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rachel2205 in catholicleft

I posted this on my livejournal, but it seems like it could be relevant here, since part of this community's purpose is flagging up the ways in which the Church actually IS liberal (whatever that actually means). I think, for instance, there can be a deep misapprehension about the Church's teachings on human sexuality. I may write about that at some point. But for now I'll cut and paste my journal entry here.

Today a dear friend of mine announced her engagement. I am very happy for her and her intended! Also, she is one of my few Catholic friends, which means I can get a God-mention into my congratulations without it seeming creepy. Thinking on her marriage made me turn to The Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful books of the Old Testament.

Hark! my lover–here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come!
“O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”
My lover belongs to me and I to him.
He says to me:
“Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.”

This is one of the suggested readings for a Catholic wedding. People often misunderstand the Church's teaching on sexual love. (I'm not interested today in debating the Church's position on homosexual relationships; anyone who knows me knows how I feel about this, and I'd rather this not be sidetracked.) No less auspicious and, one would assume, conservative group than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has this to offer about the appropriateness of this passage:

It is a love poem describing two young lovers discovering the beauty of their created bodies, and their desire to share it in love and mutual fidelity. Parts of the book express erotic love. The gift of sexuality is affirmed and portrayed without apology. There is radical equality with both lovers desiring to share in it with equal intensity. Love is seen as a communion of souls.

(Love as radical, sexuality as unashamed. Take that, naysayers!)

I am particularly taken with this translation of the text - stern as death is love. Often that "stern" is rendered "strong", which gives this text a more romantic and straightforwardly optimistic reading. Love conquers all. Here, however, the "stern" renders love into something more complex. Love is serious; love is as severe as death, as transformative. It is a shock to the body. It transfigures. It can be implacable. In these ways it is similar to death. But that "as" also sets it up as a contrast, a counterpoint. Death is a conqueror, but so is love. Love is fierce. Death takes us all, but love wins. Love does conquer all. That does not mean that love overcomes all obstacles; it means that the ability to love, that emotion which makes us as close to the divine as we can as mortals get, means we do not have to be debased by them. We do not have to be conquered. There are so many things in our world that kill us or disfigure us - in our hearts and souls as well as bodies - but our capacity to love is, I think, a reminder that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. That may not seem like much consolation in a barren time; the greatest truths are often bald, and the comfort they offer is of a severe sort. Love is stern. Love is a gift that is difficult to use.

It is a great and terrible challenge to decide to love one person as your spouse for the rest of your life. It is only one form of love, but in many ways it is one of the most difficult. It is a choice that must be made again and again. Anyone who believes in Happily Ever Afters is misguided; happiness does not just happen, but is made through our choices, day by day. But this, I think, is a good thing. For fairytales have an ending written into that happily-ever-after. And so I wish my friend not a happily ever after, but a great start on a transformative adventure called We.