in accordance with his super-essential and his ecstatic power whereby he nonetheless does not leave Himself behind.”



Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire


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