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What Matters MostTen Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon
By Renita J. Weems
Warner BooksCopyright © 2004 Renita J. Weems
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Self
"I have a suspicion there must be more to me than I even know."
Your desire for a full and fulfilling life begins with your resisting the definitions and labels others place on you to define who you are and their attempt to tell you what you ought to want. The moment comes when you have to decide for yourself who you are and what your own desires and fantasies are. You also have to figure out what it will take to turn your fantasies into reality and whether you've got what it takes.
If defining who you are, knowing where you end and where others begin, and figuring out a way to find the time and energy to accomplish the goals you've set out for yourself sound impossible to you, then beware of giving yourself away to love. Falling in love, as exhilarating as it feels in the beginning, can cost a woman large chunks of herself if she isn't attentive to its snares. In the male-dominated world in which the Shulammite lived, women were raised to believe that they had to acquiesce in order to be loved; men were raised to believe that to love was to possess, control, and know better than those they love what was best for them. Such thinking still lingers in our modern society. The tragedy in our upbringing is that men have been allowed to mistake our caring for them as proof of our inherent weakness and our wish for harmony as evidence of our submission. Conversely, women have been raised to mistake domination for love and lust for intimacy. Blending your heart and hopes with another and negotiating your way through a land mine of assumptions and expectations while bartering to keep a piece of you that you recognize takes pit bull tenacity. Who has that much energy? Most women don't, in light of all the other obligations they are juggling. Small wonder that many acquiesce to the pressure to give in and give up on their own passions in order to achieve "harmony."
Odd, isn't it? A man falls in love and everyone cranes to see the woman who has agreed to soften his edges. His status does not change, not substantially anyway. He remains his own man, or is certainly expected to do so. A woman falls in love, however, and both her image and status change. She goes from "Miss" to "Mrs.," and folks immediately begin to defer to the man to whom she is attached. She is no longer "Shula the Shulammite," but "Mrs. Solomon," or the woman who has been seen cavorting around town with Solomon. Whatever dreams and desires she had of her own are expected to be neatly folded into her husband's ambitions once she marries or falls in love. Attention shifts from her dreams to his dreams. She is expected to gladly redirect whatever passions she once poured into her ambitions, her hobbies, and her career, and throw herself into helping him become the man he dreams of becoming. Love adds to his possibilities for the future because he has a wife to help him get where he's going, whereas it can turn a woman into an appendage or, more likely, someone's property if she's not careful.
You would think, for example, that it's a common enough practice for a married woman to retain her last name that no one would bother to look up when my husband and I introduce ourselves by our own given last name, his last name being one thing and mine being another. But it isn't so. The woman at the laundry where I've taken my clothes for fourteen years still shakes her head when I correct her and remind her that my last name is not that of my husband. Even worse, friends who've known me for twenty-five years, who've met my husband only once, and only briefly, insist upon introducing me by my husband's name even though they've never heard me refer to myself as anything other than "Renita Weems." Recall the outrage expressed in the media when a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted upon retaining "Rodham" as part of her official name.
It's no wonder then that the book containing the Shulammite's poem is called "The Song of Solomon." Look closely and you'll notice that the book's title all but turns the Shulammite into someone other than who she was. The superscription to the book (literally translated as "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's") gives the impression that King Solomon had something to do with the sensual poems found within. Probably appended to the book by a later editor, the book's title threatens to overshadow the value of the Shulammite's poetry. She was not one of the lovesick women in Solomon's harem. But that's who later audiences thought of when they stumbled across her steamy poetry. In fact, from medieval times until not that long ago it was universally believed that not only is Solomon the one the poet is in a froth over, but that the Queen of Sheba of 2 Kings 11 is the lusty woman who first whispered the poems in Solomon's ear upon meeting him sometime around 950 BCE. Why the Queen of Sheba? Ancient interpreters saw in the poet's self-assertion, "I am black and beautiful ...," an indication that the woman was from a faraway land, like the Queen of Sheba, somewhere like Arabia or Africa. In fact, a long history of ancient artwork and writings pair Solomon and Sheba together as lovers, seeing in the poetry of Song of Solomon a testimony of a steamy love affair that went on between the two. Imagine the Queen of Sheba leaning over and whispering in Solomon's ear:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm
For love is stronger than Death,
Passion more relentless than Sheol.
Its arrows are of fire, a mighty flame ablaze.
Mighty waters cannot quench Love,
nor can torrents sweep it away.
If one offered all his wealth for love,
he would be laughed to scorn ...
The belief has been that any woman bold enough to confess her red-hot passion had to be someone along the lines of the hundreds of women King Solomon, according to legend, kept in his harem (I Kings 11:1-8). The king's reputation as a Casanova among women, bedmate as he was to seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, made him a popular subject of folk tales and folk music. No doubt, plenty of speculation and tales arose about the kind of women who fell for men like Solomon. Gullible. Needy. Desperate. Weak. Loose. A stalker. Any woman bold enough to talk openly about her passion in polite company, like the Shulammite, had to be a harlot. If not a harlot, then she was certainly the kind of woman who falls prey to philanderers and gigolos. She was a goner. A floozy. Another strike against our heroine is the fact that there's no explicit mention besides one oblique reference (about Solomon's wedding day) in 3:11 to marriage and marrying. There's no indication that the Shulammite and her lover are married to each other or to other people. Wow!! Eight chapters teeming with lust, love, sex, and passion in the middle of the Bible-and not once does the heroine or her beloved talk about marriage as a way to seal their love and as the institution in which they might properly express their pent-up sexual frustration. Is the book a pamphlet in the Bible that condones sex outside of marriage? I doubt it.
There's sure to be those reading What Matters Most who will take great exception to my choice to concentrate on a literal rather than figurative reading of the contents of Song of Solomon. Why not follow the Church's lead and read the book's contents as a spiritual allegory where the dark headstrong woman and shepherd lover transform into Israel and God, or the Church and Christ. That way we can safely dispense with the Song's racy sexual overtones. Reading the book as an allegory, a pictorial representation of an otherwise abstract or lofty teaching, is the way generations of interpreters have scrambled to explain how the book made its way into the Bible. But the truth is that those who sat down and decided which books would make the cut into the Bible and which ones should be tossed did not bother to leave any guidelines to help us understand the standards they applied. None of us knows for sure what they had in mind when they voted in favor of a book like Song of Solomon, which doesn't even bother to mention God by name. The fact that the book traces its inspiration back to one of Israel's wisest and most revered kings, Solomon, no doubt was a factor in their decision.
One thing for certain is those who championed Song of Solomon's inclusion must be admired. They worked overtime to persuade the stuffy officials deciding such things in their day of the similarities between erotic desire and a healthy spirituality. The notion that an erotic passion is akin in some important ways to spiritual anticipation was an idea whose time had come. Marrying off the lovers would permanently alter their lust and make it ill suited to capturing the longing that fuels the spiritual journey. The notion that love is a form of death-death to a former self and death to a certain way of being in the world-was irresistibly reasonable to those who pondered the argument. You can never return to your former self once you've loved. The funny thing about romance is that it awakens you to fresh realities and simultaneously dulls you to some others.
For years I was admittedly reluctant to devote any research to the lovestruck woman in Song of Solomon. The image of a love-starved woman pining away for romance was the exact opposite of what I felt contemporary women should draw inspiration from. The media has seen to it that there is no shortage of sexually provocative bimbo female characters to draw from television sitcoms. Why add to the harem of images of love-starved women that are popular in our culture, I reasoned. Excavating the life of a woman in Scripture who potentially fed into popular notions of women as "dolls, babes, and bimbos" was not the way I wanted to spend my passions.
I'm willing to admit now that my prejudices against the woman in Song of Solomon were fueled somewhat by my own ambivalence about love and identity. I admit now that I was guilty of doing the very thing I've been arguing throughout the chapter not to do. I was looking at the Shulammite through the eyes of everyone else (ancient interpreters and contemporary pundits). I hadn't bothered trying to see her through her own eyes and testimony. I was dismissing a woman's genuine search for intimacy as simply a pathetic story about trying to get laid. The social and theological value of her testimony completely escaped me. It took me some time to appreciate that, unlike so many other stories in the Bible centering around the male search for self, the Shulammite was not extolling solitude, individuality, separation, and aloneness as the sole path for encountering God. Our poet doesn't hurl laws and oracles at us to shame us for our wanting affection and our craving to be touched. She identifies with her readers by tapping into our desire for intimacy, crooning about our desire for experiences that take us outside ourselves, and reminding us of our need to be connected. Hers is a story about a woman who discovers God and herself not through abandoning her family (as did the disciples of Jesus), or refraining from marriage (as did many of the prophets of Israel), or withdrawing for extended periods of prayer and exceptional study (as did Elijah, Huldah, Paul, and others). Everything she discovers about God and herself she learns from the messy lessons that come with risking intimacy: the nicks and bruises that come with living in the shaky bonds of mutuality and love; and the egg that cracks over your head whenever you set out trying to have a love life and make a name for yourself at the same time.
When the time came to sit down and write this, my fifth book on women's spiritual growth and inner wisdom, I had in mind every woman I'd ever encountered who drew a blank when asked to describe what she felt passionate enough about to risk things precious to her in order to pursue it. I thought about every woman who answered honestly in saying, "I don't know what my passions are." There were also those who couldn't bring themselves to admit they didn't know and tried gallantly to name things that ignited them. Most ended up pointing to the amount of time and energy they poured into their families, the effort they put into their friendships, and the long hours they devoted to work as evidence of their commitments. But there's a difference between the life energy we devote to sustaining other people's dreams, and the life energy we invest in keeping our own soul alive and stimulated. As one woman aptly put it after her family, friends, and work list was completed, "I love my life and all the people in it, but I have a suspicion there must be more to me than I even know." She's right. There is more to all of us than even we know.
Falling in love awakens something in a woman that's nearly impossible to put back to sleep once it's been roused. It has a similar effect on girls, which is why a teenage daughter in love sends a mother into hysterics. Which probably explains why the poet cautions, "I adjure you daughters of Jerusalem that you do not awaken love until it's time" (2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Love, even the pretense of it, can reduce a confident, self-assured woman who runs a department of employees to a babbling indecisive girl. Compare the strong, confident woman in Song of Solomon 1:5-7 who knows who she is and what she wants to the simpering, heartsick figure in 5:2-6 who can't decide whether to answer his knock or not, go after him when he leaves her or not. If love can make oatmeal of a woman with experience under her belt, imagine what it can do to a young girl who lacks the spiritual muscle it takes to bear up under its vicissitudes. It can leave a young girl tearing her hair and heart out when she hasn't enough experience to know how to negotiate its demands nor to know her true worth.
When you're fifteen, a romantic breakup feels irrecoverable. You tell yourself that you won't survive the heartbreak and that nothing else could possibly be worse than the awful pain you're in right now. At thirty-five, you know you'll survive this breakup, although a part of you doesn't want to because nothing will make you happier than to make him hurt as bad as you're hurting right now, even though you know better. Still you wonder whether he knows how much pain you're in right now and imagine summoning the courage to go to his place, knock on his door, then hurl every item he ever bought you in his face and storm away. But you know better, and wonder how long you can cling to the possibility that he'll come to his senses and come back to you before you feel like an idiot even to yourself. At fifty, you collapse to the floor in sobs when he decides that you're not the one he wants to spend the second half of his life with.
Excerpted from What Matters Most by Renita J. Weems Copyright © 2004 by Renita J. Weems. Excerpted by permission.
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