Tuesday, August 28, 2007

III Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

Difference, Otherness, Commonality

Difference, otherness, commonality. Difference first. Some of this may seem terribly obvious, but bear with me. A man’s body is different from a woman’s body. We call this gender difference. Please note the word ‘difference’. The notion of difference entails something we can know. I can know how a man’s body is different from my own, even though what that man experiences in having such a different body will always remain a mystery to me. It is something I can never experience, any more than I can know anyone’s experience, woman or man. So the difference of his body is knowable, but his experience of his body is unknowable, just as another woman’s experience of her body is unknowable, even though there are superficial common experiences. Each of us is a unique creation and uniquely experiences the world and our bodies in the world.

Otherness. Otherness is what is unknowable. People frequently confuse these two words, thinking that difference and otherness are the same. They aren’t. Just because someone is different from me doesn’t mean that my meeting of their differentness is an experience of Otherness, because there is much that can be known. For example, the morphological difference between my body and a man’s or another woman’s can be known. All I have to do is look and touch. Thus gender difference in a physical sense is not otherness. And the same applies to much in cultural difference, racial difference, and so forth.

There is something else we need to remind our selves about difference and otherness, and that is the way that these two notions focus the mind. Both words appear to make a distinction between me and not me. But difference, which can be known, tends to be only reflexive, that is to say, figuring out what is different requires me to catalogue the physical ways in which a male is different from a female, or how I am different from a man or another woman, so that I am always looking only in a single perceptual loop between the self which I am comparing to my self, cataloguing the results that can be known.

Otherness, on the other hand, unknowability, what it is impossible ever to know, is something else again. Otherness is not an object; it is the experience of opening to an infinite vastness that requires us to relinquish conceptual control, and it is this letting go that makes Otherness sometimes frightening. It requires us to look away from our selves into a silence where there are no objects and language fails, and where we receive new information that may remain beyond conceptualization.

Otherness, then, refers to what is ineffable. And because it is unknowable, Otherness is both alarming and enticing. It is alarming because it requires us to let go of mental objects, the ideas we cling to that give us a sense of security, however illusory, but, let us also remember, ideas that equally entrap us. Yet Otherness is the irresistible attractor that leads us away from our looping preoccupation with our selves and difference and enables us to enter relationality, which includes Otherness, or, to use the theological term, perichoresis. Longing is the trace of the ineffable.

Otherness, the ineffable, is part of what attracts us to one another. Otherness draws our intentionality in prayer. It is Otherness that makes us ‘half in love with easeful death’, that transfigures our self-destructiveness into the jouissance, the efflorescence, the crowning fulfillment, the glory of our humanity as the image of God. This Otherness under its guise as Silence is the tantalizing factor in a text that causes us to say, ‘I know there’s something more here, but I can’t put my finger on it,’ which indicates that the text somehow has delivered us to the threshold of absolute Silence, which is one of the words by which Christian tradition has often named Otherness, that is to say, God, a word that has become somewhat problematic these days.

I’m sure most of you know the old saying, ‘God is a circle whose centre is every where and whose circumference no where.’ These words, I believe, are more than just a snappy saying for reasons that I hope will come clear. But for the moment, let’s just note that the centre that is every where is another way of talking about Otherness: the centre appears to be the point of total concentration but is revealed to recurve back on itself so that it is every where, so that the circumference is revealed to be illusion and thus no where.

Friday, August 24, 2007

II Sexuality, Otherness, and the Truth of the Self

The Blessing of Ambiguity

With the express permission of the person involved, I should like to begin by sharing part of the story of someone I shall call Ralph, with whom I was privileged to work some years ago, and whose difficulties proved a revelation for us both. The insights from this encounter have led directly to the creation of this paper for tonight, and I am deeply in his debt.

A detailed history is not necessary. Suffice it to say that the first words he spoke on entering my study were, ‘I’m gay but I’m not.’ This statement was made in such an open way that the ‘I’m not’ was obviously part of the assertion and not a denial of it. ‘I’m gay but I’m not’ in a paradoxical way, seemed for Ralph to be tautology. And so it was to prove as his story unfolded.

The episode in his life that emerged as the bearing on which the work turned was this: at the age of about eleven, he was sitting in his bedroom with his best friend, another boy, giggling over some naked ladies in a National Geographic magazine. The bedroom door was closed. When the friend left, Ralph’s mother, who didn’t like his friend and was intensely homophobic, called him into the kitchen and accused him of being homosexual.

As you can imagine, the months of work that followed on Ralph’s revelation offered one of the most intricate and intellectually challenging explorations of the human person, and of ambiguity, that one could ever hope to have, and the permutations and paradoxes we uncovered made the complexities of the Tibetan mandala of time seem like a Bart Simpson T-shirt. And of course it was essential to work within the ambiguities and paradoxes, and not try to dismantle them.

And as is so often the case, what Ralph presented as his greatest liability proved to be his greatest asset, for as we all know, the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the principle signs of personal maturity. In effect, in a strange sort of way, as a result of the foundational ambiguity induced by the traumatic scene with his mother at the time of his sexual awakening, Ralph was ten steps ahead of most people in terms of being in touch with the richness of himself as a human being, of discovering the truth of himself.

That’s all I need to tell you about Ralph, but you might find it helpful to keep his story in mind as we explore some familiar notions in a slightly different way.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Sexuality, Otherness, and the Truth of the Self

[Vox Benedictina, December, 1993, pp. 333-364; revised 1.2.95]

[This lecture was originally commissioned by the Catholic Pastoral Council on Sexual Minorities, Minneapolis,
and presented at their Annual General Meeting in May, 1992]

The purpose of this lecture is to suggest some new models for thinking and speaking about some of the issues most central to our lives, the issues that form the common concern that in its own way explores the heart of the Eucharist. For in discussing sexuality, otherness and the truth of the self, we are talking about the one Bread that is broken to make us one, the brokenness that makes us whole as individuals who are part of a larger whole, and the struggle to offer our lives on the altar of our bodies with integrity, with that singleness of heart that earliest Christians called virginity, a virginity not necessarily related to genital intactness.

This is such an important and subtle topic that I should like to begin by setting this paper in context, and then suggesting definitions of commonly used words and ideas that may differ somewhat from the way they are commonly understood. To begin with, my efforts as a writer have been directed towards a theology for the next generation, that is to say, my concern as a theologian is not to join the ranks of those engaged in exploring the issues of gender and sexual politics. There are many competent people doing this, their work is extremely important, and I want to acknowledge my debt to them.

But my concern has always been to look beyond these issues, to life as if, as they used to say in Solidarity—and indeed, as the early Christians tried to live. By this I do not mean the lived fantasy that is an expensive and destructive form of denial and self-indulgence, but rather the living out of a concrete reality in attitudes towards self and relationships that moves counter to the crushing weight of prejudice and persecution, particularly as it issues from the very institution we might hope would foster clear-eyed compassion.

To live as if: to live as if the bigotry weren’t there; to live as if the cultural and sexual tyranny weren’t there. To live as if we were free from self-generated stereotypes. Of course, to try to live in this way either deliberately or inadvertently exposes illusions and deceits, those of others as well as our own, and along the way the honesty for which we strive may become stumbling blocks to others and invite attack. But beyond being a strategy for effecting hope, to live as if has a way also of making boundaries disappear.

This word, boundaries, recently has become nuanced in a particular, sexual way, and I want to say a word about what I mean by boundaries. In the second chapter of the Divine Names, Pseudo Denys asks the question, ‘How can God be totally self-outpouring and entire in himself?’ It seems he is extrapolating from the image of God, for we are never more our selves than when we are utterly self-forgetful. Or, to turn this around to address the boundary issues directly: it is only when our boundaries are secure that we can have boundless compassion, and it is under the guise of boundless compassion that boundary violations often occur. So in talking of sexuality, otherness, and the truth of the self, I do not mean boundaries in this more recent sense of the word, but something far more fundamental, towards which the quote from Denys gestures.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

X The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

It is the new age into which we are born, the new world, the world to come. Tears bring us into sacred time, which means not only the interpenetration of time and eternity, but even a reversal of time as we know it. The “new world”, the apolcalypse, is now, not merely an the end of time, a 15th century notion; and this “now” has all the echoes of time that is being fulfilled with the promises of God.

The new age has a profound identification with the days of Adam and Eve in paradise, but given to us is a greater gift than theirs: compassion.

"The burning of the heart on behalf of the entire creation, human beings, birds, animals—even all that exists; so that by the recollection and at the sight of them the eyes well up with tears as a result of the vehemence of the compassion which constrains the heart in abundant pity. Then the heart becomes weak [from the force of compassion that pours through it] and it is not able to bear to hear or to observe the injury or any insignificant suffering of anything in creation. For this reason, even on behalf of the irrational beings and enemies of truth, yes even on behalf of those who do harm to it, he offers prayer with tears at all times that they may beprotected and spared; he even extends this to the various reptiles, on account of his great compassion infused without measure in his heart, after the likeness of God.

"The humble person approaches beasts of prey, and as soon as their gaze alights upon him, their wildness is tamed and they approach him and attach themselves to him as their master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. For they smell from him the scent which wafted from Adam before his transgression, when the beasts gathered to him and he gave the names in Paradise--the scent which was taken from us and given back to us anew by Christ through His advent, for it is He who has made the smell of the human race sweet."

It is as if the angel guarding paradise with a flaming sword lowers it in wonder at the sight of our tears, and as its cruel blade falls before us, it is extinguished and dissolved by the flood of our pain and joy. So may we enter an innocence more precious than our first parents’.

In the background of Isaac the Syrian’s spirituality is the notion of ihidayutha. It is difficult for the tidy western mind to enter the vastness of interior territory that ihidayutha encompasses. Ihidayutha is the focus of the whole creation coinhered with the single movement of love that is God. Subsumed under ihidayutha are virginity, chastity, integrity, inviolable vulnerability, wholeness, solitary, single,—unity of God and creation, unity of inner and outer, unity of man and woman, unity of image and what is imaged. It has resonances of the mercy-seat, the throne, the empty space between the cherubim in the holy of holies in the temple in old Jerusalem, as Rowan Wiliams reminds us, “the most potent sign of Israel’s repudiation of idols, the great speaking absence between the images.” This is the background of the birth of the Single Only One through the Single One, i.e., she who was single-hearted, and renders our squabbling over the doctrine of the virgin birth fairly ludicrous. It has nothing to do with the intactness of a membrane. Indeed, the analogy that comes closest to this virginity of the mind in all mystical literature is that of the free-fall experienced in sexual orgasm.

Ihidayutha: it is as if light is focused into a laser, or our humanity into a pillar of flame. It is the uncompromising, joyous wildness of undistracted longing and love for God, who is worshipped as both Father and Mother—in part, to displace our idols—and without the use of any personal pronoun.

Perhaps the absolute essence of ihidayutha is this singleness of heart, the desire for God alone that, even given the vision of paradise, ends in the often terrifying abandonment of all images of God, all notions of God, all notions, even, of what prayer is, all in religion with which we comfort our selves and which ultimately creates a barrier between us and the divine fire if not allowed to fall away. Isaac speaks of the person “who in his mind clings to nothing visible”, of imageless prayer, of prayer beyond prayer. This iconoclasm in prayer is, of course, a form of death because we give up the security of our pet ideas of God and religion; we abandon all the ways that encourage us to self-reflection, all the ways that enable us to tell ourselves that we are good and are becoming holy.

Isaac is rather concerned for the prayer that ignites when the self-emptying of God meets the self-emptying aspiration of the creature:

"...I think that, if one were to come to an exact understanding, it would prove a blasphemy if anyone among created things were able to say that spiritual prayer can be prayed at all. For all prayer that can be prayed lies on this side of the spiritual realm. And all that is spiritual is a class that is free from movement and from prayer....

"As soon as the mind has crossed this boundary of pure prayer and proceeded inwards, it possesses neither prayer, nor emotions, nor tears, nor authority, nor freedom, nor petitions, nor desire, nor longing after any of those things which are hoped for in this world or in the world to come.

"Therefore after pure prayer there is no longer prayer; all prayer’s movements and forms by the authority of their free will, conduct the mind thus far: for this reason struggle is involved; but beyond this limit there is wonder and no prayer. From here onwards the mind has ceased from prayer; there is sight, but the mind does not actively pray."

Virginity, in this landscape, is a much larger notion than mere genital intactness, the degrading technicality to which, over time, it has become reduced. Virginity, in Syrian Christianity, is rooted in resurrection, received in part at baptism, and in fullness at the parousia both beyond time and interpenetrating time. We grow into virginity, which mirrors God’s inviolable vulnerability. Isaac of Antioch—another Isaac—records a non-Christian coming to him to ask, “Would that someone would pull me down and rebuild me, and make me a virgin once again,” and Isaac replied, “this request of yours is possible with Jesus.”

Syrian documents are currently undergoing a new reading, one that differs from that of earlier scholars from the West, conditioned by the polemic of Chaldedon, who have gone looking for dualism and found it. By contrast, it appears that far from attempting to eliminate sexuality, early Syrian spirituality continues the semitic tradition—for Syrian Christianity is semitic Christianity—that sexuality is an integral part of the creation God has called good and with which God is united. In early Syrian Christianity, celibacy was frowned upon and had to be kept secret between the celibate and the bishop.

What distinguishes early Syrian Christian committed sexual relationships from non-Christian is that they may not be exploitive. Men, for example, may no longer use women merely to satisfy their pleasure. Instead, the partners are to reverence each other, their love and love-making thus helping further them towards the goal of ihidayutha.

In plain language, kenotic, or self-emptying love-making in committed relationships mirrors the love of God and increases your virginity. Right love-making in committed relationships is mutually kenotic. We embrace the other, warts and all, in self-emptying love and self-forgetfulness, and by this embracing, we also embrace God’s forgivenness of all we cannot bear in our selves. In this love-making, all roles disappear because the lovers are not self-reflective, and each is striving for an equipoise that is complete readiness of response to the other. We need to recover the virginity of true sexuality. But in any love relationship, including those not sexually expressed, we have the opportunity to mirror the kenotic reciprocity shown us in the humility of Christ.

This ancient Christian vision, neither Western nor Greek, has important implications for our day. I have long felt that one of the primary reasons for our general moral collapse has been precisely the reduction of virginity to a technology of genital intactness. Our culture’s thinking seems to go like this: “If penetration means loss of virginity, means that it is no longer possible for me to be whole, or perfect, if I can never again find innocence, why bother with morality? Any integrity I might develop would only be a sham, a pale echo of what went before.”

If we can change this sort of linear thinking, if, in our age, we can restore a spatial sense of ihidayutha or virginity, then morality might once again become viable because it would be seen as part of a larger and higher aspiration, not confined to the strictures and platitudes of constraint that both sicken us and lead to the opposite effect from what they intend.

It is evident that, in an age when the human community grows larger and larger, while the planet grows smaller and smaller, that mere constraint is not enough. Isaac’s vision of ihidayutha, his love of God in the creation, his perception of the relationship of our transformation in solitude and stillness as the wellspring of community and right action, his sure knowledge of the ways of prayer, —all combine to give us wisdom we badly need.

Ours is an age in which we are dedicated to fixing things up, to solving problems, and too often we act heedlessly, because this lust to fix things up is a way of inflating self-image, of denying death and enhancing our illusion of immortality. This lust for control leads us only to a closed system, a closed system from which there is no escape and no salvation.

The growing abyss between the members of the eucharistic community and the institutions whose professionals seek to control them will not be narrowed until the ordained truly desire the non-ordained to realise their authentic priesthood, until the ordained expess and are chosen by those who are true priests (ordained or not). Until we can revalue baptism; until we teach that all creation is the Body and Blood of Christ, until we can make clear that celebration of the Eucharist is neither confined to clergy making Magic Cookies, nor the liturgy alone, but is the living of a dedicated, sacrificial, self-emptied life that, with Christ indwelling, becomes sacrament and is commingled on the altar with Christ’s sacrifice in Bread and Wine; until we are enabled to believe that, ordained or not we can say words of consecration and make “real” eucharist but that we have church order precisely to keep order, and not to dispense magic; until we enable people to understand that these words are theirs to say not only over bread and wine but also, and reciprocal with the liturgical action, within each moment of their lives; until we can admit and communicate these truths, we will continue to have confusion, pain, and increasing vacuity in our institutions.

The casting off of slavery to fear, slavery to self-image, slavery to the world, slavery to self-destruction; the healing of our selves, our society, the nations, will come through stillness and silence, through tears that burn and anoint, that magnify the vision of God and bring us to joy. It is only in the silence at the bottom of these tears, in the Silence of God where we hear the Word that is both first and last, that new possibility will arise. In too many of our works—relief of hunger, the struggle to establish human dignity, efforts towards world peace—we have exhausted the possibility offered by our own thoughts and ways. From the silence of the first spark and the first drop of the abyss, from the primordial silence of creation; from hearts hushed in the dark flame of the tears of God who is Silence, from here only comes the possiblity we seek, and without which the human race and the planet will die untimely.

We are all concerned with where to begin and how to proceed. But I would like to suggest that we ought to begin with the one constant thread that runs through all of the practical mysticism from which true theology is born, and that is the willingness to literally and figuratively sit alone in the womb of the fiery dark. It is only from this womb of stillness that we are born into willingness for self-knowledge; a willingness for transformation; a willingness to be found in God; a willingness to be converted to the grammar of Love in which God is the subject and we are the eternal thou.

"If we arrive at stillness, we shall be able to be constant in weeping. For this reason we should beseech our Lord with an unrelenting mind to give us this. If we receive this gift—a gift that surpasses all others—then through weeping we shall enter into purity; and when we have entered there, it will not be taken away from us again, right up to the day of our departure from the world. Blessed, therefore, are the pure in heart who at all times enjoy this delight of tears and through it see our Lord continually."