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The science of tenderness
The Son of God, Jesus, became one of us. He became man in history—in the Jewish culture, got the blood of His lineage, had His DNA, belonged to a concrete family and spoke His people’s language. As a child, He was certainly breast-fed by His mother, Mary—there was no Nestlé infant formula!—He had to control His whims, be educated, experienced toothaches and headaches and the hurts resulting from children’s games.
He had a body and had to deal with all its limitations and needs, the constrictions of time and place. He was circumcised as any other Jewish child and was given a name. He was fully human and grew up as any other child—in stature, knowledge and grace (Lk 2: 40–52)—by going to school, to the synagogue, helping his parents in the daily chores at home and interacting with His peers and other villagers. He had to work for a living and He was neither preserved from tiredness, pain, thirst, hunger, suffering and death, nor from temptation (cf. Mt 4: 1–11; 26: 39).
CHALLENGES • CREATED FOR LOVE
Love is the origin of everything
Our common vocation to holiness is the universal vocation to love. All vocations have, in fact, the same invitation. Saints and mystics found in the Song of songs, the ultimate love poem, the love between the soul and its lover, the Church and Christ, the faithful and Mary. But there is no doubt that it was written as an expression of human love. Without this deep bond of affection, even consecrated men and women are left with empty allegories and shallow spiritualities
Fr Manuel João P. Correia
“The entire history of the world from its beginning to this very day does not outshine that day on which this book was given to Israel. All the Scriptures, indeed, are holy…; but the Song of songs is the Holy of Holies.” (Rabbi Aqiba, an early Jewish commentator on the book). Indeed, the Song of songs is a unique booklet that sings the passionate love of two lovers. Until this day, Jews read it to celebrate the Passover, to rejoice in the love between God and the Jewish people.
It was written and inspired by the passion of love; and it is to be read, meditated and prayed by hearts burning with love. According to the mystical interpretation, this canticle celebrates, more than any other biblical text, the love between God and His people; or between Christ and His Church; or between the Lord and each one of us. But the Song of songs, from the literary point of view, is an exaltation of human love, sometimes even with (embarrassing) sexual connotations. An excessive spiritualisation would deprive it of something essential: the passion of love, incarnated and tangible in the mediation of the body.
In marriage, made a sacrament of love as between Christ and the Church—His wife (Ephesians, chapter 5), is offered the opportunity to love God with pleasure, experiencing through the senses, the enjoyment of affection and tenderness derived from the mutual giving between the two spouses. In her husband, the Christian wife recognises Christ her Spouse, and to him/Him she offers herself with redoubled affection and love. The Christian husband, in turn, recognises with wonder that it is Christ Himself who through him loves his wife.
From this arises the necessity that the love between the Christian couple must be ‘pure’, that is, as free as possible from all the selfish calculations that tend to seize and exploit the other. The Song of songs should be, par excellence, the book of the Christian spouses. It reveals the depth of the vocation that the couple is called to welcome and witness in the Church and in the world. At the same time, it offers an inexhaustible source of inspiration on the journey of faith and marriage.
But the spousal character of the Song also applies perfectly to those whom the Lord has called to the consecrated and priestly life. It is the Song of the consecrated hearts. In fact, consecration is a permanent sign in the Church of their radical belonging to Christ, their Spouse. Of course, this requires a sublimation or, better yet, an ulterior growth to achieve a deeper and more spiritual vision and experience of desire and pleasure, which resemble our future condition.
Awakening the sleeping poet
I would say that the Song of songs is not yet finished. The very fact that, sometimes, it seems to not make sense, could be an allusion to it, like the blink of an eye. In fact, the Song begins in the Heart of the Spouse (and that will always remain largely a mystery!) and continues in the heart of Israel and the Church; it passes through the heart of each one of us, to get to the heart of every man and woman; and ends in the bridal Song of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation, chapter 21).
Each one of us is called to enrich the Song with his/her own song. So, it will be really... the ‘Song of songs’, the great symphony to which each of us contributed with his note of harmony. (Almost certainly we will be far short of the love we would wish to sing, but that’s part of our limited nature, as the great theologian Karl Rahner remarked: “In the torment of the inadequacy of everything attainable, we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”)
This ‘note of harmony’ is, firstly, the beauty of our existence, lived in union with the heart of the Spouse. But why not exercise our poetic talent expressing the ‘heart’s song’ in a prayer or a poem?
I would like to add that the Song is also chanted in extra biblical and ecclesial contexts, albeit with some (inevitable) notes out of tune. Indeed, it seems that the Song was ‘rescued’ by God, from among those intoned by workers at harvest time, or hummed on the road by passionate voices, or whispered in the ear by lovers in the shadows of some hidden alley. It’s not that the artist, the Spirit, couldn’t conceive a more refined poem or a more sublime music sheet, but who knows if it would have been to the liking of our (untrained) ear?! Be that as it may, the wisdom inspired Solomon (the presumed author of the book) to make a collection of people’s songs to create with them his masterpiece: the Song of songs.
It is clear that the poetic genius is not exhausted in the hearts of lovers and, therefore, the production of ‘songs’ hasn’t stopped—on the contrary, I am convinced that God is amused to hear them, both those which are sung to Him (but not all, because some might be a real torture for his fine ear!), and the songs of those (the vast majority!) who are only poets and ‘worshippers’ of human beauty! Only God can know and truly appreciate a heart in love (like His!)—and I do not believe that ‘jealousy’ prevents Him from enjoying a nice poem or a beautiful love song, although inspired by wonder and admiration at the beauty of a creature. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have made His creation so beautiful, as a fearsome competitor!
Mystics and saints found in the apparently profane verses of love of the Song of songs a way to contemplate and pray. I understand it very well. The human heart, although complex, is however ‘one’, and its ‘simplicity’ reveals the mysterious hand of its Creator. We can’t make it vibrate with the fire of passion in the ‘upper floor’ (the mystical or spiritual dimension), if the ‘ground floor’ (of our humanity) remains cold. In fact, the risk would be great. This can be seen in the severe face of certain ‘men of the cloth’ and in the unhappy faces of some ‘wives of Christ’. Only out of pity does the Spouse not refuse the hand of such wives ‘badly married’. Also the Church derives little use from men who serve her as mere employees. Perhaps, such people thought that to love God and serve the Church they had to renounce loving with their human hearts, and in so doing, they found themselves... heartless!
Passionate love as vocation
Every vocation is a particular expression of the common and universal vocation to love. This is the true ‘special vocation’, which is not the privilege of a small group of ‘elected’, but the very essence of the human being. Love is not a supplement to the (superior?) qualities of reason and will. On the contrary, intelligence and will are at the service of love. God made us free and intelligent so that love may be absolutely conscious and free—not simply ‘instinctive’. Otherwise, God would have created a ‘perfect machine’ to love, but He wanted the human being to be “similar to Him”, a lover. He is not the perfect “unmoved mover” or “prime mover” spoken by Aristotle, whose supreme activity is the pure contemplation (of Himself!) and that in His pure ‘impassibility’ (‘do-nothing’) draws to Himself all other beings. God is rather a Pure Heart, primordial and original (‘God is love’, 1 John 4: 8.16), who loves eternally, because His most sublime, beautiful and enjoyable activity is Love. He is a God in an eternal movement to the Other (Trinity), in a permanent ‘mission’ of Love. The Triune God revealed by Jesus is not a Supreme Entity, an ‘I’ closed in its fullness, but pure Relationship.
Creation stems from that overabundance of Love. In the ‘other’ of man and woman (a part of Creation where love becomes conscious and free), the love of God reveals His most surprising feature: His extreme and unfathomable humility! Offering itself, God’s love becomes ‘poor’ (wears the clothes of a beggar: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”, Revelation 3: 20); becomes ‘small’ (adapting to our limited capacity to welcome and respond to His infinite love); but above all... is wrapped with ‘passion’ (accepting the risk of being ignored and rejected!)
When a human heart becomes aware of the ‘weak’ love of Him who, by nature, is the Almighty, after an initial reaction of surprise and incredulity, cannot but surrender to that love—and become His passionate messenger, perhaps as St Francis of Assisi, screaming through the roads of the world (because the message devours his heart and entrails!): “Love is not loved!” This is the mission of the Church, received (more by contagion than mandate!) from her Beloved Spouse, a mission that will be the continuation of the divine inasmuch as it is characterised by poverty, smallness and passion!
“The Christian couple must be ‘pure’, that is, as free as possible from all the selfish calculations that tend to seize and exploit the other.”
“Mystics and saints found in the apparently profane verses of love of the Song of songs a way to contemplate and pray.”
“God made us free and intelligent so that love may be absolutely conscious and free—not simply ‘instinctive’ .”
“The human heart, although complex, is however ‘one’, and its ‘simplicity’ reveals the mysterious hand of its Creator.”
SPECIALS AND SELECTED TEXTS
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From a tender age, St Daniel Comboni was introduced to the mystery of the Heart of Jesus. In his years of formation, he was enchanted with a beautiful painting of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary in the seminary chapel
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