Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eros & Christ: Jesus as lover

[Part of a series on Eros and Christ... Gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer writes about what happened when he prayed for Jesus to come and “hold me like a lover.”]

By Hugo Schwyzer

Far too often in Christian culture, the erotic and the sacred are kept in separate spaces in the consciousness. Despite the fact that even atheists call on God quite sincerely as they orgasm (is there any more common cry for English-speaking folk as they climax?), we’re unwilling to do the work of really integrating our sexuality with our faith. For too many Christians, integrating sexuality and faith means compiling a list of don’ts which they imagine will demonstrate their fidelity to Jesus: don’t masturbate, don’t have sex outside of heterosexual marriage, don’t talk openly and honestly about sexual feelings. But faith is more about what we do do then what we don’t. Our faith must permeate the sex we have as well as the sex we don’t, or our faith is stuck in a compartment and useless to us.

…. As anyone who has been to an American evangelical prayer service in the last twenty years knows, modern praise and worship music is filled with songs about a romance with Jesus. One of the most important and influential Christian rock bands of the past decade, Jars of Clay, had a hit with a song I adored: Love Song For A Savior.* An excerpt:
He’s more than the laughter or the stars in the heavens
As close a heartbeat or a song on our lips
Someday we’ll trust Him and learn how to see Him
Someday He’ll call us and we will come running
and fall in His arms and the tears will fall down and we’ll pray,

“I want to fall in love with You”
It’s easy to mock the idea of “Jesus as Lover” as a marketing tool aimed at young Christians struggling to remain loyal to hastily-made purity vows. But it’s an old idea, older even than its most famous practitioner, Saint Teresa of Avila. Teresa wrote of her ecstatic relationship with Christ:
“It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
The idea of Jesus as lover has, perhaps, a more obvious appeal to heterosexual young women, particularly the hormonal and the chaste…. But the idea’s appeal is not limited to women alone. When I first came back to Christ in 1998, I took a vow of temporary celibacy. (I blogged about it here.) During those months where I took a “break,” I worked harder than I ever had before on my relationship with God. And following the suggestion of a woman I knew in my 12-step program who attended the same church I did, I began to pray each night for Jesus to come and “hold me like a lover.”

It was a strange prayer for me to pray. I’ve done a lot of men’s work, and I’ve hugged a lot of guys in my day. I’m clear that my energy is primarily heterosexual; it has been for as long as I remember. But praying this prayer made sense. And at night, often when I was at my exhausted loneliest, falling asleep alone, I would pray: “Jesus, come and hold me now. Let me nestle into you. Pull me against you. I don’t want to be separate from you anymore.” And I would imagine my flesh against his, my heart beating against his heartbeat. It was extraordinarily comforting — and it was charged with a kind of safe sexuality that I had never known in my life, not in my carnal reality or in my active fantasy life.

Sometime into this whole period of celibacy, I remember having a dream where I was caressing Jesus’s broken, post-crucifixion body. I’m not accustomed to homoerotic dreams, but this one was vivid — I could feel the life in Him still, the warmth of His body, I could feel His muscles and His bones and His sweat and His blood. And then, in my dream, Jesus woke up and started touching me. Not genitally (there were no genitals in this dream), but caressing me, the sweat and the heat and the blood still coming off of him. And I started to cry in my dream, crying from relief, and woke up in bed crying. I also woke up aroused. It was a mixture of relief and sexual excitement and almost mystical ecstasy unlike anything I’d ever known. Heck, I read St. Teresa in college. I didn’t get it at 18; at 31 and in the midst of a huge emotional upheaval in my life, a few weeks after I had almost died, I got it. I’ve never had the dream again. I would love to have it again.

I loved that dream, not because I’m sexually drawn to men, but because my love affair with Christ is not merely intellectual or spiritual. Christ came to earth in a body: I am incarnate in a body. My body is good, as is my soul, and the spiritual growth of the latter is not contingent upon the constant mortification of the former. It took me a long time to get that, and it was only once I did get that that I was able to stop living a double life, a life in compartments, a life of public charm and conscientiousness and a private world of shame and deception. Jesus is many things to me: my savior, my homeboy, my best friend, my role model, my God. He is also my lover, in every sense. I don’t cheat on my wife with Jesus. Fidelity to a spouse doesn’t preclude a sense that there is one relationship, just one, that ranks above that one has with a husband or a wife. …I am not bisexual; I am a man who has loved many women, but my truest lover, truer even than my adored wife, is Jesus. I still sometimes call on Him to hold me at night.

…I’m talking about seeing our sexual lives as married people as including Jesus. If Jesus is supposed to be our co-pilot when we drive (as those ridiculous bumperstickers remind us), why is He left out in the hallway when we go into the bedroom to make love with our spouses? In marriage, we are called to fidelity. But while monogamy means no sex with other people, it doesn’t mean a bar on embracing an intense and rich sexuality that includes Christ.

Every marriage is a triangle, with Jesus at the top as head and the two spouses below as equal points on the bottom of that triangle. Each partner in the marriage is equal to the other; each has a separate and unique relationship with Christ. In a sense, I have two lovers: my wife and Christ. And that relationship with Christ involves inviting Him into every single aspect of our lives. And if we take Him seriously as “closer than a brother,” then we need to see Him in our sexuality as well. For some of us, that will simply mean learning to face Jesus without shame. For others of us, it will be inviting Him to hold us close. And for some of us, gay and straight, men and women alike, it means a willingness to embrace Him as the truest and best of lovers. For me, at least in one dream I have never forgotten, that meant being enfolded in His arms, His skin on me, both of us bathed in His blood, His sweat, and my tears.

I have no shame in saying that I often long for that magical dream to return.

Hugo Schwyzer is a community college history and gender studies professor, animal rights activist and Episcopal youth minister in California. A longer version of this post first appeared in his blog at Click here for the original version. This edited version is reprinted with permission Hugo Schwyzer.

Image credit: Baptism of Christ from Wikimedia Commons
*A concert video of “Love Song for a Savior” by the Christian rock band Jars of Clay will be posted here soon as the Eros and Christ series continues.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eros & Christ: Sacred vs. secular texts

[Part of a series on Eros and Christ]

By Trudie Barreras

For over a year now, I’ve been talking about, quoting from, and rereading Kittredge Cherry’s incredibly beautiful novel in two volumes, “Jesus in Love” and “At the Cross.” I haven’t tried to “promote” these books to people I perceive to be “unbelievers”. Neither do I seek to share them with the category of “believers” that I suspect are so extremely mired in “Tradition” that they would be scandalized at the mere suggestion that Jesus was truly human in the sense of experiencing erotic love, whether genitally expressed or not. However, I find that even some people who share my perspective that erotic love is not inherently evil tend to balk at the idea that Jesus could have (indeed MUST have, if he was, as the Creed tells us, True Man as well as True God) experienced it.

So this reflection is going to be a plea for honest evaluation of the type of love we call “Eros” and for an acceptance of the fact that if you can read about it in novels about “ordinary people” without considering yourself to be depraved, you should be able to read about it in Cherry’s wonderfully sensitive discussion of how it might have manifest in the ideal human Christians claim Jesus to have been.

Although I don’t “collect” the type of erotically focused romance novel that has become popular fare on the racks of supermarkets and “big box” stores, my daughters do. One of them graciously loans me some of them, including the novels of the extremely popular author Nora Roberts. Although I could cite thousands of examples, here is one chosen from her book “Private Scandals”:

He watched the instant of frantic denial, the stunned panic, the mindless pleasure. Everything she felt echoed inside him. As breathless as she, he lowered himself over her, raining kisses over her glowing face until she was wrapped around him, until her movements grew frantic and his own churning need demanded release.

“Look at me.” He fought the words out of his burning throat. “Look at me.”

And when she did, when their eyes met, held, he slipped inside her. Slowly, his hands fisted in the rug as if he could grip control there, he lowered to her, felt her rise to meet him until they moved together silkily.

When her lips curved, he pressed his face to her throat and took them both over the edge. (p. 244)

For my discussion I’d like to juxtapose this description to a passage from the beginning of “Jesus in Love”:

“Let’s make love,” the Holy Spirit whispered while I was praying.

Each of us was both lover and beloved as everything in me found in the Holy Spirit its complement, its reflection, its twin. We took turns switching roles and switching genders. The momentum of reversing polarities stretched me further and further until I was almost overcome by the force that we had generated.

“Marry me, Jesus,” the Holy Spirit sighed.

Unprecedented pleasure accompanied this most unexpected proposal. When the Holy Spirit kissed my mind and heart, I also felt a tangible touch run down the inner spine of my physical body. Enjoyable arrows of energy shot toward my crotch, concentrating power in my genitals. (p. 33)

Neither of these descriptions is nearly as “anatomically explicit” as many of the scenes in other romance novels. Although in subsequent descriptions in “Jesus in Love” Cherry describes interactions between Jesus and humans such as John and Mary Magdalene, one thing is extremely important. Though the eroticism is real and beautifully described, it always occurs in the context of prayer. This, I believe, is the true genius of Cherry’s writing. She has completely integrated the human Jesus with the divinity of Christ’s being, and the physical and spiritual of our own humanity, in a way that I have never encountered in anything else I’ve ever read. She also fully accepts and celebrates the fact that Eros is indeed divinely created. It is not a “lesser form” of love, somehow tainted. It is that form which was designed by our Creator to enhance human – human relationships as well as to provide the impetus for continuation of life from generation to generation. Eros – Cupid – is depicted in myth as an archer, and I think it is intriguing that in the passage quoted above, the term “arrows of energy” is used.

Another book by which I’m currently enthralled is Sherwin B. Nuland’s “How We Live: The Wisdom of the Body.” Nuland, a medical doctor, writes fascinatingly comprehensible descriptions of many physiological processes, weaving them together with vital philosophical and spiritual insights. In a chapter entitled “The Act of Love” he manages to make the purely biological processes of the formation of ova and sperm cells, the joining of these cells at the time of conception, the subsequent implantation of the zygote, development of the embryo, and the growth of the fetus, into an erotically stimulating narrative. I found it quite as stimulating, in fact, as attempts to produce arousal in novels.

I really, truly believe it is time to use the insights brought to us by medical science, as well as the growing awareness of our own reality as embodied spirits, to stop demonizing our own erotic urges, which need to be comprehended and integrated with our full humanity and brought into the service of creative love in all its forms – procreative, relational, and spiritual. I believe Cherry’s books, as well as Nuland’s and several others I have read recently, make a vital contribution to this endeavor.
Writer and artist Trudie Barreras is a member of First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta, Georgia. Her painting “Annunciation” is the logo for this series on Eros and Christ.
Coming soon: Our summer series on Eros and Christ will continue with reflections on Jesus as lover by gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eros & Christ: Sunday Confessions poem

[Part of a series on Eros and Christ] Sunday Confessions By Maruja Every Sunday families are delivered in cars by their children “we must get there in time” our parents say with our shirts crisp our shoes shined our gold glistening we cross the broad street and walk the narrow path that leads to the church with good books and dirty souls in hand, awaiting what the priest and the pulpit has to offer us today. The sanctuary is already swollen loaded with confessions, sorrows and dreams women and men on separate sides pulling their devotionals together into psalm-sprouting desires. Aunties eye the green pastures of their sisters overlooking the blossoms in their own gardens. Uncles furtively gather downstairs gulping gossip and coffee stuffing their bellies with boasts and biriyani Derelict daughters hide the bruises of their mother's fallen expectations beneath the pleats of their technicolor saris. Surrounded by family there is no room for me here. I make my way up the stairs, towards the upper room where I find you waiting reunited. I take the open seat beside you unraveling my confessions as my knees slowly drift apart the divinity of your eyes receive me revising creation stories of fallen eves and jesus saves. As we join our voices in the Holy Qurbana the hum of your chanting guides me through taking me to transdimensional places like sun brightened stained glass we twist our auras together chanting in ecstasy Kurriye-laa-yisson. If your fingers never find themselves in the double-helix of my hair know that your poems have already blessed me with a festival of dreams. Kurielaison If my lips never find themselves in the heavens of your kiss know that our hands have already caressed each other in the kiss of peace. Kurielaison. We are one without a master. You have transformed me into a priestess and I offer you the chalice of my soul. Do what you will with my wine as you embrace the remembrance of me Our breath, no longer nomadic and separate blends and blossoms together let’s warm the walls of this church unifed by our love. Kurielaison. Kurielaison. Kurielaison. About the author: Maruja is a desi diasporic daughter, queer poet, teacher, healer and community activist who lives in New York City. Her writing is a cultural unveiling of the multiple identities that both complicate and inspire her life. Maruja’s intimate connections to spirit and ritual are framed by her upbringing in the Mar Thoma church, which traces its roots to Kerala, India. When she’s not writing, she enjoys yoga, laughing, dancing and mangoes. Acknowledgments: Maruja would like express her deep gratitude to Raphaël Armand, Elmaz Abinader, Faith Adiele and the members of VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation) for their loving feedback on earlier versions of this poem. Editor’s note from Kittredge Cherry: During the editorial process, Maruja and I discussed the value of sacred chants in our lives and languages. Each of us has been touched by the Greek prayer “Lord, have mercy,” which is transcribed “Kurielaison” in Malayalam and “Kyrie eleison” in English. We want to share the fruits of our conversation by posting these video links: Holy Qurbana service (showing the fullness of the church, men & women sitting on separate sides, the chanting, etc.) Kyrie eleison by Jodi Page-Clark (Kittredge’s favorite Kyrie) Image credit: Rose window from the Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) in Speyer, Germany (Wikimedia Commons) __________ Coming soon: Our summer series on Eros & Christ will continue with reflections by Atlanta writer Trudie Barreras on sacred versus secular erotic texts.