Mystics in both the Jewish and Christian traditions have interpreted the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to express their intense longing for God. Other readers have interpreted this biblical book as a romance between two lovers, perhaps a template for the intimacy of marriage. More than a few readers have simply been confused when they read Song of Songs (honestly, have you ever heard a homily on this biblical book?). Some are simply embarrassed that this book ever made it into the Bible. Well enough. But instead of insisting that there exists only one way of looking at this provocative text, is it ever possible to admit of multiple approaches in appreciating a text?
That’s why this old former Protestant minister just loves the Catholic approach to interpreting the Bible, which has asserted from the earliest days of its history that there are multiple approaches to the text, and that each may yield fruit in a “both/and” approach instead of a “one true meaning only” viewpoint. Oblate of the Virgin Mary Father Greg Cleveland, Director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver (where many of our clergy and lay leaders have trained in the ministry of spiritual direction), has written a book that suggests another allegorical lens by which the Song of Songs may be understood and appreciated.
Father Cleveland shows how the image of the Bride in the Song of Songs helps us to understand Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, more deeply than ever. Father Cleveland is no stranger to this approach to the Song of Songs, having written “Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs” in 2017. I enjoyed this mystical, allegorical journey through the text, which aligns the core experiences of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (a life-changing experience in itself) with the biblical Song of Songs.
In this text, Father Cleveland draws upon an extensive array of saints, Church Fathers, literary figures, and contemporary writers to portray the time of prayer and spiritual growth. The bride in Song of Songs becomes a type/symbol of Christ, an allegorical insight (some mystics have also envisioned Song of Songs as Christ and his love for the Church). Before we dig a bit deeper into this recent book and see how it can be applied in the Church, let’s understand the biblical terrain a bit more.
What is the Song of Songs?
Also referred to as the Song of Solomon, or Canticles, the Song of Songs is typically understood as a love poem that, in describing the love in a new marriage, can also exemplify the longing of God for his people and they, in return, for Him. As such, it’s been common for some Song of Songs commentaries to allegorically identify God or Jesus Christ as the book’s Bridegroom, with his people or the Church as the Bride. The book is rich in wedding imagery, tender, passionate — dare we observe even a bit explicit if one reads it on the literal level as a love poem — but there is an experience of being able to transform what is a deeply romantic poem or song into the longing of Bridegroom (God) and Bride (in this new book, Mary, the Blessed Mother, or us) that leads to a deeper union, a love “that many waters cannot quench” (Song of Songs, 8:7).
The Church teaches that the first step in biblical interpretation is the same as for other literature: to identify the literary form in its original context. In the daily newspaper, that means we ask ourselves, “is this a news report or an editorial, the stock market index, or a cartoon?” In the case of the Bible, this might mean, “is this a narrative history or a parable, a gospel, or a psalm, is it spiritual or material, or is this a figure of speech?” It is in this spirit we can refine and explore an allegorical interpretation of a biblical text or book, especially the Song of Songs.
The approach is compelling. As Franciscan Sister Kate O’Leary, writer for Xavier Magazine, observed about “Beholding Beauty,” “this is a great read! If you are desiring to grow closer in your relationship with Mary, this book is filled with great depth and richness. Father Greg does an amazing job accompanying the reader to journey with Mary throughout this powerful love song.”
A Catholic scripture scholar writes “whether you have a strong relationship with Mary or experience her as so different that she is difficult to relate to, ‘Beholding Beauty: Mary in the Song of Songs’ by Father Cleveland, is a must-read! Father Cleveland brings to life Mary’s humanity — her vulnerability, joy, loss, and grief through which she learns to find God in all the experiences of her life, and models for us how to do the same. Sheer gift!” (from Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway, Professor of Spirituality and Systematic Theology, Sacred Heart Major Seminary).
In our own diocese, Angela McGrady, a catechist at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish, has been leading a new “Women of Faith” group study on the Song of Songs. In April, they began a study/discussion of “Beholding Mary” (two chapters per session, guided by the helpful questions provided at the end of each chapter of the book).
McGrady shared with me what this experience is already meaning for the group, and she particularly noted that “women are encouraged to use those prayer exercises at home in their daily prayer to grow closer to the Lord. We have young moms, ‘more experienced’ moms, single women, and grandmothers join with us. The range of life and prayer experiences allow us to learn from each other and grow together in our beautiful Catholic faith.” Regarding “Beholding Beauty,” she observed “It is a beautiful connection to our Mother; the prayer exercises have helped me with mental prayer; it has allowed me to be with our Mother in the scripture. I see and feel God’s presence in my life more clearly when I pray with the scriptures explained in the book.”
We certainly commend Angela’s service to the church and hope that other groups of women and men will be inspired to study the book.
In the words of Father Greg, “By reading my book and imitating Mary, you will become a more willing cooperator with the Holy Spirit in your own sanctification.” What better love story to honor and cherish?
I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day!