Recently, thanks to my Old Testament Writings class, I have spent a lot of time reading, meditating on, and writing about the Song of Songs. It is a marvelous book which I highly encourage you to read. In some ways, the Song is a remarkable book to find in the Bible. The Making very little explicit mention of God, the Song’s principle subject is human eros or passionate love. On its surface, it is erotic love poetry. A poetry so erotic that, if what the Biblical historians tell us is true, a man wasn’t even allowed to read until he was thirty and married for fear that it might lead him into sin. So what is a 25-year-old Catholic seminarian with the intention of remaining celibate for the kingdom doing reading this book?
Well, I’m a human being, so I know what it is to desire. I think that gives me some qualifications. I also know what it is to feel torn between competing desires. The question for us as men and women is not how to stop eros as if it were something to be done away with, but rather, how we are to order our passions so that they serve to glorify God. The Song’s inclusion in the Canon indicates that passionate love is a good thing. The Song presents human desire as something good and beautiful. The Song can be interpreted as a guide to ordering human eros. At its essence, eros is a desire for communion with the good seen as beautiful. Thus we see that man is drawn toward the woman because of her goodness expressed in her beauty.
Human desire, human love is a pale reflection of the love which God which has its supreme fulfillment in the Incarnation, Life, and Passion of Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he comes to dwell with us so that we can be in communion with him. He shows us that the energy of desire is ultimately intended to reach a higher form of love: charity, or for any Greek scholar, agape. This type of love seeks the good for the other person regardless of the cost to the lover. This is the type of love to which we are all ultimately called. Each will have a particular manner of fulfilling such a vocation, but all are invited to learn to seek the good of the other for the sake of the other.
In reading the Song, I have come to ask myself what does it look like for me to make use of the energy of eros both now and as a future priest. I recently attended a daily Mass at a local parish close to the seminary here in Houston. The celebrant said something which caught my attention in his homily namely, “The Church doesn’t need priests who are dutiful, the Church needs priests who are loving.” He qualified this statement, arguing that duty is important but that it is lacking for a priest merely to exercise his ministry (or for that matter for a seminarian, to become a priest) merely out of a sense of obligation or duty. If a priest does not act from a deep love of the Lord, he might administrate the parish well, he might celebrate the sacraments in an exterior manner which is dignified, he might have social justice ministry in his parish that will help many people with physical necessities, yet he will not be choosing to do the one necessary thing. A priest is a man, chosen by God, and consecrated to be a bridge to Jesus Christ for the Lord’s people.
Ultimately, Christ alone is the Priest in whose priesthood all other priests participate. If a priest’s actions do not come from the love of God’s people precisely because God loves them and wants what is best for them, then he will eventually become nothing more than a (good or bad) social worker. The priest must have Christ’s passionate heart of love for his people. The priest is called to represent the groom in the Song in a unique manner. He belongs to the Church as a whole which is like a bride to him. He must pray for the heart of Christ the perfect spouse of the Church, so that he can offer all his desire, all his wants, all his energy, all his strength, all his gifts, to participate for the sanctification of the Church. His love for his bride must be “strong as death” and he must long for the sanctification of his people. Only by uniting his heart with Christ’s own heart can he ever hope to accomplish such a task. For the priest then, there is no doubt that he must hold Christ as the lover of his soul so that he can learn to love Christ’s bride as the groom in the Song loves his bride. If he does so, it seems he will have the energy and the strength to hear the calls of the bride and respond by running to her aid.