His Hiding Place is Darkness explores the uncertainties of faith and love in a pluralistic age. In keeping with his conviction that studying multiple religious traditions intensifies rather than attenuates religious devotion, Francis Clooney's latest work of comparative theology seeks a way beyond today's religious and interreligious uncertainty by pairing a fresh reading of the absence of the beloved in the Biblical Song of Songs with a pioneering study of the same theme in the Holy Word of Mouth (9th century CE), a classic of Hindu mystical poetry rarely studied in the West.
Remarkably, the pairing of these texts is grounded not in a general theory of religion, but in an engagement with two unexpected sources: the theopoetics, theodramatics, and theology of the 20th-century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the intensely perceived and written poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham. How we read and write on religious matters is transformed by this rare combination of voices in what is surely a unique and important contribution to comparative studies and religious hermeneutics.
About the Author
Francis X. Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at the Harvard Divinity School, where he also directs the Center for the Study of World Religions. A Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus, he is the author of numerous books, including Beyond Compare: St. Francis de Sales and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God (2008) and Comparative Theology: Deep Learning across Religious Borders (2010). In 2010, Clooney was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
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HIS HIDING PLACE IS DARKNESS
A Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics of Divine Absence
By FRANCIS X. CLOONEY
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
1 Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth! For thy breasts are better than wine, 2 Smelling sweet of the best ointments. Thy name is as oil poured out; Therefore young maidens have loved thee. 3 Draw me; we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments. The king hath brought me into his storerooms. We will be glad and rejoice in thee, Remembering thy breasts more than wine. The righteous love thee. 4 I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, As the curtains of Solomon. 5 Do not consider me that I am brown, Because the sun hath altered my colour. The sons of my mother have fought against me, They have made me the keeper in the vineyards: My vineyard I have not kept. 6 Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, Where thou feedest, where thou liest in the midday, Lest I begin to wander after the flocks of thy companions. 7 If thou know not thyself, O fairest among women, Go forth, and follow after the steps of the flocks, And feed thy kids beside the tents of the shepherds.
1 O innocent crane with lovely wings, be kind, You and your mate with lovely wings, cry "Alas!" and give me your grace. Be my messengers to the one who rides the eagle with fearsome wings— But if you go and if He should cage you— if that is your lot, what can be done?
2 Be messengers to my Lord whose eyes are like red lotuses. What harm can come from speaking on my behalf? O cuckoos, nestled together, won't you do this? Because of everything I have done before, I made no effort to serve humbly at His feet: So shall I just leave now and go away? Such is my fate.
3 Your fortune is to be with your mates, graceful swans, He came as a small dwarf, and by His wits that trickster begged the earth, And because of Him I've lost my wits. Will I ever be done with my stubborn deeds? I am alone, my wits in disarray, I am bewildered—so will you speak for me?
4 He should notice my condition, pity me, and say, "This is not right," But He says nothing. So what shall I say to my Lord dark as a rain cloud? Tell Him this one thing, "Her gentle nature will not survive in this state." Good dark love birds, will you help? won't you help?
5 He helps, protects, nourishes the seven worlds: Then why doesn't He help me even despite my deeds? If you see that Narayana— O lovely little heron stalking your prey in the garden Where streams rush like the tears streaming from my eyes— Grace me by just a word from Him.
6 "You are not gracious, but show her Your grace before her life dries up, Come to her street on Your eagle, that ocean of grace, even for just a day": If you see the Lord, that ocean of grace, by such words remind Him of that grace. No? O striped bee? Is it something I've done?
7 Like a needle this cool breeze pierces me to the bone. He considers only my faults, and shows me no grace. So at least ask Tirumal, "How did she offend Your majesty?" Will you also pierce me through, tender parrot? didn't I raise you? 8 Aren't you my little myna? As my messenger to the tall Lord You were supposed to tell Him of my sickness, But you didn't say a thing, you just stayed here. I've lost my looks and jewel-like luster. From now on, find someone else to put sweet rice in your beak.
9 Narayana's feet are like never fading flowers, and Daily we seek rare flowers to place upon them. That is what I am made for. But sunk deep in His absence, I deserve nothing, what can I do? Ask Him that, cold breeze wafting back and forth between us, Then pierce right through me.
10 He is freedom from the body's wheel of births, Life's breath and everything else. He appears in the ocean's depth too, and there He sleeps. If you see that Lord whose weapon is a discus, tell Him all this. But don't leave me, deep simple heart, until despite my deeds I am one with Him.
(Holy Word 1.4.1–10)
WE BEGIN IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS, however disconcerting this may be. If we do not begin here, at the start, no amount of explanation will help us to notice the first inklings of uncertainty that unsettle the love of these women for their unpredictable lovers.
A HINT OF ABSENCE
From the start she speaks passionately and directly to her beloved, manifesting their intimacy even as she yearns for more:
Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth! For thy breasts are better than wine, Smelling sweet of the best ointments. Thy name is as oil poured out; Therefore young maidens have loved thee. Draw me; we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments. The king hath brought me into his storerooms. We will be glad and rejoice in thee, remembering thy breasts more than wine. The righteous love thee. (1.1–3)
Yet now a hint of trouble appears, even when things have been going well and love has seemed intense, even settled. All at once, she has to justify herself before the women and her brothers:
I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, As the curtains of Solomon. Do not consider me that I am brown, Because the sun hath altered my colour. The sons of my mother have fought against me, They have made me the keeper in the vineyards: My vineyard I have not kept. (1.4–5)
Amid this uneasiness, she admits a still more difficult uncertainty regarding her own beloved:
Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, Where thou feedest, where thou liest in the midday, Lest I begin to wander after the flocks of thy companions. (1.6)
She wants to find him; not finding him means also to settle for less, to be entangled in other relationships that can be put aside only in the face of a greater love.
He may actually be nearby; perhaps it is he who speaks to her in 1.7, not drawing her close, but giving her a task:
If thou know not thyself, O fairest among women, Go forth, and follow after the steps of the flocks, And feed thy kids beside the tents of the shepherds. (1.7)
If this is her beloved, right here, at the start of the Song, then the trouble between them is a sign of things to come—the mix of nearness and absence that makes searching necessary even while calling its usefulness into question. Perhaps he is somewhere else, and she wants to go there, in the noontime. If so, then it is the response that is more ambiguous.
For millennia readers have entered this uncertain space hoping to ground more deeply their understanding of the love binding God and the soul. Bernard of Clairvaux, meditating on the Latin of the Song in the twelfth century, ponders with interest and intensity her uncertainty in Song 1. Working with a Christian language of love, and a deep interest in the spiritual lessons to be learned from lovers' exchanges, he reads the scene as expressive of the soul who searches for the beloved, for a God who, though known and beloved, has gone away and needs to be sought after. Though ever-present, God presents himself in various guises to those seeking him. He cannot yet be seen as he is; he comes in various forms, appearing differently at diverse times, in every case in a way still hiding himself: "Now, indeed, He appears to whom He pleases and as He pleases, but not as He is." Those who have eyes to see may find God anywhere and everywhere, but few gain the immediate and more vivid experience a lover seeks.
The yearning for a still more interior visit is evident in Song 1.7, where "God vouchsafes to visit in person the soul that seeks Him, provided, however, that she devotes herself with all desire and love to this holy quest." The soul desirous of God is a soul on fire, and it is in that fire that the soul shall know "that 'the Lord is nigh,' when she feels herself inflamed with that fire." This soul then quietly receives a still more subtle interior visit that cannot be seen, even if it is felt. She prays that he descend "into her from the height of heaven so that she may embrace Him with her tenderest and strongest affections, and in the very centre of her heart." She yearns to be "intimately united to the Divine Object of her heart's desire," but such a meeting comes not "in bodily form" but "by a spiritual dwelling," not "as beheld in vision" but as "clasped and clasping in a close embrace of mutual love." It is tactile, close- up, and intimate. The more subtle and interior such visitations are, the more delightful they will be. This Word that penetrates her is a silent word: "For the Word of God is not a sounding but a 'piercing' Word, not eloquent but effective, not sensible to the ear, but fascinating to the affections. His Face does not possess beauty of form, but forms it all. It is not visible to the eyes of the body, but gladdens the face of the heart. And it is pleasing by the work of love and not by colour." So she must seek her beloved even when he is very near, because ordinary means of recognition always fall short.
Whoever "desires this ardently, thirsts for it eagerly, and meditates on it assiduously," will certainly "meet the Word not otherwise than in the guise of a Bridegroom, at the time of His visitation." Yet recognizing the beloved succeeds only imperfectly and occasionally: "I would not venture to say that He shows Himself as He is," even if it is also true that "He does not appear in this kind of vision altogether different from Himself as He is. For He does not constantly manifest Himself thus, even to the most fervent minds, nor yet in the same way to all." Though she knows and loves him, she can never hold onto him with assurance; every arrival and lingering presence ends in a departure: "For 'his heart's desire' has been given to him, whilst still sojourning in the body. Yet only in part, and that but for a time, and a short time." These abrupt turns, arriving and disappearing, are true to the nature of this most faithful beloved: "After having been sought and found with so many watchings, so many supplications, such floods of tears," suddenly "when we are supposing that we still hold Him fast, He slips away." But then he returns and "unexpectedly confronts us as, weeping, we pursue Him." For a moment he allows himself to be held, "but not to be detained, for He once more flies suddenly away from our hands." The devout soul in this way acts out the drama of intense desiring "with prayers and tears," expecting that the beloved "will come back soon to her and will not withhold from her the will of her lips." But "very soon again He disappears, and is no longer seen, unless He be followed with the fullness of desire," with a resignation to the fact that although "the visitation brings us gladness" after that moment of love "the sudden change causes pain." Love teaches patient waiting, which in turn excites still more intense desire.
And so she yearns for God even while still caught up in this world, unable to find her way back to the beloved. As if by a rule, those who love are chastised by the lord; to be cured, they must first be denied the "kisses and embraces" for which they long: "Has this not been our own experience in prayer, still daily afflicted as we are by our present excesses, and tortured by things past?" Prayer in absence is punctuated by brief moments of the overwhelming nearness of the beloved. The best efforts to find and respond to God's arrival always fall short, while the brief moments of recognition occur at his initiative: "Our meditations on our Bridegroom, the Word, on His Glory, His Beauty, His Power, His Majesty, may be considered as His conversations with us. ... For there is, in some respects, the closest resemblance between the thoughts of our mind and the words of Truth speaking within us." Indeed, the work of the Spirit is never easily distinguished from the movements of our own spirits; we are a mystery unto ourselves, says Bernard, and so we must read ourselves through and beyond ourselves. Searching for the beloved is a search for self, a careful decipherment and reading of a person given over to love.
When she asks where her beloved pastures at midday, Bernard recognizes that she is seeking a place of secure rest with him: "With good reason does she yearn for that place of pasture and peace, tranquility and security, of exultation, of wonder, and ecstatic bliss." Here Bernard speaks of himself: "For during the whole period of my mortal career, I have been accustomed, under Thy care, to feed myself and others upon Thee as Thou art wont to be found in the law and in the prophets and in the psalms," and in "evangelical pastures and in the writings of the apostles." But such moments of safety are not meant to become ordinary, predictable. By his delays and departures, the bridegroom rebuffs the presumption that finding him will be easy; holding on to him is impossible. Bernard admits that his own teachings on patience and humility were suggested by "the Bridegroom's reply, wherewith He thought it proper to rebuke the presumption of His Spouse, asking things too far above her. This He did, not with the intention of confounding her, but in order to give her an occasion for greater and better tried humility, whereby she would become more deserving of the higher gifts and more qualified to receive the graces she solicited." In his absences, the beloved puts her off, that in her more desperate love she might desire him all the more. In Sermon 35 Bernard delves deeper into the ignorance of self that is hinted in the words, "If thou know not thyself, O fairest among women, go forth." Much needs to be done if one is to be ready to see the beloved; those who do not know themselves are very much unprepared. That she goes forth, even if in the wrong direction, is an erring that does her good, for she has been chastened by her previous passing over "from the spirit to the flesh, from the goods of the soul to earthly desires, from interior peace and joy of heart to worldly tumult and the distractions of worldly cares." Now this soul has "learned from the Lord and obtained the grace to enter into herself, and within herself to 'seek His Face at all times.'" She grows closer to the beloved even during the absence that had led her astray.
Since she is already advanced in love, Bernard says, the beloved's rebuff readies her for the still greater knowledge that arises as she faces this imperfect world. She learns that drawing near to her beloved is almost impossible, for he is ever a little at a distance. This distance—dramatized as his rebuff—deters her from seeking beyond what is possible in this life even for a person of her great love: "'The vision, O my spouse,' the Bridegroom seems to speak, 'which thou desirest to be shown to thee is entirely above thy capacity. Thou hast not the strength to gaze upon that marvelous and meridian brightness wherein I dwell.... To be drawn up into the clouds, to penetrate into the plenitude of glory, to plunge into the abyss of splendour, and to dwell in light inaccessible—this neither suits this time nor this body.'" Yet there will be a time when she will see him face to face, "and on that day thou shalt be wholly beautiful, just as I am wholly beautiful; and being thus made most like unto Me, thou shalt see Me as I am. Then shalt thou hear it said to thee, 'Thou art all fair, O my beloved, and there is not a spot in thee.'" But until then, her drama plays out in a drearier world of distances and dissimilarities: "Meantime, although thou art like to Me in part, yet, because thou art also in part dissimilar, thou must be content to know in part. Attend to thyself, and 'seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into harder things.'" All that follows in the search scenes of the Song appears in condensed form here: God's fidelity is reaffirmed, but so too her human condition, her extraordinary love and her grief at her beloved's absence.
Excerpted from HIS HIDING PLACE IS DARKNESS by FRANCIS X. CLOONEY. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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