“I have compared thee, O my love,
to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.
While the king sitteth at his table,
my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me;
he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.”
Song of Solomon 1:9-17
When most of us think of the Song of Solomon, we immediately think of verses like these from the end of the first chapter. Because most of the symbolism is lost to our modern ears, we roll our eyes when we read, “Oh, Lover, your x is like y!”. Most of us have never encountered a “bundle of myrrh”, “a company of horses” or “a cluster of camphire”. We don’t exactly know what to do with these verses (and others like it). Even more unfortunate, we glaze over these verses because they sound like the semi-ecstatic utterances of a foolish love, whispered in the Beloved’s ear while reclining on their bed. Indeed, they sound this way because they are pillow talk.
But, to understand this sanctified pillow talk, we must remember what happened in the previous verses: the Lover cries out for union with the Beloved because the Lover is forced to work in the vineyards. In a frantic search, the Lover cries out once again but the Beloved says to go back to what was familiar, to what was known. It is there that the the Beloved will meet the Lover. It is there that they express the above words to each other; it is there that they express the desires of their hearts in this pillow talk.
Many of us find great comfort in this verse from the Psalter, “Delight thou in the Lord : and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire.” (37:4) Many a piece of Christian kitsch has been plastered with that verse as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. The problem with finding too much comfort in this verse is that most of us have absolutely no clue what our heart’s desire is. If I looked at what I thought I wanted as a five-year-old compared to what I wanted as a College Freshman, you will see vastly different wants and needs. If I am completely honest with myself, I can even say that my heart’s desire now is completely different than what it was an hour ago and will probably be different an hour from now. We have no clue what we really want; we have little knowledge of these desires of our hearts.
The problem is further compounded when we realize how great capacity for self-deception and self-preservation is. In fact, it is so great that we can trick ourselves into thinking we want anything. The prophet Jeremiah even wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9) And, as far as I know, this has never been plastered on any plaque or bookmark!
What great sins have we tricked ourselves into thinking were actually beneficial for us? How often have we done unspeakable horrors in order to get an end that we thought we needed? How many reputations have we murdered (my favorite genocidal habit) and then convinced ourselves that such action was actually good? Beaux has another example over at Craving Althea about how the sex-drive can trick us into a false love. Our capacity for deceit is immense and it is not until that deceit ends in some form of death that we see the error of our ways.
Yet, in spite of all of this trickery, the true desires of our hearts do still show themselves in unexpected ways. St. John Climacus wrote about the gift of joy-making mourning and the purifying effect of tears. For most of us, these tears often happen without rhyme or reason. They are often an outward sign of some deep move within the soul, a tectonic shift underneath all that self-deceit and self-preservation. Frederick Beuchner even goes so far as to write this:
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are. More often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and to summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.
These unexpected tears show us these true desires of our hearts and we should listen to them.
As we are purified more and more from all this self-deception and self-love, these desires of our hearts become clearer. This purification happens as we move more and more towards that innermost chamber of our hearts where God dwells. For, in much the same way that the Lover can only speak these intimate verses of love in a whisper into their Beloved’s ear, so too, can we only express those deep desires of our hearts when we are close enough to God to see those desires clearly.
It is only at the base of the heart, in the innermost chamber of the soul, that we can whisper to God, “Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant” and, perhaps, we will hear Him whisper back to us, “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair”. For our soul is the green bed within a cedar house with fir rafters. For the center of our being is the only room made for such an intimate love between God and man, between the Creator and the created. It is there that the Lover of Lovers deigns to dwell with us.