Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thoughts on Waldstein's Talk: "Redeeming the Erotic: John Paul II's Reading of the Song of Songs."

The other night I has the opportunity to listen in on a live broadcast of a talk by Dr. Michael Waldstein entitled "Redeeming the Erotic: John Paul II's Reading of the Song of Songs." Because it was a live feed and not a recording, I am at the disadvantage of not being able to go back and listen to it again, nor can I quote from it as I was not taking notes of any sort at the time. But with that said, I was struck by one phrase that he developed regarding the character of the Bride in the Song of Songs. This was not from a line of Scripture per se but from John Paul II's discussion of her. It was this: She is the master of her own mystery.

The master of her own mystery.

The concept, of course, is that one can only give the gift of oneself if one possesses oneself.

The sort of related concept that Waldstein mentioned that pertains to the Lover in the Song of Songs is this notion that he calls the woman "My sister, my bride." He states that this shows that she is a person in her own right. She is not a commodity that he can grasp and take for himself as one might pick up a candy bar at the grocery store. In other words, the Lover knows that the woman is a person, not a thing.

And as a person, the woman is master of her own mystery. She chooses to make of herself a gift, which she bestows on her Lover, and he then receives her.

This struck a deep chord in me.

Then shortly afterwards, I came across a quote that I have been reflecting on for quite some time in a different context, weighing how this applies to various aspects of life: "He who makes himself his own master subjects himself to a fool for a master." -- St. Bernard of Clairvaux. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I love Facebook. Where else can I be a part of little conversations here and there about the sayings of saints?!)

On the one hand we have John Paul II saying the Beloved is "the master of her own mystery," and on the other hand we have St. Bernard warning against being one's own master. What gives?

The discussion of the St. Bernard quote made it clear to me that the options here are a) Jesus is the master of my life or b) Jesus is not, and I am. So, what kind of Master is Jesus? If we lose our lives for His sake, we find them. If we give all to Him at His cross, He gives all back to us, redeemed, purified, sanctified and ready for life with Him in His kingdom, following Him. If I follow myself, I wander aimlessly, led by my animal desires.

So, how does the Bride get to be the master of her own mystery? From whence comes her mystery?! From the Lord. The enticement, the seduction, the beauty that is hers is only hers because it is truly His in origin. The Lord bestows to each, graces. Talents, as Matthew 25 has it. We are set as master over what God gives, and harsh words are reserved for the servant who did not act as master. But the image of the Bride in the Song of Songs is clearly a woman acts as master. "Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits" (SS 4:16). This is a woman who possesses herself so that she may make a free gift of herself to her Lover.

I am reminded what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about self-mastery:

2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. "Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end."

2346 Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God's fidelity and loving kindness.
2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one's neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion. 
Not surprisingly, self-mastery is linked with the notion of chastity. At first blush, it seems that Eros and chastity have blessed little to do with each other except as some kind of opposites. It seems to me that this is because the word "chastity" gets used in an awkward, embarrassed way to mean "not all that dirty stuff." And what do we mean by "all that dirty stuff," anyway, if we are pressed for a definition? We usually mean "what we actually desire." This was Waldstein's first point: the Lover and the Beloved are both quite in tune with their desire. And this is where religious folk tend to get tripped up. We think that to be presentable to God we have to take all of our desires and stuff them under the couch cushions and into the closet, quick, before He sees them. Do you see how completely silly that is?!

The Lover and the Beloved are both very much in tune with their desires. If you read Song of Songs, you have to concur that it is erotic stuff. So, how is the erotic redeemed? Just like everything else that is a created good is redeemed: by the cross. 

If we take the Beloved as symbol of the Church for a moment, or at least if I take her as a symbol of myself as a woman, I need self-mastery to be able to give myself the way the Beloved does. This I know by my personal experience. The Beloved's got it; I'm working toward it! Again, the Catechism states: "Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life." (CCC 2342). It is a work of grace. Grace operates in our lives by bringing our human hearts, filled with their desires, to the cross. I can't surrender something to the Lord that I can first own as mine. And I can't receive back from the Lord something I haven't given over in the first place. The only place we have the "laudable exchange" with the Lord is the cross. I bring my sin, my unfulfilled longings, my powerlessness for good, my need, and I meet His inexhaustible love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, healing and meaning. I bring me; I meet Him.

So. Eros redeemed, then, is demonstrated by a "me" who has met "Him" and experienced the transformation into Him that this meeting brings. Looking back at the Catechism, Eros redeemed is demonstrated by a free and conscious gift of the self, given personally. I keep in mind my personhood: I am not a thing; and the personhood of the one to whom the gift is given: there is no acquisition going on. I am not purchasing the other with my gift. Only when I am giving myself this way, freely, personally, consciously, am I chaste. If I am just restrained by external pressures, I am not chaste.

As the catechism puts it, the virtue of chastity "blossoms" in friendship, of the sort that leads to spiritual communion and actually tutors us in how to follow the Lord. Now there's a beautiful image that I can relate to after a summer of gardening. The gift of self, the gift of Eros, the gift of the cross, the gift of friendship: it all brings us ultimately to know, love and serve God more and more deeply. There is a constant flow of grace as God gives to us and we give back to Him.

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