MEDITATIONS ON THE SONG OF SONGS
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. 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.” 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. 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.” “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.” Teresa reasoned that it was wrong that women were being prevented from enjoying the riches contained in God’s words and works.
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.”
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.”
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. 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.” 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.”
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. 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. 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!”
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; the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity; union with Christ in both His humanity and divinity; and the peace of Christ.
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, 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. 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.
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,” 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. 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. 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. 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. 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|
|IV.||Communion in friendship|
 See Biblioteca Mistica Carmelitana, ed. Silverio de Santa Teresa, vol. 18 (Burgos: El Monte Carmelo 1934), p. 320.
 See ibid., vol. 20 (1935), p. 349.
 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.