Year B Proper 17: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
When St. John of the Cross, the 16th century poet, priest, mystic and monk was being administered last rites on his deathbed at the tender age of 49, he interrupted the proceedings with a hoarsely whispered request. “Please,” he begged, “read me the Song of Solomon.”
The Song of Solomon is passionate, sensual love poem that uses the figure of the lover and the beloved to portray the relationship between the individual soul and God. So often, in our meritocracy-based, do-it-yourself culture, we think that the spiritual life is just another thing we can master with a little elbow grease. If we buckle-down and get serious, set our house in order, we think we can storm heaven by our own efforts. In the thrall of what some people call the ‘self-improvement industrial complex,’ we think that the spiritual life must be like everything else—something we do to achieve an end (peace, happiness, imperturbable calm, whatever) we have in mind.
The Song of Solomon, however, reminds us that while this approach might work for losing a few pounds at the gym, or learning to knit, the spiritual life is a little different. Instead of ourselves and our efforts at the center, the Song of Solomon reminds us that the spiritual journey is really all about what God is already doing in our lives. I’ve been watching a strange show called Preacher recently where the main character—a Texas preacher named Jesse Custer—is looking for God. It turns out that the guy with the white beard who the Preacher thought was God is actually an two-bit community theatre actor, and that nobody in heaven has seen God for quite some time. God’s AWOL and loose in the world.
The word on the street is that God likes jazz, so the Preacher, his reformed hitman girlfriend, and his Irish vampire sidekick set off for New Orleans to check the clubs. Like Nietzsche’s madman who walked through the market place with a lantern at high noon asking everyone if they had seen God, the Preacher and his gang of misfits frequent one dive-bar after the next asking, “Have you seen God?” only to be laughed at, spat at, and thrown out their ear.
This, I think, is how we think of the spiritual journey. We look for God in place after place (sometimes in bars, sometimes in fancy cars, sometimes in beautiful faces or far away places), but the whole time God has been right under our noses. The pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, has already been gifted to us. “The implanted word,” is what the Epistle of James calls it. It’s not so much that we seek God, but that we are sought by Him. The journey is not so much a journey to different place, but an arrival to a place we’ve always been seeing it as if for the first time. “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where started/And know the place for the first time” as T.S. Eliot writes in “Four Quartets.”
The Song of Solomon figures this by representing God as leaping and bounding like a stag or a gazelle over the hills towards the speaker—rapping at the window panes and peering through the lattice. God is always coming to us the poem wants to remind us. It’s not that we so much need to search for Him, but allow ourselves to found by Him—found in Him and through Him. When we stop searching outside of ourselves for happiness on our self-fabricated terms and turn towards what has always already been the case—God’s presence within us through the Indwelling Holy Trinity—our winter turns to spring, the rains clear off and instead of the sound of our own muttering we hear the song of love, the song of our belovedness cooing like a turtledove. The illusion of our separateness from God burns off like morning mist and we find ourselves resting like Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.
The interesting thing, however, is that the journey to where we already are does require us to “Arise and come away.” If the spiritual journey is about coming home, about realizing that we are already home, that there is nowhere to go, and the freedom that is born from living from our belovedness and welcome into the very life of God, what can it mean to “arise and come away?” Come away from what?
Part of the reason why St. John of the Cross interrupted the dutiful priest administering last rites and asked for the Song of Solomon to read on his deathbed is that, as a Doctor of the Church and master of the interior life, he knew that the journey to where we already are is all about leaving behind our images and stories—stepping into that bare, open, and empty place where we might God as God is. We are narrative creatures. We thrive on stories. They provide shape and coherence to our lives and help us navigate the world. The trouble is, we too often take our images and stories about ourselves, the world, and God, as simply the way things are. We mistake the map for the territory and think that the world is simply what we think it is.
“Don’t believe everything you think,” the bumpersticker declares, and we chuckle to ourselves. But beneath the joke is a profound truth—one that St. John of the Cross would agree with. When we disidentify with thoughts, when we “arise and come away” from the prison that over-identifying with thought builds, a whole new freedom arises. A freedom from the stories about ourself, others, and God that keep us locked away in a winter of discontent.
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” is a call to see our stories of separateness for what they are—thoughts we take to be the final picture of how things are—and to open our hands and let them go. Often getting curious and having a light touch about our stories helps us to see their constructed nature and allows us to let them naturally deconstruct and come unraveled. “I wonder where I got the idea that I’m a miserable failure,” we might ask. “I wonder why I always feel like God is a policeman and I’ve just been pulled over for doing 30 mph in a school zone.” “I wonder how I arrived at the idea that eternal life is a reward for good behavior that I get when I die?” After a while, begin to see the simple but transformative reality that we have thoughts, but we are not our thoughts. You are not your thoughts. Other people aren’t your thoughts and them. God isn’t your thoughts about God.
Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees contains within it the same call to “arise and come away.” By not using hand sanitizer, Jesus and the disciples provoke the Pharisees into seeing the ways in which their “human tradition,” their over-identification with rules and regulations generates an exploitive system of clean and unclean, insider and outsider that is at odds with the radical welcome and indiscriminate hospitality of God who embraces all. The Pharisees and Scribes run around trying to tell God how to behave while God in the Flesh tries to point out that the God they are trying to make present through the observance of their rules is actually already here and doesn’t much care for hand-washing!
In his Ascent of Mt. Carmel, St. John of the Cross has a little illustration of the Mount depicting the soul’s ascent to union with God. The curious thing is that he describes the way up the mountain as the way of dispossession, the way of “nada”—nothing, or no-thing—and him describes the top of the mountain as nada as well. St. John of the Cross is no nihilist, so something else must be going here. He’s pointing out our tendency to box God in, to box ourselves in, to box others in through believing in our stories. Nada, nada, nada, is a gentle purgative—a way of helping us to open our grasping hands that we might receive the gift that given in each moment, and arrive at the place we started and discover it for the first time.
Nada, nada, nada, is the way of openness, receptivity, and surrender that lets God be God and stops telling him to pare his fingernails and wash up for supper. Nada, nada, nada, is the end of all our struggle, our frantic efforts to create ourselves according to some image or standard we’ve inherited from parents, teachers, church, or nation. Nada, nada, nada is the permission to let ourselves simply be, to enjoy the sheer giftedness of our being without agenda—no one special to be, nothing special to do. Nada, nada, nada, is the bracing gospel freedom, the unending life in Christ, that burbles up when we live without an iron-clad story. It’s in coming to nothing that we suddenly hear the turtle doves’ song of our belovedness cooing in the depths of the heart all along and we realize that we’ve spent our time listening to bad talk radio with ourselves as host, guest, and caller.
My prayer for us this week is us to “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” My prayer is that we might come away and find yourself already home, the illusion of separateness melting away, welcomed by the one who bounds over the hilltops to greet you. My prayer is that in letting go of our images and stories of ourselves, others, and God we might realize and live from the staggering truth that we lack for nothing, that right here, in this place, just as we are we are standing on Holy Ground.