Comments on Canticle of Canticles and Isaiah
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, encourages practices of prayer and meditation that are NOT abstract and in some ideal place, but are feeling the dirt between your toes and hearing the birds sing and relishing every gritty detail about being on this earth.
Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, encourages meditation that goes into the body. He advises such techniques as listening to the silence between sounds, or following the sound of a bell into silence, or following your breathing into the body. The idea, of course, is to quiet the mind and the ego so that there is space for the present, the now, and the divine.
The Canticle of Canticle is a perfect book for getting into the body. There is a whole history of interpretations of this book, from the first time it was acknowledged as part of Scripture. Interpreters were quick to create an allegorical and a mystical interpretation, to get away from its flagrant eroticism and so to interpret it as a dialogue between God and Israel or between Christ and the Church. After all, there is a biblical history of understanding God’s relationship with humans as similar to the relationship between a bride and a bridegroom. –Because, whenever we say ‘love,’ we are raising implications of romantic, physical love.
Barbara Brown Taylor has a shocking passage about this (p. 38). She relates a conversation with a fellow minister about attraction and spiritual intimacy with God. The union with God is very, very similar on our human level to that between a husband and wife, with that idealized sexual love in this marvelous book called the Canticle of Canticles.
It may be a relief to turn the page from the Canticle and arrive in the Bible at the Prophet Isaiah, except that he, too, acknowledges our fleshly humanness, even in writing these lines which Christians have long understood as referring to Jesus and his Mother: “…the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14). Sex is how we continue to live, to populate the world, and to experience one of the greatest pleasures and closeness this world has to offer. Isaiah could be considered implying that it is the way the divine enters the world.
The mystics, the enlightened contemplatives, acknowledged this and were able to integrate it into their spirituality. They could look at a picture of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy and understand the physicality of it without being thrown. They had come to a place where the physical and the divine were no longer opposites. They could imagine God as spouse, lover, embracing, kissing and becoming one. They could hold us, as Isaiah did, to the necessity of seeking, holding, and loving God.