“The Body & Society” Notes, Pt 4: Take My Breath Away

The metaphors by which the saints and spiritual writers have described celibate life have a certain inherent conflict. In one set of metaphors, the celibate person is reserved, protected, kept.

Yet there are also a lot of descriptions–Peter Brown quotes many of them–in which the Christian who has renounced sex is described as uniquely exposed, “bared.”

I think today a lot of unmarried gay people, trying to live in obedience to our Church, do feel ourselves exposed: without the support and also without the obvious duties of family, left to make our own way, to “self-fend” as David Foster Wallace would say. Trying to autoabbot alongside all the other difficulties of unmarried life e.g. how am I going to pay for my health insurance, where am I going to live and who is going to agree to come with me to that place. We feel exposed in the sense that our relationships feel uncertain, tenuous, unpromised, the constant present-tense where nobody has a vocabulary for talking about what the future holds.

And if we instead (or also) feel protected and sheltered, it is often relationships with other people which shelter us: the friend who has always said we’ll still be using the same inside jokes when we’re chasing each other down the halls of the nursing home on our walkers; the intentional community to which we’ve pledged our obedience and which in turn has become our home; the household in which we are godparent, auntie, daughter, above all kin.

I write about this stuff a lot, obviously, and it’s the part of gay Christian life that I feel like I understand best. But it is not actually what these metaphors of shelter and exposure are about.

The exposure of the sexual renunciate lies in our heightened openness to the transforming, delighting inbreaking of God’s love.

Brown writes that Jews & pagans “[b]oth believed that abstinence from sexual activity, and especially virginity, made the human body a more appropriate vehicle to receive divine inspiration. Possession was an intimate and dramatically physical experience. It involved a flooding of the body with an alien, divine Spirit. Hardly surprisingly, such an experience was thought to exclude the warm rush of vital spirits through the same body, traditionally associated with intercourse.” Brown adds that according to Philo of Alexandria, Moses came to “disdain sex” (Brown’s words) so as to “hold himself always in readiness to receive oracular messages” (Philo’s words, my emphasis). It is this receptivity, this making of the body into a vessel, which the metaphors of reservation and exposure describe. (Feel free to hear that as gendered language, cf my whole “Fr. Mother” shtik.)

Here’s Brown describing Origen’s views (lol Origen, but work with me here): “It had been Origen’s life’s labor, as an exegete and guide of souls, to make the ‘spiritual senses’ of his charges come alive again in their original intensity. By withdrawing from the dull anaesthesia of common, physical sensation, the soul of the ‘spiritual’ person might recapture the sharp delights of another, more intensely joyful world. The believer’s spirit would stand totally exposed before the Bridegroom, stripped of all sensual joys, to receive on a ‘naked’ sensibility the exquisite touch of His darts.”

And: “Physical indulgence, undue eating, undue enjoyment of sight and sound, the physical joys of sexual bonding in marriage: these became subjects of vigilance. Sensual experiences nurtured a counter sensibility. They led to a dulling of the spirit’s true capacity for joy. They were a ‘cushion,’ which deadened the impact of those deeper, more vivid pleasures that might fall like kisses on the bared spirit.”

Here is Brown on Augustine: “Direct experience of the sharp joys of the spirit made physical pleasure seem shadowy, even repugnant, to him. ‘Limbs asking to receive the body’s embrace’ mirrored the enduring sweetness of the touch of God with disturbing congruence. Compared with the dawn light of the coming of Christ to embrace the soul, even the sober joys of a Catholic marriage now seemed to lie under a chill shadow of regret. By abandoning sexual pleasure of any kind, Augustine hoped to uproot within himself the dark mirror-image of a fierce longing to hold God’s Wisdom in ‘an utterly untroubled gaze, a most clean embrace; to see and cling to Her naked, with no veil of bodily sensation in between.’”

As Augustine’s example maybe shows, the soul so exposed to the bliss of God’s embrace might not be one especially attuned to or drawn to chastity of any kind. Later on in this series of posts I’ll talk about some lovely stuff St John Climacus says about the piety of those who are especially prone to sexual temptation. Your exposure to God’s love isn’t so much about whether you wanted or feel like you’re “good at” celibacy, and in fact of course feeling good at it is a distraction and a serious temptation.

There are a lot of reasons we virtually never hear people talking in these terms today (or at least, I have almost never heard this stuff spoken out loud). One reason is, of course, that God seems to scatter these experiences of bliss so capriciously. He may let you feel the embrace to which you’ve bared yourself once right away, and then never again for all the long years of your obedience; He may not grant you that at all, until you rise to your reward. It can seem painfully unfair. Whereas service is something you can do right now–you can find a way to serve, through your prayers or your acts. And the fruit of service, as I think Mother Theresa says, is peace. So why not emphasize that, instead of a shattering ecstasy you may never actually perceive?

And yet people keep having that experience of God’s utterly delightful embrace. You’ll get one such story, from a gay man who struggled with self-acceptance for a long time, in my eventually-forthcoming book. After this experience he found himself thinking that even if he changed his beliefs about sexual ethics, he would like to remain celibate, so that he could continue to live in that exposed/reserved state, with God alone. And I think one thing we lose, when we forget to talk about sexual renunciation as exposure to God’s love, is that God’s love is the height of intimacy and sweetness. We are to serve Him but also to be clasped by Him, enraptured.

In my notes on that bit above about Moses I jotted, “put down the ducky if you want God to play you like a saxophone.” At first I felt like that was, although memorable!, pretty vulgar. But now I think I was on to something. The bodies of sexual renunciates are not simply appendages, not left unused. You don’t have to say celibacy is best, but let’s say at least that the bodies of celibate people are instruments. Wind instruments through which the breath of God issues in notes of unusual sweetness. Brass instruments which proclaim His kingdom, which call everyone to witness His power over us. Percussion instruments, you know it often feels this way, the divine fingers crashing down on the trembling keys or striking a calling rhythm along the drumskin.

If I can manage to be the ’80s saxophone solo of the Lord I will feel that I have done my duty here.


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