Note: New Jerusalem Bible translation used throughout.
5:10-16 My love is fresh and ruddy… His head is golden… his locks are palm fronds and black as the raven. His eyes are like doves… His cheeks are beds of spices… His lips are lilies… His hands are golden… His belly a block of ivory… His legs are alabaster columns… His conversation is sweetness itself, he is altogether lovable. Such is my love, such is my friend.
While it is true that physical beauty should not become the be all and end all we have made it out to be, the physical attractiveness of another human being is something to be enjoyed and appreciated. The temptation is always to objectify and thus use the individual we are attracted to. But to be able to look upon another’s physical grace with thankful eyes and a gracious heart is a grace in and of itself.
The woman in the poem lists all the attributes of her lover that makes him attractive to her. His physicality is a concrete representation of her desire for him and the reality of his love for her. It is his lips that have kissed her, his legs carried him to her, his arms in which she has rested and received his passionate, undying love. Even his conversation is sweet, a conversation that, as with all lovers, does not necessarily have to be deep and thought provoking. Through all this, he is not only a loveable lover, but a friend as well.
While on my January retreat, my retreat director suggested making two lists; one for all the things I loved about Jesus and one for all the things I did not like about him. I spent the entire day praying and contemplating this list, and finally came up with 51 items on the positive side and only one on the negative. In the plus column were such things as his love for me, his willingness to forgive, etc. But it also included things like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the 1812 Overture, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, among others. I love Jesus for the color blue, for putting nerve-endings in all the right places, for dogs, star-bloated skies, loving family and friends.
When it came to the negative side, the solitary entry was that Jesus, at times, can be a real pain! Why? Because he does not allow me to judge or hold grudges against those who hurt me. He does not let me sit and wallow in self-pity. He is constantly at me about things like “growth,” and “conversion,” and “service.” Very annoying! Yet if it was not for these very things that I find annoying, I do not believe I could truly enjoy the other 51 I find so wonderfully appealing about “my Love…my friend,” my Jesus.
6:3 I belong to my love, and my love to me.
There was once a small boy who decided to build a toy boat. He found the choicest piece of wood and lovingly carved and hollowed out the hull and sanded it smooth. He next fashioned a mast, attached a fine sail, painted the boat the most beautiful color he could find, then went down to the river to test his new creation.
Squatting down, the boy gently placed the boat on the water and gave it a slight tap. The wind caught the sail and it billowed out, sending the boat gliding across the face of the water. The sight filled the boy with delight. But a smile of joy turned to a look of dismay as he watched the boat sail farther and farther away from him. He had failed to attach a line to the boat, so there was no way to bring it back. Heartbroken, the boy wept and returned home.
A few days later, while passing a used toy store, the boy looked in the window. There, in the back, almost hidden by other toys, was his boat! With great excitement the boy entered the store and asked the owner to give him the boat in the window because it belonged to him. The man calmly said he would gladly sell him the boat, but he could not simply give his merchandise away.
So the boy began to work, and the money he earned went toward retrieving his prized toy. When at last he had accumulated enough money, he returned to the store and bought his boat back. Upon leaving, the boy was heard to say, “You’re mine, you’re twice my boat. You’re mine once because I made you and mine once because I paid for you.”
There are many people who reach out to us. Some want our time, others want our money. Still others desire us as a means to satisfy them physically or emotionally. But only Jesus desires us because he made us out of love and paid for us with his blood, shed for love of us. “I belong to my Love, and my Love belongs to me.” The truth of this remains today. The one to whom I give my love and time and energy and life has a claim on me. And if the one who receives my love gives me his love and time and energy and life in return, then we truly possess each other. With Jesus, the possession is not a controlling or clinging, ultimately destructive possession. He has proven worthy of my love and trust. He has proven himself reliable. When you belong to Jesus, he enables you to see yourself as you are, to claim both the light and shadows of your existence. Jesus enables you to be whole, hence holy.
6:5 Turn your eyes away from me, they take me by assault!
This verse is interesting from the fact that the Beloved’s eyes are simply described, not compared to anything as in the other verses. In her translation, poet Chiana Bloch renders verse 5 as, “Your eyes! Turn them away for they dazzle me.” Why? Why does the gaze from the Beloved’s eyes “dazzle” enough to “assault,” “torment,” “overwhelm” the Lover? Could it be that, in peering into the eyes of one committed to us and our wellbeing, the eyes of one who knows us and loves us because of, and in spite of, this knowledge, we glimpse, if but for a moment, God gazing back at us? That there is more than a little of the Divine involved in the love between two people? That it takes courage to love another and allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be loved by them? I firmly believe the answer to all these questions is a resounding “YES!”
Now, this “yes” opens up a new set of questions. Do we have the courage to love and be loved by Jesus? To look into his eyes so as to truthfully see ourselves mirrored in the vision of one who intimately knows us and loves us because of, and in spite of, what he sees? Are we willing to be vulnerable enough to look into the eyes of God and accept what we find? What we will find there is a human being, talented and broken, strong and fragile, sacred and scared, blessed and filled with potential for life and love and growth.
In short, we will find the Beloved of Jesus Christ.
6:9 My dove is my only one, perfect and mine.
The male lover proclaims that his lover is unique and uniquely his, a proclamation that Jesus makes regarding each one of us.
Consider the following: In the entire history of this planet, there has never been, nor ever will be, another like you. No one has ever viewed the world like you do, no one has ever been given your particular talents and insights. No one has been given your job to accomplish in this life. And should you fail, no one will come behind you and complete the task. The very fact that you exist at all comes from a choice made by God. Your being here is no accident, no afterthought, no spur of the moment whim. From the beginning, even before time, God chose to create you! God chose to give you all that you possess, including your sexuality, out of undying love. That has always been part of her plan for the universe.
The love Jesus bears for you is also unique, never before seen on the earth. His passion for you burns with an intensity that can only be fulfilled by your decision to freely and intensely love him in return.
To belong to another, to have a lover claim that I belong to him and he belongs to me is something truly sweet to hear, especially when such claims are rooted in mutual respect, free from possessiveness and control. Jesus desires to possess us, but this is because of the truth St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Jesus, my Lover, is the source of rest and fulfillment. He is the source of my joy and the destination of my wandering, stumbling steps. The love I give him can be given by no one else but me. And he has been waiting for my love, and yours, since before the world began. Isn’t it about time the wait was over?
7:12-13 Come, my love, let us go to the fields… Then I shall give you the gift of my love.
It seems to me that “the fields” here has a double meaning, one flowing from the other.
The fields are a place of seclusion, away from the noise and activity of the city. The fields are a place of solitude and silence into which the Lover is leading his Beloved. There. together, far from prying eyes, and in freedom of expression, he will bestow the gift of his love. The gift of his love. Jesus’ love is not something owed to any of us. It is an expression of deliberate choice to love us and enfold us in that love. Here he gives a gentle but firm command to “Come, my Love.” Again, our Lover is impatient with desire, as all lovers grow impatient when they wish to make love to their beloved; to ravish them. In the fields of peaceful solitude we are ravished, for in that solitude we finally hear the words of love Jesus wishes to speak.
Yet solitude is no easy commodity. Like anything worthwhile it must come from effort. We spend our days in noise and commotion, not all of our making, but enough is self-made that we have some control over it. For our Lover to be heard, we must learn to be comfortable with silence which, itself, speaks. Silence commands us to “be still and know I am God.” Silence reminds us that there is much we have to learn and much we will never fully understand. Silence teaches us that we are not in control of all things, and helps us to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed. Silence is the bed in which Jesus makes passionate love to us, if only we allow it. That much is in our hands. We can choose to clutter and clog our lives, or we can choose to “let him enter, the King of Glory.”
But no one can stay in the field of silence. There is also the field of the human condition, the field of human need of which we are all a part. If lovers remain in bed and never allow their closeness to bear fruit in the world beyond the bedroom, all they have participated in is sexual gymnastics. If we are loved by our Lover, Jesus, and fail to have that love bear fruit in service to those in need, we are a barren tree, content with imagining it has beautiful green leaves and luscious fruit. Adapting St. James, “Love, without works, is dead.”
We have known bliss. What are we doing to alleviate the gloom? We have been stung by prejudice. What are we doing to educate? We have known the kiss of the Beloved. How has our love and concern kissed those left by the wayside of society’s thoughts? It is not enough to receive the Lover’s gifts of love. We must become his gift of love to the world.
8:1 Ah, why are you not my brother, nursed at my mother’s breast! Then if I met you out of doors, I could kiss you without people thinking ill of me.
Hiding: the need for the appearance of propriety, of “normalcy.” We gay folk know all too well the art of hiding, of “passing,” of putting up a good front. We are taught from the time we are very young that there is something “odd” about us. Our relationships are rarely displayed on billboards or in the print media. A gay person murdered becomes “a homosexual murder” (what was the last “heterosexual” murder you read about?). If a heterosexual couple holds hands in public a smile is evoked over expressed love, while a gay of lesbian couple doing likewise are accused of “flaunting.” How many marriages and lives have been shattered because marriage was the “normal” thing to do and the best way for a gay person to hide from themselves and others? And this need to fit in eventually spills over into one’s relationship with God. It took me years before I had the insight and courage enough to relate to God as a gay man. I had built up a false self, a snug and secure image of who I was expected to be, having little if anything to do with who I really am. I presented a mask to God to love because to one degree or another I had bought into the homophobia I was inundated with. But then the breakthrough occurred, a breakthrough initiated by Jesus himself, since I was too weak and too blind to see what I was doing. I could thank God for my being gay but not truly love him as a gay man. I could say Jesus loved me, but the real me remained buried under illusion and false expectations. One can waste a great deal of time wishing for this or that, wondering how life would be “if only…” Ultimately we can “if only” ourselves to a spiritual death that robs Jesus of a lover and deprives the world of a unique expression of his love.
What do people think of me? In the long run it does not make any difference, particularly in the spiritual life. What matters is to enter into what God thinks about you: “And God looked at everything he had made, and saw that it was very good.” There are instances where coming out fully can do more damage than good. But a gay or lesbian person must come out to themselves and acknowledge that self before the God who bestowed the gift in the first place. Then we can embrace our Lover as the gay and lesbian lovers he desires. Ireneus said that “the glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Coming out to ourselves and to God is the most important step we take, for it is not only a coming out of the tomb of the closet, but a stepping into the truth.
8:6-7 Set me as a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is strong as death, passion as relentless as Sheol… Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown. Were a man to offer all his family wealth to buy love, contempt is all that he would gain.
The seal spoken of here was a sign of ownership, of possession. Here the Lover wishes to be set upon the heart and arm of the Beloved as a sign to all to whom it is she belongs.
Heart and arm, love and strength, possessed by both. To be owned by Jesus is to be the possession of Love itself, not simply love, but a love “strong as death” and a “passion relentless as Sheol,” the place of the dead that beckons to all. It is love that called you into being and keeps you alive. It is love that opened its hands to receive nails, bared its body to whips and spittle, and crushed death and fear into the dust.
Jesus is a passionate Lover who can never cease loving us, no matter how deep the flood of self-hatred nor imposing the torrent of prejudice. His is a love that does not, cannot, be won or purchased, because his love has already been spent … for you. You do not have to impress Jesus or try to put on a mask. You cannot play games with him. Well, really you can, but emptiness and contempt are the only prizes gained.
“Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm” can also be Jesus’ call to us. In a real sense he wants to be possessed by us, to find a place in our heart and in our arms, fragile though they are. Possession yes, but in the end it is more a question of union, one with the other. When we are fixed securely upon the heart of Jesus, when he is within the depths of our heart, then truly his left arm is under our head and we are embraced with his right. We are surrounded by his love, forever warmed and strengthened. Even the power of death cannot change his love. Not just physical death, but the death we choose when we wander off, looking to lie in the beds of other lovers and find comfort in another’s embrace: the embrace of greed, lust, selfishness, self-pity , anger and hatred. But their seals are those of Sheol, of emptiness, of nothing. Only our Lover Jesus, by kissing us with the kisses of his mouth, can give us what we desire most: wholeness, completeness, meaning and purpose, and the knowledge that there is one in whose eyes we are beautiful and to whom we give delight.
8:12 But I tend my own vineyard myself.
The vineyard here refers to the Lover’s selfhood, superficially her sexuality. The vineyard, which she earlier failed to guard, is now in the hands of her Beloved. Both lovers have referred to the vineyard as theirs. Here the metaphor provides a sense of closure.
In a sense, we have been given our very self to cultivate and tend like a vineyard ripe with the possibility of refreshing wine.
The feeling behind “I tend my own vineyard” has the feel of good ol’ American self-reliance about it. Chiana Bloch translates this verse as “My vineyard is my own,” and as such it must be protected and nurtured.
When I give a gift to someone, I know that, deep down, since it is now theirs, they are free to treat the gift any way they wish, although I will be more pleased if I see them enjoying it through the proper use and care. We are gifted in so many ways, but the most difficult to embrace for gay and lesbian folks is our sexuality since it is under constant attack by those who do not, or refuse to, understand us. We can respond to the attacks in two ways. We can adopt a childish “I’ll-show-you” attitude where everything and anything goes, thus ultimately and dangerously selling ourselves cheaply. “Who are they to label me as disordered, my affections unnatural, my sexuality as second-rate, something that falls short?” There is such a thing as righteous anger, and it is perfectly “normal” to feel angry when a God-given gift is belittled or misunderstood. But anger alone does little good. It can, in fact, act like a leech, sapping strength and vision from us.
So what other option do we have? The option that has been held out throughout these reflections … Jesus! After all, he is the one who has gifted us with our sexuality. Who better to help us use it in a life-giving, life-affirming, responsible manner? He knows what it is like to be misunderstood, to be put down. He has tasted the injustice of others, therefore he can do more than sympathize with his wounded gay sisters and brothers. He can help us through the anger and fear so as to claim our full personhood. He can, and will, walk with us through our pain and participate with our joys. He can, and will, cradle us in our loneliness, caress us in our need. He can, and will, heal our wounds and increase our courage and strength. He can broaden our vision and enlarge our hearts to embrace, not only our fellow outcasts, but also return love and mercy to those who hate us, lie about us, who are blinded by their fear of us.
To truly be lovers of Jesus we must conduct ourselves as lovers of Jesus, as those who have experienced his love-making, been drawn in his footsteps, and have been called “beautiful,” “my delight,” my love,” and “my friend” by him whose body forever bears the marks of his passionate love for us.
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.