The Human Struggle with Sexual Energy

The church has always struggled with sex, but so have everyone else. There aren’t any cultures, religious or secular, pre-modern or modern, post-modern or post-religious, that exhibit a truly healthy sexual ethos. Every church and every culture struggles with integrating sexual energy, if not in its creed about sex, at least in the living out of that creed. Secular culture looks at the church and accuses it of being uptight and anti-erotic. Partly this true, but the church might well protest that much of its sexual reticence is rooted in the fact that it is one of the few voices still remaining who are challenging anyone towards sexual responsibility. As well, the church might also challenge any culture that claims to have found the key to healthy sexuality to step forward and show the evidence. No culture will take up that claim. Everyone is struggling.

Part of that struggle is the seeming innate incompatibility between what Charles Taylor calls “sexual fulfillment and piety”, between “squaring our highest aspirations with an integral respect for the full range of human fulfillments.”

Commenting on this in his book, A Secular Age, Taylor suggests that there is a real tension in trying to combine sexual fulfillment with piety and that this reflects a more general tension between human flourishing in general and dedication to God. He adds: “That this tension should be particularly evident in the sexual domain is readily understandable. Intense and profound sexual fulfillment focuses us powerfully on the exchange within the couple; it strongly attaches us possessively to what is privately shared.  … It is not for nothing that the early monks and hermits saw sexual renunciation as opening the way to the wider love of God. … Now that there is a tension between fulfillment and piety should not surprise us in a world distorted by sin … but we have to avoid turning this into a constitutive incompatibility.”

How can we avoid doing that? How can we avoid somehow pitting sexual fulfillment against holiness? How can we be robustly sexual and fully spiritual at one and the same time?

In a soon-to-be-released book, The Road is How, A Prairie Pilgrimage through Nature, Desire and Soul, Trevor Herriot, suggests that human fulfillment and dedication to God, sex and holiness, can be brought together in a way that properly respects both of them. How? Without using the word that is at once so-honored and so-maligned, he presents us with an image of what chastity means at its true root. Much like Annie Dillard in her book, Holy the Firm, Herriot draws a certain concept of chastity out of the rhythms of nature and then presents those rhythms as the paradigm of how we should be relating to nature and to each other. And, for Herriot, those rhythms cast a particularly enlightening beam on how we should be relating sexually. His words:

“These days, we watch truckloads of grain pass by and sense that something in us and in the earth is harmed when food is grown and consumed with little intimacy, care, and respect. The local and slow food movements are showing us that the way we grow, distribute, prepare, and eat food is important for the health of our body-to-earth exchanges. The next step may be to realize that the energy that brings pollen to ovary and grows the grain, once it enters our bodies, also needs to be husbanded. The way we respond to our desire to merge, connect, and be fruitful – stirrings felt so deeply, but often so shallowly expressed – determines the quality of our body-to-body exchanges.  …

In a world bathed in industrial and impersonal sex, where real connection and tenderness are rare, will we sense also that something in us and in the earth is being harmed from the same absence of intimacy, care, and respect? Will we learn that any given expression of our erotic energies either connects us to or divides us from the world around us and our souls?  We are discovering that we must steward the energies captured by nature in the hydrocarbons or in living plants and animals, and thereby improve the ways we receive the fruits of the earth, but we struggle to see the primary responsibility we bear for the small but cumulatively significant explosions of energy we access and transmit as we respond to our own longings to connect, merge, and be fruitful. Learning how to steward the way we bear fruit ourselves as spiritual/sexual beings with a full set of animal desires and angelic ambitions may be more important to the human journey than we fully understand.”

Chastity, as imagined by Charles Taylor, Annie Dillard, and Trevor Herriot, has always been the one thing that properly protects sex, the white dress adorning the bride, the means of squaring our highest aspirations with an integral respect for the full range of human fulfillments, and, not least, the trusted guideline for how we can access and transmit our sexual energy with intimacy, care, and respect.

The Real Challenge in Creativity – To Enter the Song

There are three kinds of performers: The first, while singing a song or doing a dance, are making love to themselves. The second, while performing, are making love to the audience. The third, while on stage, are making love to the song, to the dance, to the drama itself.

Of course it’s not difficult to discern who the better performer is. The one making love to the song, of course, best honors the song and draws energy from some deeper place.  And he or she does this by entering into and channeling the energy of the song rather than by entering into and channeling their own energy or the energy of the audience.  What a good artist does, whether that be a singer, a writer, a painter, a dancer, a craftsperson, a carpenter, or a gardener is tap into the deep energies at the heart of things and draw on them to create something that is of God, namely, something that is one, true, good, and beautiful. In the end, and this is true of all good art and all good performance, creativity is not about the person doing the creation. It’s about oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty.

This holds true for all creativity and art, and it holds true too for all good teaching, catechesis, preaching, and evangelization. At the end of the day, it has to be about truth, goodness, beauty, and God, not about oneself or one’s audience.

This is important for many reasons. Not least among those reasons is the fact that many of us hesitate to express our creativity for fear that we will be too-amateur and too-unskilled to measure up. And so we don’t write poetry, write music, write novels, paint pictures, do sculpture, take up dancing, do carpentry, raise flowers, or do gardening because we fear that what we will produce will be too unprofessional to stand out in any way or to measure up in a way that it can be published or exhibited publicly so as to receive recognition and honor. And so, mostly, we mute and hide our creative talents because we cannot do what the great ones do. We punish ourselves by thinking this way:  If no one will publish it, no sense writing it. If nobody will buy it, no sense painting it. If nobody will admire it, no sense doing it.

But that’s the wrong idea of creativity. We are meant to create things, not because we might get them published and receive honor and money for them.  We are meant to create things because creativity, of all kinds, has us enter into the deep center of energy at the heart of things. In creativity we join ourselves to God’s energy and help channel God’s transcendental qualities: oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty. Ultimately, it isn’t important that what we do gets publicly recognized, gets published, or earns us a monetary reward. Creativity is its own reward. When you act like God, you get to feel like God – or, at least, you get to feel some wonderful divine energy.

Moreover, the energy we feel in creativity, no matter how amateur and private the effort, helps still the fires of envy and hostility inside of us. For example, Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, in a recent novel, Anil’s Ghost, puts it this way: He describes an artist, Ananda, who has just refurbished a statue. Finishing his work, Ananda looks with a certain pride and satisfaction on what he has just done and, though a non-believer, fills with a godly energy: “As an artificer now he did not celebrate the greatness of a faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons.” Envy and hostility have to do with frustrated creativity. If we aren’t creating something, we’re hurting something. If we aren’t creative, we soon become bitter. So how do we become creative?

The poet, William Stafford, sharing something he himself did on a daily basis, used to give his students this challenge: Get up every morning and, before you do anything else, write a poem. More often than not, the students would protest: How can you do that? A person can’t always be creative? Stafford’s answer: Lower your standards!

He’s right! We shouldn’t muzzle our creative energies because we don’t feel particularly inspired, or because on one will ever take our efforts seriously, or because we cannot get anyone to publish our work, or because what we produce seems amateur and second-rate in comparison to what professionals do. We don’t write, make music, paint, dance, make crafts, do carpentry, or garden to have our efforts published and critically admired. We do it for our souls, to enter a divine dance, to connect ourselves to the heart of things.

Sometimes we cannot save the world, but we can save our own sanity and help bring God into the world by nurturing our own souls.

Religious Coinage

No one, be that an individual or an institution, controls access to God. Jesus makes this abundantly clear.

We see this, for example, in the story of Jesus cleansing the temple by overturning the money tables. This incident is often used to justify anger and violence in God’s name. Invariably, when someone affirms that God is non-violent, he or she is met with the reaction: “What about Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple?” “What about Jesus losing his temper and displaying anger?”

Whatever the legitimacy of those questions, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple has a deeper intent. This is particularly clear in John’s Gospel where this incident is set within a context wherein Jesus is replacing a series of former religious customs with a new Christian way of doing things. For example, immediately prior to this incident of cleansing the temple, Jesus, at the Wedding Feast of Cana, replaces a former religious custom (upon entering a Jewish house you purified yourself with a number of ritual ablutions before you could sit at the table) with the new Christian way of purifying yourself for a seat at the heavenly table (for Christians, the wine of Christian community, the wine of the Eucharist, now cleanses you so that you can sit at the table).

The cleansing of the temple needs to be understood in this context: Jesus is replacing a former religious practice with the Christian way of doing things, and he is revealing something very important about God as he does this. To state it metaphorically: Jesus is replacing a former religious coinage with a new religious coinage. Here are both the metaphor and the lesson:

We’re all familiar with the incident: Jesus comes into the temple area where the money changers have set up their tables, overturns their tables, and drives out the money-changers with the words: “Take all of this out of here and stop using my Father’s house as a market.”

But this has to be carefully understood. On the surface, the text appears brutally clear, but beneath its surface it is subtly symbolic (even if rather brutal in its meaning). How do we begin to unpack its meaning?

It’s important to recognize that those moneychangers performed a needed function. People came to Jerusalem from many different countries to worship at the temple. But they carried the coins of their own countries and, upon arriving at the temple, had to exchange their own currency for Jewish currency so as to be able to buy the animals (doves, sheep, cattle) they needed to offer sacrifice. The moneychangers fulfilled that function, like banking kiosks do today when you step off an airplane in a foreign country and you need to exchange some of your coinage for the coinage of that country.

Now, of course, some of these money changers were less than honest, but that wasn’t the real reason why Jesus reacted so strongly. Nor was he unduly scandalized because commerce was happening in a holy place. When Jesus says, “take all of this out of here and stop using my Father’s house as a market”, he is teaching something beyond the need to be honest and beyond the need to not be buying and selling on church property.  More deeply, not turning the Father’s house into a market might be translated as: “You don’t need to exchange your own currency for any other currency when it comes to worshipping God. You can worship God in your own currency, with your own coinage. Nobody, no individual, no temple, no church, no institution, ultimately sits between you and God and can say: ‘You need to go through us’!”

That’s a strong teaching that doesn’t sit well with many of us. It immediately posits the question: “What about the church? Isn’t it necessary for salvation?” That question is even more poignant today in an age wherein many sincere people already take for granted that they have no need of the church: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

Granted there’s a danger in affirming and emphasizing this teaching of Jesus, but, and this is the point, this teaching was not directed towards those in Jesus’ time who said: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Rather it was addressed to religious individuals and at a religious institution that believed that the way to God had to go through a very particular channel (over which they had control).  All religious coinage had to be transferred into their particular coinage, since in their belief, they controlled access to God.  Jesus tries to cleanse us of any attitude or practice that would enshrine that belief.

This does not deny either the legitimacy or necessity of the church nor of those who do ministry in its name. God does work through the church and its ministers. But this does deny all legitimacy to the claim that the church and those who minister in its name control access to God.

No one controls access to God, and if God ever loses his temper it’s because sometimes we believe we do.

Our Pagan Resistance To The Other World

Sometimes while presiding at the Eucharist or preaching, I scan the faces in the front pews. What do they reveal? A few are eager, attentive, focused on what’s happening, but a goodly number of faces, particularly among the young, speak of boredom, of dram duty, and of a resignation that says: I have to be in the church just now, though I wish I was elsewhere. These reactions are, of course, understandable. We’re human after all, flesh and blood, and when we try to focus on the world of spirit or on what relativizes flesh and blood, mortality and self-sacrifice, we can expect that most times the reality of this life will trump the promise of other world.

Sometimes, gazing at those faces staring back at me in church, I’m reminded of a scene that Virginia Woolf describes in her novel, The Waves.  The scene is a chapel in a boarding school in England where one of the churchwardens is giving the students a spiritual admonition during a worship service. This particular churchwarden isn’t much respected by the students, but that’s not the deepest reason why one student, Neville, is put off by his words, and by what’s happening in general in that worship service. Something inside him is in resistance, not just against the words of this particular churchwarden, whom he disrespects, but against the very world of which this churchwarden is speaking. In essence, young Neville’s blood is too warm at that moment to find palatable any words that speak of contingency, mortality, abnegation, the cross, silence, or of the other world; instead his youthful blood is silently pressuring for the opposite, health, youth, sex, companionship, status, fame, and pleasure.

And so he seeks a distraction. He doesn’t want to see the churchwarden’s face, doesn’t want to hear his words, doesn’t want to hear about God, doesn’t want to hear about afterlife, doesn’t want to be reminded of human mortality, and doesn’t want to hear of sacrifice. Like a drug addict, he needs a fix and, in his case, that means fixating on something powerful enough to be religious, powerful enough to match the other world’s offer of eternal life, something worthy of the admiration that he somewhere knows he needs to give to somebody.  And he knows exactly where to look.  He fixes his gaze and his admiration on the one person in that chapel, a young man named Percival, who, to his youthful mind, is a true incarnation of life and a god worthy of being worshipped.  Here’s how Woolf describes it:

“The brute menaces my liberty, said Neville, when he prays. Unwarmed by imagination, his words fall cold on my head like paving stones, while the gilt cross heaves on his waistcoat. The words of authority are corrupted by those who speak them. I gibe and mock at this sad religion, at these tremulous, grief-stricken figures advancing, cadaverous and wounded.  …  Now I will lean sideways as if to scratch my thigh. So I will see Percival. There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue and oddly inexpressive eyes are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite. He would make an admirable churchwarden. He should have a birch and beat little boys for misdemeanors. He is allied with the Latin phrases on the memorial brasses. He sees nothing; he hears nothing. He is remote from us all in a pagan universe. But look how he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime.”

I cite this description with more than a little sympathy because I too was once that young boy, Neville, sitting in various religious settings with my heart and mind in resistance, quiet outwardly, squirming inwardly, because I did not want to hear or acknowledge anything that didn’t, to my mind, honor the reality I felt so undeniably inside my own blood. I didn’t want to be reminded that my health was fragile, that my youth was passing, that this life wasn’t central, and that we weren’t supposed to be thinking so much about sex.  I didn’t want to hear about mortality, that we will all die sometime; I didn’t want to hear about the cross, that it’s only by dying that we come to life; and I didn’t want to be asked to focus attention on the other world, I wanted this world. I accepted that the church was important, but, for me, the sports arena was more real and more alluring. And, like young Neville, I too had my Percivals, certain peers, certain sports idols, and certain movie stars whose enviable bodies and perfect gestures were the life and immortality I, in fact, yearned for and whose lives didn’t seem to have the limits of my own.

But, I think, God likes this kind of youthful resistance, and built it into us. Why?  Because the stronger the resistance, the richer the final harmony.

Our Struggle For Empathy And Generativity

In our normal, daily lives we are invariably so self-preoccupied that we find it difficult to be able to accord others the same reality and value we give to ourselves. In brief, it’s difficult for us to live in true empathy because we are forever consumed with our own heartaches and headaches. From two famous intellectuals, one speaking philosophically and the other psychologically, we get that same insight.

Rene Descartes, as we know, famously suggests that all true thinking must begin with our own reality: I think, therefore I am.  His logic works this way: What’s the only thing you can know that’s real, beyond all doubt? His answer: Your own mind. You know that your own mind is real because you are inside of it. You are real, you can be sure that, but you might be imagining or dreaming everything else. Sigmund Freud, centuries later, coming from another angle, reaches basically the same conclusion. For Freud, we are forever so excessively self-preoccupied that we are unable to see other peoples’ lives as being just as real as ours.

If that’s true, and certainly there’s truth there, then it’s not surprising that real empathy and genuine generativity are a struggle for us since both are predicated precisely on being able to accord to other peoples’ heartaches and headaches the same reality and importance that we give to our own. But it’s hard to do this: It’s hard to give to others without some level of self-interest being involved. It’s hard to have wholly pure motives in serving others. It’s hard to know other people’s heartaches in the same way as we know our own. It’s hard to be purely altruistic.  And … especially it’s hard to overcome this!

Why? Don’t sympathy and empathy come naturally to us?  Sympathy and empathy do come naturally to us, but, like everything else, they come mixed with a lot of other things. What things?

First, sympathy and empathy come mixed with our more-primal instincts for survival. We aren’t born generous and empathic, we’re born needy, hungry, and instinctually driven for survival. As newborns, we are so consumed with our own survival that we have to grow into an awareness of the reality of others. Nature brings us into this world this way in order to ensure that we do what it takes to survive and this greatly mitigates our empathy. Moreover, beyond how nature has built us, our early experiences soon do further damage to our empathic capacities. Simply put, none of us gets loved purely and wholly and, long before we reach our adulthood, all of us have lost our wholeness. As adults, we are, all of us, to some degree, wounded, fearful, and given over to habits of self-preservation which weaken our empathy.

It works this way: We come into this world with great adaptability. As babies, every instinct inside us works towards life and because of this, unconsciously, we do whatever it takes to stay alive and we adapt to whatever (food, shelter, clothing, language, environment) we need to adapt to in order to stay alive. The adaptations we make as young children help ensure our survival but then leave us wounded in ways that make genuine empathy difficult later in life.

What can we do about all of this? There aren’t any easy answers, psychologically or spiritually, and to suggest that there are isn’t helpful. We are dealing with deeply engrained instincts that don’t sway just because they are intellectually understood and with wounds that need to be healed through the heart.  At the end of the day, what would cure us and open our hearts to empathy and real generativity is the experience of genuine, non-exploitive love. But we can’t make others love us in this way and we struggle mightily to feel God’s love for us when others don’t love us this in way. Moreover we are caught-up in vicious circle: the very wounds that need to be healed through love are the very things that are making it difficult for others to love us. Love is the answer.  It would make us whole, but we cannot will this love upon ourselves. So what can we do?

First, we can admit the problem, admit our lack of wholeness, admit our wounds, admit our excessive self-preoccupation, and admit our lack of empathy. That’s a start. Second, we can humbly seek help from others, from family, friends, recovery groups, therapists. An honest, request for help, usually brings some help. Coupled with this, we can expose ourselves more regularly to the poor (of every kind) and their needs and this will help baptize us into empathy and generativity. Few things have the power to draw us out beyond our own wounds and help us to be self-forgetful as standing before the needy. Finally, we need to seek God’s help by throwing ourselves, in prayer, upon God’s wholeness, asking God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely, see others as being as real as we are.