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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sexuality, Spirituality and Sanity

One of the "collateral benefits" of being at a School of Theology like EDS is the seemingly serendipitous conversations in which one can often engage with other students and faculty over coffee or a meal in the Refectory (sometimes known as "Brattle Cafe but never, ever 'the cafeteria'. But I don't have any feelings about that).

Just the other day, one of the students engaged me in a conversation about a project we might do together for our required presentation in "Spirituality for the Contemporary World."

We had been talking in class about "Spirituality and Brain Science" (you can read my reflection on that topic here) and Pui Lan's insistence that we consider the difference between the "Mind-Body" connection verses the "Mind-Brain-Body" connection. (She has another post on her blog you might find very interesting.)

The "mind" she noted, is different from the "brain". The mind is a construct of intelligence, emotion and psychology, while the brain is all that in addition to being an integral part of the body.

It was an important and helpful distinction which allowed us to focus on the anatomy, physiology and circuitry of the brain before considering how that affects the mind and the body.

My fellow student and I began by talking about the intersection of Sexuality and Spirituality, but because of her experience with those afflicted with mental illness, we found threads of conversations about Sanity weaving their way into our discussion.

It started because I remembered that the preeminent psychologist, Carl Jung, began to consider things like "collective unconscious" and "synchronicity" in his work with schizophrenic patients.

He differed with his teacher and colleague, Sigmund Freud, about the role of religion and spirituality as being an integral part of the human psyche. One thing he noted was that many of his schizophrenic patients - no matter their religious background - had a strong identification with the crucifixion of Jesus.

I couldn't remember what more he said about this, but we began to wonder about the right / left hemispheres of the brain and how damaged circuitry of one side might lead to miss communication in the other.

That's when another student mentioned that, in his experience, schizophrenic patients also have a high libido and, without the "normal" filters, often act in socially inappropriate ways.

In my experience with some Alzheimer's patients, that's also the case, which becomes more complicated when aggression comes into the picture.

There was a moment of silence which we considered what we had just said.

Which led me to consider a long-ago conversation with Paul Moore, the former Episcopal Bishop of New York, who is now numbered among the saints.

Bishop Moore had written a book, "Take a Bishop Like Me" which was his reflection on his years in the episcopacy. In one chapter, he discusses "the crisis" (among many) that was prompted in the diocese and in the church when he ordained Ellen Barrett to the priesthood.

It was 1977. General Convention had just "regularized" the ordination of the eleven women who had been ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia and changed the canons to allow women to be ordained to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy in The Episcopal Church.

Ellen was to be the first woman to be ordained priest in the Diocese of New York. Now, everyone who knew Ellen knew that she was a lesbian. Indeed, she had been elected the first co-president of the then fledgling organization known as Integrity.

The morning of her ordination, the New York Times ran a front page story - "above the fold" - with a headline that screamed something like, "Lesbian to be first woman ordained in Episcopal Church."

Well, for some of us who were also tittering about that untruth (Ellen was not the first lesbian to be ordained in The Episcopal Church. She was the first - but certainly not the last - to be ordained in the Diocese of New York), that headline was an example of the media having a firm grasp on the obvious.

For others of us, it was a nightmare come true. "See," some would be heard to say, "the only women who want to be priests are women who really want to be men."

Yes, it was pretty awful, back in the day.

Bishop Moore proceeded with the ordination, amidst the cries and laments and clamor and wailing and gnashing of teeth that surely - SURELY - this was the end of the world as we now know it as clearly evidenced by this piece of the theological sky falling right on the floor of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine - here, right here in New York City.

Well, the sky didn't fall and the world didn't end and the church has carried on, as the church has for centuries "mid toils and tribulations and tumult of her war". In reflecting about that time, however, Paul Moore wrote something which has stayed with me all these many years later.

I don't have the book here with me but, as I recall, he mused that "wherever it is in the psyche from whence spirituality arises, that is also the source of our sexuality."

I think he's absolutely right.

One evidence of that has to do with the very language of the psalms and our prayer. "As a deer longs for the waterbrook, so longs my soul for thee, O God." (Psalm 42)

In the magnificent words of some of the prayers in our Book of Common Prayer, we "earnestly desire". We "hunger and thirst". We "yearn".

We seek "mystic, sweet communion" for the Lord to come "as a bridegroom for his bride".

There are many, many more pieces of evidence one can find - especially in the Song of Songs or the poetry of the Anglican Divines - of the intersection of spirituality and sexuality.

There are also many, many works by numerous authors on this very topic which are worth the time of your investigation and inquiry.

Indeed, I dabbled a bit in this in the sermon I preached at the Trienniel Integrity Eucharist in 1997 - a full twenty years after Ellen's ordination - which I entitled, "The Erotic: Our Gift to the Church."

Here's the thing: About fifteen years after Moore's book was written, I had the opportunity to ask him about what he had said about spirituality and sexuality arising from the same place in the psyche.

As I recall, he said that the church has drawn a line between the two, separating and compartmentalizing spirituality and sexuality when we should be further exploring their mutual boundaries.

Indeed, he said, the church would become a healthier place if we began to recognize that our 'deepest spirituality' comes at the 'thin places' of our spirituality and sexuality.

"Some of the desert Mothers and Fathers and the mystics of our church have tried to teach us that," he said, "but some of us are too afraid to listen."

And then, he said something I thought was quite remarkable. "I think keeping our spirituality and sexuality walled off and separate from each other can lead to insanity - spiritual and psychological."

Based on the information provided by his daughter, Honor (The Bishop's Daughter), and what some of us surmised but now we all know about Bishop Moore's sexual orientation, the tragedy of his words strike a tender place of deeper understanding in my heart.

It also leads me to wonder about 'Sex, Spirituality, and Sanity' and what Brain Science can tell us about this aspect of the "Mind-Body" connection.

I wonder if we have been too "Cathedral-brained" - filled with highly organized layers of information. This is a highly developed left hemisphere of the brain - linear, concerned with the obvious, the tangible and the concrete. Unable to consider abstract thoughts or limited in making intricate connections.

Perhaps, as Clayton Shirly says, we need to become more "Bazaar-minded" - allowing the mind to wander more into the right hemisphere where we can - right here, right now - enter the flow of Jung's "collective unconscious" and consider larger concepts and discover more complex structures beyond our world and into the cosmic universe of thought and discovery.

Or, might it be, as Nicholas Carr asks, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Should we consider these right-brain, "Bazaar mind" people "the shallows" as the title of Carr's book suggests?

Pui Lan invites us to consider yet another way. She writes,
"I was reminded that the Buddhists have very different images of the mind. The mind that is not trained and wanders around is called the monkey mind. The aim of meditation is to tame the monkey mind, and to become conscious of one’s thoughts. After much practice, the mind can become empty and no longer attached to things". . . . .

Then, she muses, "Perhaps the bazaar mind needs the empty mind for a change."
Whether our minds are allowed to wander or empty, I think Brain Science has much to offer those of us who have long sojourned in the lofty Cathedrals of our minds and bodies as we dare to begin to consider the intersections and connections between our Sexuality, our Spirituality and our Sanity.

The geography of this terrain has few maps, and the ones we have contain complex, convoluted, often unintelligible, winding roads - much like the landscape of the Brain.

This is new land, and those who seek to venture into it are the pioneers of a new geography of thought and behavior who must be prepared to suffer "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".

Indeed, some will call those pioneers everything from "sex-obsessed" to "profane heretics" to "insane".

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people and our allies who have been numbered among those pioneers know exactly what I'm talking about.

My ordaining bishop once said, with a wry smile on his face, "Do you know how you can tell the pioneers? They're the ones with the arrows in their backs."

I'm not suggesting for even a millisecond that we enter into this new territory with the idea of planting a flag there and claiming it as our own. I am not talking about a new Intellectual Colonialism.

Rather, I'm suggesting that we venture forth, into the Cathedrals and various habitations we consider 'holy', seeking to find a closer glimpse of the Realm of God. Open to new possibilities. Following the call of the Spirit to discover how God continues to reveal Godself to us in new, unimagined ways.

Because I believe God is doing precisely that.

That journey, my friends, is at the core of a solid theological education - some of which is discovered in reading books and learned in lectures (Cathedral mind), some of which is experienced in serendipitous conversation (Bazaar mind), and some of which is allowed to wander freely (Monkey mind), occasionally causing disruption and upsetting all our nice, neat, preconceived notions and ideas about how the world works and God's interaction with the world..

Ultimately, I think we make our greatest discoveries when we are practiced and disciplined at emptying our minds in prayer and meditation, so that we are no longer attached to the preciousness of our "things" and "thoughts" but find a way - a place - for us, in our varied and wondrous states of being to live in the shalom - the peace - of God, which passes all human understanding.

12 comments:

it's margaret said...

I had to come back to this --been thinking.... isn't the separation of mind, body, brain, soul --spirit, sexuality --any of it... can any of it be separated from the rest?

...In my body I shall see God...

just thinking....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Good thoughts, Margaret. Push over. Make some room. I'm joining you on the think bench.

walter said...

Elizabeth I hope you will have the time to review an audio attachment I sent you about the differences between Jung and Freud as it pertain to religious spiritual experiences (The Via Negativa IV). It is true that we are not human beings having spiritual experiences but we are spiritual beings having a human experience and such experiences may be communicated by names, Walter, Elizabeth, Margaret. But to fully appreciate the meaning of it in our life of prayer and in the expansion of personal awareness of the traditions, prayers and reflections of our ancestors we have I believe to overcome the essence of the concept of the collective unconscious of Jung. I may agree with Margaret that we cannot be separated from all the rest but this is not collective unconscious but the personal cosmic, better said the personalized cosmic. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus The Christ.

Walter Vitale

jevcat said...

In conversation with a man I was dating, I once noted that the works of the great mystics shared space on my bedside table with high-class erotica. He asked, "Don't you see a contradiction there?" and I answered, "No, actually, I don't." Needless to say, that relationship did not last.

Hutch said...

Read "Moon Beneath Her Feet". Anything we do in love we do for Her/Him - re-enacting the coming together of the cosmos to spill their passion into the skies and worlds - the closest we become to God in flesh. It's hot - it's passion - it's love - it's God.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Walter. I don't think I've received your audio attachment. I'll be happy to listen to it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jevecat - Good call.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Hutch. It's on my summer reading list. You know. When the cosmos makes HOT love to us again.

Nixon said...

I don't believe in god. I don't know why anyone would believe that there's any reason for any of us or for the universe.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Nixon - Your comment reminded me of something Carl Jung reportedly said to one of his students: "If I believed in the image of God you believe in, I wouldn't believe in God either."

Dani.S said...

i dont mean to belittle anyone's belief but how can someone not believe in God or a superior power (i do not mean the government). the idea of this universe, us and everything surrounding us being a coincidence or a happy accident just doesnt add up. even the smallest minutest things are given such detail and depth that it just goes to show the probability of all this being an accident are none to astronomical. this comment is directed towards nixon's thinking. once again im not jusdging anyone or saying one is right while the other is wrong. just contemplating :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dani - I think it has to do with Nixon's understand/image of God.