You run into interesting conundrums in church life. For instance, in planning readings for a Valentine’s Day service that honors the erotic, you find that it’s not at all hard to locate some pretty great erotic poems; it’s just a challenge to come up with ones that you can read aloud in church. This liturgical challenge, however, got me wondering. Why can’t we read erotic poems in church? Why do we think of religious life as being so opposed to the life of the flesh, of sensuality? Are the two intrinsically opposed?
Valentine’s Day itself provides a bit of an insight into the question of how we deal with the spirit and the flesh. At a best guess, the holiday harks back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite that seems to have involved young men drawing lots for the women with whom they would, well, conjoin, so that their fertility by magical inference would also guarantee the fertility of the fields. Pretty racy stuff. When the Christians came to power, however, they regarded the notion of the spirit and the flesh being one in a rather different light, and the holiday was taken over as a saint’s day for Valentine.
Nobody quite knows which of a couple of different guys named Valentine is the official sponsor of the holiday, as both were lovers and Christian martyrs who died without forsaking their loves or their faith. One way or another, the holiday came to be associated with love—romantic love, but with a religious edge far removed from the holiday’s rather orgiastic past.
These days, of course, Valentine’s Day isn’t a religious holiday at all, but rather an excuse for Hallmark and FTD Florist to remind you that love does, indeed, have a price. Those of us who are in romantic relationships go out to dinner, and those of us who are not might feel disgruntled…and console ourselves by going out to dinner.
But somewhere under the layers of piety and commercialism lies buried a profound truth. The spiritual and the erotic are not opposite poles in our human nature. They are different names, different outlets for a potent life force that is one and the same. In her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde writes:
The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference. Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.
The passion, the burning desire that pulls our bodies together in acts of love, is the same erotic passion that stretches our bodies in dance or links word to flesh in poetry or fills the mystic in ecstatic union with the divine. The force that links us together in shared striving for justice comes from the same deep chaos and connection that pulls lovers into one another’s arms. Somehow, I just can’t believe that there’s some kind of law that forbids that kind of passion from happening in church.
Of course, I first learned about that erotic power in church—just not in the Sunday services. My introduction to passion came in my experiences attending Unitarian Universalist youth conferences. And yes, raging teenage hormones and a certain lack of close supervision did play their part. Burgeoning sexuality was a factor, but it was far more than that. For the first time in my life, everything fit together. Maybe the power did, indeed, come from having the place and the permission to touch one another, but the ways we touched were primarily, and most powerfully, not sexual.
We touched one another in friendship, in hugs and people piles and physical games that were about a kind of inclusion that stood in stark contrast to my experience of high school cliquishness. We touched one another’s minds, stretching for new ideas, for new ways of understanding the world. We touched one another’s hearts, sharing the depth of our feelings as we gathered in circles, seated on the floor, for worship or huddled in corners to talk late into the night. What we touched was our own, and one another’s, souls.
Thomas Moore, in his book Care of the Soul, speaks of the soul as something far different from the ethereal, intellectualized quality he calls spirit. Soul, for Moore, is chaotic, iconoclastic, potent and undeniable. It is, as far as I can tell, the same thing that Lorde speaks of as the erotic. It is that power which invades us with its golden glow, whispering or singing or hollering to us that our creativity and our joy and our passion and our strength cannot be bought off with tales of martyrdom or material trinkets. The soul, the erotic, are other names for power, for the spark inside which impels our lives forward, which tells us that who we are and what we do matters.
I have begun to suppose that the reason sex and violence seem to be so interwoven in our culture is that they stem from the same source, the same raw passion or power which is the very definition of who we are as human beings and which inevitably will find a way out. If we don’t learn to find a place for that passion in love or art or knowledge or social change, if we find no clear path for our power to take shape in the world, then that power takes on the corrupt form of domination.
Electricity properly channeled through wires powers everything from our refrigerators to our computers. But short-circuited it can burn the house down. Lacking constructive channels for their passion, people find power in corporate greed or gang warfare. Or we find ways to suppress the erotic through addiction to alcohol, drugs, food, disengaged sex, gambling or home shopping channels. Or we simply manage to tamp our lives down, learn not to care, sit like Scrooge, counting our gold and pretending that it represents security.
And why shouldn’t we? After all, true passion is dangerous. It requires being open to the world, being vulnerable, letting people know that you care. Passion is embarrassing, uncouth. It is the opposite of cool. It can portray our differences as well as our desires, leaving us open to the chance that what matters most to us is laughable to someone else. Passion leaves us exposed, visible in all our faults as well as our glory. I suppose one could say that passion requires taking your clothes off—or at least your armor.
What we’re not supposed to notice, however, is that the power of the erotic is most dangerous not to the person it runs through, but rather to powers invested in maintaining the status quo. Like Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers at the temple, the soul moves through the world upsetting the accepted order of things. It refuses to trade sexual union for a pair of sexy jeans, refuses to accept that profit is excellence, demands that we acknowledge the brilliance of our bodies and the miracle of our senses rather than distracting ourselves with fantasies of smaller thighs or different hair. Again, in the words of Audre Lorde:
We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings…. This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they fall in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.
As an African-American, Lorde understood that the erotic threatens our racist society with a holistic perspective, more native to the African point of view than the European, which insists that the mind, body and heart are bound up in one inseparable soul. As a feminist Lorde knew that the erotic challenges our sexist society with its affirmation of a deeply intuitive form of knowing, its insistence that each of us has crucial understandings that come from a voiceless place within us, and which are not dependent on a codified set of information that has so often excluded women’s lives and insights from the picture.
As a lesbian, Lorde understood that the erotic is a force for authenticity in a homophobic world that so often seeks to limit the ways our passion can find expression to a very restricted realm of “normal” behavior.
And as a poet Lorde knew that the erotic speaks through us in images and dreams, coloring outside the lines, guiding us toward strange lands and lands where we are no longer strangers.
In other words, in a commodified world that keeps coaching us to ask What can I get? the soul keeps demanding What can I love? And once love is in the picture, anything can happen. As bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis puts it: “Love comes unbidden, can’t be forbidden. It takes you and shakes you right down to your shoes. It knows heartache and trial, but accepts no denial. You can’t choose who you love, love chooses you.”
I suppose, especially given its roots in the world of country music, this song can sound like a rationalization for a pattern of engaging in lousy romantic relationships. However, to me it suggests something rather different. Love, like the erotic, lives in the deep chaotic places of the sacred. We don’t own it, and can’t bottle it up in convenient, attractive packages to sell on the common market.
On the contrary, we seem to be designed as vessels to carry love, as channels through which it runs, carrying us forward like pebbles in a riverbed. There is a fire in the belly, a current running through us, which demands that we connect with the world, that our lives make a difference.
Call it the erotic, or passion or power or imagination or creativity or soul—there are currents running through us that must find an outlet in the world. There is a passionate love within us which mutters or shouts that we are not alone, that we cannot live our lives as if we were alone. There is, in our very bodies, an impulse to move, to dance, to sing, to touch and be touched, to be connected in the most intimate of ways to the life force that runs through us all.