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“Songs of Devotion” by Thomas Piro

I remember learning about the Song of Songs in high school while watching a video in my morality class, but I never had much of an interest in it. Fast forward a few years, and I am a new seminarian attending my first silent retreat in Newton, NJ. Being bored and anxious (remember this is my first time being silent for three days!), I picked up the Bible and opened it to a random page. Lo and behold, I opened up to the Song of Songs. I started to read it and found it a bit odd; it was filled with poetic and romantic verses between two lovers. I wasn’t sure if I was reading Scripture or a dialogue between Romeo and Juliet!

This past spring semester threw many curve balls: online classes, quarantining, social distancing, and hanging out with friends via facetime. In a way, spending all this time away from other people reminded me of being on a retreat. During a retreat, one sets apart a special period of time to reflect and reunite oneself to God. It is a time to sit in silence, give thanks to God, find some relaxation, and practice devotions.

Devotions are expressions of love and fidelity to a particular person or practice. Many of us know of a few: the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or a particular saint. One devotion that many people practice is Lectio Divina. Literally meaning “divine reading,” Lectio Divina requires one to read the Scriptures slowly and prayerfully.

Inspired by this retreat-like atmosphere last semester, I decided to pick up one of the devotions that I do on all my retreats—Lectio Divina with the Song of Songs. I think this kind of annual devotion could help others strengthen and renew their love for God. That’s what I would like to share with you all.

Intrigued, I decided to do some research. After pulling out numerous editions of the Bible and books given to me by one of my priest friends and browsing the Monsignor Turro Library at SHU, I found one common word to describe this sacred text— “obscure.” The erotic language and lack of “holiness,” one may say, just doesn’t make sense. Ancient rabbis were even scandalized by this particular book. The only way to get anything out of it was to not read it literally, but rather allegorically, meaning there must be a spiritual message of some kind behind the words themselves. The Jewish interpretation views this book as the expression of God’s love toward His chosen people, Israel. The early Church eventually interpreted the two lovers, the bride and bridegroom, to be Christ and His Church. Origen of Alexandria, a Father of the Church, is one of the few Fathers to write a commentary on the Song of Songs. He interprets this expression of love as the individual soul uniting itself to the one true God.

This style of interpreting the Song is how I view the Song of Songs; each chapter is a “love letter” between me and my beloved, Jesus Christ. This practice is the reason why I read the Song of Songs at every retreat. It gives me a chance to remind myself of God’s love for me and my love for him. I wish to share with you one of my favorite passages or “letters” that inspires me each retreat. In Song of Songs 2:1-7, the beloved God is speaking to His love, me. The beloved confesses that His love sticks out amongst all that surrounds her. He describes her as “a lily among thorns.” Imagine that! We are loved by God so much that we just capture His attention. He is drawn to us, He desires us. We are not just a thorn among thorns, but rather a beautiful and desirable creation—creature set apart to receive abundant graces from our beloved. In return, the lover confesses that her beloved sticks out amongst all that surrounds him. This way of loving God is a calling given to me. Viewing these as love dialogues calls me to reflect on a few questions: Do I see God in those that I love? Do I see God in those that disagree with me? Am I aware of His presence in the good times? Am I aware of His presence in the bad times? Thoughts like these come to my mind when I read my part of the Song. They help remind me of how I show my love for God by loving him with all my being and loving my neighbor as myself (cf. Matthew 22:37-40).

In verse 5 of this passage, the lover proclaims that she is “sick with love.” What an odd description. She associates two opposite feelings together; let’s dive deeper into this thought. What is meant by sickness? Does she mean illness? I don’t believe so; I view this sickness as being full. If I eat too much food, I usually don’t feel too well afterward. My stomach hurts, and I’m usually tired. This sickness or fullness does the opposite, however, since this fullness is of love! What is love? One of the greatest Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine, wrote that “God is love” and “love is God” (Homily 7 on First Epistle of John, 4). Being full of God is certainly an idea to reflect on. It is a reminder that I am a temple of God.

Finally, in verse 6, we read of the love exclaiming the desire to embrace her beloved. She doesn’t desire, however, the simple hug that we have in mind. She wants an intimate embrace. Some scholars and commentators suggest that this embrace refers to sexual intimacy. I know what you may be thinking; this is a weird way to think about you and God. Let’s not forget, though, that this is allegorical interpretation. We need to look deeper into what “sexual intimacy” means. One, it is a total giving of self; surrendering to the other. Second, it is an act of unification. A husband and a wife “shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Third, it is a relationship expressed only to one unique individual. With these three aspects of sexual intimacy, one needs to apply them to their relationship with the Divine. The first aspect reminds me of my duty to fulfill the greatest commandment, “you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We should give God our all and love Him with our whole being, just as He loves us with His whole being. His love for us is demonstrated in the fact that the Incorruptible humbled himself down to the corruptible, to die an unjust death for our salvation. The second reminds me of the unity between my will and God’s will. God’s will for me is that I will one day praise and live with Him in heaven. To do that, He designs a path for me on Earth to follow. If I remain on that path, as difficult as it may be sometimes, I know with full confidence that my God will not abandon me. The third thought about sexual intimacy leads me to a personal relationship with God. This relationship develops in prayer, when it is just you and God, and you are totally yourself. There is no mask or façade. You are not afraid to pray with a smile on your face because you are giving thanks to God for helping you through a tough time. You are not afraid to pray with tears coming down your face and hitting the floor. You are not afraid to be blunt and honest with God and say, “God, I’m angry and confused about this particular situation.”

Hopefully, I gave some insight into this “obscure” book of the Old Testament. Obscure as it may be, it is chock full of reflections to help connect with God. Yet, it is a book not very well known amongst most Christians. I like to think of books like this as the hidden gems of Sacred Scripture. They only take up three or four pages of our entire Bible, but the power they possess is incredible. That’s something to which I would like to encourage you, my fellow Pirates. Find yourself a hidden gem in Scripture and make it your own. I encourage you to try to find time to read your gem. I read mine during retreats, but that is my personal choice. Maybe you want to dive into your personal gem during Lent to prepare for Easter, during your vacation, or whenever you think you would have the time to read and pray. Don’t just read two chapters, close the Bible, and go out to dinner with your friends. The point of developing this devotion is to draw you into a deeper relationship with God. To dive into that relationship, you need to take the time to sit in silence and reflect on the words you read. These words are not just ordinary words you would find in any novel, but the living Word of God!

Through the Scriptures, God reveals himself to you and touches your innermost being. How could you go about finding this gem? I recommend talking to one of the priests or sisters on campus, or someone who you know has a deep and intimate relationship with God. Campus Ministry offers Bible study classes and different events throughout the year. My friend was in a Bible study class and said it was “phenomenal.” The Chapel is also a great place to start. To begin, bring your Bible, an open heart and invoke the Holy Spirit to come upon you as you pray.

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