Helen Gallivan is a member of the New Pilgrim Path team.
At the Feet of Jesus by Chris Cook
The great mystic, St Teresa of Avila, said that in the Song of Songs the Lord is teaching the soul how to pray, “Along how many paths, in how many ways, by how many methods you show us love! ...in this Song of Songs (you) teach the soul what to say to you... We can make the Bride’s prayer our own.”
When I first read these words of Teresa’s, I revisited the Song of Solomon and chose a passage at random as a form of prayer:
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood,
So is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
His fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banquet hall.
His banner over me is love.
Strengthen me with raisins,
Refresh me with apples;
For I am faint with love.
His left hand is under my head.
His right hand embraces me.
My reaction to the experience of praying the Song of Songs was a revelation to me. I have to say it felt completely alien – almost shocking in its loving, desiring, tactile imagery. If Teresa was right and this is the kind of language in which God longs to hear the soul speak, it seemed to me that I had to make a radical shift in my perception of what it is to love and be loved by God. Up to then, I had thought of ecstatic delight in God’s presence as the preserve of mystics, inaccessible to people living among the commonplace realities of everyday life. Prayer as passionate seeking, as desolation in the absence of the beloved, and rapture in finding him - this kind of prayer was utterly outside my experience. It felt unnatural, irreverent. I could not imagine myself experiencing prayer as described by Teresa: “I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him”.
I have often felt like the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. When he died, the rich man could see “Abraham, far off” but between Abraham and him a great chasm existed which could not be bridged. In the same way, God can seem very far off – perceived but not experienced. The chasm separating us from him is often the past.
Past failures can take unrelenting possession of us. We can become haunted by the memory of bad decisions, missed opportunities, unrealised potential. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. The sense of steps taken irretrievably in the wrong direction, of having done harm, can be crippling –attaching to our spirit like a leech, draining us of hope and optimism, so that – in Donne’s powerful line - “I am rebegot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not”.
This terrifying awareness of repeated failure sucks our energies inward. We make half-hearted efforts to move forward, but then think “too little, too late” and retreat into our inadequacy. We dig a hole, put our talent into it, and pile the stifling earth on top. “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Mt 25:25). The parable of the ten talents reminds us that nothing can excuse inaction. We must spend our lives with an energy which has nothing to do with what we consider our worth to be. The fact that we may have fallen again and again on our life’s journey does not permit us to pause, let alone stop altogether. The fact that we have failed ourselves and failed others does not excuse us from a continual effort to forgive and love – and that process starts with ourselves.
If we cannot accept that we ourselves are forgiven, we cannot forgive others. If we cannot weep for ourselves, how can we “weep with those who weep”? (Romans 12:15).
The woman who washed Jesus’ feet, described in Luke 7, breaks upon an uncomfortable scene. Jesus is being entertained at the house of Simon the Pharisee, who has welcomed him with minimal hospitality – indeed, his omission of the common courtesies of the time amounts to a calculated insult. There is no kiss of greeting; no offer is made to wash the dust of the road from a guest’s feet; there is no anointing of the head with oil.
“And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”
It is a marvellous incident. This woman accepted that she had been forgiven. It is likely she has already met Jesus - perhaps she was among the crowd at Capernaum when Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me shall come to me; and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). It is because she is forgiven that she shows such love to Jesus: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (Luke 7:47). The significance of this is that accepting that she was forgiven made it possible for the woman to show such love.
The woman never speaks; her love and repentance are beyond words. This is the most sensual scene in the New Testament - the erotic overtones of the cascade of hair (in ancient Israel only prostitutes wore their hair loose in public), the perfumed air, the smoothing on of the aromatic ointment, the woman’s lips pressed over and over again on Christ’s bare feet. He accepts her touch as fitting and right; he welcomes her unconscious intimacy – sees beyond her reputation and her behaviour and into her heart.
Where Simon sees sex, Jesus sees love. This unspeaking woman is praying with her body and with her heart. It’s a way we seldom pray. Her prayer is part of a tradition as old as the passionate, lyrical and sensuous Song of Songs. God delights in every aspect of his creation – physical as well as spiritual. It was into our bodies that he breathed the spirit of life. It is through our bodies that we make the journey towards him. Over and over in Scripture, his love for his people is expressed in highly tactile imagery – the cradling of an infant in its mother’s arms, the dandling of a toddler on its father’s knee, the love of a bridegroom and a bride.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the woman in Simon’s house praying the Song of Songs. “How much better is your love than wine! The fragrance of your perfumes than all manner of spices!” As Teresa of Avila wrote, “it is not a matter of thinking much, but of loving much”.