Thursday, May 24, 2007

What kind of beloved is your beloved?

The Canticle of Solomon records the maidens of the Shulamite woman asking her this question (Song 5:9), and it is surely a question solely asked to prompt praise for the Beloved. The Greek Septuagint differs only slightly, as the maidens ask, "What is your kinsman more than another kinsman?" This idea of a kinsman redeemer, a kinsman lover, which is brought out so vividly in Boaz's saving of his near relatives Ruth and Naomi, sheds a stronger, more christic light on the Canticle's question -- for we as Christians immediately identify our kinsman redeemer as Christ Himself. For us, then, the question would be thus: how is Christ Jesus--our kinsman who shares in our nature while remaining God, our lover who consummates His relentless love for mankind in a way that proves stronger than Death itself--how is this Christ Jesus more than any other kinsman? How is He more than any other God, more than any other man?

I pose this question for a specific reason, yet mine is slightly different than the ones that are usually seen in print. I have seen many a book, podcast, blog, website--you name it--devoted to an apologetically-based answer for others regarding this question--"How do the Old Testament prophecies establish Him as our kinsman redeemer?" "How is Christ different from and superior to other deities?" "How does the atoning sacrifice of Christ establish His payment as kinsman redeemer?"--yet my question, I think, is somewhat more fundamental, as it seeks not to justify an already established image of our Kinsman Lover within our own lives, our own hearts, but rather asks how we ought to discover our Beloved fully, how we ought to seek to develop said image in the first place.

In other words, how do we know what kind of beloved our Beloved is? And, secondly, how can extremes on either side of, well, my particular religious experience (as an example) rob one of this discovery?

The first extreme I often see reminds me (you'll have to bear with me on these admittedly unusual metaphors, along with all the inherent limitations therein) of an online dating service. To set up the example, imagine the following: A person signs up for a dating service and, after a while, finds a profile that appeals to--we'll say--her. She emails this young man, who emails back quickly with an interest that impresses the young woman. She and her new contact exchange daily emails, and it's quickly obvious that there is an intense, mutual attraction between these two that goes far beyond physical (having never actually seen or met each other in person, physical attraction can't really enter into the situation) -- shared interests, goals in life, his life seeming to complete hers -- all this leads to increased intimacy, increased disclosure, more of the emotional trust flowing back and forth along the modems...yet, for all of the love that is undoubtedly there, these two people never meet, never touch, never fulfill all the longing they most certainly feel with an actual marriage and consummation thereof. I know that this will more than likely offend many who may read this--and, for that, forgive me; I've tried to be as charitable as possible here--but I see non-sacramental approaches to Christianity as a spiritual version of this scenario; so much is learned about Christ through diligent (and admirable!) study of the Scriptures that it is obvious that a vision for who Christ is, gratitude for what He's done, longing to be in His presence--all these things are very often present in the lives of such Christians. Yet, for one to say that this is enough--for one to claim that all that is needed is the re-reading of Scriptures (God's "email correspondence" with us, if you will) and the subsequent, "long distance" relationship that is fostered through that reading, apart from any sacramental contact--is to claim that the woman should be completely satisfied that, in this life, all that she can expect is a constant longing with absolutely no fulfillment, no resolution of tension, no consummation of desire. Such a relationship can hardly be called complete; truly, after a while, it can hardly be considered healthy.

To turn the extreme to the other side, however, is the ancient idea (which nonetheless has most likely been the source of much marital grief in times past, at least by our standards) of arranged marriages, done completely apart from the desire or preference of those (or at least one of those) involved in said arrangement. Here exists a couple who, though united through the sacrament of marriage, have lived their entire lives in close proximity to one another--even to the extent of sharing the same bed and bearing children together--but have not had an experience--or, better yet, a continuous lifetime of experiences--speaking with each other, communing with one another, sharing the marriage bed as a means of union, of blessedness. The bride, in this case, may be able to tell you how the household runs--down to the daily schedule of how the husband likes dinner, how she, the wife, has her nightly talk on the phone with friends--in other words, much familiarity with the household is established, but little is actually known or appreciated about the Spouse Himself. Were the wife and husband so inclined, a conversation could be started which would shed new light on all kinds of things that were done (for reasons heretofore unknown) for years within the household, would usher in new levels of appreciation for Who the Spouse is and why He does what He does within His Household. This, as you may have already guessed, is my take on those who, having grown up in Orthodoxy, are intimately familiar with the rites, the sacraments, the sounds, the hymns, the icons, the prayer cycles, the motions of worship, yet who are almost wholly unaware of the Scriptural significance of all of these gifts. These are they who, though they devoutly show up for the lengthy Canon of St. Andrew of Crete at the beginning of Lent (and for this they are to be commended!), they are unaware of the history of salvation leading up to St. Andrew's preaching: the Covenant with Abraham and his shameful lies concerning his wife Sarah; the passing of the covenant to Isaac instead of Ishmael; the deceitful Jacob and impulsive Esau; the romance of Jacob with Leah and Rachel, the drama of Joseph and the other sons of Jacob, the line of David, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, etc...in short, a systematic, intentional study of the Scriptures as a whole, is lacking. And, while I will add quickly that Scripture is not sufficient by itself to provide the ideal, holistic experience of Christ intended for the Church, it is, in and of itself, an indispensable part of having said experience. Father Patrick Henry Reardon has recently said as much, and I believe this to be a truth that bears repeating, ad nauseam (and it may nauseate some unaccustomed to the idea), until it takes hold within the grass-roots life of Orthodox parishes...until, basically, it is no longer a rare, refreshing exception to find regular, well-attended Bible studies thriving within Orthodox parishes. As my friend Alan is fond of mentioning, Scripture is θεοπνευστος -- literally "God breath" -- so, in the words of Rich Mullins, "let's breathe this as deeply as possible."

Matter of fact, let's hear the quote in context (taken from here):
"I don't think you read the Bible to know truth. I think you read the Bible to find God, that we encounter Him there. Paul says that the scriptures are God's breath and I kind of go, wow, so let's breathe this as deeply as possible. And this is what liturgy offers that all the razzmatazz of our modern worship can't touch. You don't go home from church going, "Oh I am just moved to tears." You go home from church going, "Wow, I just took communion and you know what? If Augustine were alive today, he would have had it with me and maybe he is and maybe he did."
While writing this, the only part of the quote that came to me initially was the "deep breathing" part; it was interesting to go back and see that Rich, in saying this, puts the context of "breathing in Scripture" squarely in the context of liturgical, sacramental worship of the καθολικη εκκλησια --the "catholic" (universal, complete) Church. Let us know not only the New Testament through the daily lectionary readings, but let us also revel in the types and shadows of the Old Testament, so rich with foreshadowing of our Bridegroom. Let us pore over the epistles of St. Paul by the light of the apostolic worship, let us hear the apostles James, Peter, and John--let us read the very words of our Lord, over and over, so that when we commune in that most intimate manner--with His Body and Blood fusing and becoming one with ours, so that we may be bearers of Christ in the world and multiply His presence as His Body throughout the nations--we will thus have both the knowledge that comes from intellectual study of a thing and the experiential knowledge that comes from living in the presence of a person--γνοσις in its most complete sense.

3 comments:

Gary said...

Good stuff, Bryan. It has me ruminating this morning; chewing the cud, so to speak.

andrea said...

The arranged marriage scenario reminded me of Tevye and Golde's conversation song in Fiddler on the Roof. I guess getting to know each other after 25 years is better late than never:

(Tevye)
Do you love me?

(Golde)
Do I what?

(Tevye)
Do you love me?

(Golde)
Do I love you?
With our daughters getting married
And this trouble in the town
You're upset, you're worn out
Go inside, go lie down!
Maybe it's indigestion

(Tevye)
"Golde I'm asking you a question..."

Do you love me?

(Golde)
You're a fool

(Tevye)
"I know..."

But do you love me?

(Golde)
Do I love you?
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

(Tevye)
Golde, The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day
I was scared

(Golde)
I was shy

(Tevye)
I was nervous

(Golde)
So was I

(Tevye)
But my father and my mother
Said we'd learn to love each other
And now I'm asking, Golde
Do you love me?

(Golde)
I'm your wife

(Tevye)
"I know..."
But do you love me?

(Golde)
Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?

(Tevye)
Then you love me?

(Golde)
I suppose I do

(Tevye)
And I suppose I love you too

(Both)
It doesnt (?) change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It's nice to know

Yvonne said...

Good analogies.

My difficulty in reading the Bible is that I hear extreme Protestant interpretations of it rather than understanding it in the light of Orthodoxy.

Kyrie eleison.