Local theologian and writer David R. Weiss recently sent me a complimentary copy of his newly published book, To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical Reflections on Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Wideness of God’s Welcome.
Regular readers of The Wild Reed may recall that as executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, I was asked to write an endorsement for David’s book back in April.
This endorsement reads as follows:
[To the Tune of a Welcoming God is] a heartfelt compilation of great beauty and honesty. To a church hungry for wisdom and grace, Weiss’s unwavering focus on God’s loving and welcoming embrace offers a veritable feast – one that both nourishes and delights.
Following is an excerpt from one of the essays in To the Tune of a Welcoming God. This essay is entitled, “The Body as Burning Bush: Coming Out and Other Holy Acts of Human Sexuality.” (I previously shared an excerpt from this essay in the April 29 Wild Reed post, Coming Out: An Act of Holiness.)
This particular essay is actually the transcript of a talk that David gave during Coming Out Week in October 2003. “My words are written with the GLBT community in mind,” he says. “But they will ring no less true for those who are straight.”
“The Body as Burning Bush” is, says David, “both a provocative and accurate” title for a talk that seeks to “explore two simple claims”:
First, that our bodies are able to host the presence of God – like the burning bush that Moses stood before. And second, that human sexuality is one realm of bodily experience where God’s presence can be felt – and that, therefore, there are “holy acts” of human sexuality, of which Coming Out is one such holy act.
In the excerpt below, I particularly appreciate and resonate with David’s perspective on procreation: “Sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life,” he says. “But our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. . . . Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is. ”
Claiming the goodness of sexuality is not about hopping into bed as soon as possible with a clean conscience. It is first and foremost about Coming Out and Keeping Faith* – and learning to sense the gracious precious of God in these moments.
However, if sexuality is indeed good – if God can say, over a pair of entwined bodies, replete with the salty sweet sweat of a well-won climax, “That was very good” – then within the moment of faith well-kept, shaped by intimacy that is just and kind, patient and passionate, making love is a holy act.
Making love is not about the details of how your anatomy matches up and meshes with your partner’s. It is about how you and your partner’s anatomy together become mutually engaged in a crescendo of intimacy with each other’s soul. And it is another moment when bodies burn like bushes, without being consumed, but bearing forth the presence of God. . . a moment in which God’s presence is revealed as grace, as gift. In making love we participate in this presence, becoming wholly and graciously present to another. In this moment of finding ourselves held and touched by another’s love to the point of body-trembling ecstasy we come to know something in our bodies and in our souls of the truth of God’s astonishing love – and we have been fools to blind ourselves to this by shame.
If the purpose of God’s presence is to liberate and to lure us into liberating activity, then making love also participates in the purpose of God’s presence. We live most of our lives hemmed in by a sense of self that ends where our skin stops, but in lovemaking we find ourselves drawn into the hungry awareness that selves find their ecstatic completion in this other who is just beyond where I thought my mere self stopped. This is surely a wonder that must be seen.
But there is one more moment beyond this. Because finally we make love – like burning bushes – not simply to savor ourselves but to be drawn into God’s yearning to save the world.
Liberation, in Exodus, is not just personal or interpersonal; it is full blown society-shaking liberation. And I am ready to say that when lovemaking is allowed to burst into full flame with the presence of God it can have society-shaking consequences. In my body’s ecstasy I get one glimpse of what it means for this body to be fully alive. In my happy privilege to bring [my partner’s] body to ecstasy, I come to realize that I am able to participate deeply and wonderfully in the flourishing of another body. And in these twin perceptions, sustained by the presence of God, a power is released that is no longer specifically sexual but which bears in it the hope that all bodies might flourish.
[It’s a] hope that makes my personal ecstasy the measure of my highest ideals. How can I know this deep joy in my body and not make it my lived hope that other bodies cease to know hunger, poverty, war, fear?
Thus, I will say that sexuality is indeed intended to be procreative, to give life; but our own prejudice – perhaps our desire to stem the flow of God’s creative energy into the world – has led us to understand this in a narrow, biological fashion. But truly, to find ourselves partnered in longing love with another person is to find that we have company in the work of caring for creation. Whether you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight – whether you are celibate or sexually active, single or in a relationship – one truth that we hear in the biblical creation account is that human beings were created to tend the Garden, to guide creation’s bounty and to tend its scarcity in ways that promote the flourishing of all. That’s why we’re here. The joy that we know sexually in our bodies is there, at least in part, to lure us into the holy act of caring for all that is embodied, for all the ecological diversity that reflects God’s rampant desire for incarnation.
We don’t need a partner to do this. But if in our partnerships we fail to look outward and tend to the corner of creation around us – whether that is children or other humans, animals or ecosystems, or simply our household resources – if our love for another person does not spill out into these areas, we have missed something of the presence of God. God is always engaged in the care of life, especially among the vulnerable. And no one need shrink from the expectation that Christian sexual love should be procreative. Lived well, it always is. And here, too, the bush burns brightly.
– Excerpted from “The Body as Burning Bush: Coming Out and Other Holy Acts of Human Sexuality” in To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical Reflections on Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Wideness of God’s Welcome by David R. Weiss (Langdon Street Press, 2008).
* “Keeping faith,” says David, is about “relating to others in a way that honors the divine presence at your coming out. It is about sexual ethics, and it has less to do with rules than with relationships.” Keeping faith thus also includes “recognizing the potential for misuse of our sexual selves - but more importantly about recognizing the potential for moments of incarnation through our sexual selves.” This potential for incarnation, David reminds us, “has been all but lost to us in our faith tradition.”
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men – A Discussion Guide
The Many Forms of Courage
What is it That Ails You?
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem
Jesus and the Centurion
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
What is a “Lifestyle”?
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Real Gay Agenda
Love is Love
And Love is Lord of All
In the Footsteps of Spring
In 1961, the bishop of the small diocese of Vittorio Veneto in northern Italy told some of his seminarians*:
"We must hold sacred this of God's creation -- this perfect balance of mental energy that exists between any two people when they love -- this perfect union of minds that can only be made by God. To think that love pertains only to physical parts of the body is to say that the sacrament of Matrimony should pertain equally to animals in the forest.
"We must hold this holy union in sacred trust before Almighty God whenever it exists between ANY of God's children -- man and woman, or black and white, Christian and Jew, virgin and divorcee, man and man, or woman and woman." (Emphasis added).
The bishop who spoke these words was Albino Luciani, who would later become Pope John Paul I for 33 days in 1978. Papa Luciani would continue to speak out for equal recognition of gays, especially for adoption rights, well into the 1970's.
Albino Luciani, whose birth name means “white light”, was driven by one burning question his whole life: “I always ask myself, ‘What would Jesus do in this case?’” His was a radical Christianity.
The Catholic church would be a much different place had he lived. Besides his enlightened attitudes towards towards sex, he wanted to reverse the ban on contraception, and he had zero tolerance for child molesters. And, as Pope, he declared, ”God is our Father; even more, She is our Mother.”
But mainly, I wanted to share his quote in response to this post: "To think that love pertains only to physical parts of the body is to say that the sacrament of Matrimony should pertain equally to animals in the forest."
* from “Murder in the Vatican,” by Lucien Gregoirie. The title is unfortunate. While the second half of this book admittedly speculates about the circumstances of Luciani's death, the first half is a well documented biography by an author who interviewed Luciani on nine occasions and had access to his personal papers. The Vatican is now "cleaning up" Luciani's legacy in preparation for his canonization.
This is a beautiful reflection on the sacramentality, the efficaciously of "eros." That very word sends many of the faithful into immediate "conditional" mode; that is, "Well, yes, sexual intimacy is holy, BUT..." and then there are usually tomes of cautions, limitations, warnings, and prohibitions that sap the very energy out of the very notion of sacramentality.
I am no fan of the current supreme pontiff but I do applaud his attempt to incorporate eros as part of "caritas" in his very first encyclical.
What I most enjoy about this reflection is that it reinterprets and applies to modern sensibilities the Church's teaching on "procreation." Love must "give life" if it is to be true and not a lie. If poor Paul VI had asserted that value and not applied it to reaffirm the ban on artificial contraception, the Church would look a whole lot different.
This view of human sexuality strikes me as non-incarnational, and, in fact, rather Gnostic. Everything remains at the level of affect and emotional connection... giving privilege to spirit over matter, rather than seeking an integration of the two.
Where is the appreciation for gender, for the goodness of being created as male and female, and for the physical way in which this creation is manifest? Is the experience of living in a male body or a female body really "narrow"? Or is it, instead, liberating? Does it not reveal something of the mystery of "otherness"?
Clayton, are we reading the same text?
If sexuality is indeed good – if God can say, over a pair of entwined bodies, replete with the salty sweet sweat of a well-won climax, “That was very good” – then within the moment of faith well-kept, shaped by intimacy that is just and kind, patient and passionate, making love is a holy act.
This is about as far as you can get from "non-incarnational." It's totally incarnational. How on earth is it Gnostic, i.e. despising of the human body and its functions?
In fact, it could easily be argued that Weiss's understanding of human sexuality is more fully incarnational than the teachings of the Vatican as it doesn't limit God's presence in the realm of human sexuality but rather recognizes it in the lives and relationships (and, yes, the love-making) of both straight and gay people.
You ask: "Where is the appreciation for gender, for the goodness of being created as male and female, and for the physical way in which this creation is manifest?"
Yes, humans are created male and female, but we're also created male and male, and female and female.
Also, Weiss is a straight man happily married to a woman. Believe me, from his writings one readily discerns a great appreciation for heterosexuality and its expression.
Weiss recognizes, however, that not everyone is heterosexual. He (and many others) have come to the truly liberating (and totally incarnational) awareness that "human sexuality [including both heterosexuality and homosexuality] is one realm of bodily experience where God’s presence can be felt . . . therefore, there are 'holy acts' of human sexuality" both gay and straight. I find this awareness to be wondrously expansive and totally liberating.
My orientation doesn't undermine my gender. There's clearly more than one way to be and live as a man. As a gay man I still live in a "male body," and, no, I don't find that to be "narrow."
And surely "otherness" should not be solely defined by (and thus reduced to) an understanding of gender that at all times is dictated by what's between a person's legs. The brain, after all, is the primary sex organ of humans.
I think human sexuality - involving both gender and sexual orientation - is a very complex and diverse reality. I look forward to the day when the Vatican allows its teaching to be informed by this reality.
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