Cape Cod, MA. Almost since the time I started blogging here at In All Things, I’ve been working on a book, which I’ve mentioned to you on and off over the years. Within the frame of what I usually write – theological, comparative studies, with special attention to Catholic and Hindu sources – this book has been written out of study of the Song of Songs with the medieval Cistercian commentaries of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland, and John of Ford, along with the Hindu mystical classic, Holy Word of Mouth, with its medieval commentators, Nanjiyar and Nampillai in particular. The theme of the book has been the reality of God as more intensely experienced in the absence of the Beloved. Since many of you have followed my reports on the book draft over the years, I am particularly happy to report that the book has appeared in print, wonderfully produced and printed by Stanford University Press, as part of a new series, Encountering Traditions.
The preface includes opening words such as these:
"All that follows is entirely in the debt of this Biblical and Hindu poetry, and proceeds as reflection more particularly on the experience of a woman whose beloved has not returned and seems nowhere to be found. It is this experience of love and absence that in more than one culture has been taken to manifest what loving God is all about. It is a drama of love and loss that has been written about abundantly, over and again. In this reading, therefore, I attend especially to the absence of the beloved as this has been imagined, suffered, and turned back into presence in several strands of Hindu and Christian tradition. I do so in order to write about the real God who can be absent, a real beloved whose real absence makes life impossible. For it is also true that this absence is a particularly powerful site for encounter with God...
"To love deeply and affirm deep truths in a world where many loves flourish in the particular, we need first of all to be grounded in the specificity and particularity in our own enduring love—for this author, in Jesus Christ. This is particularly so in an age when the centrality of this beloved, or any, is by no means evident. Confident rhetoric about God and God’s presence will be to many of us unconvincing, particularly if a true love is supposed to exclude all others. Love has its own reasons, but at our moment in history it does not translate into a truth that rules out every exception, every alternative.
"It is better, then, to honor the fragility of this passionate and particular truth about Jesus—or Krishna, or the beloved known by still other names—while admitting that this claim “speaks for itself ” only in particular places and times. No matter how universal the truth, what we say is still the tale of the comings and goings of a beloved whose presence cannot be conceptualized as simply universal. To speak to the truth and love central to our faith bears with it an acute awareness of the failures and gaps that make claims to faith more fragile, vulnerable—and only in that way more convincing. The more evident and difficult the failing of our words, the deeper their truth. This book is not an elegy about the end of theology, but rather a plea that we leave room for the silence that comes upon us when we stretch our words beyond their capacity, mindful that we are speaking of just one love even when others are nearby.
"Ours is an era that both celebrates and tames religious diversity. It privatizes religion and shifts the deepest experiences to the realm of the inner life. It is difficult now for a Christian to speak and write openly of the intense, singular fact of Jesus, the concrete and universal Reality at the heart of the Christian faith, without also giving the impression that she does not really understand or have room for passions aflame in other traditions too. A Hindu in a devotional tradition likewise faces a challenge nearly the same as that of the Christian: one love surrounded, impinged upon, by many loves, in a world that might well be satisfied with less of such loves. It is good then that committed members of faith traditions insist upon the concrete, universally significant particularities of their faith, provided we view honestly and without amnesia the myriad intense and concrete religious possibilities so evident around us.
"The challenge is to find a way to speak of and from the specificity of our faith—our faiths— even as our religious imagination wanders uncertainly across myriad religious possibilities. As we read carefully back and forth, sensitive to the literary possibilities and not just to the ideas, this practice accentuates the problem of particular, passionate engagements. We learn and remember multiple commitments, while yet learning our way beyond the dichotomy of too much and too little religious belonging. But this is difficult. Our way forward lies not in stepping back and theorizing the other, but in greater particularity and more refined, carefully considered instances."
The book’s title is a quotation from Psalm 18, cited by John of Ford when, in commenting one of the Song’s scenes of painful separation after union, he confesses his own experience: “I feel the Lord visits me all the more often as He realizes I need visitations of this kind more frequently. If between these visitations, anyone asks me, still numb from the feelings of devotion experienced a few days past, and complaining of my Lord’s delay, where He has gone or turned aside, the only ready answer I can find is: “He has made darkness His hiding place” (Psalm 18.11). A cloud, not of light but of darkness, has taken Him from my eyes, and now that my love has grown so cold again, I feel I have good reason to fear that perhaps, after all, He has turned away from His servant in anger.” Thus the book, as I weave my way back and forth between the two poetic traditions, stopping along the way to seek advice from our great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the poetry of my Harvard colleague and Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Jorie Graham. Losing God because of love is a powerful religious experience, and comparative study may accentuate the loss by disorienting us, detaching us from the single roots of a single tradition. But it also makes the finding-again all the more beautiful.
The cover, so nicely achieved by Angela Moody for Stanford, includes a painting by the renowned Indian painter Jyoti Sahi, who for nearly half a century has painted in the Indian cultural context, drawing on themes in the Hindu and Christian traditions. This cover painting, which he generously made available to me, is one of a series of his paintings on the Song of Songs.
The book has no formal dedication — I was at a loss for words, perhaps, in finishing this one – but at the end of preface I allude to the tragic Marathon Day bombing in Boston in April 2013, just at the time I was finishing the book and also hosting a conference on the Song: “I put the final touches on this manuscript in the days just after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. While my book is thematically unconnected to the topic of such violence, the sad events of that day and its aftermath have darkened this final writing, how I read my own work and weigh it against greater things. I therefore dedicate this book to the victims of that day, those who died and those who lost their loved ones; and by extension, to the still larger group of lovers everywhere who have lost, for a time, those they have loved most dearly.”
As regular readers will know from reading my blogs over the years, I write in a certain academic style that takes its time, goes on at length, and requires slow reading. So perhaps this is not the book for everyone. But I’ve been encouraged by the response thus far, particularly that of a student who read the galleys and said he would have no hesitation buying it for his mother for Christmas. So if you are in the mood and have a few dollars to spare, give it a try!
And Happy Feast of St. Francis Xavier, by the way.