Tag Archives: erotic spirituality

“Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey SJ

The Christian faith in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are widely perceived as being inherently anti-erotic, and hostile to the idea of sexual pleasure, of sex outside of procreation. The perception is well-founded in historical fact. Some early theologians praised virginity as an ideal even inside marriage, at a time when the expectation of the imminent parousia created a belief that humanity had no need to procreate. Later, the insistence on clerical celibacy arose in part from an idea that sexual intercourse the night before celebrating Mass was inappropriate, as somehow defiling and unclean. The imposition of compulsory clerical celibacy in turn led to a distinct two-caste system within the Church, with the celibate clergy seen as more “pure” than those laity living normal sexual lives.

The perception is soundly based in history, but not in Scripture, or even in Catholic theology. There is nothing in Scripture that is inherently hostile to sexual love, and much to celebrate it, notably the Song of Songs. Notable mystics such as St John of the Cross,Theresa of Avila and numerous others have described their prayer in notably erotic (even homoerotic) imagery. Since the Reformation, Protestant theologians have recognised that the value of sexual love within marriage. Even the Vatican overturned centuries of tradition with Humanae Vitae, recognizing for the first time that sexual intercourse has a unitive as well as a procreative value.

Ecstasy of St Teresa (Bernini)
 Increasingly, theologians (Catholic as well as Protestant) are going beyond this to acknowledge that there can also be a specifically spiritual dimension to the erotic: the Presbyterian Chris Glaser, for instance, has written movingly on how the attempt to deny either the sexual or the spiritual in life impoverishes the other, while by embracing both, each strengthens and enriches the other.

Yet there remain vocal lobbies within the Church which continue to howl in protest whenever any churchman dares to speak of sexual pleasure in anything but negative terms, or to say publicly what so many people know from experience. So it is that the California Catholic Daily can hardly hide its glee that Fr Donal Godfrey is no longer serving as executive director of University Ministry at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco: among the black marks the CCD holds against Fr Godfrey is a homily he once delivered on this theme, which was later published at Gay Catholic Forum (where it is still available on-line).I am grateful to California Catholic Daily for this: as so often when they squeal most loudly about something they find objectionable, I took care to seek out the text that upset them, and was glad that I did. (I am equally grateful to them for drawing my attention to another useful homily by Fr Godfrey,“The Call to Come Out”, which  likened Jesus’ calling Lazarus to come out of the tomb to same-sex attracted persons “coming out of the closet.” That homily was also published in the “Gay Catholic Forum.”

Fr Godfrey’s homily on the erotic was based on the Gospel passage in which the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. As he points out, this was an attempt by the Pharisees to trap the Lord in a controversial question about sexuality and quotations from Scripture – but Jesus does not see sexuality in the clinical, impersonal terms of the Pharisees. His message is much gentler. This leads on to a more extended reflection on the value of eros in our spiritual lives.
Here is the opening of the homily:
The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”  They were testing him.  He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”  They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”  But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.  He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”   (Mark 10:2-12)
Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality and some people who quote scripture at him. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
And so it is interesting to see how Jesus deals with this situation.
Jesus wasn’t a biblical conservative. But he wasn’t a biblical liberal either.  He expected something important from the scriptures, he expected to be challenged and surprised by God and he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God some of the details in the sacred scripture will have to go, because they will be revealed as concessions to our hardness of hearts.
Read the full text at Gay Catholic Forum

St Paul’s Celebration of God’s Gift of Sexuality.

The standard view of sex and the Bible is that sexuality must be reigned in, and restricted to the confines of marriage. The standard view, says Norwegian scholar Reidulf Molvaer (Two Making One : Amor and Eros in Tandem), is wrong.

“Dominant views about sex have in most churches been distorted by centuries of negative accretions and become travesties of what we find in the Bible.” – Dr. Reidulf Molvaer In this book Dr. Reidulf Molvaer attempts to recapture the joyful, cheerful abandon in legitimate sexual relationships that we see in the Bible-yes, the Bible! From the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament to Saint Paul’s advice on intimacy in the New Testament, you are presented with the real meanings of these ancient texts and learn why the Church has interpreted the Song as an allegory rather than as a description of the joyous sexual experience it truly is. Could there be any greater glorification of sex than to let ideal love between man and woman illustrate the union between the devout and the divine? Dr. Molvaer demystifies “fairytale images” of the Virgin Mary, compares biblical sexual ethics to various cultures and discusses tales of eccentrics who have been elevated to sainthood. This book rediscovers what has been misrepresented for generations and encourages Christians and others to think afresh about one of the greatest and most disputed acts of devotion found in the Holy Bible.

The problem with the standard view is that it makes too much of a simplistic reading of the texts in modern translations ignoring the historical context on the one hand, and on the traditions dating from the early church fathers on the other. Molvaer concerns himself with the contextual understanding of the words in the original texts. (Other writers, such as Trevor Jennings, have noted how the early Christian ascetics misunderstood the Greek stoics, on whom they based much of their case).

For example, one chapter of “Two Making One discusses the well-known passage from Corinthians where Paul argues in favour of “marriage”, for those unable to remain celibate. He stresses that the Corinthians for whom Paul was writing would not have interpreted the word in the same way we do today. (How could they? The notion of marriage as a religious sacrament is a modern innovation. Even as a legal contract, in earlier centuries marriage was largely a matter for the wealthy classes, who needed to protect property and inheritance rights. The poorer people who had nothing, had no need for marriage. The Greek word which we routinely translate as “wife” could equally well mean simply “woman”. In the same way, the verb for “to marry”, as in take a wife, could simply mean “to take a woman” – and was also used simply as a euphemism for “have sex”. ) Reidulf Molvaer also reminds us that Corinth was renowned as a city of abundant and unrestrained sexuality. Putting all the evidence together, he argues that far from restricting sexual expression to “marriage” in the modern sense, Paul is simply arguing for responsible sex in committed relationships. Elsewhere in this book, he also discusses the celebration of sex (outside of marriage as well as in it) in the Song of Songs, and also in Genesis.

In this book, he discusses only sex between man and woman. Elsewhere, (Sex & St. Paul the Realist) he makes clear his view that Paul was as accepting of sexual relationships between men, which were commonplace and celebrated by the Corinthians, just as they were across the Roman-Greek world at the time.

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.

This week, the Catholic Church will be celebrating the shared feast of SS Peter & Paul. As we do so, we would do well to remember this useful corrective to the conventional idea of Paul as some kind of killjoy on sexual matters.

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Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

An Erotic Encounter With the Divine” is the title of a post by Eric L. Hays-Strom atJesus in Love. (Eric has a Masters Degree in Catholic Life and Worship from St. Meinrad School of Theology). In his post, he has a moving account of how deliberate prayer immediately before making love with his husband has led to intensely spiritual experiences – especially on one notable occasion in particular.

kiss

It would be unfair to copy too much of this personal story here, but some things are worth noting.  Eric’s journey in combining the sexual and the spiritual came after listening to some tapes prepared by Michael B Kelly, who is a noted spiritual director and writer, specialising in the contribution that gay men’s erotic experiences can give to the the church’s fuller understanding of spirituality:

…..we discovered a tape series about spirituality and sexuality, “The Erotic Contemplative” by Michael Bernard Kelly. I was immediately intrigued. On our two way drive home from Los Angeles to Omaha, we started listening to the tapes and discussing the questions that came in a guide with the tapes.  It was probably amongst the most intimate conversations of sex, sexuality and spirituality I have ever had.

…..

Through the years our lovemaking has risen to an entirely new level when we intentionally invite God to be present to and with us. That is, when we prayerfully invite God’s Divine Presence to bless our lovemaking and to join with us in our lovemaking.
In my blog (
http://scottneric.com/ontheroad) I have written about several experiences in my life in which I have known God’s presence, either as God or in the person of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. So, in my own heart, and in my own soul, I know what the ecstatic experience of the Divine is like.

…..

(Here Eric recounts a particularly intense experience. To read it in the original, go to An Erotic Encounter With the Devine at Jesus in Love).

This is an important experience, and not uncommon. It gives the lie to official teaching, as do all other such experiences. If we are able to find God in our lovemaking, how can it possibly be wrong?

With their pathological aversion to any form of sexual expression, the Catholic hierarchs insist that any from of lovemaking outside of marriage, and not open to the possibility of procreation is sinful, and gay lovemaking in particular is “fundamentally disordered.”  Anybody who has experienced the sheer joy of giving oneself to another, of whatever the gender, in an intimate loving relationship will know how disordered is the teaching – and not the action.

“The joy of God is humans fully alive”, said St Ireneaus. Many people would confirm that the experience of this kind of intimacy is about as fully alive as two people can become.  It is not surprising that many priests and ex-priests, writing about their experience of celibacy, have described it as dehumanising.  Thus, the celibate theologian’s teaching on sexuality, by trying to impose their own restrictive standards on the rest of us, is leading us not towards God but away.   Fortunately, many Catholic theologians outside of Vatican control our now joining their Protestant counterparts in correcting these misunderstandings – for example John McNeill,  Daniel Helminiak and Michael B Kelly among the Catholics, joining Chris Glaser and many others among the Protestants.

It is basic to theology that consciously inviting the Lord into any activity will make it into a prayerful and hence spiritual one.  It is natural that this should also apply to lovemaking, which is one of the most basic of all human activities. Writing about our experiences of finding the divine in love, sharing the truth, sharing the truth about them, helps to dispel the destructive poison of official teaching.

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Homoerotic Spirituality

Jesus Christ, in His recorded words, said nothing at all about sex.  Indeed, He spoke against adultery – which in Jewish eyes was a sin against a man’s ‘property’ (as women were viewed), not against sex.  He spoke against lust – at least, against lusting after another man’s wife; and He spoke against divorce.  But as far as we know, He never spoke a word against sex itself:  not inside marriage, not before marriage, not between unmarried partners, not between men, not between women. Nothing.  Zilch.
How is it then, that the Christian Church, and  Catholicism, in particular, have become so firmly linked in the public mind with the idea of sex as sin? For Catholics, all sex outside marriage is officially taboo.  Even inside marriage, sex is viewed with suspicion unless it is open to the possibility of procreation.  It is only recently that grudging recognition was given to the unitive value of sex – even inside marriage.  Yet it is clear to all that few Catholics pay any more than lip service to the official catechism on sin.  Whether as jerking – off schoolboys (or girls, or adults), as horny teenagers, engaged couples, cheating spouses, as faithful loving couples choosing to limit their families, as lonely divorcees, as gay men and lesbians, or as priests and other religious ignoring their vows of celibacy, the overwhelming majority of us are, in one form or another sexual transgressors in the eyes of the Church.
Is it any wonder that in the public mind, the equation “sex=sin” goes hand in hand with another:   “Catholicism = Guilt”?
The Confessional
But I do not want to dig deeper into the unpleasantness today.  (There is time for that later.  I will return to it soon, as part of my continuing series on clerical abuse.)




Other faiths do not make the same connection between sex and sin.  Judaism, for all that it has extensive purity laws and complex moral and legal codes, unequivocally supports and praises the unitive value of  sex, at least within marriage.  Part of the obligation of the spouses is said to include offering each other sexual satisfaction.   Muslims take a similar view:  part of the supposed motivation for suicide bombers in our day is the prospect of a martyr’s reward in heaven:  1000 virgins to satisfy their male needs.   Hindus celebrate sex as part of spiritual practice, with the promotion of tantric sex, the Kama Sutra, and famed erotic images on temple walls.  Many pagan religions employed temple prostitutes (of either gender) to heighten the spiritual experience of worshippers.Hindu Temple art
It is useful, then to recognise the increasing signs that more and more people are recognising that sexual expression is not only not necessarily sinful, but can be a positive expression of the sacred, and has a close association with spirituality. With great synchronicity, this message was brought home to me from four different sources over the past week.
At the Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a great piece on this theme.

Shocked? Well, get over it.

Anyway, it’s really not such an outlandish idea – even for Catholics (actually, especially for Catholics!). I mean, if you’re going to dismiss what I’m suggesting, then you’d better be willing to also dismiss any number of saints and their highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

Erotic experiences of God?! (Okay, if you’re still shocked maybe this blog isn’t for you.) But seriously, I appreciate the perspective of Jean Houston, who points out that: “Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life.”

Much of the great tradition of mystical writing in the Catholic Church is expressed in clearly sensuous, even erotic language (see, for instance, St Theresa of Avila). Michael  quotes in particular St John of the Cross, whose wonderful mystical poetry is also frankly and explicitly homoerotic:
Nude couple profile

 

“Of course as a gay man, (Michael writes) the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Go ahead, cross to The Wild Reed and read the full poem, with Michael’s commentary.

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