It’s the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen: Benedictine, theologian, composer, healer, preacher, visionary, political figure, doctor of the church. For my money, Emma Kirkby is still the perfect soprano, and A Feather on the Breath of God, originally released in 1985, is still the perfect recording of Hildegard’s music.
Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.
Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.
And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure. I said to Him, Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it, through the soul or through the spirit? The Savior answered and said, He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind that is between the two that is what sees the vision and it is.
Thanks to Jason Miller for this quote from the Gospel of Mary. Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who in Orthodox Christian tradition is called the Apostle to the Apostles because she was the first to encounter the risen Jesus and testify to the Resurrection. My own take on her is a bit more heterodox, as I think the Gnostic texts point to a sexual relationship between Mary and Jesus which was an essential part of his work.
One of my deepest problems with Christianity has been the Church’s treatment of sexuality. Its attitude to sex shapes its equally problematic treatment of women, of same-sex erotic relationships and those who have them, and of sexual ethics. The Church at its best affirms embodied life and the material world, created by God, experienced by God through the Incarnation; the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation are reflected in Pope Francis’ liberating statements on politics, economics, and the environment. Yet while he’s not hammering on sexuality like some of his predecessors, neither is he saying anything different from them, if pressed to it; he’s willing to accept what science has to say about global warming and climate change, but not what science has learned about human sexuality since Aristotle.
At the same time, sexuality and eroticism are always creeping around the edges of Christian experience, Christian theology. The Church inherited from Jewish tradition a text that unabashedly celebrates erotic love without ever mentioning the name of God; it proceeded to write hundreds of texts on how the Song of Songs is a metaphor for the relationship of God and the soul. Bernard of Clairvaux, a celibate monk who had a habit of trying to persuade his friends and relations to leave their spouses and enter monastic life, wrote no less than eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs, and that without covering more than two of its eight short chapters. Women writers, too, resorted to erotic metaphors for spiritual experience; nuns were still frequently called “brides of Christ” into the 20th century, and the clothing ceremony in which an aspiring nun puts on the habit for the first time became essentially a wedding, complete with white dress, where the groom was present only by proxy. I remain baffled and confused by a theological tradition that uses sexuality as a metaphor for the most exalted, most fulfilling relationship possible to a human being, while at the same time denigrating the ordinary, everyday expressions of sexuality, even those that it sanctioned, such as marriage.
Other world religions haven’t done a significantly better job of dealing with women, women’s sexuality, or sexuality in general. Judaism is more sex-positive, but still privileges men over women. Women seem to be at least as well off in some Islamic cultures as in European or American society, but in others they are treated horrifically. Hinduism has suttee, dowry killings, public gang rapes. Buddhism, which has a pretty good image here in the U.S., also has a frighteningly high proportion of teachers, both Asian and American, who have been embroiled in sexual scandals and have perpetrated decades of exploitation on women students.
Why is it, I wonder, that it’s always women who are thrown under the bus? Sometimes I have to conclude that it’s just that men who desire women are profoundly terrified of that desire and of the people who provoke it, to the point where they will do anything to control women in order to deny their own desires for love, erotic love, and deep intimacy. Seminary training and vows of celibacy, decades of meditative practice (and vows of celibacy), worship of a Goddess and Wiccan training–none of these seems able to de-condition men from their fear and hatred of what they most desire. Mary Magdalene got thrown under the bus, written out as Jesus’ partner, his foremost disciple, the primary witness to his resurrection, relegated to a repentant whore, a chaste camp-follower, her very name mutated into the word “maudlin”.
I think this is one of the most important reasons why I have finally wound up as a pagan, and not only that, but as an Antinoan. That may sound counter-intuitive, since devotion to Antinous puts his relationship to another man front and center, but Antinoan cultus affirms pretty much everything about sex that other religions deny and inhibit. Antinous is not merely a god of gay sex; he is pro sexual relationships of consent and mutuality, whatever combination of genders is involved. He is pro multiple genders rather than just the m/f binary. He is pro erotic relationships between women as well as between men, and pro friendship between men and women. He is pro happy marriages between men and women and happy families, even. And he is not interested in imposing the sexual ethics or the gender roles of the past on his people today.
I did not realize until I had it, perhaps, how much I wanted a religion that made the erotic a central concern instead of leaving it to lurk around the borders, beyond the light of the candles on the altar, a religion that wasn’t angry at women for somehow being the cause of everything bad because we’re just so tempting. It goes deeper than wanting to worship goddesses or honor female ancestors, though those desires, those needs, are also deeply important. Hail, Saint Mary Magdalene, consort of the Savior, Apostle to the Apostles: Pray for your sisters who are still stuck under the bus.
(Originally posted at Antinous for Everybody, 22 July 2015)
And he showed me a little thing, a book,
scarce larger than the span of my hand,
and it was all I had writ.
My great book of his Showings,
wrote by me with so much labour,
lo, it was gone, as if it had never been.
And our Lord said,
Fret not, for I shall put you away like wine;
I shall hide you in my cellar; I shall keep you
even until last, until your even-Christians
be never so thirsty. And then
I will pour you out, I will crack open
the little hazelnut, and many shall drink
from your book, a multitude shall feast
on the meat of the nut. Wilt thou wait?
Yea, Lord, said I,
if such be thy will, then will I wait,
and all be well.
And I closed my eyes, which had gazed so long
on his blessed image, and stepped through
his wounded side into paradise.
(January 1999, February 2013)
Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular saints in the world. Churches and church schools hold Pet Blessing services in his honor, letting people bring their dogs and cats, hamsters, rabbits, bearded dragons, and yes, birds to church, where they can sing along with “All things bright and beautiful” or “All creatures of our God and King”. People happily post pictures of Francis preaching to the birds, featuring attentive songbirds (they were actually crows), or share the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, which was actually composed by a French priest named Fr Esther Bouquerel in 1912 and became associated with Francis when it was printed on a holy card of his image in 1927.
The great Giotto, one of my favorite artists, painted a justly famous fresco of Francis preaching to the birds, but he also painted an earlier, no less decisive incident in the saint’s life.
Francis’ father, a successful and wealthy cloth merchant, called out his slacker son for selling off silk from the family business to pay for repairs to the little church of San Damiano, which Francis was doing because he’d heard the voice of Jesus telling him, “Repair my church, Francis, which as you can see is falling apart”. When his father took charge of him, threatening to disown and disinherit him, and the bishop told him he must return his father’s money and trust in God (instead of actually doing what God had bidden him), Francis took the purse of his belt and gave it to his father, then said, “My clothes were bought by you, also, and so they belong to you,” took them off, and dropped them at his father’s feet, to stand naked before God and man.
From them on, so the legend says, Francis lived on alms and said that he was wedded to Lady Poverty. That’s fine once you’ve been canonized, but if you look past Giotto’s wonderful paintings, what you see is a teenaged slacker more interested in music, dance, and the latest hot singers from Provence than in the family business, who then becomes a crazy homeless guy who begs for money, talks about Jesus all the time, and seems to be trying to rebuild a falling-down old church. The gentle St. Francis who preached to birds and wrote hymns about all created beings praising the Creator is easier to like than the crazy homeless guy who was an anticapitalist, or the suffering mystic whose love was rewarded by being wounded with the same wounds as his god.
But they are all the same person–the slacker teenager partying instead of helping his dad; the crazy homeless guy; the semi-reluctant leader of a little band of brothers who somehow got their Rule of life approved by the Pope; the well-meaning idiot who thought if he just went and talked to the Muslims, they would accept Jesus and all this horrible Crusading would end; the isolated, suffering mystic wrapping his hands like a boxer to hide his open wounds. It has taken me far too long, but I think I’ve finally grasped how and why Francis’ emphasis on poverty and what we would call his environmentalism are the same thing. Standing naked in front of his father, having told him in no uncertain terms that he was dropping out and tuning in, Francis realized that in truth, everyone is poor. No human being can really own anything, earn anything, deserve anything. Everything we live on, everything we need, everything that pleases us is a sheer gift from God, and our job is not to make money and pursue security but to return thanks and praise for God’s gifts, as the sun and the moon, birds, wolves, trees, and everything else does, but consciously and humanly.
His fellow Italians call him Il Poverello, the little poor man. And Francis was poor, and he suffered, but he was also happy. And like all people who are truly devoted to a god, he was and is dangerous, and for that, I venerate him.
Hail, Maximilian Kolbe,
priest of God Most High,
who for love of the Blessed Virgin Mother
offered himself to torture and death,
exchanging his life for another’s.
Hail, Jonathan Myrick Daniels,
student priest and righteous ally,
who in the spirit of the Magnificat
worked for justice and peace
in the Civil Rights Movement,
and in the spirit of his Lord Jesus
placed his body between a white man’s gun
and the body of a black girl,
giving his life for hers.
Hail, martyrs of Christ,
witnesses to compassion, justice, and peace!