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.
It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it:
Somebody has to be the bad girl, somebody has to
wear the red dress, somebody has to be the shadow
cast by the light of the pure and perfect heroine
and hero. Buffy has Faith and the Virgin Mother
has Mary Magdalene.
Whore, harlot, sinner,
sorceress, maudlin, melodramatic, carrying
the repressions of two millennia along with
the fragrance of Eros in her little broken jar.
The broken vessel, the woman with seven devils,
the heir of Jezebel and foremother of Crazy Jane.
Passionate, devoted love, focused attention,
commitment, first witness to the Resurrection,
demoted to the camp follower, the eternal sinner.
On this your feast day, Mary called Magdalene,
uncover your long red hair and shake it out,
make your earrings and your bracelets ring,
lift up your arms and dance like your foremother
Miriam, sister of Moses, beating her tambourine
on the shore of the Red Sea because the forces
that enslaved her people are vanquished.
We will celebrate with you the liberation
long-delayed, the redemption of the red lady,
the fragrance of erotic love arising from
the broken jar, the broken heart, the passion
which is life as well as
death and also life eternal.
Come, Raven, bring me that bread
which you brought to Elijah alone in the desert
the body of Christ prefigured
sufficient for all my needs
Come, Raven, bring me the bread
of wisdom, lechem of chokmah
the milk of Sapientia
made firm like a stone
Christ made loaves out of bread
fish out of fish
wine out of blood
bread out of flesh
everything out of words
the Word of his being
I give you that word,
come, give me the bread
that I may live
Today the church remembers Benedict of Nursia, Abbot of Monte Cassino, c.540 Born at Norcia, Italy around 480 AD That historical time frame, a mere four years before the Western Roman Empire formally fell by the deposition of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, the life of Benedict and his works laid the foundation both for […]
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.
Nine bows to you, Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi,
heir of Zentatsu Baker Roshi and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.
Nine bows to you, a gay boy raised Catholic.
Nine bows to you, Navy man and entertainer.
Nine bows to you, enlightened drag queen.
Nine bows to you, recovered addict.
Nine bows to you, devoted meditator.
Nine bows to you, who welcomed those with AIDS.
Nine bows to you, who created hospice for the dying.
Nine bows to you, gay man, drag queen, Zen priest,
Zen roshi, healer of the dying, dying as a master:
The people of Antinous honor you as a saint!
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!
This Sunday I had the pleasure of entertaining a friend in my new apartment for a couple of hours. In the course of our conversation, my friend, who is a polytheist like myself and, in addition, a former Catholic, asked me how I was handling returning to regular (Episcopal) church attendance, as a polytheist devoted to Antinous. Was it strange or difficult, she wondered, getting involved with Jesus again?
The question proved surprisingly easy to answer, or maybe not surprisingly, given that I had been thinking about it anyway. And given that I know of more than one pagan or polytheist who is a member of an Episcopal or Unitarian church, I thought my answers would be worth sharing.
First of all, being in church does not necessarily involve a devotional relationship with Jesus, if by “devotional” you mean having a lot of feelings. I have a lot of feelings for Antinous, and I pay him cultus every day; I don’t have the same feelings for, say, Mars or Minerva, but I still pay them respectful cultus at certain times. Sunday is a day when I pay cultus to Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit, in a gathering with other people.
Second, being in church is mostly about the other people. It’s about community and communion with the people sitting in the pews with me, and with the people who came before us in the tradition. It’s about pre-Reformation saints like Benedict, the father of Western Christian monasticism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich; it’s about specifically Anglican forebears like John Donne, George Herbert, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle. And it’s about my childhood, the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, a body of literature that includes but is far from exclusive to the Bible. The luminaries of the Anglican spiritual tradition are also leading lights of English literature. Being in church, thus, is as much ancestor worship as anything else.
It’s true that the Christian liturgy, no matter how progressive or in what denomination, assumes a theology of monotheism and, ultimately, the superiority of Christianity over other religions. However, there is a lot of ancient religious literature, including a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures, that assumes polytheism, but still addresses a particular deity as The Greatest of All Time. Many of the deities of Egypt were hymned as creator, all-giver, supreme on earth and in heaven, all-wise, all-powerful, and so forth–while twenty miles away, another deity entirely was praised in the same way. The fancy word for this is henotheism, which Wikipedia defines as “the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities.” In ancient Thebes, you called Amun the supreme god; in Rome, Jupiter was the all-ruler; in Athens, it was Zeus, but the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did not argue woh was *really* the supreme deity. While I’m in church, the Christian Trinity is the One God (even if I think they are actually three).
Antinoan scholar P. Sufenas Virius Lupus once said to me, “Jesus and Antinous have been friends for a long time.” This seemed self-evidently true to me at the time, and still does. PSVL also once wrote about looking at the gods as individuals who hold certain values, rather than as bureaucrats with certain functions. For example, Antinous is not really The Gay God (a lot of the gods are pretty gay by our standards) or a god of gayness, sitting behind a lavender desk in a celestial bureaucracy and signing forms pertaining to gay people with a purple pen. Rather, he is a god who values gay and lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people, along with prophecy, healing, poetry, hunting, theatre, and introducing mortals and immortals to one another at parties. Jesus is a god who values the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the Othered, which means that in our culture right now, he and Antinous are concerned about a lot of the same people. And Jesus also likes parties with plenty of wine.
From a Christian point of view, I suppose, I am a contumacious heretic, but from a polytheist point of view, Jesus is one of many gods and it’s up to me, or any individual, whether I want to worship him. Ask me about my heresies, and I’ll gladly explain them to you.
Here’s a post I wrote several years ago on my Antinoan blog: “Throwing the First Apostle under the bus”.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed of all our infirmities and know you in the power of his endless life; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Collect of the Day and icon of the saint from The Daily Office.)