The Song of Songs: A Spiritual Commentary

The Song of Songs: A Spiritual Commentary

By M. Basil Pennington
 OCSO, Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2004, Hardcover, 136 pages.

The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is a unique book in the biblical canon. More than one reader has wondered how a powerfully erotic poem made its way into the Bible. In conventional religious circles, it is often left aside, lest some Sunday school teacher have to confront verses like: "Oh, give me the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine," (1:2) or, "Your breasts are like twin fawns, the young of a gazelle, among the lilies.'.' (4:6)

Despite the embarrassment it causes to those of a puritanical nature, the Song of Songs has given rise to something approaching a Jewish/Christian Tantra, an erotic mysticism of the union of the soul (and/or the spiritual community) with the Divine Lover. This path was nowhere more powerfully explicated than in the commentary on the Song of Songs begun in 1135 by Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, continued by Gilbert of Hoyland, and finally completed in 1214 by John of Ford.

Basil Pennington is a contemporary Cistercian monk and a present-day heir to the mysticism of the Song of Songs. He is best known as one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, which has carried contemplative practice out of the monastery and into the world. In this latest book, we join Father Basil as he muses and meditates on the potent, earthy images of the Song, often drawing on the works of his Cistercian forebears. It is a book meant for slow pondering. As Father Basil points out in his introduction, it is not an academic commentary but a "sharing of some of what this celebration of love has evoked in the soul of an artist and a contemplative, a layman and a monk, a Jew and a Christian."

As this prior quote indicates, Father Basil has a collaborator in this project-the acclaimed Jewish artist Phillip Ratner, whose evocative illustrations lend additional depth to the text. Ratner also contributed a short afterword, in which he draws connections between the Song and "the sacred, spiritual, and sensual awareness of human love in a covenant relationship," through his own marriage. This is a vital dimension that we could not expect Father Basil, as a celibate monk, to address as fully.

Gilbert of Hoyland instructed his readers: "Write wisdom on the breadth of your heart. For the heart is broad that is not shriveled by cares." Father Basil invites us to share this breadth of heart, filled with a blazing passion in which our petty cares are consumed, that we may know the ecstasy of union.


March/April 2005