The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”- Song of Songs, 2:8-13What words reach the way I touched you last night –
as though I had never known a woman – an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body.
- Ellen Bass, excerpt from “The Small Country,” The New Yorker, August 24, 2015
Both of these passages steam my glasses. What a blessing.
Here I am, months beyond my sell-by date, kept alive by beta blockers, diabetic drugs, and nitrates. And still I am able to wallow recklessly in erotic imagery as if I were 18 again.
Even better, as I approach my 72nd birthday, time has freed me from the illusion that sex is dirty. Sex, as poets and the author of Songs attest, is a metaphor of God’s passionate love for us.
Not that sex means the same thing to me as when I was 18. As with most people my age, I read the dialogue between Sarai and Yawweh – rendered in its original frankness in the Book of J – with annoyed recognition. Yahweh has just promised Abram and Sarai a baby:
“But Sarai and Abram were old, many days were behind them; for Sarai the periods of women ceased to exist. So within her Serai’s sides split: ‘Now that I’m used to groaning, I’m to groan with pleasure? My Lord is also shriveled.’” (p. 82)Sarai could have talked all day without adding that last comment, but it’s true. Males rarely speak of it except in jest. When I worked for the National Council of Churches, the Development Officer, my friend the late John Briscoe, would pepper me with emails urging me to post a propitious item on the webpage. I once responded, “I’ll get it up this afternoon.” John replied, “At my age, it warms my heart to hear such youthful optimism.”
Yahweh, of course, was offended by Sarai’s lack of faith in Abraham’s ability to fulfill his duty, asking her, “Is a thing too surprising for Yahweh?”
In truth, Yahweh can resurrect the shriveled as well as the bygone stirrings of women and men. And a physical arousal is not the same thing as a spiritual or emotional passion. As the Apostle Paul noted, bodies may shrivel and shrink, but love never dies.
The bible, as any devoted reader knows, is a compendium of erotic literature. There are dark stories of coercive sex and rape, but for the most part physical love is depicted as a celebration of life. Jesus is not reported to have had a sex life, but he certainly reveled in the company of women and in the tactile joys of scalp and foot massages. He also enjoyed the corporeal pleasures of eating and drinking.
For those who struggle to understand the intensity of God’s love for us, the answers are writ large in Songs:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of the mouth! For your love is better than wine, Your anointing oils are fragrant, Your name is perfume poured out; Therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. The King has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; We will extol you’re your love more than wine; Rightly do they love you.” (1:2-4)I am not, I should point out, advocating free love or sexual libertinism. Sex becomes a metaphor of God’s love only when it is accompanied by deep respect and firm commitment. God’s covenant with us is to love us unconditionally, and our sexual pledge to our fellow human beings should be equally sturdy: “I take thee.”
But whether our physical relationships are genitally-involved or not, there is no better way of understanding God’s love than through physical encounters with persons we love. A newborn baby senses the presence of love in a parent’s caresses, just as two lovers create a divinity of wellbeing through their touches. “To love another person,” Victor Hugo wrote, “is to see the face of God.”
This December 30 the Divine Dr. M and I will celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary. There is much I could write about the passion we have shared over these years, but I am silent. (Hey, the kids may read this.) And it would be wrong to suggest that our marriage has not had both stresses and successes. Marital love is not a safe haven from the turbulence of life. That’s why we promise to love each other for better or for worse.
Still, marital love is a partnership of mutual support no matter what happens. When that love is unconditional, it is a true metaphor of the Creator’s tangible presence throughout all the ebbs and flows of life. And looking back on the decades of love I have shared with my spouse, I know we have brought each other closer to God.
If you're lucky you can still catch Sister Wendy Beckett on a PBS broadcast. Sister Wendy is a British hermit, a consecrated virgin, and an art historian who became well known internationally during the 1990s when she presented a series of documentaries for the BBC on the history of art. Her praise of sensuality in art seems to belie her calling, especially her full-throated tributes to voluptuous thighs and silky pubic hair.
During a visit to a Birmingham museum, Sister Wendy’s gaze fell upon Jan Gossaert’s 1517 oil-on-wood painting of Hercules and Deianira.
“It depicts the perfect marriage,” Sister Wendy cooed in her lilting Edinburgh accent. “See the love in their faces, the trust they have for each other, the way their legs are intertwined.”
The expressions on the faces of Hercules and Deianira, captured so tenderly by Gossaert, are exquisite manifestations of love: love for each other, but also the love the Creator has for each of us.
Classicists know that the gentle moment captured in the painting is fleeting. Deianira sits innocently on a silver cloak given to her by the evil centaur Nessus. When Hercules wears the cloak, he will be engulfed in flames and die.
A pity. But the love portrayed, unlike the subjects, is both divine and eternal.
God the Creator of infinite universes is enormous and unknowable. And while the essence of God is love, the Creator is a concept far too vast for us to grasp. It’s not like we can break open a bottle of wine and hold God’s hand.
But we can get close enough to God if we place our arms around the humans we love, tenderly, or passionately, or erotically. The joy we feel is indescribable. And the love we sense radiating back to us is God.
Your two breasts are like two fawns.
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathesAnd the shadows flee, I will hasten the mountains of myrrh And the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love. There is no flaw in you.
- Songs, 4:5-7Greek runners gif. from http://pixeljoint.com/pixelart/50010.htm