Last week in worship Liz Shipe and Zach Woods, along with a Greek chorus, presented a dramatic reading of the entirety of the Song of Songs. The drama immersed us fully in a Biblical text; at no other time do we read a book of the Bible from beginning to end. And immersing ourselves in it confronts us with how different this text is from the rest of the Bible. Even if the sexual metaphors are not our own, we can sense the sensual and erotic meaning of the overabundant praise of ripe fruit, budding flowers, and leaping gazelles. Should we perform the Song of Songs again, perhaps I’ll have to do a Monty Python introduction: “And now for something completely different.”
The Song of Songs prompts many questions. But perhaps one of the most basic matters most. Why would we talk about sex and sexuality in church? The presence of the Song of Songs in the Bible suggests sexuality as a spiritual concern. But most congregations only read a few verses of it every three years. This suggests to me that Christians can’t connect our sexuality with salvation. Does your sexual desire having anything to do with God’s grace?
This is a different question than the Christian movement debated over the last few decades. Liberals and conservatives fought a culture war over the rules. What are God’s rules for sex? Is this allowed? Is that allowed? We took an early stand in this fight, publicly affirming same-sex relationships in 1991. John Weisse and Angel Arroyo, the first same-sex couple married here, will celebrating their 25th anniversary this summer. It mattered that we fought to change the rules for same-sex relationships.
But I wonder if we spent so much energy fighting about the rules that we forgot to talk about the reasons. What does your sexuality have to do with God’s grace?
It may be easier to start with grace than with sex. What do we mean by grace? We know it from singing,
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
that sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.
Grace transforms how we see ourselves - once wretched, now saved. We hear this in scripture too. The Psalmist asks, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” And then the psalmist realizes, “Yet you have made them a little lower than the divine, and crowned them with glory and honour.” This is why Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.”
I’ve experienced grace as this transformation. Before I came out as gay, I lived in the dark, ashamed and lonely; then grace touched me, I knew I was loved as I was, as God made me.
Of course to define grace this way - the feeling of being beloved, the sense of being cherished - is to brush up against sensual language; God’s grace as holy desire.
We’ve largely removed all language of desire from our talk about God. But many of the classic spiritual guides of our Christian tradition described grace as the experience of the holy desiring us. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great mystics, spoke of her overwhelming sense of God’s grace. Teresa called the experience a “transverberation,” a deliciously evocative term for a moment of ecstasy.
She described seeing an angel holding an arrow - iron shaft and flaming tip - which was thrust into her. I’m not sure I can read this in church, but St. Teresa said,
He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times.. and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.
Hearing St. Teresa describe her prayer life makes me want to say, like that scene from When Harry met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
St. Teresa was not the only mystic to experience the sultry side of God’s grace. St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke in an equally surprising way of God: kissing Jesus as the culmination of the spiritual journey. Bernard advised his fellow monks:
You have seen the way that we must follow: we cast ourselves at his feet, we weep before the Lord… then we reach out for the hand that will lift us up, that will steady our trembling knees. And finally, when we shall have obtained these favors through many prayers and tears, we humbly dare to raise our eyes to his mouth, so divinely beautiful, not merely to gaze upon it, but - I say with fear and trembling - to receive its kiss.
It sounds like St. Bernard wanted more than bromance with beautiful Jesus. Turns out I’m not the first gay pastor.
We can even hear the romantic description of grace in our Psalm, attributed to King David as he sang of God’s grace delivering him from the dangerous threats of enemies. David sounds like a damsel in distress, calling out for a hero. “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; in my distress I called upon the Lord.” I can almost see King David tied to the railroad tracks by an evil villain. But God heard David’s cries and came to the rescue, “He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.”
What does it mean that we can hear the voice of desire and romance speaking through St. Teresa, St. Bernard, and even King David when they describe God’s grace? They are undoubtedly talking about God’s grace and yet we hear too their sensual longing.
If the sensual is just under the surface of saintly voices, then might we also find grace just under our sensual delight?
I’m not alone in wondering this. James Hillman once explained Carl Jung’s insight on sexuality. “Jung saw that instinct has an imaginal aspect, a mythic factor, and that therefore the sexual is also an activity of the imagination, a psychological expression; the sexual is a way the soul speaks.”
It bears repeating: “the sexual is a way the soul speaks.” But if that’s true, then why do we struggle so much to hear grace in the sound of desire?
Our difficulty comes from the limited and limiting ways we understand sexuality in our culture. First come the definitions. Our whole language of sexuality developed in the Victorian mind: homosexual, narcissistic, masochist, exhibition; much of this was intended to differentiate healthy from unhealthy sexuality, the normal from the perverse. How odd: people have been having sex for a very long time, but so many of our organizing concepts developed after the Civil War.
The Victorian approach caused us to think of sexuality as something we do instead of something we are. Homosexual acts instead of being gay. Another way to say this is that the Victorian approach treated sex as a tool, something used or misused, picked up or put down. And much of the culture war about sexual rules continues this understanding of sexuality as a tool. Conservatives say the sexual tool is meant for reproduction; liberals say it’s for pleasure. But either way sexuality gets truncated.
Some thought we could improve by framing sexuality as a gift. But this still treats sexuality as an object. We can chose to accept or reject a gift. We can enjoy a gift; but it’s not really part of ourselves.
Our developing concern about sexual violence points in a different direction. We worry about sexual violence and abuse precisely because we intuitively know sexuality is intrinsically part of ourselves, not some external tool, not some optional gift, but embedded in who we are. We know that an act of sexual violence is not simply done on our bodies but attacks our souls as well.
This suggests to me a better way to view our bodies and our sexuality. Not as some object, tool, or gift. But rather our bodies and our sexuality as the place where our souls meet the world. And therefore the sensual and sexual is not something we do but a way of being in the world.
Sexuality affects the way our soul perceives the world. I want to turn again to Rowan Williams, whose writing on sexuality points to the way desire is not just about what we see. Sexual desire is not voyeurism or pornography; not just seeing someone attractive. Rather, desire involves not just what we see but how it is that we are seen.
The Song of Songs would be a flat and uninteresting text if it only contained the voice of one lover pining for the other. The dynamism of the Song comes from the way it alternates between how the man sees the woman, how the woman sees the man, and how each perceives the desire of the other.
William Blake once gave voice to this in his fragmentary poem, “The Question Answered.” He wrote:
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is in women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
The lineament of gratified desire. We need to see in the face of our beloved that we are beloved. Not just to see someone attractive, but to see the person we find attractive finding us attractive. Our joy depends on another.
Understood this way, we can see the distortion of sexuality. It comes when we seek to achieve joy without regard to the other; and even worse, when we seek our joy at the expense and harm of someone else.
Properly, rightly, sexuality brings us back to our dependence on another. We realize we require the lineaments of gratified desire. As Rowan Williams explained, “I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking the time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other.”
All of which sounds a lot like grace. Grace transforms how we see ourselves - not wretched, but saved; not ashamed, but cherished; not lonely, but connected. James Hillman said the sexual is a way the soul speaks. And what it says is, “discover grace.”
The Song of Songs may seem like something completely different. Yet its sensual metaphors and teasing eroticism invite us to discover, hidden in our own desires, the grace in our bodies.