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WHOM MY SOUL LOVES Song of Songs 3:1-4 and John 20:1-2; 11-18

There is a fine line between sexuality and spirituality. This may seem a rather bold claim to make, but both of these aspects of what it means to be human are to do with desire. We are creatures who desire closeness, a feeling of connection, both physically and spiritually. Perhaps Mary Magdalene symbolises this in the rather mixed picture we have of her from the Bible. In more recent times her reputation has been restored, but opinions about who she is and what she was like have varied a great deal in the history of the Church. Is she the same Mary as the sister of Martha and Lazarus? In which case, was it the same Mary who anointed Jesus with perfume at Bethany? John and Mark both say that Jesus exorcised someone called Mary, so was she Mary Magdalene or another Mary? The trouble is that Mary was a popular name at the time, so we cannot be sure whether all these were the same Mary or different ones. It still leaves us with the impression that Mary Magdalene may well have had a history of broken relationships.

It may be that we feel uneasy at this connection of sexuality and spirituality, perhaps because we feel wary of too much desire. In our culture desire must be satiated, which is not necessarily the same thing as recognising the place of desire in our human make up. All humans desire, and accepting that we desire is part of accepting how God made us. But accepting desire is not the same as seeking to have desire satisfied. Once we recognise desire as part of what it means to be human, we can then begin to distinguish between different kinds of desire. That is where we can be clear that there is spiritual desire as well as physical desire, although both are linked because they are about needing closeness or intimacy. Accepting that we desire is a healthy thing, but what we do with our desire is a different thing: indeed, accepting desire is a way to gain control of our desire. Physical desire must be satisfied in appropriate and disciplined ways, according to the way of life in which we are called. For some, physical desire is sublimated by dedication to spirituality. Abstinence in many religions is a way of showing dedication to God: fasting from food or leading a celibate life is a way of deepening one’s journey into holiness.

Song of Songs
The Songs of Songs is a powerful and poetic reflection of the connection between spirituality and sexuality. In some ways it can be read as sheer love poetry. Alternatively, it can be interpreted in highly spiritual ways. It is about the love between devotee and divinity. Just how do you interpret Upon my bed at night I sought him who my soul loves? What is love-poetry like this doing in the Bible? I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into ... the chamber of her that conceived me.

Is that echoed in John’s description of Mary finding Jesus after the Resurrection? They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him! cries the tearful Mary. When she realises who has just said her name she attempts to grasp him. Jesus says, Do not hold on to me..! The original word is a strong one meaning something like: do not try to cling on to me, adhere to me, keep a hold of me. Some experts have suggested the following reading: Do not handle me to see whether I am still clothed with a body; there is no need of such an examination. For now it is the in-between time: Jesus has risen but has not yet ascended (as explains himself to Mary). Mary can no longer treat him as she did when anointing him at Bethany. Instead, she is to learn a new way of expressing her adherence to him: she is to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen. She becomes, as the Church has traditionally seen her, the apostle to the apostles.

Although Mary’s way of relating to Jesus must be transformed because of his Resurrection, what remains constant is her devotion to Jesus. She must express her devotion. Previously it was a form of physical devotion: providing food, washing his feet with her tears and anointing his feet with expensive perfume. Now she is to proclaim with passion that Jesus has risen again. He is to be close to her in that Easter message: her sexuality is to be directed into the spiritual joy of proclaiming him risen again.

No new thing
This connection of sexuality and spirituality is no new thing. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk who lived shortly after the Norman Conquest, wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs which used the image of human physical love to describe the soul’s relationship with God. In the following century German mystics developed similar ways of exploring the connection of sexuality and spirituality. In the writings of St Paul and the Revelation of St John the Church is described as the bride of Christ. So there are good foundations for this way of exploring what it means to be devoted to Christ. Through this approach we recognise the potential that lies in directing desire to good ends.

This connection is not exclusive to Christianity, either. Some of us were present at the evening we recently held when we had a presentation about Hinduism. There we learnt about different ways in which devotion to God and attaining salvation could be expressed in the Hindu tradition. The word màrga means path. There are different paths which Hindus can follow in the practice of their faith: j¤àna màrga means the path of knowledge; karma màrga is the path of service and bakhti màrga the path of devotion. Another way of putting it is that one can attain salvation through knowing the truth; serving others or devoted worship of God. Hindus may devote themselves to one of these three paths. There are some Indian Christians who see their faith as being a form of bakhti màrga. Instead of being devoted to one of the Hindu avatars or forms of God (like Krishna) they are devoted to Christ. The Christian gains salvation by being devoted to Christ.

A spirituality of longing
What does all this mean and how may we live up to the example
of Saint Mary Magdalene? Let me suggest a further insight from the Hindu tradition which some Christians have found helpful. The longing of the soul for her lover is expressed in our reading from the Song of Songs: I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him but found him not. Mary sought Jesus in the garden, distressed that his body was no longer in the tomb, distraught that she could not show him devotion. When she did recognise the risen Lord he prevented her from doing what she thought she wanted: to grasp him, to lay hold of him.

There is a tradition in Hindu mythology of Krishna coming down to earth and visiting a group of cowherd girls called gopis. For a time they enjoy his amorous company but then he withdraws. They long for his company again but are denied it. They wish they could experience again the pleasure of going with him and their whole being is directed at expressing their desire for him. This feeling of longing but not seeing finds popular expression in George Harrison’s song: My Sweet Lord. Some Christian experts of Hinduism have suggested that there is a spiritual tradition here that is not completely alien to Christianity. This feeling of longing for the Lord, of yearning for his company, of desiring to show devotion to him is an appropriate form of Christian spirituality. It may find a sort of innocent expression in the classic charismatic style of Pentecostal worship: spontaneous, ecstatic, emotional. But it can also be expressed in a deep, sustained search for mystical union with God. It can mature into a deeper, wiser but none the less passionate search for a real relationship with God in Christ.

What we do with our desire is the crucial thing. Mary Magdalene shows us that we can long for our Lord and show devotion to him by passionately proclaiming him risen again. One day we will see him face to face, but in the meantime we do not give up our hope and desire to grow closer to him, to spend time with him, to love him with all of who we are. I will seek him whom my soul loves; I will not find him, but I believe that one day I will see him and then I will be complete.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Generous God,
you give us gifts and make them grow:
though our faith is small as mustard seed,
make it grow to your glory
and the flourishing of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.