In his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
"In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others."
On the same day when the Encyclical was released, Sandro Magister published a Preface to the Encyclical, written by the Holy Father, online here, entitled "Why I chose love as the theme of my first encyclical". In that preface, the Holy Father wrote:
"Today the word "love" is so tarnished, so spoiled and so abused, that one is almost afraid to pronounce it with one's lips.
And yet it is a primordial word, expression of the primordial reality; we cannot simply abandon it, we must take it up again, purify it and give back to it its original splendor so that it might illuminate our life and lead it on the right path.
This awareness led me to choose love as the theme of my first encyclical."
Our modern day is not unique in its fear to pronounce "love" with one's lips.
In sixteenth century Spain, St. Teresa of Avila's book, sometimes called Meditations on the Song of Songs and sometimes called Thoughts on the Love of God. She wrote:
"Indeed, I recall hearing a priest who was a religious preach a very admirable sermon, most of which was an explanation of those loving delights with which the bride communed with God. And there was so much laughter, and what he said was so poorly taken, that I was shocked. He was speaking about love since the sermon was on Maundy Thursday, when one shouldn't be speaking of anything else. And I see clearly that the reason for not understanding is the one I mentioned (that we practice so poorly the love of God), for it doesn't seem to us possible for a soul to commune in such a way with God. These people did not benefit, surely because they did not understand, nor, I believe, did they think anything but that the preacher made the sermon up in his own head."
It would seem, from that example, that the word "love" was misunderstood as well those 430 or so years ago, at least when it comes to the application of the Song of Songs to the love of God for His people.
The Meditations on the Song of Songs is St. Teresa's book that was ordered burned and yet survived. Although it had been approved by Domingo Banez on June 10, 1575, she later burned it on the command of her later confessor, the Dominican theologian Diego de Yanguas, possibly as late as 1580, after copies of the book were in circulation. According to Father Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D.'s "Introduction" to the Meditations in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. II:
"The Discalced Carmelite nuns in Alba de Tormes hid their copy in the monastery. When Fr. Yanguas ordered that the copies they possessed be burned "not because the work was bad but because he didn't think it was proper for a woman to explain the Song of Songs," the nuns demonstrated their expertise in casuistry by giving the manuscript away, to the Duchess of Alba, who they knew would value and guard it safely."
Scripture's use of marriage and romantic love as imagery to explain God's love creates controversy now as it did then. It is rooted in Scripture, and yet is almost unique to Scripture. Deus Caritas Est mentions the Old Testament foundations other than the Song of Songs, and, a few paragraphs later, why the Song of Songs was ultimately accepted by both Jews and Christians as Scripture:
"The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God's relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus adultery and prostitution." . . .
"We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately described God's relation to man and man's relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God -- his primordial aspiration."
In this concept of God's love is something beyond the natural human view of love, sexuality, and faith. Again, the Encyclical says:
"Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-Biblical literature."
This near uniqueness of the connection in Scripture marks a point of tension with the more common way of viewing ourselves, sexuality and spirituality. That is so not only today, but also in the sixteenth century and before. Father Yanguas' discomfort with Teresa of Avila's writing about the Song of Songs reflects this. He did not destroy her Life or The Way of Perfection, both already written, but her Meditations on the Song of Songs was different: she was writing about Scripture, and she was writing about passages that caused theologians uncertainty. She was writing about passages that had prompted laughter in a congregation when a sixteenth century priest had given sermons on them, as she herself had told. And yet that is one of her reasons for writing: "we practice so poorly the love of God."
In that concern, expressed near the beginning of her Meditations, Teresa expressed a reason for writing about love in her day that is comparable, in some respects, to the Holy Father's reasons for writing about love this year. The word is tarnished, spoiled and abused, in ways today that could be distinguished readily from the laughter Teresa had heard in a church in the sixteenth century. But we relate both to the laughter and to the priest who spoke of love on Maundy Thursday. What she described in that sermon could be today. Speaking about love still catches us by surprise.