I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking. . . . I arose to open for my lover . . . but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer. (Song of Songs 5:2, 5, 6, NIV)
The Song of Songs sounds like the ocean, which gives and takes, which comes and goes. Love is like the wind that blows here and there. No one knows where it’s headed. There are in this book two songs. One which says yes, the other one which says no. There is no final say. Words call for more words. What can we learn from those words? We think we have understood, then we realize we have not. We are certain, then we aren’t so sure anymore. He loves only her, he goes off to the gardens (2:2, 16). He knocks, she hesitates. She gets up, he has left (5:2-6). They almost meet . . . they could have met . . . the ways of love are impenetrable.
What can we learn here of love between a man and a woman? Of love between man and his God? This text can also be read as a song of love to God. It is read the evening that opens the Sabbath in Jewish liturgy. But it is a song that is heard only within silence. Silence of the Sabbath where everything is interrupted, where God Himself rests. There is a desert that carves itself into our actions, in the midst of our works. The Sabbath—desert where the ancient love song can be heard. Desert of love where the vineyards and lilies grow. Two images of love: between man and woman, between man and God.
My own vineyard I have not kept (1:6). My own vineyard is mine to give (8:12). The Song of Songs, it must be said, is a song about sexuality, per se, outside any reference to procreation, outside any legal or marital structure, and especially, outside any reference to “spirituality.” One loves with the body and not with the mind. It is a relation that goes against the established ways. Love between a king and a maiden. Love between a son of Israel and a woman from a strange land. Does not the law forbid mixed marriages? A love that is lived in the dark: Come my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages (7:11). It is a forbidden love. It is a love that may call for despising. If only you were to me like a brother . . . then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one woulde despise me (8:1). This love can only be lived outside the walls of the city. It is a love outside any formal contract. It is a love with no obligations. Everything is possible. Erotism. One gives without expecting anything in return. My own vineyard I have not kept (1:6).
Yet, another voice can also be heard. The beloved speaks this time to her friends: Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires (2:7). Like some ancient and lost wisdom. These words can be heard over and over again in the song, like a refrain. One gives, but one also withdraws. Pleasure but also patience. Togetherness but also distance. You are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain (4:12). You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water (4:15).
Only she who knows herself can come to know the other. Only he who has can give. Only she who is can let the other be. Come away my lover and be like a gazelle (8:14).
Love implies giving of oneself but also withholding of oneself. Between those who love, there is a desert. Desert of doubt, of questions, where we do not always understand the other because of his difference. But also desert of respect, where we accept the other’s distance, the other’s difference. Love is not the quest for another self. It does not fill a void. Love is desire for the other, in his difference, in his distance. Love is an exile. It takes us to the unknown. It changes us. We do not think the same anymore. We do not see things the same way anymore. We are elsewhere.
Yet, the person we love remains a land that we can never fully explore. He cannot be conquered. Between those who love there is a desert. Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning on her lover? (8:5)
But the text also depicts the love between God and His people.
Illicit love? Indeed, it is in the desert, outside the walls of the city, that God calls us. To follow God is to walk outside of the set ways. It is to go where no one has yet gone.
Giving and withholding? Indeed, God speaks but sometimes He remains silent. In these moments it is better for us to keep silent and not give in to despair as did the Israelites, lost in the desert. It is the moment of doubt. Distance of the beloved. Darkness. Emptiness. We seek and do not find. Is He still around? Do we still count for Him?
Once, lily among the thorns, we are now forsaken. Our beloved has gone to the lilies. He browses among the lilies.
Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens (2:2). My lover has gone down to his garden . . . to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies (6:2).
Our beloved is no more ours. God does not let Himself be grasped. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8, 9).
And yet we trust. My lover is mine and I am his (Song of Songs 6:3). We have been forsaken, we doubt, we are anguished. And yet, there in the darkness, we remember our love.
In our relationship with God and with the other, there are moments of silence, of uncertainty. Even when God speaks, we sometimes do not hear. He who has an ear, let him hear (Revelation 2:7). Is it His voice? We are never sure. So God speaks. A lover makes a move, but the seductive gesture has not interrupted the decency of words and attitudes. He withdraws as lightly as He came. A God revealed Himself on a mountain, or in a fiery bush, or was attested in Books. What if it was just a storm? And what if the books came from dreamers? Let us do away with the illusory call. The insinuation itself invites us to do so. We can never be sure. And yet, we believe. Faith, or love, is loving, because, but also and especially, in spite of. In spite of the uncertainties, the problems, in spite of the desert and the shadow of death we find there. Only then can our love become as strong as death (Song of Songs 8:6). It is love that is able to emerge from the ashes. It is love that doubt and problems could not destroy.
It is on the Sabbath that we sing the Song of Songs. It is on this background of silence, where there are no works, no deeds, that love is sung. The Sabbath is this distance that we take from our work, from our deeds, from our attempts to control our destinies. On the Sabbath, we do not seek anymore to control, we free ourselves from our holds on space to submit to the escape of time. The Sabbath celebrates our absence from the world. The fact that our lives come from elsewhere. The Sabbath celebrates our creation. On the Sabbath, we remember that we are creatures. That life is a gift. That is not suspended to our efforts, to our control. Our lives come from elsewhere. We are from elsewhere.
We are more than builders of cities. We are also the children of the desert. A desert where nothing depends on us. Where everything is gift.
Why is love sung on that day?
Because love too is a gift. It is not suspended to our efforts. We cannot master love.
Desert of love. Desert between those who love. Love implies giving of oneself but also withdrawing from the other, like the vineyard that is kept for the chosen. Love is this separation between the lover and the beloved. Desert. Quest. But also respect of the other in his irrecuperable distance.
Desert between God and His people. Desert between a God who, like the beloved, cannot be possessed, and a people who in silence of the desert keep the sacred flame alive. In the desert. nothing is in our hands. Everything is gift. Like life. Like love. Like a melody, love is sung—like a melody that cannot be grasped, nor possessed, except in the heart of the lover.