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Desire and Delight Intimacy with God through the Scriptures by Robert Taylerson
All booklets are published thanks to the generous support of the members of the Catholic Truth Society
CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY publishers to the holy see
Contents Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 The Song of Songs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 Psalms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 The Beatific Vision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53
All rights reserved. First published 2013 by The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, 40-46 Harleyford Road London SE11 5AY Tel: 020 7640 0042 Fax: 020 7640 0046. This edition ÂŠ 2013 The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society.
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ISBN 978 1 86082 869 0
Foreword This booklet introduces desire and delight as they have been understood and experienced through Christian history, with the help of reflections on the Song of Songs, on other scriptures, and on Church teaching on the Beatific Vision, in the following ways: i. My personal desire for God, and God’s desire for me. ii. My personal delight in God and God’s delight in me. iii. The desire of the Church as a body for God and God’s desire for the Church. iv. The delight of the Church in God and God’s delight in the Church. Take a moment to clarify your own views on these four ideas before you start to read the main chapters of this booklet. From my current perspective as a parish priest, I am eager that more people take a personal spiritual journey, deepening awareness of desire and delight in their spiritual lives. The power and strength it has to offer and the union, as Church and as individuals, with God, is much needed. Too often we fight shy of taking a journey to deeper intimacy.
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As with all Christian spiritual journeys, spiritual lives do not flourish if one aspect is pursued in isolation. Prayer, the scriptures, the sacraments, and teaching of the Church through the ages, personal discernment, discernment with others, and having a good spiritual director, all help our progress. Robert Taylerson September 2012
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Introduction Rawness This booklet is about a “rawness”, almost at gut-level, brought about by a deepening love for God and awareness of God’s love for us. It is about the dynamics and the tensions of a relationship with God. It is about the integral beauty and force of experience of that loving relationship. In the scriptures, in the book of Genesis, a man is said to “cleave” to his wife and the two become one (Gn 2:24). Such description of bridal love suggests an immense power for unity drawing each into deep relationship with the other. Raw love is as blatant as hunger. The power of love drawing spouses together is as strong as that power which draws the hungry to food, or the thirsty to drink. Spousal imagery This booklet looks at our relationship with God, daring to use similar imagery of spousal love. On a personal level such love involves my awareness of God’s overwhelming desire for me and the growth of my desire for God. Raw love discovers, uncovers and develops my emotions and powerful attraction for God. I perceive God’s love for me with a force that shocks. The shock is both personal, realising how God loves me individually, and it is also
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collective, realising how God loves us, his people, his children, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, his Church. Whenever spousal imagery is used to describe God’s relationship with his people, huge risks are taken. One real risk is that we could develop a false, weakened image of God. Because spousal love can often be perceived in terms of an incompleteness of each spouse if their beloved is not present, we may falsely deduce that there is a necessary incompleteness in God without the presence of ourselves as his beloved. God, in essence, must never be perceived as needy or incomplete. This would be false teaching. The Trinity is the perfect loving relationship and love beyond this godhead is not “necessary” for God’s needs or completeness. God’s desire and delight in us is all generosity, all free giving without a sense of God having “need” for our love. A second serious risk is that the Christian’s life may focus on an emotional high, on euphoria associated with personal relationship, rather than on an acceptance, submission and generous self-giving in faith and trust which goes beyond moods and the pleasure-sensors of our brains. There is also a true risk of fostering an immaturity in love, especially if the Gospel as a whole has not been our substantial guide for some time. Associated with this is a further risk that enthusiasm may rule me, rather than gospel precepts and discernment.
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Powerful imagery And yet the scriptures do use and do hold in wonder spousal imagery to describe God’s relationship with us, both in the Old Testament (e.g. Is 61:10, 62:4, 5) and, in Christ, in the New (e.g. Rv 19:7, 22:17; Ep 5; 2 Co 11:2-4). It is a beautiful and potent representation of a great reality. In terms of presenting powerful pictures of lover and beloved the Song of Songs can be seen as the riskiest book of the bible, but also as one which has the most wonderful imagery. The very power of its images is a tremendous gift despite the risks. For some readers the opening paragraph of this introduction may seem alien. You may feel it is outside the normal awareness or description of our relationship with God in love. In our own time there is less use of passionate expressions to describe our relationship with God than in previous eras of the Church. In our spiritual history, however, there is a huge wealth of writing on desire and delight, much of which is based on commentaries and reflections on the allegorical meaning of the scriptural book of the Song of Songs. Pause to reflect on what these two words mean. “Delight” indicates joy, rapture, intense happiness, etc., and “desire” indicates longing, yearning, setting our hearts on fire. The spiritual writings and commentaries on the Song of Songs are many... Hippolytus, Origen, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Alcuin,
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Bede, Peter Damian, Baldwin of Canterbury, Alan of Lille, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland, Nicholas of Lyra, Hugh of St Victor, Richard of St Victor, William of St Thierry, Denys the Carthusian, John of the Cross, to name but a few. Countless others have expressed the riches of desire and delight in our relationship with God. These writings are frequently joyful and passionate, with the sense that raw feelings are very much involved. These authors do not write like monks struggling from a warped frustration of passion in an imposed celibacy, but rather with a realisation of the part that desire and delight play in a pure full free loving relationship with God and a balanced joyful Christian life. They speak of the relationship in love between God and the individual and between God and the Church. Such writings come from the storehouse of the Church’s spiritual tradition, doctors of the Church, great saints, holy abbots, bishops and pastors, and can enrich our spiritual lives today. It is my hope that this booklet will give a flavour of the tradition of desire and delight of which they speak. Few of our generation have read their writings. For over a thousand years of our Church’s history, however, the commentaries and spiritual reflections on the Song of Songs outnumbered those on any other book of scripture. God’s desire and delight for us This is not a booklet about specific prayer habits such as petition, intercession, thanks, adoration, praise, repentance.
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Nor is it about a measured spiritual progress, for instance from vocal prayer to meditation to contemplation. These other insights concerning our interacting with God are valued parts of our tradition, i.e. of the teaching of the Church, and the Christian saints and scholars through the ages. Learning about them is a great blessing. But the purpose of this current text is not in proposing some new model of a spiritual path, nor in an analysis of spiritual growth. In some ways it is simpler. My intent is simply to focus on God’s desire and delight for us and on the human desire and delight for God. For each of us the call is to be engulfed with awareness of God’s love for me personally and his love for me as part of the body of the Church. I am also called to reciprocate such love. Sometimes we may feel that we are “unlovable”. Isn’t that the stumbling block: that, conscious of our many sins, we feel unlovable? Who could possibly like, let alone love us? If we were remotely confident in God’s love for us, that would unlock so much - we wouldn’t want to sin. We have much help from scripture. The Prodigal Son parable carries a message which is powerful. Jesus’ love and compassion in his words in the healing of the Leper, “Of course I want to!” go to the heart of the matter. When we enter the spiritual arena of seeing God as a lover, however, then we start to perceive the “of course I want to” energy in the fullness of God’s loving relationship with us. It is both overwhelming and empowering.
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Understanding love Frequently when “love” is mentioned in spiritual books or in books on prayer the intended understanding of the word is a kind of charity, the sense of outflowing generosity and deep kindness. On other occasions when speaking of “Christ’s love” the spirit of self-sacrifice and the image of Christ’s cross is central. When “love” is referred to in terms of the needy of society it may also focus on aspects of justice or of service. At other times the word “love” is synonymous with the word “compassion”, i.e. having a deep empathy with those who suffer, and allowing this to drive our prayers and actions. Amidst the richness of expressions and meanings of “love”, the dynamic of desire and delight is all too often ignored or overlooked. I ask you to reflect on it now. On the human level this dynamic can be messy and unsettling. These powerful forces of love, and of other emotions and tensions in a relationship, are not wellordered. What I undergo through such love does not lead to a feeling of serenity and calm. Rarely do I have any ongoing sense of growth or progress. My feelings are not wellcontrolled. My emotions are more likely to be bounced from anguished yearning and desire to joyful delight and back again, like a ping-pong ball volleyed constantly and rapidly across the net. In that sense desire and delight do not equate to “peace”. In terms of “why I was created”, however (“To know, love, and serve God in this world and
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be happy with him forever in the nextâ€?, cf. A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, p.7) there is a true peace to be found. We will look at desire and delight in the relationship between God and humans expressed in scripture, especially in the Song of Songs and the Psalms. As has been mentioned the number of authors we could draw from is large. We will use as our key the spiritual writers St Bernard and St Augustine, with a brief mention of St John of the Cross. We will reflect also on the understanding of the Beatific Vision in our tradition, to help to understand the fulfilment of desire and delight in our lives with God. Spiritual marriage The image, the allegory, of lover is one of many divine allegories in the scriptures. God is also portrayed as judge, doctor, teacher, as well as mercy, tenderness, light, rock, king, shepherd, and so on. Of all the images of God and of the relationship between God and humanity, however, none is as powerful or as central as that of love between lover and beloved, leading to a spiritual marriage. While it essential to hold on to the truth that this is an allegory, it is very necessary to ponder and live the truth which the allegory carries to its full extent if we are to understand and to grow in the intimacy of relationship which God seeks to have with us. The tradition of the importance of this allegory can be traced far back. In Genesis 1:26 we are told that humans
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are created in Godâ€™s own image and likeness, male and female. From this we understand that human maleness and femaleness reflect God. Not only gender but also the relationships are key elements - i.e. the relationship between male and female also reflects God. St Augustine, in his teaching on the Trinity, pondered the understanding that God is love, and that all love requires a lover, a beloved, and love itself. He gave a picture of the Father as the lover, the Son as the beloved, and the Spirit as the love between them (De Trinitate VIII, 10, 15). The prophets, and the image of Christ the bridegroom in the New Testament, deepened the image of lover and beloved. God wants us to know him. In the Hebrew language, the first language of Godâ€™s chosen people, the word yada is the root both of the word for knowing and the word for physical intimacy. To know and be known by God requires the personal relationship of love. Whilst it is true that God already knows everything about us, it is also true that there is a type of knowledge which requires loving personal interaction, and grows through it. When my desire for God and my delight in his presence grows, the words I use in prayer do not necessarily change. When I grow in awareness of his delight in me and in us, my outward habits of prayer may or may not be altered. My attitude in prayer, however, and relationship with God, do change. They witness to a deeper real intimacy. Such intimacy is a gift beyond measure.
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The Song of Songs The Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) is a scripture book of love poems. As with all scripture today we are encouraged first to read it literally, then to look for meanings in allegory, moral teachings, teachings of promises to be fulfilled, etc. The tradition in our Churchâ€™s spiritual history, however, has been very much to see the deepest meanings of the book in its allegory. Its central purpose is seen as to help us to ponder on the intensity, the desire and the delight which are part of an intimate loving relationship with God. Both in the Jewish and the Christian traditions, the relationship portrayed in the poems is seen as representing the relationship between God and his people. Some saints through the centuries have seen the relationship solely as between God and the Church. Others have seen it as an allegory also of the relationship between God and the individual soul. The male partner (the lover) in these scriptures is usually understood to represent God and the female (the beloved) represents the Church or the individual. In addition there are bystanders (e.g. the daughters of Jerusalem) who respond as spectators in the drama. The Song of Songs is the third and final scripture book attributed to King Solomon (though historically its origins
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are uncertain). The first book attributed to Solomon is the book of Proverbs, the second is Ecclesiastes and the third the Song of Songs. They were written hundreds of years before Jesus Christ, and so are an essential part of the Jewish understanding of God as well as ours as Christians. Is the Song of Songs for every Christian? Is it only for â€œexpertsâ€?? Is it for me? Each of us has our own story of praying with scripture. I first read the Song of Songs at the age of twelve or thirteen in the 1960s. I was a keen reader and had set myself to read the whole Bible in the then new translation called the Jerusalem Bible. I remember nothing of that first Song of Songs experience. I now consider reading it that young to have been unhelpful. I next looked at it seriously in my mid-twenties when I was introduced to the works of St John of the Cross. His poetry and commentaries rely heavily on allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs. Certainly then I got more out of it than previously. Some more mature Catholic friends, including a couple of priests suggested that John of the Cross was not appropriate reading for the under-40s. (I disagree with them on this.) I later discovered that through the ages there have been many opinions that the Song of Songs, and spiritual commentaries on it, are not the recommended first port of call for a young Christian or a new Christian.
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