We were not only to examine the Song of Songs at our weekend at the Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut but also to read some other poets who had found spiritual meaning in the Song. Saint John of the Cross, a priest and Carmelite friar of the sixteenth century, is, I’m told, regarded as one of the foremost Spanish poets, but I had not heard of him before the retreat. Several of his most famous poems clearly reference Song of Songs. His imagery is powerful and presents to many readers a mystical communion between a devout person and the Lord: “There he gave me his breast;/there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;/and I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back;/there I promised to be his bride.”
I had assumed that Song of Songs was written by a person or people who were not or wished not to be celibate. The author or authors of Song had experienced at least some of the fruits of physical love, and this had led to the distinctly erotic imagery in the poetry. I wondered if it was just spirituality that elicited the presumably chaste Saint John’s ecstasy: “When the breeze blew from the turret,/as I parted his hair,/it wounded my neck/with its gentle hand,/suspending all my senses./I abandoned and forgot myself,/laying my face on my Beloved;/all things ceased; I went out from myself/leaving my cares/forgotten among the lilies.”
It seemed unlikely that the poems of Saint John of the Cross were just directed towards God. Time and again the author indicated the love was secret or must be concealed: “One dark night,/fired with love’s urgent longings/–ah, the sheer grace!—/I went out unseen, my house now all stilled.” We are told of a “secret ladder” and “One glad night in secret.” The adoration of God by a priest and monk would not have to be hidden. I was not surprised when I later learned that John’s verses are often regarded as homoerotic: “And then we will go on/to the high caverns in the rock/which are so well concealed;/there we shall enter/and taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates./There you will show me/what my soul has been seeking,/and then you will give me,/you, my life, will give me there/what you gave me on that other day. . . .”
While I wondered how the Spanish friar could write so exquisitely about physical love if it had not been experienced, the connection between his poetry and the imagery of Song of Songs was unmistakable.
On the other hand, the connection to Song was less clear in the contemporary Kimberly Johnson’s poems. Perhaps the link was that her poetry, like Song for some, could be about earthly or celestial love: ‘Yours the fretless neck of my desire, the fretful knock of my desire’s echo.”
I did, however, admire Johnson’s poetry because it connected on a modern, quotidian level: “We’d make a legendary pair; you love the sound of your/own voice, and I have to have the last word.” And I certainly could relate to a poem that began: “Good God, I need a drink. I’ve been talking me hoarse,/rehearsing full-throated my love’s ferment.”
I had heard of Christina Rossetti, the third poet presented at the Trinity Church retreat, but she fell into that vast category of poets I had never read. Her poems clearly drew from Song: “Thou Rose of Sharon, Cedar of roots/Vine of sweet fruits,/Thou Lily of the vale with fadeless leaf,/Of thousands Chief,/Feel Thou my feeble shoots.”
Rossetti’s verses, however, were unmistakably addressed to God. Unlike Song which had the exuberance and excitement of people on the cusp of physical love, these poems are ones of sad longing and the I-am-not-worthy-make-me-worthy-type: “My life is like a broken bowl,/A broken bowl that cannot hold/One drop of water for my soul. . . .” Or: “Thou who didst bear for me the crown of thorn,/Spitting and scorn;/Though I till now have put forth thorns, yet now/Strengthen me Thou/That better fruit be borne.”
Rossetti’s self-doubt turns into a doubting of God that has a whiff of the blasphemous: “Thy fainting spouse, yet still Thy spouse; . . . Recall Thy vows, if not her vows;/Recall Thy Love, if not her love. . . .” To enjoin Him indicates the possibility that He has forgotten his promises but surely that cannot be true. Is this sacrilegious from a good Anglican Englishwoman? You can doubt yourself, but not God. He is not God if He does not remember His promises.
Rossetti’s poems once again remind me why I don’t miss one aspect of being religious. I have seen religion bring peace to a believer, but I have also seen many others who are, like Rossetti, unrequited seekers. They search for something that will give them contentment, but it remains elusive. If the seeker cannot fully experience the presence of God, they believe, it is because there is something fundamentally missing in them. They carry around a dark soul of the night. I think sometimes that I should have accomplished more with my life. I have my sleepless nights when I may dwell, often senselessly, on what I should do or what I should have done. I do think of my failures, but that does not make me feel as if I am an existential failure. I don’t feel as if I have a hole in my soul as I see with some religious seekers. Thus, I am quite happy to take a pass on that aspect of religion. I am not waiting helplessly for God to fulfill my life; I realize that fulfillment is up to me.
I did not go to the Trinity Retreat Center seeking religious enlightenment. However, I came away with a bit more understanding of poetry. I certainly felt that the Center, the participants, the leader, the study all made for a worthwhile weekend. Perhaps I should even thank God for the experience. I’m glad I went. And did I mention that the food was terrific.