Seminarian

Friday, July 20, 2007

Question

I notice that in your column you frequently refer to the spiritual aspects of sex. This is baffling to me. How can there be anything spiritual about a carnal activity that is so utterly physical? Sexual pleasure, it seems to me, is a selfish pursuit of temporary delight that bears little relationship to the altruistic and eternal preoccupations of the soul. I feel that the most important thing in my life is a clear-hearted relationship with God, and that sex, along with all other physical indulgences, just clutters that pathway. I'm sure you disagree, but I wanted to open some dialogue.

Answer

If you are ever ordained, people are going to be coming to you for advice about their relationships, their sexual identities, and their gender. You are smart to start educating yourself now about these complex issues. Will you be able to set your own value system aside to help a parishioner or hospital patient clarify their own values? Are you able to face the pain of people who have had very different lives from your own, and accept their stories without judgment or disbelief? And can you gather helpful information for people in sexual minority communities so you can connect them with others who are facing similar struggles? If you can do these things, I think you'll be an excellent spiritual counselor.

But if your goal in seminary is simply to spread your own values and persuade people to adopt them as well, you probably shouldn't counsel anyone who dissents. In that case, please please please refer them to somebody else with the experience and training to help. Clergy can do so much damage to people who are at crossroads in their lives if you use your influence inappropriately. The creator has a plan for everybody, and you may not understand why some people are given different roads to walk.

Now let's get back to your stated questions about whether sex can have a spiritual component. You characterize sex as physical (and therefore anti-soul), selfish, an indulgence (which implies it means giving in to temptation), and temporary, whereas God is eternal. Sexual pleasure clutters your "clear-hearted" relationship to the creator. Fair enough. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, some people have used celibacy or put other limits on their sexual behavior to focus on spiritual pursuits. They use the energy that they would have put into a one-to-one relationship or the pursuit of carnal pleasure into prayer, study, fasting, etc. With so many people advocating this method and saying that it works for them, I would be a fool to argue.

What I would like to suggest, however, is that this is not the only way to know God or develop a spiritual life. I assume that I am supposed to be in this divinely created body. Every part of it is sacred, including the genitals. What am I supposed to do with this sacred instrument? If we were meant to limit sexual connection to procreation, I don't think we would have so much sensitivity and potential for pleasure. The world was made beautiful by a divine force, and we were placed here to know joy, to learn compassion for the body and for other fragile mortals, and to minister to the suffering of others. The love of one human being for another becomes sacred when it is infused with gratitude for the gifts we've received. Desire becomes sacred when it is orchestrated as a form of yearning for union with higher things. In these paradigms, sexuality becomes an earthly enactment of the creator's untroubled and widespread love for every part of who we are. You might even postulate that love or desire for the stigmatized parts of the body becomes a sacred act of acceptance and blessing of what has only known shame and blame.

Broadly defined, spirituality is everything people do that doesn't focus on meeting their survival needs. But even eating, drinking, farming, cleaning the house, driving to work—all of these things can become prayerful or mindful, infused with a sense of union with the holy spirit of love or serenity. I feel that I am suspended in a golden bath of the light of my Creator, my Goddess/God's interest in me and gratitude for me, and I only need to open the ears and eyes of my spirit to receive it, to know it, to be refreshed and made clean by it.

If performed with spiritual intentions, sexual pleasure can be a way of carving windows in the material matrix to let in more of that holy energy. I see the creator in my beloved. Therefore, I worship him or her, and adore and attend to him or her as I would attend to my deity. To become the lover of a deity is a sacred path at least as old as celibacy, according to Hindu scriptures.

You believe in an opposition between the spiritual and the material. You see them as two competing or mutually exclusive realms. I am not that sure we can segregate Goddess/God from materiality. I think that spirit literally exists, it is real, and therefore is a part of the world we live in. Who knows if Goddess/God is purely spirit? In Christianity, Yahweh or Jehovah took on human form in order to offer salvation to the world. Salvation could only be created in this place, where we live in bodies of flesh and blood. It couldn't be done in Heaven. Doesn't that speak to the spiritual power of the world? Nothing is divided. Goddess/God is everywhere, whether perceived or unperceived.

As for the notion that pleasure is selfish...well, closing oneself off from the world in order to pursue a unique and holy life could be seen as a selfish act. What qualifies any person to seek out a vocation as a minister, priest, or rabbi? Speaking as a priest of my own tradition, I think we have to be cautious about our hidden desire to be special or have power over others. I am much more comfortable with democratic or equitable forms of worship, where everyone has a part in ritual work and finds an appropriate way for them to use sacred space and time to accomplish what they need to do for their own spirituality.

When I have an orgasm, I say to myself: Look what Goddess/God created! Look at this power and magnificence! I feel connected to all living things, and I am awed by the symmetry and grace of this planet and the universe it adorns. If that's not spiritual, what is?