Song of Songs: A contemplative guide
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
THIS book is described as “A contemplative guide to the Song of Songs”. The author is obviously from a contemplative tradition, but turns what I expected to be a rather tongue-in-cheek book into a helpful and delightful meditative experience.
I remember as a young priest and convent chaplain reading the translated poetry of St John of the Cross, which is much inspired by the Song of Songs, to a very old nun in a hospital bed, and being much embarrassed about what the other visitors were thinking of this young priest reading love poetry to an old nun. I was, therefore, grateful that in the first part of this book the author elucidates the use of the sensual language in the Song, and includes the opinions of some who have commented on it.
In the second part, remembering the Poet Laureate’s observation that the Song has a “fragmentary, dreamlike quality to it”, he provides sections of the text with commentary, reflection, poetry, and hymns.
A quotation from Cheryl Exum helps to whet the appetite for studying the Song: “The poem’s genius lies in the way it shows us, as well as tells us, that ‘love is strong as death’ and in the way it explores the nature of love. It looks at what it is like to be in love from both a woman’s and man’s point of view, and it relies exclusively on dialogue so that we learn about love through what the lovers say about it.”
Watson explains carefully that this love poetry describes both the human love of a man and a woman but also the relationship of a loving God with his people. One of the most fascinating chapters St Ambrose, St Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, St Gregory the Great, the Venerable Bede, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Teresa of Ávila, and St John of the Cross. The latter reminds us that “intimacy with God is not to be gained by knowledge, but by love.”
It would be wrong of me to comment on quotations that he goes onto discuss, using hymnns and poetry. This is something that has to be experienced prayerfully. I found it most moving, challenging, and, above all, loving.
Prebendary William Scott was until recently Sub Dean of the Chapels Royal.