|Gianlorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa|
The readings have been fascinating: St. Augustine's "Confessions" on his adolescence. St. John of the Cross, "The Spiritual Canticles: Songs between the Soul and the Bridegroom". James B. Nelsons, "Sexuality and Spirituality: Agenda for a Continuing Revolution" in Body Theology.
That gave us something of a foundation for discussion and discovery.
Then, we moved to bell hooks, "Moved by Passion: Eros and Responsibilities"in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Sean Gill's "From Transgression to Transformation: The Creative Potential of Gay Spiritualities for the New Millennium" in Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium. And, finally, Marvin Ellison's, "Security and Sanctity of Every Body: Men Confronting Men's Violence" in Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality.
I've come away from these readings with a few observations.
I'm impressed with and deeply grateful for, once again, Nelson's groundbreaking work on the issue of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.
As a church, our theology of sexuality has been shaped and formed by Augustinian dualistic 'confessions' of "hellish pleasures," running wild "in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures" with "muddy carnal concupiscence" perched on "precipitous rocks of desire" which threaten to submerge him in "a whirlpool of vice."
Sigh. Poor baby.
"The combination of our continuing immersion in the sexual dualisms, a middle-class therapeutic mentality (grounded in a mode of pathology), our fear of division, our reactive (vs. proactive) tendencies, and the very complexity of sexuality itself all add up to a picture of the church as "an uncertain trumpet".I find his call to a more incarnational theology to resonate deeply with my own Christian perspective on life and God and the church. Nelson welcomes the challenge of the "ferment" of the discussion on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, saying,
"A viable sexual theology for our time will affirm that human sexuality is always much more than genital expression. Sexuality expresses the mystery of our creation as those who need to reach out for the physical and spiritual embrace of others. It expresses God intention that we find our authentic humanness not in isolation but in relationship. It is we who are as bodyselves experiencing the emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual need for intimate communion with others, with the natural world, with God."The news about this is that it is hardly news. St. John of the Cross, that great celibate mystic, in "Songs Between the Soul and the Bridegroom" uses the rhetoric of erotic love when speaking of God.
The fascinating thing about the poem is the freedom of gender, even gender-bending, of the traditional rhetoric. St. John takes great liberty in adopting the gender of the woman who desires to be penetrated by God's love.
The modern reader may view this as homoerotic, but St. John is speaking in the person of the soul, and the soul, in Spanish, is feminine.
|Gianlorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa|
Then, of course, there is Bernini's sculpture of "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa". You can see a closeup of the ecstasy on her face in the picture at the top of this post.
Here is her description of the intensely spiritual, erotic event which Bernini capture in his sculpture.
Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.I'm quite certain that this would be considered an affront to many modern or post-modern Christians, and yet St. Teresa is describing a deeply spiritual, deeply intimate event which is bound up with her sense of physical sexuality.
She's no different from John Donne, an Anglican priest who is considered one of the great metaphysical poets. He went to prison because he married his boss's daughter who was a minor. He drifted around afterward release from prison and supported writing through patronage. He wrote:
To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love reveal'd may look ;
Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
The result of that can lead to violence - which we do to ourselves as well as others. It was difficult to read bell hooks again, but heartening to see the fruits of her labor, as well as other Christian feminists like Carter Heyward and Sallie McFague whose writings have obviously shaped and formed the thinking of Marvin Ellis and Sean Gill, who call themselves and other men to re-examine their maleness beyond cultural machismo and violence.
It's the notion of the incarnation - it's profound mystery and foundational understanding - that draws me back, again and again, to the idea of God's love being incarnate in the gift of our sexuality.
"Who do you say that I am?" asked Jesus. The response to that question has varied from age to age, race to race, and culture to culture, giving rise to a rich variety of Christologies.
If we can understand that an individual person's experience of Jesus will vary from person to person, depending on cultural, ethnic, racial and gender, which will find its expression in a plethora of religions and liturgies, then it is really not a impossible connection to make with the spectrum of expressions of God's love in our intimate relationships with others.
Truth be told, I don't think Christians are as afraid of sex and sexuality as we seem to be of intimacy. It may be only my perspective, but I think this is especially true in The Episcopal Church.
We squabble about sex and homosexuality, I think, so we don't have to talk about intimacy - much less be in intimate relationships.
If we talk about intimacy, we'd have to talk about relationships. And, that would make us vulnerable. And, that would mean that we are weak. And, that's simply unacceptable to many Episcopalians who are, not only in name but in their heart of hearts, Anglicans.
Rule Britannia! You can't do that while you're being vulnerable.
I think I've written about this before on this blog, but I am remembering a segment from the book, "Take A Bishop Like Me," written by Bishop Paul Moore, former bishop of New York and now numbered among the saints in Light.
He wrote the book shortly after ordaining Ellen Barrett as the first woman to be priested from the Diocese of NY. She, oh, by the way, also happened to be a lesbian. Her ordination caused a HUGE stir in the church - front page news on the New York Times on the morning of her ordination.
In musing about that whole brouhaha, Bishop Moore said something like, "Wherever it is in the psyche from whence spirituality arises, I am convinced ones sexuality arises from the same place."
I am similarly persuaded and convinced.
I am also convinced that continuing the sexual revolution is an urgent need for the church. I am equally convinced that this is the gift of the LGBTQ community - at the expense of our souls and psyches - to open up the discussion about sex and sexuality so that we might begin to heal the ancient rift between spirituality and sexuality.
I believe, when we do that - when we heal the deep, self-inflicted wounds to our souls and psyche - we might be made more whole - indeed, more wholesome - and return to the path that will lead us into of holiness of life.