More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?
Every time I hear this verse I am utterly captivated. Its truth cannot fail to resonate with anyone who has had much experience of life or, for that matter, with anyone who has lived through his teenage years. Our attachments to the people, things, and activities we love can cause us great pain and confusion when they’re taken away from us, or when they change in ways we weren’t expecting. We can be so easily and violently swept up into the objects of our desire, and if they don’t meet our expectations, we are often left bitterly disappointed, sad, or angry.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author, Qoheleth, gives rueful expression to his own disappointments. Proclaiming that “all is vanity and a chase after wind,” he recounts his search for pleasure and fulfillment. Ultimately, he concludes that mortal men can find no rest or satisfaction: “Every day sorrow and grief are their occupation; even at night their hearts are not at rest. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:23).
Our lives are often so full of toil, suffering, and longing that despair seems inevitable. We are tempted to give up hope, and we forget that God is longing for us, waiting for us to come to Him with our needs and wishes. It seems at times that He is so silent. How can we trust that He even cares about us? Is not all “a chase after wind?”
What I love about the Old Testament is not all the minutiae about who was king when, or with how many men he attacked the Philistines. The genealogical lists of who begat whom and the geography of the plains of Yearim do not captivate me or call me into prayer. All of these details are important, of course; they provide a fuller historical picture, and add to our understanding of the literal sense of Scripture. But when we step back and look at the bigger picture, what emerges is the story of God’s love for His chosen people, Israel, for mankind, and for all of creation. It is an intense and powerful love story, with God endlessly pursuing His beloved bride, who will not stay faithful to Him. God constantly seeks to enter into the heart of His bride, to take up His abode there, and to live with her forever, even to the point of destroying her enemies and forgiving her for her countless infidelities.
The theme of God’s love for Israel is best expressed in the Song of Songs. This book is an intimate dialogue between a man and a woman, with some other characters contributing. Its interpretation is difficult since the perspective shifts continually, but both Christians and Jews have developed an allegorical, or figurative, understanding. The woman represents an ideal Israel or Church, and she professes an ideal love for her lover, who represents God:
Draw me after you! Let us run! The king has brought me to his bed chambers. Let us exult and rejoice in you; let us celebrate your love: it is beyond wine! Rightly do they love you! (1:4)
Christian tradition has read Song of Songs as a love story, not only about God and the Church, but also about God and the individual believer’s soul: God, the Bridegroom, longs for intimacy with the soul, His bride.
Speaking of the soul in this way, as a feminine reality, may sound odd to contemporary ears, but it reflects a venerable cultural and linguistic tradition that is found, not only in Hebrew and throughout Scripture, but also in the Romance languages and in ancient Greek and Latin. Drawing on this tradition, the great spiritual writers and mystics of the Church teach us how fitting it is to think of our souls as feminine, or receptive, in relation to God.
A privileged moment in the exchange of love between God and the soul is the reception of the Eucharist at holy Mass. The manner in which one gently and reverently receives the chalice, being careful not to spill any of the Precious Blood or to take too much, can be likened to a tender kiss between a bridegroom and his bride—between God and the soul. In this simple, physical, “routine” act, there is an intimate exchange. Our souls receive Christ in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and Christ draws our souls to Himself as He gives Himself over to us. Something similar happens in Eucharistic Adoration: the loving gaze that is exchanged between the eyes of our soul and Christ in the Eucharist is not unlike the gaze between bridegroom and bride as they pronounce their wedding vows.
While at times, especially in our misery and anguish over lost loves, God can seem distant and uncaring, it is important to remember that He is with us always—and in a close and intimate way. From the beginning of time God has chosen us, has made a claim on our fidelity, and has invited us to share in His eternal life. God’s love is not lacking; it is perfect and unmatched, constant and eternal; it is we who continuously fail to respond to that faithful, forgiving love in a way worthy of Him.
When studying Scripture or hearing the Old Testament readings at Mass, let us remember to open not just our minds, but our hearts, listening for the summons of that ineffable love by which God desires to unite us to Himself. If we turn to Him with sincerity, He will forgive our infidelities; for His promises do not fail, and His love is everlasting.
Image: Initial “O” of the Song of Songs, Winchester Bible, Twelfth-Century England (Song of Songs begins with the voice of the bride, who is described in this Latin Bible as Vox Ecclesiae Desiderantis Adventum Christi: “The Voice of the Church Longing for the Coming of Christ.” The illuminated “O” begins the first words of the bride, Osculetur me osculo oris sui: “May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.”)