Song of Songs Excursion

A strange, composite beast of an event

Could we create a coherent event around the spirituality of relationship, using the Song of Songs as a key resource, and somehow make it clear that we weren’t trying to set up some kind of Episcopal dating service?

The campus ministers in the diocese have been building a collaborative community for the past two and a half years. We started by simply agreeing to meet together twice a year. Then we refined our grant-making process so that it would lead us to share resources, learn from each other, and consider each other’s needs. Last April we gathered at the Edge House in Cincinnati and decided to collaborate on an event that would bring together members of all of our various communities.

We asked ourselves which burning questions our students had on their hearts, and how we could create an event to engage those questions. Someone suggested that the main question heard from students was one of relationship: “How am I going to find the person whom I’ll love, and how will I know if that love is real?” We realized that we could address this question using a great (and underused) resource from within scripture itself – the Song of Songs.

The Song of Songs seems like a weird anomaly in the Bible, a book that doesn’t mention God at all, that speaks in passionate voices, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes speaking in chorus. It’s full of surprising imagery, comparing the human body to flocks of goats and towers and bunches of grapes. As we considered the Song of Songs, we became excited and a little afraid. Could we create a coherent event around the spirituality of relationship, using the Song of Songs as a key resource, and somehow make it clear that we weren’t trying to set up some kind of Episcopal dating service?

One of the ministers suggested that we make it an excursion, instead of a retreat – a chance to go out into the world together. Someone else brought up the idea of holding this excursion at the Cincinnati Zoo, even staying overnight there, since this would give us a chance to consider some of the Song of Songs’ nature metaphors. We looked at dates and realized that we could hold the excursion on St. Francis’ Feast Day, and a strange, composite beast of an event was born.

We had more than forty people gather for the excursion, all cramped together in the Edge House’s basement conference room to hear Alice Connor give an exposition of the Song of Songs, or as she put it, “the sexy, sexy Bible.” Alice told us that “the Song of Songs is part of a theology called ‘Bridal Mysticism,’ the theology, derived poetically, that Jesus is our collective and individual boyfriend. If you think of it literally, it’s a bit creepy. But it’s also beautiful and has a long history in the church. Bridal Mysticism takes Jesus as the boyfriend to its logical extreme and puts the mystic or the reader in the place of the bride – when we read these passages, when we pray, we can experience the great hope a bride feels, the anticipation of new life, the excitement of being with the one our heart most desires – you know this feeling. Not just the heart palpitations of a crush, but the deep connectedness to someone we truly love and who loves us back.” (You can read Alice’s whole piece about the Song of Songs on her wonderful blog, justusetpeccator.blogspot.com)

We had some time to reflect on this Bridal Mysticism before walking from the Edge House to the zoo. Once there, we divided up into pairs and set off to explore the zoo, using a set of spiritual exercises that Jane Gerdsen and Ellen O’Shaughnessy wrote for us. I found myself practicing anima divina (praying with animals) beside the Mexican wolf enclosure. I was reminded of the way in which Bridal Mysticism can seize on any image and use it to talk about the incarnate love of Christ in the world. If, like St. Francis, we can experience the love of Christ emanating from a wolf, then we can come to know how truly loved we really are, and how all of creation can bless our lives.

That night we slept in the zoo, after taking a nocturnal walk and seeing the ghostly shapes of Siberian tigers and mountain lions sidle right up to the glass of their enclosures to greet us.

To close the day, I gave a talk on Christian sexual ethics. I pointed out that for much of Christian history the only telos (ultimate object or aim) of sex was procreation, and this only in the context of marriage. Once people were married and had children, the church essentially had nothing to say about sex. I referred to Lisa Fullam’s article “Sex in 3-D: A Telos for a Virtue Ethics of Sexuality,” in which Fullam suggests an additional telos for the Christian expression of sexuality. Fullam suggests using the traditional cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and courage to judge whether one’s sexual relationships are ethical, and she adds that we should also consider whether our relationships honor the incarnate nature of God in humanity, whether they allow us a deep intimacy that will help us heal each other’s past wounds, and whether they lead us into greater self-understanding and self-honesty. We spent some time imagining and talking about what we want from our relationships, and how we can honor Christ through them.

In the morning, we held Eucharist in the zoo’s peace garden, praying and singing as the animals woke up around us. I looked around at the little community we’d gathered and realized that we hadn’t fully answered the question of “how will I know if my love is real?” It’s such a huge question that no single event or gathering can hope to answer it. And we had allowed ourselves to get a little carried away, to try to string a few too many elements together – the Song of Songs, Saint Francis, the zoo – in our attempt to address the question. But this is in keeping with Bridal Mysticism, which is multiplicitous and large and sees Christ speaking throughout a great diversity of things, and brings those disparate things into a strange and fecund conversation with each other.

The Rev. Karl Stevens serves as missioner for campus ministries for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at campusministry@diosohio.org.