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By the Power of Her Word: Absence, Memory, and Speech in the Song of Songs and a Hindu Mystical Text

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AbstractReligious pluralism today surely poses an ongoing theological challenge, requiring us to think through the significance of the many religions of the world for Christians. But facing the challenge is more urgently the work of the imagination. Even the best theological solutions fall short if they block or ignore the deeper, required work of interreligious learning that occurs in the careful study of the poetry, dramas, and other literary productions of the various traditions. Using as a guide Hans Urs von Balthasar’s great trilogy — aesthetics, dramatics, and theologic — this essay is an exercise in reading together the Biblical Song of Songs along with the medieval Hindu Holy Word of Mouth (Tiruvaymoli) with special attention of the scenes of absence, wherein the human lover waits for the divine beloved to return. From both we learn that in waiting, there is anguish, but in anguish arise powerful memories about, and speech evocative of, the beloved. Each text is read also with attention to medieval religious interpretations. Practicing this dynamic across religious boundaries is an imaginative interreligious exercise that first causes a crisis for theology — where is the beloved? who are those other lovers and beloveds? what to do with the flood of new images and scenes? — yet then a new source for a Christian theology that redeems and deepens Christian particularity after and through, not despite, interreligious learning.

1. FN11 To appear in the Standford University Press series, Encountering Traditions.
2. FN22 Unlike the Song, then, the Holy Word is explicit in its religious reference.
3. FN33 In this, I am very much indebted to the 20th century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In the seven volumes of Herrlichkeit — what we might now call a Theo-Poetics — Balthasar explores poetic and literary apprehensions of the beauty, by which we apprehend the infusion of the glory of God — as the beautiful — into human experience, imperfectly caught in human words. In the five-volume Theo-Drama, Balthasar sees the theo-dramatic as distinct from but not contradictory to the theo-logical. Theoretical expositions of God’s nature are best attempted after and in accord with an aesthetic and dramatic understanding of God in the world, not in the abstract, but such as requires our participation. God interacts in particular ways with the human race, in a project that must be acted out, without any certainty in advance as to where it will end; it is a drama that must be allowed to play itself out. Would-be spectators eventually participate in a drama that is in fact their own story. Only after these theopoetic and theodramatic practices does one turn (back) to theology per se, the Theo-Logic in its three volumes. Working on the level of the theopoetic and theodramatic, my contribution is to give an example of religious and interreligious reading guided by his insights.
4. FN44 I have used the Latin Vulgate of the Song as translated by Paul J. Griffiths in his Song of Songs (Brazos Press 2011), xlvi-liv (with permission of the publisher).
5. FN55 Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs, Westminster: John Knox Press 2005.
6. FN66 Exum, 187.
7. FN77 Elie Assis, Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, New York et al.: T & T Clark, 2009.
8. FN88 Assis, 156-157.
9. FN99 Assis, 166. As Assis sees it, ‘The question posed by the Daughters has a sarcastic edge and is meant to tease the woman,’ and ‘the woman’s answer is not straight but evasive . . . The Daughters ask the woman in a mildly mocking tone what is so special about her beloved that she has adjured them thus. The woman answers by giving them a description of the special appearance of her beloved.’ (178-179)
10. FN1010 Assis, 78-79.
11. FN1111 Exum, 202.
12. FN1212 Exum, 203.
13. FN1313 Exum, 201-202. Even the repetition of each question by the women serves a purpose: ‘Repetition lends the women’s questions a kind of singsong quality. Each time they ask their question, they address the woman as ‘most beautiful of women,’ and then repeat the question with a kind of explanatory embellishment that hearkens back to her “story” and specifically to her adjuration in v. 8 . . .’ (Exum, 202)
14. FN1414 Exum, 202.
15. FN1515 The implication is that the woman seems to have found her beloved, or at least knows where he is: ‘My delightful man has gone down into his garden to a seedbed of spices to graze in the gardens to gather lilies.’ (Song 6:2). Exum notes the inconsistency of asking for their help in finding him, while yet also knowing where he is.
16. FN1616 Exum, 209-210.
17. FN1717 Assis, 180-181.
18. FN1818 Gilbert took up the reading of the Song where Bernard of Clairvaux left off, and John likewise began where Gilbert had ended.
19. FN1919 All translations of Gilbert of Hoyland are from Sermons on the Song of Songs III, by Lawrence C. Braceland SJ (Cistercian Publications, Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press 1979). This quotation is found on pp. 552-553.
20. FN2020 Braceland, 554.
21. FN2121 Braceland, 554.
22. FN2222 Braceland, 561-562.
23. FN2323 See, for example, 1:12-2:7.
24. FN2424 Braceland, 565-566.
25. FN2525 Braceland, 555.
26. FN2626 All translations of John are from John of Ford, Sermons on the Final Verses of the Song of Songs, translated by Sister Wendy Mary Beckett, volume 3, Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press 1982.
27. FN2727 Beckett, 78.
28. FN2828 Beckett, 79.
29. FN2929 Beckett, 90.
30. FN3030 Beckett, 92.
31. FN3131 John of Ford, Sermons on the Final Verses of the Song of Songs, volume 3, Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press 1982, 110. Throughout, citations are from Volume 3 except where noted.
32. FN3232 Beckett, 121.
33. FN3333 Space does not allow me to delve here into John’s rather detailed meditations on her words in 5:10-16.
34. FN3434 Beckett, 152.
35. FN3535 Beckett, 124-125. This passage is from Sermon 40.
36. FN3636 Beckett, 129.
37. FN3737 Beckett, 130.
38. FN3838 Beckett, 131.
39. FN3939 Beckett, 132.
40. FN4040 Beckett, 152.
41. FN4141 Beckett, 200.
42. FN4242 Beckett, 200-201.
43. FN4343 On the manner in which spiritual writers, Hindu and Christian, see their work as communicative of the experiences of which they write, see my Beyond Compare: St. Francis de Sales and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God, Washington: Georgetown University Press 2008, Chapters 2-3.
44. FN4444 Several songs have verses of two lines, but the large majority of verses are of four lines; one song has fourteen rather than eleven verses. For general background on Tiruvaymoli and related poetry, see Friedhelm Hardy, Viraha Bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotion in South India, Delhi et al.: Oxford University Press 1983, and my own Seeing through Texts: Doing Theology among the Srivaisnavas of South India, Albany: State University of New York Press 1996.
45. FN4545 IX.4. This prior song, in the poet’s own voice — and not that of the woman — seems far more hopeful about the possibility and fact of union: ‘My eyes have seen, they are full, intoxicated, my old deeds destroyed with their attachments: that his servants might eat ambrosia I have uttered this garland of words, I am the servant of the lord of the world’s immortals,’ and, ‘The tall one whose banner bears the eagle with lovely highly praised wings, whose feet measured the earth without skipping a step, he gave me bounteous grace, thinking, “This one is my servant,” and this servant has reached his feet: what a way to rise up!’
46. FN4646 S. Krishnamachariyar, Bhagavat Visayam, Madras: Nobel Press, 1924-1930, volume 9, 132. All references to the commentaries are to volume IX of the Bhagavat Visayam edition of the five classical commentaries (with sub-commentaries), published by S. Krishnamachariyar. I have used also the text of the verses of the Holy Word as given in the same volumes. All translations are my own.
47. FN4747 Krishnamachariyar, 132.
48. FN4848 Krishnamachariyar, 132.
49. FN4949 Krishnamachariyar, 132.
50. FN5050 Krishnamachariyar, 132.
51. FN5151 Krishnamachariyar, 134.
52. FN5252 Krishnamachariyar, 161.
53. FN5353 I use ‘she’ to describe the poet in the following paragraphs, though more properly ‘she’ is the ‘he’ of the poet’s own voice erupting between the songs in the voice of the woman.
54. FN5454 Krishnamachariyar, 167: In an earlier, very intense song of union, VIII.7, again not in the voice of the woman.
55. FN5555 Krishnamachariyar, 168.
56. FN5656 Krishnamachariyar, 168-169.
57. FN5757 Krishnamachariyar, 188.
58. FN5858 Krishnamachariyar, 200.
59. FN5959 Krishnamachariyar, 201.
60. FN6060 A modern critic might simply turn aside any question about continuity or the lack thereof — a song of lament, a song of intense union, a song of lament — by refusing to expect much from the sequence, and by denying meaning to whatever continuity there is; it may, after all, be thought of as an anthology of songs. By contrast, a postmodern reader may enjoy the gaps between songs, for in derailing easy narratives, such gaps require of the reader her or his own active decision regarding one or another gap’s meaning. This heightened expectation unexpectedly places the latter group of readers nearer to premodern readers of the text.
61. FN6161 The Song portrays this scenario rather directly. After failing in her search, she turns to the women, and this occasions her description of her beloved whom she seeks, vividly imagined precisely when he is not present. Gilbert and John recognize the potency of a language that speaks of a lover remembered in the effect it has on the women — they are won over, they want to search with her; in that way, by those words, he becomes real and absent, someone to seek after. In the Holy Word, there remains an uncertain space between songs. Nanjiyar’s prior conviction that the Holy Word is a sequence of moments in the saint’s spiritual journey allows him to decide that it is better to read IX.6 as a remembrance, desperately evocative of past presence, rather than as if some sudden vivid arrival and departure began and ended between the surrounding two scenes of absence. Here, the needs of exegesis provoke us to imagine, dramatize, and finally seek theological grounding for a new narrative that allows speech about the beloved to disrupt notions of mere absence, distance.
62. FN6262 See note 3, on how Balthasar’s trilogy shows us how to hold together the beautiful, the good, and the true, in a project that is theopoetic, theodramatic, and finally theological.
63. FN6363 A new sense of the particular and concrete drama of our religious situation, such as makes us like the woman, enables us to step away from theories of pluralism and a bland acceptance of pluralism. Neither theory nor stasis is adequate to our sense of longing and loss. We must instead imagine and dramatize a richer recognition of living God, now uncertainly present and active where we are, still able to come but also to go, present but hiding, a solitary, intense and seemingly fragile particular amidst many other particulars that religious people love and long for.
64. FN6464 Hans-Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, translated by Adrian J. Walker, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2004, volume 2, 115. The German edition was from 1985.
65. FN6565 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 116.
66. FN6666 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 116.
67. FN6767 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 118.
68. FN6868 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 118.
69. FN6969 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 118.
70. FN7070 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 118.
71. FN7171 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 118.
72. FN7272 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 122.
73. FN7373 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 277.
74. FN7474 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 277.
75. FN7575 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 280.
76. FN7676 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 281.
77. FN7777 Balthasar, Theo-Logic 2, 281.

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