Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sex and Incarnation

There is one Christian tenet I will always hold dear: the divine became flesh. I am not interested in debating whether Jesus is the only begotten son of God, whether his mother was a virgin, whether his death redeemed our sin, or whether his Resurrection was literal or symbolic. What moves me is that he had feet, he walked with them on this earth; he allowed them to be washed with the tears of a woman of dubious repute. He knelt down and washed feet himself. Whatever quarrels I have with the church, I love this man. He is real to me.

That said, I confess that for many years now, I have not been a creed-saying Christian. Descended from nine generations of Episcopal Priests, I have been (in succession) a baptized Episcopalian, a Quaker, a goddess-worshipper, and finally an ordained interfaith minister. I am also the author of an unorthodox (at the least) and arguably heretical series of novels called The Maeve Chronicles, featuring a feisty (fictional) Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple.

Despite my novels’ subject matter, I also have no interest debating whether or not Jesus had sex with or married Mary Magdalen or whether he chose to be celibate. (Novelists, the wily tricksters, don’t argue, they tell stories.) Most of what Jesus had to say on the subject of marriage and celibacy can be found in Matthew 19: 1-12. (If you want Maeve’s take on this scene, see chapter 64 in The Passion of Mary Magdalen).

If you are incarnate, you have to deal with sexuality somehow—first and foremost your own. In the wake of all the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, some have argued that priests should be allowed to marry. No doubt they should. Celibacy might then become a clear and meaningful choice for those called to it. But allowing clergy to marry, as Protestants always have, will not automatically eliminate clerical sexual abuse, which is rife in every denomination.

Paul of Tarsus (who is often taken out of his historical context by both those who revere and revile him) is famous for saying it is better to marry than to burn. Celibacy and marriage were his only two options, and early gentile converts to what was originally a Jewish sect were eager to distance themselves from gentile pagans who indulged in other practices including temple prostitution. (For an analysis of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in this context see this excellent piece by James Alison.)

However corrupt or excessive first century pagan practices may have been, I think the ancient pagans may have been on to something. Sex is not just an act, it is a force, a divine force that can be generative or destructive. To liken it to fire, as Paul did, is apt. Fire contained and directed is used for warmth, for illumination, for cooking, for creating. Uncontained it lays waste. But its containers and uses are not single but various, and its power is simply that, power, not good or evil—except in how we use it.

In my counseling practice, I have worked with many people who were sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence, often by family members—some of whom were also members of the clergy. I have also worked with adult women who were victims of sexual abuse by their religious leaders. The trauma of abuse lies not just in the physical act itself but in betrayal of trust, abuse of power, secrecy, and the shame secrecy engenders. The wound, not easy to heal, is to our sovereignty as incarnate inherently sexual beings.

There is nothing wrong with marriage or celibacy. But religiously prescribed containers by themselves don’t stop people from committing adultery or seducing parishioners and altar boys. Jesus was always challenging people to observe not just the law but to understand its intent. Though it may not be of ancient provenance, the Wiccan Rede holds its adherents to a strict standard that might have resonated with Jesus and that members of the clergy might do well to contemplate: And it harm none, do what you will.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seven Sex Secrets for Spring

1) Spring is sex. It is the planet (or the part of the planet now tilting towards the sun) making love, conceiving the fruit it will later bear. You could think of a flower (or flowering) as orgasm, an ecstatic response to increasing light, warmth, an ecstatic opening to the breeze or the bees that will pollinate the plants. What a range of response from subtle and delicate (think of a snowdrop or a violet) to flagrant and bawdy. Is there anything sexier than a bright red tulip full blown?

2) Lover bees. Worker bees, as they are called, are neither male nor female, in that they don’t reproduce. While the drones hang out at the hive, waiting for the privilege of dying in the act of impregnating the queen, whose only job is to keep laying eggs, the so-called worker bees are penetrating those tulips and every other blooming thing they can find. The bees, like Spring, are sex. I call them lover bees, for they are the lovers of the world.

3) The sun loves you. We are just animate bits of earth, made of the same substance as everything else. After a long winter of short cold days, we respond to the waxing sun with the same eagerness and joy as the animals and the plants. On the first warm days, lie in the sun and let it touch you all over. The sun’s light is touch, penetrating touch, healing touch, sensual touch. Let yourself open to that touch.

4) So does the rain: When the sun thaws the earth, snowmelt and rain soften it, so that it can be planted. Seeds that have wintered over sprout and drink the moisture. New green blades pierce through the damp, soft dirt. Even if you don’t want to walk or lie out in the rain, when a spring shower comes, step outside and smell the sweetness and freshness of everything. Feel your own hard edges soften.

5) Become the earth’s lover: When you plant a seed, you procreate—or co-create—with the earth. You prepare the ground like any good lover, you penetrate it with your hands, placing the seed inside, smoothing the dirt back over it, watering the ground if it’s dry. Even if you do not have room for a garden, consider growing something in a planter on a windowsill. If you can, make love near your plants or your garden, just as people have from time immemorial.

6) Take god or goddess as your lover. Because we are surrounded by a mating world, Spring is sometimes painful for people who are single. Acknowledge loneliness, seek a new lover if you want one, but always remember that you are the beloved of life itself. Divine love is or can be as erotic as any other kind. Ask Teresa of Avila. If you do not conceive of the divine this way (or in any way) just remember Eros is life force. It is within you and around you at all times.

7) Love god or goddess in your beloved. Loving the divine in your lover may be easy when you are first in love. All you long-time lovers who see each other through an accretion of comfort and irritation, let Spring strip you to your naked, burning radiance. Look at the iridescence of the buds and the new leaves. Everything is on fire. You are the maypole and the caressing weave of ribbons, in and out, up and down. Get out there into the fields help those crops grow.

Happy Autumn to my friends in New Zealand! I promised at least one autumn sex secret. May Eve and All Hallow’s Eve, the great feasts of sex and death, face each other across the year. Sex and death are inextricably linked. One would not exist without the other. Orgasm is sometimes called the little death; we lose ourselves in ecstasy; our boundaries dissolve. I am on this side of the veil, so I can’t say for sure, but I hope death is orgasmic. Flowering is ecstatic but so is a leaf flying from a tree in a high wind, or dropping on a perfect still morning. Maybe turning back into loam is ecstatic, too, a relief, a release. Autumn gives us a chance to let go, to go under, to curl into the darkness of the great lover. Happy Autumn, New Zealand, combrogos!

I am not sure yet, but I think I will stick with the subject of sex for a while. Sex and religion, sex and the sacred. That sort of thing. If you think that’s a good idea for this blog spot, chime in.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy St Patrick's Day: The Return of the Snakes

On St Patrick’s Day I shall, of course, wear green. I will also wear snake earrings big enough to alarm herpephobes.

According to legend, St Patrick drove the snakes out or Ireland or as Dr. George Johnson’s mother put it more poetically, “charmed them into the sea.” With some regret, Dr. Johnson explains that snakes in Ireland did not survive the ice age. By the time the glacier receded, Ireland was an island. And terrestrial snakes, he says, cannot migrate by water.

But then perhaps the snakes Patrick charmed were sea serpents?

Many people contend that these herpe non grata were actually the druids who were known to wear serpent’s eggs as amulets. You might ask, if there were no serpents in Ireland, how the druids got these eggs, but apparently there are snakes in Scotland, a hop, skip, and a puddle jump away.

Saint Brigid, a fellow patron saint of Ireland along with Patrick and Columba, actually heard St. Patrick preach when she was young. Brigid the saint inherited her mantle and much of her lore and iconography from Brigid the goddess. Given the banishment (or extinction) of snakes in Ireland, it’s curious that on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1, people sang the below song (or variations of it) at least into the 19th century when Alexander Carmichael compiled Carmina Gadelica:

Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Bride is the Scottish version of Brigid’s name, so perhaps this serpent is also Scottish and never encountered St Patrick. Still it is noteworthy that Bride’s serpent, like many in myths and legends the world over, is associated with a goddess. And Patrick was representing a religion that took a dim view of such associations. See Genesis 3. Although Moses did have a staff that he could change into a serpent , and Jesus once admonished his disciples to be “wise as serpents and gentles as doves.”

Serpents and birds, both of which appear in Celtic knotwork, are revered by many peoples as creatures that can go between the worlds, symbolically and literally. This St Patrick’s day, the weather promises to be mild. Just before noon I will go to a nearby spring where garter snakes emerge on the first warm days to sun on the small rock ledge and drink with their tiny flickering tongues from the pool. Many Springs I have sat with the snakes in this place. I have seen their writhing mating dance (the origin of the druid serpent egg) and I have sat long enough that some have glided over my feet without fear. Once I found a dead snake. I buried it under the leaves, and lit some incense. As I sat, maybe twenty snakes from all directions came to sit with me. We sat together till the light and warmth waned and they went their way to their own world.

I had to write about the snakes this week, but next week I promise to deliver on Seven Sex Secrets for Spring. (Or something alliterative like that.) Of course snakes and sex are not unrelated. For more on that relationship, I refer you to “Beneath Bride’s Breast: Chapter Six of Magdalen Rising. There definitely are snakes on Tir na mBan!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No Trespassing: The Importance of State Parks

When I was a child, I lived in the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church Millbrook, New York where my father was priest. The house and the yard did not belong to us or to any individual but to the church. The property was clearly communal with people dropping in on various errands at any time, not just Sundays. Several times a year, everyone got together to work on maintenance. The kids had the special job of painting the rocks along the driveway.

Next door to the church was an abandoned estate known as Wings Woods. It had a gate house with a turret that looked as though it was made of candy and gingerbread and, much deeper in, a mansion (surely haunted) that was slowly falling down, creaky board by creaky board. This property was posted with signs in large forbidding letters: NO TRESPASSING. The Episcopalian version of The Lord’s Prayers asks God to, “forgive us our trespasses,” which caused me a bit of theological confusion. Later I speculated that Episcopalians used the word trespass for sin, because many of their members came from the landowning classes.

I longed to trespass in that wood (and did before my father eventually secured permission for us to walk there). To this day the Wings Woods remains in my memory an enchanted place. It no longer exists anywhere else. The land was sold, and the magical wood turned into upscale condominium development. Although walking in a State park does not hold the thrill of trespass, I have always been deeply grateful that once private estates like Mills, Vanderbilt, Clermont, Roosevelt, Olana, to name a few near me, now belong to the State, which is to say: me, my family, my neighbors, the community.

Last month Governor David Paterson proposed the closure of 41 parks and 14 historic sites, and service reductions at 23 parks and 1 historic site to help make up a state deficit of $8.2 billion. The NYS legislature may be able to mitigate some of these closings and reductions of service by approving a measure that would allow $5 million to be spent from the Environmental Protection Fund. If you are a New York State resident, I urge you to write and call the Governor as well as your assembly member and senator. The lawmakers have an April 1st deadline for voting on the Governor’s proposal.

There are many economic arguments to make against park closures, such as the resulting loss of tourist revenue, the vandalism and decay that would follow and cost more later. In this time of increasing clamor for privatization of so many services, I want to put in a plug for the common good. If we lose our public land, we all become trespassers, except for the wealthy. Or we will stay inside our little boxes, our apartments, our tiny back yards, if we even have them.

On Sunday I visited the newly opened Walkway over the Hudson. It was thronged with people of all ages and all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Signs along the bridge gave information about natural and historic features of the area. People weren’t just out for a stroll; we were taking in where we live—and with whom.

In our State Parks, we are not trespassing. We belong.

PS: The first comment posted below is from Maeve. She forgot to sign her name, but those of you who know her will recognize her voice. I really should get her a google idenity. For more about Maeve.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dreaming with the Moon

Last night was one of those nights full of vivid and varied dreams, coming and going between frequent waking. The moon was just past full, and I have noticed that nights of busy dreaming often occur when the moon is round and the internal tides run high.

I have always loved dreaming, even though I’ve had my share of nightmares, which often help to reveal and heal hidden wounds. In addition to dreams that re-hash and recycle daily events, I have had what Jung might call archetypal dreams that I have remembered for decades and will never forget. I have sometimes dreamed not of, but for, friends and family members, and they have confirmed that the dreams held messages for them. And I once woke sitting bolt upright after a dream pointed me to a revelation about the vinegar-soaked sponge pressed to Jesus’s lips during the crucifixion. I later incorporated this dream knowledge into my novel The Passion of Mary Magdalen.

Last night I woke from one dream knowing that my post today must be about dreams. When I went back to sleep I had one of my recurring landscape dreams (there are several). In this one a rundown neighborhood in New York City, where there is sometimes danger, opens onto moonlit hills and fields. There is no judgment of the city or relief at escape to the country, just a satisfaction that I know this secret way in and out of the city. In last night’s dream I say aloud to myself, “So this is the way I drive whenever I need to blog.”

In the final dream of dozens, I am wearing my (becoming famous) red bustier. I am part of a singing trio, but my solo is the opening number. I can’t remember one note. I ask my fellow singers to play a recording of the piece to jog my memory. I recognize my voice but not the song. I am flustered but I decide I will simply sing a song I do know (that I wrote in waking life) that includes the line, “River, river, river, the journey’s long, I might not always remember the words or tune of your song” which in the dream I find ironic and pleasing.

Dreams, however fascinating for the teller, can be tedious for the listener. When I have a dream of note, I like to distill it in poetry. For fine examples of this art visit Patricia Kelly’s dreamspoetry/blogspot She works in several poetic forms, one called Dreamku. She has inspired me to experiment. I will close with an example from a dream I dreamed for someone else.

dream message

I show her a shell
shining inside. Look, I say:
your soul can be safe.

I show her the sea
dark vast and wild. Look I say:
your soul is that big.

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