Conversation 2: This Body of Death

Conversation 2: This Body of Death

All right, I’m back.

Good. The last things you said were not exactly reassuring. I’m even more worried now.

Oh, the stuff about St. John of the Cross being homoerotic?

That. Are you doing the queer revisionism thing? Where it turns out everyone was gay? St. Joan of Arc, Cardinal Newman, David and Jonathan, Jesus and John?

Nope. Was just telling a story.

But do you think there are homoerotic undertones in St. John of the Cross?

There are definitely erotic undertones. Or overtones. It’s a love poem. Whether it’s specifically homoerotic…well, on the one hand, it’s a love poem written by a man to (or about) a man. On the other hand, that man is Jesus, and the woman in the poem isn’t St. John of the Cross, it’s the Church; like I said before, the speaker of a poem isn’t always the same as the narrator.

On the other other hand, if the bride in the poem is the Church, then the bride is also all of us. We are the bride of Christ. And for a bride to want erotic union with her bridegroom is, as the phrase goes, meet and proper.

So we should be desiring erotic union with Jesus?

I think so. I don’t really know what that means. I obviously don’t mean that we should go around having sexual fantasies about Jesus. I’m pretty sure that would be weird and not spiritually helpful. Not that Jesus wasn’t a sexual being. He did (does!) have a penis, after all, and penises are for something!

But then, he was celibate, wasn’t he! And also, the erotic is not the same thing as the sexual. I think the sexual (as in sexual intercourse and sexual desire) is just one possible expression of the erotic.

That’s…a lot.

Yeah, it’s a lot. And although it’s a very old and very Christian idea, it’s one that can very easily go astray. It’s one thing to say that sexual intercourse is a metaphor for Divine love (which it very obviously is) and it’s another thing to say that we should go around looking for Divine love by means of sexual intercourse (do you want temple prostitutes? Because this is how you get temple prostitutes!).

People do that, though.

They certainly do. I’d argue that people who browse Grindr are, as a rule, looking for Divine love. It’s just not the best strategy for finding it.

What is the best strategy? Does it involve having sex? Can it?

Same as I said to my boyfriend at the time: I don’t know. People have a lot of very weird ideas. I heard somewhere that there are theology-of-the-body type people who put holy water on their genitals before they have sex with their spouses, which…is…okay, I guess…

St Paul seems to say pretty clearly that it’s better to be celibate than married (though he admits that not everybody will be able to accept this idea). But then he also says that “it’s better to marry than to burn”.

What do you think he meant by that?

I don’t know what St Paul meant by a lot of things he said. He seems to be saying that marriage, and the desire for sexual intercourse, is a concession to human weakness, but also a concession that God seems willing to make.

That actually doesn’t sit very well with me. Because on the one hand I’ve always been told that Christianity in general, and Catholicism/Orthodoxy in particular, is a religion that fundamentally believes that bodies are very good things, that matter is a very good thing, and that pleasure is a very good thing.

But then at the same time there’s this strong undercurrent that seems to contradict that idea. There’s St Paul and his apparent belief that the concession to libido is just that, a concession. There are the desert fathers, who seem to be doing their very best to get rid of every trace of bodily pleasure.

I’ve heard it said that the Catholic belief in asceticism doesn’t come from a belief that the body is bad and needs to be punished, but from a  belief that the body is good and needs to be honored. What do you think of that?

Well, along the same lines, I’ve heard it said that the sins of the flesh are precisely those sins that the spirit commits against the body, and not the other way around. I like that very much.

I think it makes sense to think of masturbation that way, for example: a person takes a bodily faculty meant for love, meant for union, and literally abuses it — that is, uses it for a purpose other than that for which it was intended. That’s why they used to call it “self-abuse”, which I think is a very good and very accurate term.

A therapist of mine once took issue with my belief that masturbation is sinful. “We’re all sexual beings, after all!” she said. The more I think about this phrase of hers, the less it makes sense. Yes, we are all sexual beings! But “a sexual being” is not a being who wants sexual pleasure. It is someone who wants intimate personal union. And of course masturbation has nothing to do with the pursuit of intimate personal union.

But I want to look more closely at this theme of spirit and body and how they fit together, what role they play. They seem to be opposed: St John says that those who believe in Jesus are made “children of God — not of the flesh…but of God.”

And this syncs up very well, I think, with something St Paul says when he’s talking about what it means to be baptized, what it means to be incorporated into (literally made-part-of-the-body-of) Jesus. Before Jesus, we were all part of the body (the mystical body??) of Adam; but then Jesus came and gave us the chance to be part of a different body, the body of Jesus.

He also says that when we are baptized into Jesus, we are baptized into his death. And I think part of what this means is that when we are incorporated into Jesus, our membership in Adam’s body is what dies, and now we are members of Jesus instead.

What does it mean to be a member of Adam, or a member of Jesus?

I don’t know! I think it means there are different rules for you now? When you are in Adam’s body, you are subject to all of these demands of the flesh. You have to eat and drink and have sex. But then when you are part of Jesus’ body instead, these demands…well, they don’t go away, but they’re not paramount anymore. Maybe that’s why the saints fast and mortify (deathify!) their flesh — as a demonstration of, or as a way to achieve, this independence from the old death-bound body of Adam and its demands.

But the Church doesn’t seem to want to liberate us from the body, either.

No, not at all! On the contrary. The Church takes eating and drinking and sex and makes them more than they were before, without denying what they were before. I think this is what we mean when we say that Grace builds on Nature, rather than supplanting it, or that Jesus came to  fulfill the law, not to abolish it.

So we eat and we drink, but now we eat the body of Christ (which is “food indeed”, or maybe “food for REAL”), we drink the blood of Christ, and when we have sex, it’s not just a fulfilment of an evolutionary drive — it’s an image of God’s penetration into us, his giving himself to us. Orgasm, the “little death”, is like Jesus’ death on the cross; ejaculation is like His pouring Himself out for us…

I’m…not sure about that last part.

Yeah, me either, I need to slow down. Let’s pick this up later.



10 Comments on “Conversation 2: This Body of Death”

  1. Robert Bruce Lewis says:

    “I think the sexual (as in sexual intercourse and sexual desire) is just one possible expression of the erotic.
    That’s…a lot.
    * * * * * *
    I’d argue that people who browse Grindr are, as a rule, looking for Divine love. It’s just not the best strategy for finding it.
    * * * * * *
    “a sexual being” is not a being who wants sexual pleasure. It is someone who wants intimate personal union…”

    I myself have been having thoughts similar to these for a long time, and I think YOU should try to organize your own, so as to become a better spiritual adviser to gay men than most priests I know. It can be argued that the sublimation of homoerotic impulses makes for much greater spiritual energy than what the proponents of the “Theology of the Body” are presently imagining. That’s part of the reason I advocate that a religiously renovated (and converted) “Sworn Brotherhood,” as described by Alan Bray, in his book “The Friend,” be purposefully enacted, with the implicit understanding that it exist for two reasons: for public acceptance by the Catholic faithful, that “same-sex-attraction” is natural and potentially beneficial, spiritually; and that chastity is the highest expression of such an affection, because it is self-sacrificial.

    I believe that it is the Catholic organization “Courage” that posits that every gay man needs a straight friend–basically, I suppose, to “sacrifice” his libido to, It makes more sense to me than it used to…

    1. There are various people doing work on the idea of committed friendships, I think.

      I know that Courage talks about the importance of friendship, both in general and in particular for gay men. I don’t know what they’d say about the idea of “sacrificing one’s libido” to one man in particular…that sounds like something that could easily create an unhealthy dynamic. But I’m not quite sure what you mean by it.

  2. Fr Kevin says:

    Amazing. Worth the wait.

  3. Robert Bruce Lewis says:

    “…I don’t know what they’d say about the idea of “sacrificing one’s libido” to one man in particular…that sounds like something that could easily create an unhealthy dynamic. But I’m not quite sure what you mean by it..”

    It’s a trope, in smarmy love stories, that when two lovers are breaking up, one says to the other, “But I’d like to still be friends,” and the other says, “I can’t do that.” I’ve always considered, personally, that that was sufficient indication that the second person was never truly in love with the first.
    What I propose, then, is that the straight man fully accept that his gay friend has “feelings” for him, which he is suppressing in the interest of the friendship, and that he accept the sacrifice of those “feelings” as earnest of his friend’s love, and that the gay man acknowledge that his straight friend’s relationship with him is an aid to spiritual perfection. You’ve heard, “No greater love has any man than that he should lay down his life for his friend,” right? So I say, similarly, that, perhaps, “No greater love has a gay man than that he should lay down is sex life for his friend.”

    1. Stephen says:

      This was really well put Robert. I this happened quite a bit in my life especially in my early 20’s when I was surrounded by a great group of Catholic guys. Though I may not have articulated it in exactly the same way at the time, the dynamic was the same. Chastity so clearly and tangibly led to intimacy. The more I was a brother in Christ in this way the closer my friendships became. That was an intimacy worth struggling for and made erotizisation of those friendships pale as counterfeit in comparison.

  4. Jenny Baklinski says:

    “You’ve heard, “No greater love has any man than that he should lay down his life for his friend,” right? So I say, similarly, that, perhaps, “No greater love has a gay man than that he should lay down is sex life for his friend.””
    This is fantastic! If I may borrow the struggle, being a straight woman married to a good man, but following a car accident that ruined my skeleton, we can no longer have children… so from a perspective of committing to not get pregnant and still keep our life in line with the church, this line is a beautiful witness to us too! “ no greater love has a straight man than to lay down his sex life for the good of his family” #extendedNFP
    Steve, I admire your work so much… the things you write, the complexities you explore , the vulnerability you share, and the depths you plumb.
    Carry on, good man!

  5. Andrew Tardiff says:

    To me the “of course” (in the masturbation paragraph) is striking, especially when coupled with your remark about what sex is for. You say intimacy, love, union, but you leave out life. I would have said of course sex is about life.

    I also would have said that certain parts of the body are obviously not sexual organs. This makes them problematic for the love dimension of sex. We desire union but penetration there calls for a barrier, partly so you’re not exposed to harmful germs yourself, but also because the sperm is not good for your partner. It has immuno suppressant properties in it that promote conception in intercourse, but in an environment of harmful bacteria promote infection.

    But we recently had a back and forth in the family over whether love was even an essential part of sex. Our times only insists on consent.

    1. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

  6. Robert Bruce Lewis says:

    Joey, about those historical figures you mentioned above, there IS some ambiguity, about about Gerard Manley Hopkins there absolutely is not, because in his “notes for confession,” which have been preserved (probably accidentally), he very clearly states that he is tempted to “sinful thoughts” by the sight of young men’s bodies. Hopkins obviously lived and died a virgin, but he was definitely “same-sex-attracted”–strongly so–and the confessional notes confirm what is clear in the poetry: the Body of Christ obviously stirred feelings of love in him that included (and disciplined) the erotic.

    Please don’t stop posting, and don’t worry about “ambivalence” or doubts, because your virtue and integrity are stellar, and of inspiration to others, including me.

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