Thursday, September 27, 2012

Origen's Sensuous Songs: God and the Senses (5)

It has been a while since I have written a bit on God and the Senses; that is, a turning from the typical focus on divine vision and audition to a fuller expression through all five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  I have discussed the multiple sensations in an inset hymn in the Acts of Thomas, Hekhalot Rabbati, a fascinating occurrence of "synesthesia" or seeing speech in Philo's writings, and the coming to the (spiritual senses) or overcoming spiritual anesthesia in Augustine's prose poem from the Confessions.  This, then, is the fifth installment. 

Much like our previous authors, Origen in his Homilies on the Song of Songs, uses the sensual language allegorically (in fact, Origen strictly forbids the literal senses).  Nonetheless, especially his first homily engages all five senses, overwhelms them with inviting, exciting, embracing language.  When I teach this work, I call this section the "parade of the senses." 

Firstly, the entire sensual indulging begins with hearing.  Following the Lawson translation, Origen sets up the dramatis personae of this great drama of love:

"We have thus four groups:  the two individuals, the Bridegroom and the Bride; two choirs answering each other--the Bride singing with her maidens, and the Bridegroom with His companions" (268). 

The Bridegroom in the allegory is Christ; the Bride is the Church (or the soul).  The Bride's companions are prophets and other Christians; the Bridegroom's companions are the angels and those who have been made perfect.  They are in perpetual song, antiphonally singing to one another an endless song of love. 

Nonetheless, the senses become increasingly engaged and more intimately stimulated when Origen turns to interpreting the line "Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth."  Origen, in fact, has already enjoined the audience to identify with the Bride (and, if still immature in the faith, then at least the Bride's companions).  These are the words that one is to take upon one's own lips, calling upon Christ to kiss.  Origen writes:

"How long is my Bridegroom going to send me kisses by Moses and kisses by the prophets?  It is His own mouth that I desire now to touch" (269). 

One seeks to touch, lip on lip, the Lord's mouth.  Touch, indeed, is one of the most intimate of the senses (second, perhaps, to taste).  The kisses of the prophets and Moses refer to their revelations, their words; yet now one seeks kissing without mediation--directly from the revealer.  Later, Origen speaks of these kisses in terms of the Lord's Prayer (p. 271).

Origen moves quickly to smell, interpreting the line, "They breasts are better than wine, and the odour of thy perfumes better than all spices."  Firstly, Origen is nearly obsessed with this concept of Christ's breasts, to which we will return with the discussion of taste.  Before getting to tasting the divine breastmilk, Origen dwells on smell.  Mostly, noting that Christ's perfume, when one gains proximity, transfers to the Bride, the Christian seeker.  One tries to overcome the "stink" of vices and sins, and take on Christ's smell of stacte, onyx, galbanum, etc.--the special combination of incense used inside the sanctuary (Exod 30:34).

Origen, having kissed, having gotten close enough to smell, returns to the most intimate of tactile events:  the embrace.  Interpreting "Love her, and she will keep thee safe; enfold her, and she will exalt thee; render her honour, that she may embrace thee," Origen writes, "For there is a certain spiritual embrace, and O that the Bridegroom's more perfect embrace may enfold my Bride!  Then I too shall be able to say what is written in this same book:  'His left hand is under my head, and His right hand will embrace me'" (270-271).  Think of the posture this creates: it is a full embrace, but not just a hug, but the embrace between sexual lovers.  Though, of course, for Origen all sexual elements are redirected toward spiritual energies. 

We have moved from touch to smell back to a full embrace, yet the smell wafts back into the Origen's perfumed discourse as he returns to Christ's sweet smelling breasts:  "Fragrant with sweet oils He comes; and He could not otherwise approach the Bride....  He has anointed Him with divers perfumes, He has made Him the Christ, who comes breathing sweet odours and hears the Bride declare:  'Thy breasts are better than wine'" (271).  Origen takes the basic element of Christ--that he is the Christ because he has been anointed--and shifts its political connotation to the sensual one:  the perfumed oils used to excite one's lover's senses. 

So, touch, smell, embrace, smell, and finally we move to taste (itself a combination of touching and smelling).  Trying to understand the phrase--"For they breasts are better than wine"--Origen moves to the most obvious place in the Christian tradition where one "tastes" Christ as wine:  the Eucharist.  He writes, "Be you of one mind with the Bridegroom, like the Bride, and you will know that thoughts of this kind do inebriate and make the spirit glad.  Wherefore, as 'the inebriating chalice of the Lord, how surpassing good it is!'--so are the breasts of the Bridegroom better than any wine" (271).  In the Lawson edition, on p. 275, Origen even speaks of Christ's breastmilk.  By contrast, in the second homily, Origen stops this gender bending and speaks of the Bride's (that is our) breasts as we embrace him between our "paps," as the imagery of breasts and embracing gets reversed (see p. 287; cf. 297).

Origen does speak of sight, but not seeing Christ, but for the Bride (us) to become fair "to draw Him down from heaven to herself, to cause Him to come down to earth, that He may visit His beloved one!  With what beauty must she be adorned, with what love must she burn that He may say to her the things which He said to the perfect Bride, about 'thy neck, thine eyes, thy cheeks, thy hands, thy body,' thy shoulders, thy feet!'"  One must make oneself--one's soul--attractive to Christ, so he will condescend and THEN one can (reiterated in the next section) smell, taste, and embrace Him.

Origen weaves the various senses throughout the homilies, especially smell, taste, and embrace.  Nonetheless, this passage contains all of them in quick succession.  Interestingly, he focuses more on the senses in the homilies than in his commentary (though they are there in more limited senses).  As he preached, he engaged his audiences senses, seeking to redirect them to eroticized spiritual realities to beautify one's soul so one could kiss Christ's lips, inhale his sweet perfumes, embrace him intimately, and taste his "wine"/breastmilk. 

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