The Song of Songs: The Book of the Mystics

What is a mystic? And what does mysticism have to do with the Song of Songs?

According to Bernard McGinn, the preeminent scholar of Christian Mysticism, “The mystic wants to penetrate to the living source of the biblical message, that is, to the Divine Word who speaks in and through human words and text.” [1] In other words, the mystic sets out to discover the true spiritual power hidden within the text.

McGinn explains, “The entire Bible was viewed as having a deeper meaning. Naturally some books lent themselves more easily to a mystical reading, thus forming a kind of ‘canon within the canon’ for the mystical element in the history of Christianity. Some of these books, such as the Psalms in the Old Testament, and John’s Gospel and Paul’s Letters in the New Testament, are evident choices, but the mystical book par excellence was the Song of Songs.”[2]

So taking McGinn’s defined goal of the mysticto penetrate to the Divine Word that lives within the scripture – and apply that to the Biblical book that Mystics esteem above all others – the Song of Songs -- we can better understand the subtext of an often misunderstood, and ill-defined book of scripture. We will give a quick overview of the book, and then look at the writings of two very different Christian writers and examine the way in which they mystically approach the book and how that adds to our understanding.

The Song of Songs is an eight-chapter book in the Old Testament consisting of love poetry from Solomon’s wisdom tradition of literature. The title “Song of Songs” is a Hebrew idiom that means “the greatest of all songs.” There is no clear story line of the book, which makes it hard to analyze, but the book’s main themes are ostensibly desire and love. What is more, its obscure, analysis defying-nature, and plotless, open-endedness make it particular attractive to the mystic whose main objective is attempting to derive the mystery of God hidden within the text. That is, the pair bonding seems quite natural, the book being hard to understand, and the mystic who loves to seek out a text's impenetrable nature.

Origen was the premier Christian theologian of antiquity. He wrote extensively on a number of different topics, not the least of which was this particular book of scripture. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen says that this book is a marriage-song (epithalamium) written by Solomon in the form of a drama, where the wise king speaks from the point of view of a bride who is burning with desire for the Word of God, in this case represented by the figure of the Bridegroom. What is more, McGinn points out that Origen was also the first to associate the Bride with the Church and the Bridegroom with Christ.[3] In such a way it is like this book tells the story of the soul of every Christian seeking after the Lord in order to achieve a loving union with him.

In his commentary, Origen highlights the three branches of Greek knowledge: ethics, physics, and epoptics. Respectively, these can be called moral, natural, and inspective. Origen points out that the Greeks took this knowledge classification system directly from Solomon. For you see, the three Biblical books associated with Solomon represent each of these three branches. Proverbs represents the moral science, Ecclesiastes defines the natural world, and the Song of Songs is the inspective book. According to Origen, “The study called inspective is that by which we go beyond things seen and contemplate something of things divine and heavenly, beholding them with the mind alone, for they are beyond the range of bodily sight.” [4]

For our purposes here, we can think of allegory itself as a form of mysticism. The dual meaning, where one has to dig past the surface meaning in order to get to the more subliminal one, is representative of a mystic penetrating the text to get to the living Word of God, or as Origen puts it, to “go beyond things seen … beyond the range of bodily sight.” It is the invisible mystery hidden within the text, which represents “things divine and heavenly.” This is the part of the text the Christian mystic seeks out.

Moreover, there is clear evidence within scripture that this investigative, borderline occult approach to understanding things is indeed how we should approach the Word. For as Origen notes, there are two creation stories of man. In the first one, man is created in the image and likeness of God, and in the second one, man is made from the dirt. These two creations are representative of our dual nature: our inner self and our external self. And with this text, through allegory (i.e. mysticism) we go beyond our “bodily sight” (i.e. our external self) and “behold them with the mind alone” (i.e. our internal self).

Allegory is defined by its dual nature. A mystic’s approach to reading the Song of Songs is by seeing it through the lens of allegory – the text beneath the text – the text’s inner self, so to speak. By applying allegorical undertones to this seemingly plot-less book of love poetry, it provides a much needed, albeit blurred sense of understanding to a book which often seems incomprehensible.

In fact, paradoxically, the Song of Songs story-line being as hard to grasp as it is, makes it the ideal vehicle for the mystic to approach their union with God via text. In

other words, the Song of Songs is emblematic of the “Mystery of God” itself. By pursuing God through the darkness as it were -- in this case represented by the book's seemingly incomprehensible nature: in terms of it lacking a clear story line -- the mystic can fully embrace the mystery, and in such a way become closer to God.

This approach of pursuing God through obscurity -- in order to come closer to his mystery -- is defined by the Latin phrase via negativa, which means “the negative way.” The idea is that by reducing language to its negative you negate its existence entirely. It is the literary equivalent to the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment, a way to escape from one’s self or ego. It is the destruction of that which defines a thing. In such a way, the language becomes purer, and freer from all non-divine encumbrances. Through this linguistic negation, the mystic believes that he or she comes closer to union with God.

A more extreme form of this negation is the idea of mystical annihilation. Medieval mystic, Madame Guyon wrote her commentary on the Song of Songs taking the idea of negation to this absolute extreme. The Song of Songs is a wedding song, and as Guyon points out, a marriage is a union. And through a form of linguistic negation in Guyon's writing, the bride destroys her self and thus becomes one with her beloved. She writes, “God is she and she is God, since by consummation of the marriage she is absorbed into God and lost in him without power to distinguish herself again.” [5] Guyon elaborates on this statement, by taking her mystical negation to the absolute extreme: “But the consummation of the marriage does not come to pass until the soul is so melted, annihilated, and freed from self that it can unreservedly flow into God.” [6] In other words, only by reducing language to its negative (or complete negation/annihilation), which in this case is represented by the text's incomprehensible and seemingly impenetrable nature, can one achieve the purity of soul/language it takes to come closer to the Word of God – in union with him by means of love/understanding.

I am going to conclude this essay with my own mystical interpretation of the Song of Songs, which I hope to connect back to the two previous writers to reveal the nature of this book of scripture and how we should approach understanding it.

In Origen’s commentary, he discussed “homonyms” as a way of explaining the difference between one’s inner self and outer self. [7]. That is, a word can look one way but have two or more meanings. This same understanding is how I approach the reading of this scripture, for it too, shows us something that seems the same, but in its differences we see the bigger point. Like many poems, the Song of Songs uses repetitive language to add a sense of rhythm and harmony. Nonetheless, the repetitive nature of the poetry, serves a much more vital purpose than just adding a sense of flow -- it invites us to read between the lines.

Let us look at two different passages, from two different chapters in the book, to see what I mean about repetition, and the vital information that is highlighted in the differences:

“Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek whom my soul loves.” I sought him but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves” (Song 3:1-4).

“I slept but my heart was awake… I arose to open to my beloved… I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him but he gave no answer. The watchmen found me, as they went about the city, they beat me and wounded me, they took away my mantle, those watchmen of the walls” (Song 5:2,5-7).

The first passage begins with “Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves” And the second passage begins with “I slept but my heart was awake.” It is as

if the first passage is a dream, and the second passage is clearly an alert state. This is a crucial distinction. What happens in the first passage? She sought her beloved but found him not. The watchmen then find her, and as they do she finds her beloved. What happens in the second passage? She sought her beloved but found him not, and when the watchmen find her this time – she doesn’t find her beloved; instead, the watchmen beat her and wound her. This is the difference between dreaming and being awake. This is the difference between the inner and outer self, and thus the difference between the explicit meaning of the text and the implicit meaning, which is actually where the “beloved is found,” so to speak, beyond "the walls," where Christ lives in the Word.

The difference in these two passages provides us a with a much clearer understanding of the Song of Songs. For it is when we dream, which is to say visualize with our mind’s eye, when we find Christ, but when we are awake, which is to say looking for him in the “real" world with our "real" eye we do not so readily see him; we merely see his effect. This difficulty we have seeing Christ in the "real" world is represented by the "watchmen of the walls" beating and wounding us.

The walls they guard are representative of the oftentimes impenetrable nature of God's Word. To tie it all together, Origen shows us that only by looking inward can we attempt to breach these defenses, and come closer to union with God. And what is more, the beating of the watchmen in the passage is analogous to Madame Guyon's mystical annihilation -- for it takes destroying the self (i.e. overcoming the ego) to transcend what's "real" on the wings of faith and come closer to loving union with our "image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26).


1 Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Random House: