Far from keeping one earthbound, romantic love, not celibacy, was exemplified and touted by Jesus as the highest path to spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine. From the very Genesis we were created male and female so that through our union as one flesh we could bring forth life. That was the original template. We’ve obviously altered and thwarted the original template for the creation of human beings and produced a species of human doings who put achieving ahead of being and compete with one another in a “battle of the sexes.”
I’m in my second reading of THE MEANING OF MARY MAGDALENE – The Woman at the Heart of Christianity, a most provocative book written by episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, in which she weaves the scenario of a romantic human relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. That alone should give you a clue about its provocative subject matter. To write this series of posts I dove right into the book to share poignant excerpts from chapter seven: “Reclaiming the Path of Romantic Love.”
In my last post I left my blog followers and readers with four options offered by the author to consider and choose from. They are:
1. That Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s mistress;
2. That theirs was a politically arranged marriage, strictly for dynastic purposes;
3. That they were sexual consorts in some Gnostic Mystery religion, ritually reenacting the sacred hieros gamos, or union of the opposites;
4. That the whole story is purely archetypal, a great Sophianic myth depicting the integration of the masculine and feminine within the human soul.”
I chose the third option. Here’s what Cynthia offers:
Sex, power, cult, or myth: not a great set of choices. I have yet to see considered what in a sexually healthy culture would surely seem to be the obvious possibility: that they were faithful beloveds, whose lives were joined together in a fully enfleshed human love which was a source of strength and nurturance for both of them; which far from diminishing their spiritual integrity, deepened and fulfilled it. Why is it so hard to go there? Well, obviously: because that is the one possibility our celibate template will not allow us to consider.
The “celibate template” of which she speaks is the scenario handed down to us by a patriarchal church and its celibate priesthood that portrays Jesus as a celibate bachelor, who had a virgin birth, and who gave himself utterly and completely to God and his mission without the “distraction” and high maintenance of a human relationship. Obviously, human sexuality has been a problem for the church for the past two-thousand years.
In this post, I will present the author’s four “propositions” or “myths”– all “rooted in the soil of celibate spirituality — that together have subtly sabotaged our ability to see romantic love as an authentic path of spiritual transformation.” Handed down as “gospel truth,” these myths in fact have “little or no scriptural authorization in the teachings of Jesus himself but instead draw their credibility entirely from the circular logic of his presumed celibacy.”
MYTH NUMBER ONE — Celibacy is the preferred means of giving oneself entirely to God
This myth as been promulgated and fostered by the church almost from the beginning of priesthood and monastic life.
Like so much else in church’s teachings on human sexuality, its scriptural origins lie in Paul’s oft-cited admonition, “The unmarried man cares for the Lord’s business; his aim is to please the Lord. But the married man cares for worldly things; his aim is to please his wife; and he has a divided mind” (Corinthians 7:33). Clearly this is a highly effective recruitment tactic for the religious life. Virtually every Christian monastic I know has entered upon the vocation espousing some variation of Thomas Merton’s impassioned outpouring: “I want to give God everything.” Of course, from an operational standpoint Paul is quite correct: being in partnership makes the logistics of spiritual discipleship a good deal more complicated.
But the theology underlying this principle, if you really consider it, is monstrous. In fact, it seems to be saying that the wholehearted love of God and the wholehearted love of another human being cannot coincide; as our love for a particular human being increases, our love for God is proportionately diminished. Not only is this a theological nightmare; it is also a flat-out contradiction of Jesus’s own dual commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Whatever the difficulty in juggling these sometimes contradictory demands, collapsing the tension between them is not an option.
I love her articulate way of stating the obvious in her writing style. What she writes next, and the way she turns the usual perspective on its head, sends a delightful burst of sunshine into my heart:
The real solution to this paradox, I believe, comes in the gradual discovery that one cannot love God as an object. God is always and only the subject of love. God is that which makes love possible, the source from which it emerges and the light by which it is recognized. Thus, “love of God” is not one love among others, not love for a particular “one” to whom my saying “yes” requires that I say “no” to another. Rather, God is the all-encompassing One who unlocks and sustains my ability to give myself fully to life in all its infinite particularity, including the excruciating particularity of a human beloved.
. . . God is the divine giving, who flows out and through our human expression to manifest love in all its fullness. And so the way to give oneself fully to God would be to give fully of oneself
MYTH NUMBER TWO — Love divides the heart
The notion that erotic love divides the heart is so deeply engrained in monastic spiritual formation that renunciation becomes not only the imperative course of action but even a spiritual opportunity: the direct route to spiritual wholeness. The modern Jesuit John S. Dunne reflects this traditional view when he writes: “If I set my heart upon another person, then I cannot live without that person. My heart becomes divided. On the other hand, if I give my life to the journey with God, then my heart becomes whole and I can be whole in relationship with another.’ [Dunne, Reasons of the Heart].
. . . And yet the question remains: does love divide the heart? If God is considered an object of one’s love vying with other objects, then the crucial premise on which this theology hangs is true: yes, love would divide the heart. But if God is the subject of love, the place from which love emerges, then one could more reliably claim—as poets, mystics, and lovers have claimed throughout the ages—that love does not divide the heart, but is in fact the sole force strong enough to unite it. What divides the heart is not the love relationship itself but the passions: the strong emotions and shadow side that are always present when love runs strong. But these are not grounds for renunciation; rather, they are grounds for purification.
This story Cynthia shares next my wife and I can personally relate to, as she has spent the larger part of this year undergoing chemo therapy for breast cancer. Our hearts have been opened wider by this crisis so that we have been able to easily and gratefully give fully of ourselves to one another in a mutually loving and caring way. We have both been transformed in this challenging crisis so that we don’t see cancer as an enemy to fight against and conquer. Rather, by embracing it, the tumor has become a messenger bringing us an opportunity to grow spiritually and more intimately together in life . . . as well as to realize how many wonderful friends we have surrounding us and holding us in their love and prayers.
In closing this consideration, Cynthia writes:
What this purification might look like is captured with wrenching power in the memoir “Grace and Grit” by the contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber. In this remarkable autobiography he shares the story of his own love and transformation as he and his wife . . . wage a five-year battle against her ultimately fatal breast cancer. As their ordeal intensifies, one watches them each being melted down and refashioned in the refiner’s fire of their love for each other. Egotism, clinging, resentment—and other, darker shadows—rise to the surface and are released. Particularly in the last six months of [her] life, Wilber writes, “We simply and directly served each other, exchanging self for other, and therefore glimpsing that eternal spirit which transcends self and other, both ‘me’ and ‘mine’”
If this sounds like something you recall Jesus saying in the gospels, you’re right.
I do enjoy Cynthia’s style of writing and her bold expression of truth in the face of her own congregation and of the larger religious field in which she ministers. Fearless is perhaps the appropriate word to describe her writing. She is clearly in love with love leaving no room for fear of criticism and sanction.
The next two myths: “Human love is inherently different from divine love” and “Celibacy is a state of greater purity” I will leave for the next post. See you in a couple of weeks. Until then,
Be love. Be loved.
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