Thursday, March 9, 2017

Maybe When You're Older: or, The Canticle of Canticles

(source: Wikimedia)
The ancient Hebrews, it is said, did not allow even pious men to read Solomon's Canticle of Canticles until the age of thirty. The Catholic tradition has almost universally interpreted the literal intention of the Canticle as an allegory of Christ and the Church, a reading even the early Protestant heretics were loathe to reject. The modern lust for novelty insists on a hermeneutic of crassness, and interprets this book as a "better sex" manual for married couples—or perhaps for those who prefer other arrangements.

Like the speculated dialogue form of Ecclesiastes, the Canticle possesses multiple speakers, and the Vulgate suggests a division along the lines of Sponsa, Sponsus, Chorus Adolescentularum, and Chorus Fratrum. Knox decides not to include any speaker labels due to his agnosticism about finding a clear identification, so it was oftentimes amusing when deciding whether my wife or I would be reading a certain paragraph aloud.

There is no clear narrative to follow, and the book seems rather to include a selection of incidents presented non-chronologically, especially since the marriage of Solomon and the Sulamite woman takes place before their nighttime yearnings for one another. This disjointed narrative lends credence to the spiritual-allegorical reading, as do the many odd dreamlike incidents (such as the beating of the Sulamite by the night watchmen after the through-the-lattice encounter in ch. 5). Solomon's own professed unhappiness with all his dealings with women elsewhere also makes the allegorical reading more certain.

I will not offer any particular reading of the text, due to its obscurity and the already rich tradition of holy commentators. If the Canticle offers any solace to those in the state of marriage rather than those pursuing a life of spiritual contemplation, it is perhaps that the joys of the marital state are considered to be a worthy image of the intimate love God has for his own Bride; that it is indeed not a contradiction to call it Holy Matrimony, and that the "marriage bed undefiled" (Heb. 13) is still a blessing from on high.
As there are two evils which, solely or especially, wage war against the soul, we are given the two Books [Proverbs and Ecclesiastes] to oppose them. Of these the former, using the hoe of discipline, grubs out whatever is corrupt in our morals, and whatever is superfluous in the indulgence of the flesh; whilst the latter, by the light of reason, prudently discovers the smoke of vanity in all worldly glory, and distinguishes it faithfully from the solidity of truth, putting the fear of God and the observance of His commandments before all human interests and earthly desires.... 
Now, then, ridding ourselves of these two evils by the study of these two books, we may confidently take in hand this third discourse on holy contemplation, which, being the fruit of the preceding, should only be entrusted to sober minds and chastened ears. For it would be criminal presumption on the part of imperfect souls to occupy themselves with such a sacred subject before the flesh has been tamed by discipline and subdued to the spirit, and the vanity and cares of the world despised and abjured. 
—St. Bernard's first sermon on the Canticle of Canticles

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