Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sometimes I Wonder . . .

. . . if I know myself
as well as I know you.

But it’s you I know

and no one else will do.
Yes, it’s you I know,
with all you put me through.
When I was drifting down,
you pulled me up again.
And it’s you I know,
you’ll love me to the end.

“You I Know”
Jenny Morris

I often find myself listening to the lyrics of the classic Australian pop song, “You I Know,” and hearing not only the words of a love song between two people, but also a spiritual ode – a psalm, if you like – directed by any one of us to our deep sacred core, the “partner of [our] most intimate soliloquies,” in the words of Viktor Frankl.

I guess for me such a comparison isn’t that surprising. After all, gay men by nature possess, I believe, a unique aptitude for ecstatic approaches to spirituality. Thus I find it both natural and helpful to image God as a lover – a lover who gently calls me to feel his loving touch and embrace. In the language of the mystics, such an ecstatic image serves as the “Beloved of my soul” - and a potential mirror image of God, the Divine Lover.

Shocked? Well, get over it.

Anyway, it’s really not such an outlandish idea - even for Catholics (actually, especially for Catholics!). I mean, if you’re going to dismiss what I’m suggesting, then you’d better be willing to also dismiss any number of saints and their highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

Erotic experiences of God?! (Okay, if you’re still shocked maybe this blog isn’t for you.) But seriously, I appreciate the perspective of Jean Houston, who points out that: “Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life.”

In her book, The Search for the Beloved, Houston also writes:

The lure of Eros may not necessarily be sexual, but it is often a lure of “muchness,” a lure into deep gestating patterns of reality where you see the great forms of things, the Patterns that Connect. This lure call you to the places of re-creation in the soul where you are seeded, spiced, excited, stimulated, evoked into becoming. You become much, much more than you were, and you create much, much more than you could have before.

Eros connects the personal to something beyond, and brings the beyond into personal experience. . . . Without Eros in some form, creativity suffocates; the soul does not grow. . . . Creativity is grounded in the longing for the beloved, the extended archetype of the self within the soul.

It would seem that for some of the saints, the “lure of Eros” was indeed sexual. And in the case of St. John of the Cross, homosexual. Take for instance John’s beautiful poem, “On a Dark Night.” In setting this poem to music in 1994, singer/songwriter Loreena McKennitt
observed that it is “an exquisite, richly metaphoric love poem between [John] and his god. It could pass as a love poem between any two at any time. . . . His approach seems more akin to early Islamic or Judaic works in its more direct route to communication to his god.”

Of course as a gay man, the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man.

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
– oh, happy chance! –
I went forth without being observed,

My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
– oh, happy chance! –
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
– A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

Writes Toby Johnson of John’s beautiful “On a Dark Night”:

The allegorical explanation is that this is about the stage of depression and aridity in the religious life, the so-called “dark night of the soul.” The secret ladder is living faith; the disguise, the three theological virtues, faith, hope and charity. But that is not what’s in the poem! There is nothing about depression or spiritual suffering, much less the theological virtues. It’s about sexual passion. Perhaps the lover and beloved represent the soul and Christ, but that is still a homoerotic image.


Of course, in any discussion of the erotic in one’s spiritual life I think it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is union with the Divine. I may post an image of a sexy guy as my “Beloved,” but I know full well that if I stay focused solely on his physical appeal than there is little spirituality involved. This image of the Beloved is a focal point, an icon, if you will; and like all icons its purpose is to attract and draw one in, while at the same time direct and encourage one ever deeper into the mystery that is Divine Love. Staying forever at the surface level does not serve one well spiritually; it doesn’t facilitate that wondrous transformation of which St. John of the Cross, along with other mystics across time and cultures, speak.

I guess it’s like one’s relationship with one’s earthly beloved - one’s husband or wife or partner. For the record, I’m not in a relationship. But if I was, I would like to think that as the years go by and both my beloved and I age, our love will have deepened to the point where we wouldn’t be seeking to satisfy our physical needs with others whose looks have yet to fade. (I’m thinking that forging that deeper, spiritual dimension to a relationship must be hard work, judging from the number of people – gay and straight – who either abandon their long time partner or opt for an “open relationship.”)

In his essay, “Gay Love as Spiritual Path,” William Schindler offers similar thoughts:

At the physical level we experience the erotic through the instinctual drives that are rooted in our biological being, hunger, sexual desire, physical comfort, and through sense perception. At the subtle level the erotic gets expressed as thought, feeling, and imagination. At a subtler spiritual level the erotic connects us with the divine being in an intimate relationship. At the deepest spiritual level all forms, identities, and aspirations merge into one Being. The ecstatic aspirant does not automatically give up the lower expressions to try to experience the higher, as ascetics do, but strives to apprehend the divine erotic presence in every expression. As his experience of the divine deepens, however, the physical expressions drop away of themselves, finding their fulfillment in a more comprehensive experience. The sexual desire for a particular body type, for example, gets replaced by a generalized love for all beings that is experienced as more pleasurable, more deeply satisfying than any less-comprehensive experience. The ecstatic aspirant literally follows his bliss, never resting satisfied until he reaches the Source of bliss within and without.

Hmmm . . . gives an added depth to Jenny Morris’ lyrics, don’t you think?

Some men have muscles,
they are muscle bound
and on display.

. . . But it’s you I know
and no one else will do.
Yes, it’s you I know,
with all you put me through.
When I was drifting down,
you pulled me up again.
And it’s you I know,
you’ll love me to the end.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Gifts of Homosexuality
The Holy Pleasure of Intimacy
The Sexuality of Jesus
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
Joan Timmerman and the “Wisdom of the Body”
Getting It Right
The Onward Call

For more of Jenny Morris at The Wild Reed, see:
Saved Me
Crackerjack Man

Previous artists featured on “Music Night at the Wild Reed”: Cass Elliot, The Church, Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, Wall of Voodoo, Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, Pink Floyd, Kate Ceberano, Judith Durham, Wendy Matthews, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1927, Mavis Staples, Maxwell, Joan Baez, Tee Set, Darren Hayes, Wet, Wet, Wet, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Cruel Sea, Shirley Bassey, Loretta Lynn & Jack White, Foo Fighters, Jenny Morris, Kate Bush, Rufus Wainwright, and Dusty Springfield.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Michael. We are many-faceted beings, aren't we? I like the idea that without the depths of eros it is difficult to avoid infantilism. I also like the image you evoke of people growing old together. Did you see Woody Allen's new movie, Whatever Works? Saying something about human coupling and the meaning of life. Anyway. Thanks. Paula

PrickliestPear said...

About the "Dark Night" poem, Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote,

"If one reads those verses without knowing who the author is or what he is talking about, but merely accepts them at their face value, they are clearly about a man sneaking out of his house under cover of darkness in search of a night of pleasure with his human [and male!] lover. Indeed, the poem is not unlikely to stir up erotic feelings among readers if they consider only the text and not the context. Catholic prudes will scream that one ought not to take the poem out of its proper context. However, the imposition of a context on a work of art which is not immediately evident from the text itself is an abuse of the work. St. John of the Cross presumably knew very well what he was doing when he compared a human assignation to an assignation with God." (The Catholic Imagination, 60)

I remember reading Greeley's book years ago and wondering if the reason I found the use of erotic imagery to describe spiritual experience so foreign wasn't precisely because I'm a heterosexual male in a tradition where female God imagery has been so strongly suppressed.

It's fascinating to read about this from a gay perspective. If people are offended by it, as you indicated, there're are a few Doctors of the Church they need to start reading.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks Paula and PrickliestPear, I appreciate your affirming comments.



Polyglot in Love said...

Michael, St. John of the Cross saved me...for years! Were it not for him, I believe that the Eros I was trying to simply suppress in favor of fidelity to (a Puritanical vision of) God would have resulted in nothing less than the taking of my own life. I loved your post and the reflection/quotes on the role of Eros with God, and especially the reflections on maturing relationships. I'm getting married in a matter of days, myself, and look forward to that stage where our "roots have so entwined". Thank you.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Polyglot,

Thank you for your heartfelt comment. And congratulations on getting married. I wish you and your man every blessing and happiness.

I'm glad that you're adding your Catholic and gay voice to the blogsphere, and I've happily included your site on my blog roll. I look forward to visiting it on a regular basis.



brian gerard said...

Such an excellent post, Michael. It warrants a few more readings. For now I must say it brings to mind that some essential aspect(s) of love only come from searching.


Anonymous said...

Thank you from India. You have no idea how many lives you are touching...and how they may go on to be transformed by your words...

KittKatt said...

What a beautiful post. Amen!

Anonymous said...

Whilst it is true that the "Dark Night" is erotic in tone, if you read the original Spanish version it is quite clearly a female voice - the feminine endings of adjectives/past participles such as "inflamada" and "notada" make this obvious - as the Spanish word for soul (alma) is feminine, the poem is read as an allegory of the soul's journey to God. Still interesting when it comes from the pen of a male poet, but I don't think it's quite the homoerotic religious work some believe it to be.