There probably are few people who haven't heard a passage at one time or another from the Song of Songs. It is usually read in conjunction with the wedding ceremony where a friend of the bride or groom will read, "Hark! My beloved! Here he comes bounding over the mountains, leaping over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. There he stands outside our wall, peering in at the windows, gazing through the lattice." And along with the reading of the passage, the groom usually looks at the bride and everyone begins to giggle.
What a disconnect between that time and ours, between East and West!
So I wondered how a celibate man, a monk who has lived his life in the desert of Egypt renouncing such erotic ideas of the flesh, could possibly reveal anything I might find useful for my own life.
I turned to page one.
Quickly you see that this is based on a series of lectures he has given. It allows him to speak, and at times openly challenge the reader to think of what a loving relationship, in all its irritating commitment, could be.
Methodically, he goes through verse after verse of the Song, explaining, encouraging and bluntly portraying insights that mix in additional phrases from the New Testament to bolster his original thought.
"Although I sleep, I can hear His voice. This is not death, only slumber. The Lord told them, the child is not dead, but, sleeping." Here he uses verse 5:2 of the Song but folds in New Testament Mark 5:39, in order for the reader to have an expanded idea of what life in God will one day be. I recognized Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of Vatican II, in this recalling his version that says "even death does not end the reach of God's love to us."
Painstakingly, Pope Shenouda III dissects each line of the Song of Songs, and to be honest, I have heard many of his conclusions given before by any number of contemporary Western writers on spiritual subjects.
This book then could be thought of as redundant, tired, over-written and almost trite.
But I found it refreshing, like a complement from the other side of Christian tradition, simply presented again, like a friend who comes along when you are down and reminds you of all you have going for you.
Pope Shenouda III reminds us of what is truly important in the Christian life. He uses the Song to remind us, as he would an intimate friend, that we have much in common.
This passage can be applied to many pastors, I am certain.
"We claim that we are busy right now. The time is inconvenient. You have many huge projects and activities that require a lot of attention. Or you may be currently writing some books. Or the Church service with which you are involved claims all your time ... There is no time for the Lord now. What then? The Lord still knocks on the door. We leave Him there standing and waiting. Well! We will see the result of this."
I can hear plainly the daily grind of this man. I can see clearly his piles of frustrations and busy work schedule, his lack of time and pressures for his attention.
And the truth is so apparent: his life is just as crazy as mine and as he extols me to seek greater things, I know he is right alongside of me jogging on that fast-track treadmill.
If you wish to read a book on the spiritual life from an Eastern viewpoint, this is it. At times, the translation of thoughts prevailing in the East will make you flinch as it presents a blatantly male perspective that we in the West will deem politically incorrect.
And yet that is its greatest insight for us.
Push past the male language and understand that the rest of the world is not like us, nor does it have to behave like us, nor does it have to even think like us.
Does that mean East has nothing to offer West?
May I suggest that a book such as this allows us to see that religions in the East have more in common with us than we ever imagined and though some things can be lost in translation, the main struggles of life between us are really just the same.