passionate worship

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.
The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the intersection between disability and sex. This thinking has led me to reflect upon our identity as sexual and passionate beings, and then to wonder about what that says about our relationship to God. What follows is an exercise in creative thinking – not a systematic analysis of worship. If you hate it, please don’t beat me up too much. But at least I hope you find it stimulating…

Contemporary Christian worship music is framed by a subliminal eroticism, revealed in song lyrics, musical style, and the body language of Christian bands and recipient congregations. This eroticism reflects the long history of sensual language in the Christian spiritual tradition (see the picture and of St Therese above), with its expressed longing for union with Christ and the loving embrace of God. A passionate, ecstatic, and experiential sensuality was central to the worship of the charismatic renewals of the late 20th century, and remains prominent in contemporary worship, with songs emphasising God’s overwhelmingly powerful love for us, and our passionate longing for him.

To cite a recent example, consider one of my favourite worship songs, Hillsong United’s Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). To complain that this song might as easily be directed at a lover is to miss that that is precisely the point. Written in the first person, the song draws on passionate human eros and directs it to God: “my soul rest in your embrace, for I am yours and your mine.” Its sensuality is contained not only in the lyrics, but in the beauty and purity of vocalist Taya Smith’s voice, gently supported by the (sexy) timber of male backup singers. It is a song sung by beautiful people, who celebrate the mystery of divine beauty with eyes closed, and hands raised, symbolic of both submission and embrace. Surely this is not something to be decried but, rather, it’s what worship is all about.

Eros, sexuality, is fundamental to what it is to be human – to be a passionate person. Too often in its history the church has sought to suppress sensuality for the sake of boring, cold, and rigid agape – self-giving love. Self-giving is, of course, central to love, but it is self-destroying if it is not accompanied by passionate eros. And this has been the story of the church, which has demanded that people love by subjugating passion. Yet all the while it has failed to realise that its self-flagellation was a sign of eros suppressed and distorted – a celibate priesthood corsets the Bride (i.e. the church), telling her to ‘suck it up and think of God (or England).’ Repression on one side leads to oppression on the other.

If contemporary worship is subliminally erotic, then at its best it’s a celebration of human passion and a longing for intimacy and touch. As such, it’s a celebration of bodies, bodily sensations, and ardent emotion, all of which should be brought to bear in worship.

Where it goes wrong is when passionate worship (human to divine) functions exclusively, as a replacement for the thrill of human to human passion.

If worship can be erotic, then is it possible for sex to be worship? There is obvious support for this idea in Hinduism and Tantric sex, as well as in various animistic traditions and pagan spiritualities. Although less prominent in Jewish and Christian tradition, the canonisation of the Song of Solomon stands as an especially potent sacralising of sexual desire. That church theologians have often analogised Song of Songs as a symbol of the passion of Christ for the church is telling, even if, thereafter, Jesus is generally imagined as asexual. In fact, the incarnation is itself a divine embrace of embodied humanity – and Jesus had sexual organs that presumably functioned in much the same way as ours. Jesus’ particular vocation may well have kept him a virgin, but he was constantly in trouble for ignoring the sexual proprieties of his day by welcoming women and men as friends and lovers (in the broadest sense of that term). This is not to say that we can model our sex lives on Jesus (sometimes WWJD really is absurd), but it is to say that Christianity should celebrate the body, in all of its wondrous, sensual, and messy absurdity.

Might we go further, embracing the idea that we could learn something about what it is to worship by thinking about our sexuality (and, of course, doing more than just thinking)? I’m not primarily talking about fantasy, (although I’m not excluding it, since imagination is surely part of the divine image), but about exploring what our passions have to say about us, our self-transcending capacity to love and be loved. These passions are ultimately reaching for transcendent beauty; that is to say, our passion seeks the divine.

But if that’s so, what might be the implications of our assumptions that certain groups of people are or should be asexual? Of course I’m thinking about disability, but the logic (if there is any) has much broader implications. Precisely what those are is a topic for another day.

A trip to the clinic

Warning, sexual content

Note: I thought long and hard about whether or not to post this blog topic, wondering whether it is too personal, embarrassing and/or revealing, and so best kept behind closed doors. I’ve decided to take the plunge, however, after a response I received from my good friend Lauren:

Yes the story does reveal your particular vulnerabilities, and maybe you should be embarrassed, but it is breaking down stereotypes in another way.  Our culture talks about sex so much, usually in negative, exaggerated, unreal, or misogynistic ways.  And you know how most Christians talk about sex; pleasure is missing, control is emphasised, prudishness is the norm and sin is always lurking. I think you are discussing sexuality and love, human frailty and desire in very honest and beautiful ways, which challenges cultural and Christian representations.

I’m pretty sure “beautiful” is the wrong word (bizarre, absurd, surreal, might be more appropriate), but what follows is an account of a recent visit to the spinal clinic:

I’m now more than three years on from my injury, and without doubt the hardest thing to deal with has been the injury’s impact upon my sex life. Now, before I say anything more, I don’t want to add to the general assumption that people with a spinal cord injury (or any other disability) are asexual, incapable of receiving or giving sexual pleasure. On the contrary, what people don’t realise is that most people with a spinal cord injury actually do okay in bed. If they’re creative, they have the opportunity to focus on their partner’s pleasure. Also, many retain some sensation (although many don’t) and may or may not be able to orgasm. Most men manage to get a sustainable erection with the help of drugs like Viagra. I say this for the sake of my single brethren in chairs, who are just as likely (or unlikely) as anyone else to be sensational lovers.

Even so, adjusting sexually to the injury definitely has its challenges. In my case, perhaps because God hates me, I’ve been unable to get any sustainable hard on, notwithstanding attempts to use any number of drugs and pumps (it’s all very romantic). As a result, my doctor recommended a Caverject injection. This is a drug similar to Viagra, which is injected directly into the muscle of the penis. And to make sure things would be safe (that there’d be no adverse autonomic dysreflexia or permanent erection – which apparently is a bad thing?), as well as to instruct my Elly in its use, we were asked to attend Clinic for the first injection.

dw_5x10__vincent_and_the_doctor_amydoctorAnd so last week we made our way to the Royal North Shore Hospital, and on arrival were ushered into a sterile clinic, white walls, floor, and roof – and a stainless steel sink. We were met by a delightfully friendly, buxom, redheaded clinical nurse, and a besuited, greying Doctor, and asked to flesh out our situation. After 15 minutes of “tell all” conversation, I was asked to tip back my chair, whereupon my pants were pulled down, and a redhead and grey-haired took a look around. Then I was injected (I couldn’t feel it, but the idea of an injection there was pretty horrific), and Elly was asked to massage it around. As you can imagine, she was red-faced mortified. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to scream. There I was, in a room with three people looking on to see if I’d go hard!

A little bit of success, but not much, so the doctor decided to add some vibration, using a machine that sound like an electric drill. The combination seemed to have some success, at least enough for the Doctor to call time on the show. What it will mean for us in the long term I’m not sure. Truth be told, Elly and I were just pleased to get out of the room.

Really, all you can do is laugh at the situations you find yourself in life!

PS Relax, I was joking. I know God doesn’t hate me.… at least I don’t think so.

Film Review: The Sessions

The Sessions is a magnificent film, although my attempt to describe it to others has met with underwhelming response. My son, Jeremy, went as far as to comment, “where do you find these weird films, dad?”

It tells the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 39-year-old polio victim who spends most of his life in an iron lung – a machine that looks something like a diving compression chamber, without which he can breathe for only a few hours at a time. Because of the severity of his disability, with its impact upon the function and shape of his body (as he says, “someone who was not an attendant, nurse, or doctor would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard ribcage, and hipbones protruding like outriggers” – see note 1), Mark has not experienced sexual intimacy. And so he hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who helps him work through his fear and experience the joys and frustrations of sex.

So, a disabled man has sex. How do you make a quality movie on the basis of such a premise? For a start, you give a naked Helen Hunt plenty of screen time! This 49-year-old star has a beautiful figure – but the film manages to reveal the natural beauty of her body and her character without the sensationalism or gratuity of so much of the Hollywood portrayal of sex. Perhaps this is because her nudity is set alongside that of Mark, although this implies a “beauty and the beast” motif which the film also manages to avoid. In fact, it somehow evinces the beauty and strangeness of all bodies, along with the exquisite joy and disappointments of sex. In doing so, the film explores a vital element of what it is to be human; the challenge of living within the limits of our broken and finite bodies, and the longing for a connection with others that is both psychological and physical.

Elly and I watched The Sessions together. Its themes were probably too close to home, yet in some weird way, I suspect every person will be able to recognise something of their own problems and insecurities in this story – while also being reminded of the blessings and opportunities of their own life.

The Sessions – a triumphant tearjerker, 4.5/5 stars.

PS: the film also explores O’Brien’s Catholic faith, and his friendship with his parish priest. The potency of this relationship perhaps arises from their shared virginity, and also from their honest wrestling with the grace and vicious humour of God in the face of the problem of pain.

 

Note 1: the film is based on an article written by Mark O’Brien, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”, the Sun, May 1990. It is available at the following link, http://longform.org/author/mark-obrien/ – in my view, best read after seeing the film