T’s med. on Song of Songs

 

      MEDITATIONS ON THE SONG OF SONGS

    INTRODUCTION

          Although at both the beginning and the end of these meditations Teresa       says she wrote them out of obedience, the obviously main motivating       force was her desire to share with her Sisters the delight and the       understanding she experienced in the Song of Songs. Her hope was       that her daughters would receive some of the consolation and knowledge       given to her when she heard those mysterious words of love.[1]       Thus Teresa does not begin this work reluctantly or as a sacrifice of       obedience as she did some of her other writings. Rather, she admits that       “it consoles me to tell my meditations to my daughters.”[2]       Even if she fails to explain the understanding of them that was given to       her mystically, she reasons that her time will have been well spent in       reflecting on such sublime themes.[3]       Furthermore, she felt that the Lord’s love is so poorly understood that       people refuse to think of the mysteries contained in these words “spoken       by the Holy Spirit.”[4]       “I know someone who for a number of years had many fears, and nothing       gave her assurance, but the Lord was pleased that she hear some words       from the Song of Songs, and through them she understood that her       soul was being well guided. As I have said, she understood that it was       possible for a soul in love with its Spouse to experience all these       favors, swoons, deaths, afflictions, delights, and joys in relation to       Him.”[5]       Teresa reasoned that it was wrong that women were being prevented from       enjoying the riches contained in God’s words and works.[6]

    Historical Context

          The daring behind her Meditations can only be grasped somewhat if       we consider the prevalent attitude in Spain at the time with regard to       the Scriptures. The vernacular versions of the Bible were neither as       numerous nor as important as in other countries of Europe, for the       Spanish Inquisition acted as a tight check on them. There is an example       of the seriousness of the situation in the life of Fray Luis de León who       made a literal prose translation of the Song of Songs; the       circulation of this version in manuscript form was one of the charges       brought against him by the Inquisition and led to his imprisonment from       1572-1576.

In the fourth session of the Council of Trent in 1546, the suitability of       translating the Bible into the language of the people was debated. The       Spanish theologians were opposed; and though the Council in the end made       no legislation about the matter, Spain, on its own, included vernacular       versions of the Bible in its indexes of forbidden books. The reasoning       behind this prohibition is expressed by Archbishop Carranza when he       points to particular cases of error that arose because simple and       unlearned people read parts of Scripture without understanding them. The       prohibitions affected mainly women and unlearned people because they       were the ones, it was thought, who could more easily fall into error       through the free examen of the Sacred text.

The Spanish indexes that would have affected Teresa were those of the       Inquisitor, Fernando Valdés, published in 1551, 1554, and 1559. In them,       both the publication and the reading of Sacred Scripture in the       vernacular were forbidden. It was permissible, however, to provide       translations of Scriptural passages in spiritual books. The spiritual       writers as a result made such ample use of this permission that the       claim has been made that a Bible in the vernacular could have been       constructed from the Scriptural citations that filled the pages of these       works.

In light of such facts, Teresa could not have had access to the Bible in       the vernacular; and therefore she could not have used a Bible for her       meditations. With respect to the verses from the Song of Songs       that she uses, there are a number of ways in which she may have come to       know them and cite them in her own tongue.

We know she read verses in Latin in the breviary and understood the       meaning despite her lack of knowledge of Latin. She tells us this       herself: “For a number of years now the Lord has given me great delight       each time I hear or read some words from Solomon’s Song of Songs.       The delight is so great that without understanding the vernacular       meaning of the Latin, my soul is stirred and recollected more than by       devotional books written in the language I understand. And this happens       almost all the time, and even when the Latin words were translated for       me into the vernacular I did not understand the text any more.”[7]

It is possible that she may have used a translation from some Office of       the Blessed Virgin, from one of the many copies of the Spanish Book       of Hours. She suggests this possibility when she says: “And thus you       can see, daughters, in the Office of our Lady which we recite each week,       how much in its antiphons and readings is taken from this Song of       Songs.”[8]

She may have asked some learned man or confessor for a translation. This       possibility is indicated in her statement that she questioned learned       men about what the Holy Spirit meant by the verses.[9]       And it is possible she may have gotten the passages from some spiritual       book.

     The Word of God

         A study of Teresa’s life shows clearly enough that she received no       education in Sacred Scripture. Nonetheless, one is amazed by her       knowledge and use of the Scriptures despite this lack of formal training       and the limited access she had to the contents of the Bible. Without any       previous understanding of the meaning of a passage, without a knowledge       even of the exact meaning of the words, the text being in Latin, she       would suddenly penetrate, through mystical experience, to the deepest       sense contained there and taste and enjoy it. “And, in fact, it has       happened to me that while in this quietude, and understanding hardly       anything of the Latin prayers, especially of the psalter, I have not       only understood how to render the Latin verse in the vernacular but have       gone beyond to rejoicing in the meaning of the verse.”[10]       The obstacle to an understanding of this kind is not lack of learning       but sin. “Since such persons have no love, they can easily read the Song       of Songs every day and not themselves become involved with the       words; nor would they even dare take these words on their lips.”[11]

By all of this Teresa did not mean that her experience was the criterion       for judging Scripture; the contrary was true. She recognized that there       are those who by profession have the obligation to explain the       Scriptures and are thus required to work hard at their task; and she       believed that much could be gained through their careful studies. Yet       even these learned masters of the Scriptures whom she humbly consulted       admitted to her with respect to the Song of Songs that the       doctors had written many commentaries and had never finished explaining       the words.[12]       Understanding the awesomeness of the task of interpreting the       Scriptures, Teresa at one point exclaims: “For one word of His will       contain within itself a thousand mysteries, and thus our understanding       is only very elementary.[13]       The attitude, then, that must accompany anyone’s approach to the Bible       is humility. The supreme example of this humility is found in the       Blessed Virgin Mary. Once the angel had responded to her question and       told her how the word of God would be accomplished, “she engaged in no       further discussion.” And then, in an occurrence rare in her writings,       Teresa expresses displeasure with some learned men and sharply observes:       “She did not act as do some learned men (whom the Lord does not lead by       this mode of prayer and who haven’t begun a life of prayer), for they       want to be so rational about things and so precise in their       understanding that it doesn’t seem anyone else but they with their       learning can understand the grandeurs of God. If only they could learn       something from the humility of the most Blessed Virgin!”[14]

In keeping with the custom followed by spiritual writers and preachers in       her day, Teresa often uses Scripture in an accommodated sense. On the       other hand an abundance of instances can be cited in which her use of       Scripture corresponds generally with the literal meaning. Through her       mystical experience, moreover, she was able to penetrate to the deepest       content of the Biblical texts; and this is especially true when these       texts center on such themes as: God’s truth and fidelity;[15]       the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity;[16]       union with Christ in both His humanity and divinity;[17]       and the peace of Christ.[18]

Justifiably, the Song of Songs may be applied, as it has been in       Christian tradition, to the mutual love between Christ and His Church,       the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the individual soul. Generally speaking,       there can be noted in the Song a crescendo in both the love and       the intimacy between bride and bridegroom. The culmination, at least       according to a large number of exegetes, lies in the total gift of       marriage. If this is applied to an individual member of Christ’s Church,       then who better than a soul that has experienced them can understand the       “favors, swoons, deaths, afflictions, delights, and joys” that accompany       the ascent to total union with God?

In her reflections on the Song, Teresa covers only a few verses of       the entire text. While admitting their perfect application to the       Blessed Virgin Mary,[19]       she chooses to concentrate on an interpretation that speaks of the love       between Christ and the soul.

     Copies and Date of Composition

         Jerome Gracián,       who edited and published this work for the first time in Brussels in       1611, gives the reason the autograph has been lost to posterity. It       seems that though Teresa wrote her Meditations with the approval       of her confessor, a later confessor, upon hearing of the existence of so       daring a work, became frightened. Gracián       says that this later confessor thought it a dangerous novelty for a       woman to write on the Song of Songs and “moved with zeal by the       words of St. Paul that women should be silent in the Church,” ordered       Teresa to burn it. Gracián’s       account goes on to say that at the moment Teresa was told to do so, she       threw the book in the fire. Through witnesses in the process for       beatification and canonization, we know that this cautious director was       the Dominican preacher, theologian, and writer, Diego de Yanguas.[20]       But since the incident took place as late as 1580, copies of these       meditations were already in circulation and carefully guarded by persons       who valued them as spiritual treasures.

The Discalced Carmelite nuns in Alba de Tormes hid their copy in the       monastery. When Fr. Yanguas ordered that the copies they possessed be       burned “not because the work was bad but because he didn’t think it was       proper for a woman to explain the Song of Songs,” the nuns       demonstrated their expertise in casuistry by giving the manuscript away,       to the Duchess of Alba,       who they knew would value and guard it safely.[21]

Four copies of this work are extant. We can distinguish two groups based       on different renderings: the copy of Alba de Tormes (the most complete)       and that of Baeza; and the copies of Consuegra and Las Nieves. The copy       of Alba is the one approved by Domingo       Báñez, June 10, 1575. All four are conserved in the Biblioteca       Nacional de Madrid.

From the manner in which these meditations end, it is generally supposed       that we possess the complete text excepting some lines in the prologue.       These lines are missing because of the deterioration of the copy of       Alba, the only one that contains the prologue.

Although none of the manuscripts contains chapter divisions, Gracián       in his edition divided the work into seven chapters and composed       headings for each. He, too, is the author of the frequently used title       of the work, Conceptos del amor de Dios, rendered in English as Conceptions       of the Love of God. But since this title is not Teresa’s and she       herself refers to the work more simply as “my meditations,”[22]       a number of editors have changed Gracián’s       title to Meditations on the Song of Songs. Although somewhat       misleading since Teresa reflects on only a few verses of the Song,       this is the title we have chosen for this edition.

Establishing the date of composition has required a study of evidence       internal to the text since no definite external testimony remains. The       reference to Friar Alonso de Cordobilla, his visit and later death,       indicates that Teresa possibly wrote the work at St. Joseph’s in Avila       before making her next foundation in August of 1567, for this friar died       in October 1566.[23]       Still, her reference in the prologue to “these monasteries” indicates       that more monasteries had been founded and thus some later date. More       specifically, in this line, she speaks of a personal experience of hers       which took place at Easter in 1571.[24]       The latest date that could be mentioned is August 10, 1575, when Báñez       gave his approval to the writing. With respect to the earliest date, the       work could not have been written before 1566 because she speaks of two       books she had already written: her Life and the Way of       Perfection.[25]       The apparent contradiction in this evidence has led scholars to conclude       that the work was drafted at least twice. The first draft would have       been written at Avila in late 1566, or the first part of 1567; and the       second rendered sometime between 1572 and 1575.

Our translation is made from the copy of Alba, the one preferred by       Spanish editors; but the chapter divisions and headings are taken from Gracián’s       edition. Those important additions not found in Alba but in the copies       of Consuegra and Las Nieves are indicated in our translation by the use       of brackets.

Though small in size, these Meditations are both fascinating and       fresh in insight. They merit all the attention given to other Teresian       works.[26]       The content may be generally divided as follows:

          I.           Mystical experience of “some words from Solomon’s Song of           Songs” (Prologue           and ch. 1, nos. 1-7)
          II.           Purpose in writing (ch. 1, nos.           8-12)
          III.           The kiss: symbol of peace and friendship
                A.                 false peace
                a. from friendship with the devil (ch. 2, nos.                 1-6)
                b. from the world and the flesh
                      from riches (ch. 2, nos.                       8-10)
                      from honors (ch. 2, nos.                       11-13)
                      from comforts (ch. 2, nos.                       14-15)
                B.                 peace from friendship with the Lord (ch. 2, nos.                 16-18)
                a. imperfect kinds of friendship with Him (ch. 2, nos.                 19-30)
                b. the peace of union and its signs (ch.                 3)
          IV.           Communion in friendship
                A.                 prayer of quiet and of union (chs.                 4-6)
                B.                 effects of this prayer: the desire to serve; union of both the                 active and the contemplative life (ch.                 7)

K.K.

[1] See Prologue       and ch. 1, no. 8.

[2] Ch.       1, no. 8.

[3] See ibid.

[4] Ch.       1, no. 4.

[5] Ch.       1, no. 6.

[6] Ch.       1, no. 8.

[7]       Prologue, no. 1.

[8] Ch.       6, no. 8.

[9] Ch.       1, no. 8.

[10] Life,       ch. 15, no. 8.

[11]       Ch. 1, no. 11.

[12]       See ch. 1, no. 8.

[13]       Ch. 1, no. 2.

[14]       See ch. 6, no. 7.

[15]       Cf. Interior Castle, VI, ch. 10, no.       5; Life, ch. 23, nos.       1-5.

[16]       Cf. Interior Castle, VII, ch. 1, nos.       6-7; Spiritual Testimonies, 13;       65, no. 9.

[17]       Cf. Spiritual Testimonies, 3, no.       10; Life, ch. 6, no.       9; ch. 18, no. 14; Interior       Castle, V, ch. 2, no. 4;       VII, ch. 2, no. 5.

[18]       Cf. Interior Castle, VII, ch. 2, nos.       6-7; VII, ch. 3, no.       13.

[19]       See ch. 6, no. 8.

[20]       See Biblioteca Mistica Carmelitana, ed. Silverio de Santa Teresa,       vol. 18 (Burgos: El Monte Carmelo 1934), p. 320.

[21]       See ibid., vol. 20 (1935), p. 349.

[22]       In ch. 1, no. 8.

[23]       See ch. 3, no. 8.

[24]       In ch. 7, no. 2.

[25]       In ch. 4, no. 1.

[26]       For further details on some of these matters see D. De Pablo Maroto,       “Meditaciones Sobre Los Cantares,” Introducción A La       Lectura De Santa Teresa (Madrid: Espiritualidad, 1978), pp. 383-391;       Pietro della Madre di Dio, “La Sacra Scrittura nelle Opere di S. Teresa       di Gesu,” Rivista Di Vita Spirituale 18 (1964): 41-102; and       Tomás De La Cruz, “Santa Teresa De Jesús Contemplativa,” Ephemerides       Carmeliticae 13 (1962): 9-62.

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