My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.
Song of Songs 2:10-13 (CEV)
What is Love? How do our expectations and definitions of Love stymy it and limit our experience of Being Loved?
These are the questions which arise from Helen Martin’s recent exhibition of work which ‘exegetes’ the Song of Songs. The work included paintings and prints which were images of the indigenous landscape in which Helen lives: a deeply spiritual place that has a mysterious capacity for spiritual renewal and nurture of the heart, mind, strength and body.
Helen spent a year contemplating this enigmatic book of the bible in preparation for her artworks, understanding the texts in their original format and how they have been read through-out the centuries. She commented to me that her desire was to rescue the text from limited interpretations of a relationship between a man and woman. The poetry unashamedly uses romantic and erotic imagery to describe the mystical experience of Love. A transformative, transcending encounter evoking the entirety of humanity and divinity.
Why has the church so often interpreted this poetry as a description of Almighty God and God’s special Chosen Ones? Is it just because as an institution we have been so uncomfortable with sexuality that we have needed to avoided such earthly engagement and redirect attention away from the body? Undoubtedly that has sometimes been the case but there it is also a legitimate depiction of the human-divine encounter.
Christian mystics have often drawn upon the Song of Songs to describe their own intimate relationship with God. For example, the Song of Songs was the favourite book of the bible of St John of the Cross. He rewrote his own version of it and mimicked the erotic style in others of his poem-prayers. He also opted to make the final journey from life to death accompanied by the recitation of the Song of Songs, as opposed to liturgical usual prayers for the dying. For St John of the Cross, they perfectly described his experience of divine love.
So, how wonderful that Helen is challenging our preconceptions of the way we read Song of Songs and questioning our assumptions about pathways to encountering Divine Love. Do we not frequently find a stirring in our souls when we are surrounded by natural beauty? When the wind is blowing through our veins and the sun dragging out the melatonin? Another famous mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, took ecstatic delight in nature and sang God’s praises for every leaf and flower.
In the recent Spirituality of Love course which I led at Solace, we talked about Divine Love being like a rainbow; all the colours combining to create something wonderful, ecstatically beautiful, magically. Human Love comes in individual colours of the rainbow – red might represent Romantic Love, magenta might represent Parental Love, green might represent the Love of/by Nature, and so on. The individual colours provide a glimpse, and ultimately a pathway, into experience of the Divine. Arise My Love is a special piece of Ecstatic Love is printed in deep ink blue which, incidentally, is the colour of the gown Demeter is sometimes depicted wearing in ancient mythology – Demeter was a goddess of the earth, known for her gracious generosity!
This print is special for me personally in another mystical, magical way of Love – through the divine gift of female friendship. I had been raving about Helen’s exhibition for weeks and lamented to a girlfriend the impossibility of me purchasing my favourite piece – Arise My Love. Cath sneakily sent word around to Liv, Sarah, Maggie, Barb, Chris & Clare (only half of whom she had ever met) and together they purchased the print for me as ‘an early birthday present’! In recent years, these women friends have embodied Divine Love me as they have sat through floods of tears, listened to hours of self-indulged lament, and urged me onwards and upwards towards peace and happiness. Just another colour of God’s Love refracted in spectacular light into my humble life.
You can find out more about Helen here, through her blog. Her next project is going to be on ‘road trips’!