Today and Everyday by Lucy Santiago is a bimonthly column about faith and ritual.
When Delilah realized that he had told her his whole secret, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines… She let him fall asleep on her lap, and she called a man, and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. He began to weaken, and his strength left him. (Judges 16:18-19)
In the paintings and the movies and the songs, Delilah holds the blade. Gone is the pimply boy of the text, nervous and breathing heavily, watching his hands cut the long, dark hair as men run through the halls. Had the artists and filmmakers and songwriters looked through his eyes, they might have seen Delilah brush the strands of hair off her skirt, or whisper soothingly to Samson. Instead, they like to imagine her milky-white breasts heaving, I suppose, as she lifts the knife. Maybe it’s more thrilling if Samson’s lover is the cruel hand that brings him down, if she’s not just the middleman. But the Book of Judges is no penny dreadful, and it wasn’t meant to be a bombastic romance. The story is instead about Samson’s relationship with God.
The way I see it, Samson’s hair was never the issue. Samson loses his strength only when his vow with God is broken. A Philistine servant with a sharp knife can’t break that vow for him. Neither can Delilah. Samson’s hair starts growing back as soon as it’s cut; God continues to provide. The problem is that without his hair, he believes that vow has been broken. This is what causes him to lose his strength, not the involuntary haircut. And when he realizes that, he knows he can bring the columns down. I have to believe he does so with a full head of hair.
Samson died blind and miserable. I doubt Delilah was much happier. Did they give themselves over to love? Did they let love kill them? Sometimes I think I need to grab the people I love by their shoulders and tell them every one of my secrets. I have this idea that they need to “get me.” They rarely do. That can destroy me, the inside parts of me. But never for long. The terrible and beautiful news is that there is a deep well of self that no one can ever touch but you. Most people, myself included, probably reach this part of themselves half a dozen times in their life. But sometimes I can see it inside myself, like catching someone’s eye at a crowded cocktail party you’re not sure either of you are supposed to be attending. No secret you tell can describe this selfhood. No one else can break the vows you make with God.
I am trying, self-consciously, to say that love is not unlike Samson’s hair. It is a symptom and not the vow itself. That is, your engagement with the beauty of the world does not depend on the presence or absence of love. To that deep well-self, the world is always precious and there will always be the strength to face it alone. This is what makes love bearable.