Friday, April 24, 2009

The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism is a very sensual religion. We have the smell of incense, the sound of bells and of singing, the touching of beads, the kissing of sacred artifacts, the ritualistic pouring of water and rubbing of oils, and, of course, the eating and drinking of bread and wine – understood as the consuming of Christ’s physical body. Catholicism’s inherent sensuality stems from the fact that it is a profoundly sacramental religion – one that recognizes and celebrates the ancient sacramental principle that matter channels spirit while remaining matter.

Catholic theologian Joan Timmerman writes:

The sacramental view of reality is an inclusive view; it includes the Mystery of God as manifested in “natural,” that is, sensuously experienced reality. Moreover, a sacramental view recognizes the presence of God mediated not only through the Body (of the Church), but through the body (of the human being); that is, it is communal without thereby relinquishing its personal, intimate, physical locus. . . . The scandal of the incarnation . . . is also the “scandal” of sexuality as a path for spiritual growth.

Of course, certain aspects of Catholicism have long struggled with the scandal of incarnation/sexuality. It’s been a struggle that has led to the development and expression of some very interesting contradictions within the Church. For as gay author Donald L. Boisvert’s observes: “One of the great internal contradictions, and also one of the most attractive and enticing qualities, of Roman Catholicism remains its remarkable ability to negate the erotic while boldly affirming it in its art and rituals.”

In his book, Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints, Boisvert observes that:

Saints are sensual beings, and the forms of piety that they elicit can be equally sensual and sometimes even sexual, in form and content. Anyone who has had the opportunity to observe the veneration of saints’ statues in intensely Catholic cultures – such as Latin ones, for example – is struck almost immediately by the care and attention heaped upon them. They are clothed and bathed, covered with flowers or dripping in bright red droplets of blood, gaudy and almost comical in their painted features, and lit by a reflective glow of a thousand votive candles.

Boisvert’s saints are “tactile and sensual,” and their bodies, real or imagined, play a significant part in his religious and erotic life. “My saints are the men of my dreams,” he writes. “They are the companions of my imaginary voyages and my quest for spiritual fulfillment.”

I can somewhat relate to this as often in my dreams there is the presence – usually at the peripheries – of a mysterious, though benevolent figure. This “other,” I intuitively sense, is, more often than not, male. He is a constant companion, a manifestation of the sacred, the Beloved. If you were to ask me to describe his face, I could not. Yet I know that he is always present – guiding, accompanying, supporting, loving. In one of my most vivid dreams, a hare that was resting upon my lap transformed itself into my Beloved. In other words, it turned into a beautiful naked man, hungry for my touch and devotion. We proceeded to make tender and passionate love. Strange or what? Then again, I’ve since discovered that the hare is an ancient symbol of both enlightenment and homosexuality.

In light of all of this, is it any wonder that I resonate with novelist Anne Rice’s declaration that Roman Catholicism has an inherent and great love of beauty, artifice, and sensuality? “Our Catholic faith is a sensualist faith,” she says, with key elements of it always seeking to envelope the senses on every level. Rice maintains that this is very important to people.

I think we have a wonderful thing, as Catholics, in preserving that tradition. My readers have always loved the artifice and sensuality of my books. And what they’re really reading is a Catholic imagination. The [Vampire Chronicles] are Catholic, even though I didn’t know it [when I was writing them]. I was a Christ-haunted person writing about a lost faith.


Anyway, I was reminded of the intrinsic connection between the Catholic faith and sensuality as I prepared to post this evening’s Friday night music post. As you’ll see, I’m sharing a song by Australian singer Kate Ceberano.

It’s her 1989 hit, “Bedroom Eyes,” and elements of its accompanying video lend themselves very well to this discussion on Catholicism and sensuality. Enjoy!

Interestingly, Anne Rice returned to Roman Catholicism in 1998, after many years of living as an atheist. In a recent interview she observes that the question of how to really love is the struggle that all Christians face.

I think it’s the challenge that Christ lays down for us . . . and it really has to do with love and forgiveness. And its astonishing the degree to which Christians negotiate with that and back off from it and try to find excuses not to love somebody.

Rice sees this “negotiating” and “backing off” throughout history – and continuing to this day.

Christians have, over and over again, tried to decide that Christ died for one group of people and not for another. When slaves were first brought to America, slave owners who were Christian didn’t want to baptize them or let them get married because they didn’t want to admit that they were human beings for whom Jesus had died.

There’s been a long struggle for women’s rights. You get the impression at some points [in Christian history] that Jesus died a little more for men than he did for women. Not so.

. . . Right now we’re faced with a whole lot of new information about gay people. Catholicism and Christianity always react with fear when it comes to new information. Whether it’s about astronomy, evolution, biology . . . or sexual orientation, we always back up. The Church moves very slowly. But we are getting a lot of information and we are changing.

Rice’s son, Christopher, by the way, is a gay rights activist, and the author of Blind Fall, a novel that, in part, is about gays in the military. One reviewer notes that the book is a “reasonably good [murder] mystery, and a very interesting suspense novel. Once you get past the whodunit aspect of things (which is revealed rather quickly) the book has more to do with the acceptance of gays in modern society, and how they interact with the rest of us.”

Image 1: “Preludio” by George Quaintance.
Image 2:The Ecstasy of St. Therese” by Bernini Gian Lorenzo.
Image 3: St. Sebastian by Oscar Magnan
Image 4: Anne Rice with Rosary (photographer unknown).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic High Mass: Beautiful and Inherently Gay?
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
Real Holiness

Previous artists featured for “Music Night at the Wild Reed” include:
Judith Durham, Wendy Matthews, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1927, 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.


Phillip Clark said...

I'm so glad you touched on this point Michael! Precisely because of that integral sacramental nature that comprises and pervades our Faith, sensuality is indeed present in obvious as well as hidden ways. It's one of the things that I love most about Catholicism, all five senses are used!

I think the leaders of the Church have realized it themselves, that even though chastity and celibacy are exalted as the perfect ideal, sensuality is apparent within the Church in many ways.

I don't know if it's just from my gay perspective but here are the things I've noticed...

Who do we pick most often as the altar servers? The most attractive, angelicly reminiscient, teenage boys we can find. I was talking with a friend of mine, even just seeing altar servers in their gowns and surplices could be a fetish in itelf for some people!

As shallow and blasphamous as it might sound, even Our Lord Himself upon the Cross evokes an aire of sensuality. Is it an accident that Jesus' torso is always portrayed as being so well defined? Even the act of kissing the crucifix on Good Friday, although chiefly it is a gesture of proufound and heartfelt gratitude, adoration, as well as love, carries with it a sensual undertone.

How many other male, heroic Saints of the Church are portrayed in suggestive positions? Like the ever iconic St. Sebastian. He's even become a gay icon!

The fact that there is an underlying, evocative presense of sensuality within the different strains of the Church confirms that sexuality is naturally intended to have its own, prized, healthy place in our lives. Of course His Holiness or the Cardinals and Bishops wouldn't agree with this. But how else can we explain the Vatican producing a calendar of hunky priests for 2009?

I love the fact that Madonna has capitalized on the fact that sensuality is indeed present in many facets of Catholic life. Yeah, "Like a Prayer" was outrageous when it came out but its all grounded in real life!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Phillip,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. You raise a number of interesting and insightful points. And I'm honored that you're willing to share them so articulately here at The Wild Reed. Your contributions are always appreciated.