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On Human Relations . . . . part 6: The Path of Romantic Love, page 4

My Chorale PicIn chapter seven of her powerful book MARY MAGDALENE – Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, “Reclaiming the Path of Romantic Love,” Episcopal minister Cynthia Bourgeault paints a much different picture of the spiritual path Jesus walked than the one painted by Christian orthodox interpretations of the four gospels. Continuing from where we left off in the previous post, Cynthia speaks to the question “Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene lovers.” I will let you read directly from the final two pages of this chapter.

Having described Jesus’s spiritual path as being anything but celibate, an “enstatic” path of conserving pranic energy, Cynthia makes her case against traditional Christian concepts and beliefs to the contrary.

By contrast, the path that Jesus himself seems to teach and model in his life, and particularly in his death, is not a storing up but a complete pouring out. His pranic energy is quickly depleted; on the cross, as all four gospel account affirm, he does not hold out even until sunset, but quickly “gives up the ghost.” Shattered and totally spent, he simply disappears into his death. The core icon of the Christian faith, the watershed moment from which it all emerges, is not enstatic but ecstatic — love completely poured out, expended, squandered. In contrast to clarity, it is the arche­typal image of purity, the complete self-giving of the heart.

THE PATH JESUS WALKED

And right here, I believe, we come to the fundamental problem with these celibate models of transformation. It’s not merely their monochromatic viewpoint or the implicit devaluing of a whole other stream of Christian spiritual wisdom whose roots are in passionate human love. Rather, it is the fact that at key points they seem to be slightly out of kilter with the path of transformation that Jesus himself walked and taught. One might say that this model points us toward John the Baptist rather than Jesus: to­ward those ancient and time-honored practices of renunciation, asceticism, and self-concentration through abstinence, whereas if we really look closely, we see that Jesus himself seemed to be con­stantly pushing the envelope in the opposite direction — toward radical self-abandonment, reckless self-outpouring, and the trans­mutation of passion in complete self-giving.

But it is right there, at the center of that cognitive dissonance, that a window of opportunity opens up. Rather than trying to smooth it over and pretend it does not exist, as the church has done for nearly two thousand years, we need to tune in and listen to it very carefully, for it gives us exactly the tool we need to proceed.

Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene lovers? To date, nearly everyone seems to be trying to solve that riddle from the outside, like good investigative journalists. It’s all about finding new evi­dence: secret documents and societies, new gnostic gospels, purported lost tombs, hidden mathematical messages embedded in the lines of existent texts — some new piece of data that would settle the issue one way or another. Equally, those who are ap­palled by the very notion of a romantically involved Jesus build their case by recourse to doctrines and templates that did not exist until three or four centuries after he had left the planet. It’s all external logic.

But there is another possibility, which has been sitting there right under our noses all along yet so far seems to have been consistently overlooked. That is to evaluate the evidence from the inside, on the basis of the path itself. For Jesus was, after all, a teacher, and the teaching itself is there to be consulted. Once one has compensated for the negative set and drift of the celibate current, it is merely a matter of asking a single question: In the light of what Jesus actually seems to have been teaching, is there anything in the teachings themselves that would have precluded such a love relationship?

If Jesus were indeed walking the path of classic monastic brahmacharya, then the answer is obviously yes; celibacy is an essential requirement of this path, and to diverge from this requirement would violate his integrity and sabotage his spiritual power.

But what if in fact he was walking a different path? A path difficult to identify because it was so close to its own headwaters that it was missed by nearly everyone both then and now? What if he was not an ascetic at all, but was in fact following a whole new trajectory, previously unknown in the West and with its own ways of understanding integrity and purity? Along this other trajec­tory, it might indeed be conceivable for him to be in a human love relationship, although that love would probably not look like what most of us are familiar with.

Let’s see what the teachings themselves have to say.

Thus ends chapter seven with a segue to chapter eight, and to the rest of Cynthia’s provocative treatise, for that matter. The title of chapter eight is “The Great Identity Theft.” Who was Jesus and how was his presentation of himself perceived by the world he came to save from itself?  There are two brief paragraphs midway through this chapter that speak to these questions.

In the Aramaic language of Jesus’s immediate followers, one of the earliest titles given to him was Ihidaya, “the Single One,” or the “Unified One.” In context, it speaks unmistakably of this state of inner oneness; it designates the anthropos, the fully realized human being: the enlightened master of Eastern tradition, or the monad or “undivided one” of hermeticism.

The “great identity theft” to which the title of this chapter refers is that in remarkably short order this term, which was so clearly intended to designate Jesus’s attained state of inner oneness, should come to be interpreted as “singleness” in the sense of being unmarried, “the celibate one.”

Jesus was not necessarily monastic nor ascetic, which leaves him available to a romantic relationship. Actually, according to Islamic scholar Ibrahim Gamard, monasticism was not mandated by the Koran. In a letter to the author in 1998, Gamard shared the insight that “in the Islamic tradition monasticism was disapproved of in the Qur’anic verse which states that the monasticism of the followers of Jesus was invented by them and was not something commanded by God.” As I said, this leaves Jesus with the option at least of having a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene as his wife and partner in a shared service to Humanity: personal transformation via a path of romantic love.

I will leave it there for now and continue with “The Path that Jesus Walked” in my next post . . . . or not. This series seems to be complete, so I may let this be the concluding post to the series on Human Relations. We’ll see what the Current of Inspiration brings us for exploration. Thanks for sharing this consideration with me. As always, your comments are welcome.  Until my next post,

Be love. Be Loved

Anthony

Read my Health Light Newsletter online at LiftingTones.com for helpful information about health and wellness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Human Relations . . . . . part 6: The Path of Romantic Love, page 3

“Without the quicksilver of eros nothing transforms . . .”

My Chorale PicIn the previous post I presented and considered the first two of four propositions, or myths, that are all “firmly 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” presented by Cynthia Bourgeault in her boldly provocative book The Meaning of MARY MAGDALENE — Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.  In this post I will present and consider the third and fourth myths and share some of Cynthia’s thought provoking views and commentary from her book — which I highly recommend to my readers.

Myth Number Three: Human love is inherently different from divine love

This is what has been handed down through Christian church teachings. Actually, it was Plato who classified love by types: agape and eros — although he didn’t attribute agape exclusively to divine love nor eros exclusively to human love. After all, the Greeks had their riotous gods who were capable of both human and divine passions. Rather, agape love to Plato was impartial, disinterested love and eros desiring love, which both the gods and humans were capable of experiencing. Plato’s delineation, non-the-less, set the foundation for such discussions for two-and-a-half millennia since, writes Cynthia Bourgeault.

It was a Swedish Protestant theologian in the 1930’s by the name of Anders Nygren who relegated eros to human desiring. His “monumental” three-volume work Agape and Eros, in which he writes “eros is man’s way to God; agape is God’s way to man,” had a powerful and pervasive influence on contemporary Christian spirituality. Cynthia writes:

According to Nygren, eros is by its very nature filled with desire and neediness, hence impure; by contrast, God’s way of loving is free, clear and impartial, motivated only by the goodness of the giver. With one deft stroke of the theological scalpel, Nygen essentially divided the core energy of love into two separate species and assigned to erotic love (the only love humans are by definition capable of) a permanent second-class status that essentially negates its value as a spiritual path. It is hard to escape the implication that if one is following a path of passionate commitment to a beloved, one is on an inferior spiritual track, or no track at all. This despite love’s unassailable record as the most potent force at our disposal to unify the heart and transform the soul.

Fortunately, the damaging pronouncements of Nygren has impacted only the modern era. Earlier generations of Christian teachers considered eros a “wellspring” of transforming energy that one simply had to learn to work with in one’s spiritual path. Cynthia quotes John Climacus’ sixth-century writings to exemplify this historical fact:

“I have seen impure souls who threw themselves headlong into physical eros to a frenzied degree. It was their very experience of that physical eros that led them to interior conversion. They concentrated their eros on the Lord. Rising above fear, they tried to love God with insatiable desire. That is why when Christ spoke to the woman who had been a sinner he did not say that she had been afraid but that she had loved much, and had easily been able to surmount love by love.”

The goal of “surmounting love by love” for a thousand years formed the heart of the Christian mystical program of transformation, culminating in the twelfth century in the magnificent “monastic love mysticism” of St Bernard of Clairvax and those following in his wake (and notice that whenever eros is mentioned in a text, the figure of Mary Magdalene hovers right in the background). To the extent that it still conceives of God as an object that one can “concentrate one’s eros” on, it ultimately falls victim of that same dualistic fallacy we have already seen in the first myth. But it is far, far better than what has been served up today in the name of religious and psychological health; a gutless, passionless numb “agape clone” that goes nowhere at all. Without the quicksilver of eros nothing transforms: a secret which I believe Jesus himself knew and worked with in his teachings in a profound way, only at a unitive rather than a dualistic level.

Now, of course, if you were fortunate enough to escape such indoctrination in your upbringing, then none of this serves you very much, excerpt perhaps as an educational piece at an intellectual level. I am intrigued by perspectives on historical events that shed light on the path I have traveled over the last seventy plus years. You see, I was born into a Catholic family, groomed for a priestly vocation — which was more my father’s desire for me than my own — and educated in the hallowed halls of Roman Catholic seminary. Only the halls of Catholic seminary were not so hallowed as they were hollow and empty of any transforming energy. Eros was a path to a life of mortal sin, the punishment for which was eternal damnation and separation from God. So, it thrills me to have someone like Cynthia Bourgeault articulate so eloquently some of the undercurrents that were churning beneath the turbulent and confusing terrain upon which I spent the formative and developing years of my life, as well as their origins in history.

Don’t worry for me, however, for the Church’s brain-washing, for some strange reason, seemed like water poured over a duck’s back. It didn’t penetrate the core of me. My guardian angel was apparently protecting me. However, I did not escape the damage to my human psyche and the spoiling of my physical enjoyment of a fully enfleshed life of healthy sexuality as a young man. That came later after awakening to the truth of love and of life.

But enough about me. Let’s look at the fourth myth, the one that lured me into the seminary and, ironically, disillusioned me at the age of 21 and sent me in search for the truth of love in human relations, both with the divine and with one another, a search that would last only seven years. Let me share some of her thoughts and perspectives right from her powerful book.

Myth Number Four: Celibacy is a state of greater purity.

The mistake here–and it is one commonly made in spiritual teaching — is to confuse purity with clarity. Clarity has to do with attuning the mind. Purity is about awakening the heart. The two can overlap each other, but they are not synonymous.

I enjoy her distinction between purity and clarity. She goes on to give a little history of the practice of celibacy.

In Hinduism, where the practice of celibacy as an applied spiritual technology (known as brahmacharya)  arose more than three thousand years ago, the objective has to do with conserving and concentrating prana, the vital energy or life force, so that it can be utilized for spiritual transformation. The modern Hindu master Swami Chidananda has restated the traditional wisdom by explaining it in this way: “Prana is the precious reserve of the seeker. Any sense activity or sense experience consumes a lot of prana [the sex act most of all, he claims] . . . The highest of all goals in life, spiritual attainment, requires the maximum pranic energy on all levels.”

For Swami Chidananda, the practice of celibacy harnesses pranic energy much like a dam harnesses the force of water for the purpose of turning huge turbines, and like a lens concentrates the rays of the sun to burn whatever they are focused on. Cynthia continues:

In the most ancient and powerful understanding of the practice, celibacy belongs among practices that can be classified as enstatic — those that have to do with conserving, collecting, concentrating. The positive side of this kind of practice is a significantly enhanced clarity — a relative freedom from the energy-consuming turmoil of the physical lusts and emotional passions and thus a greater capacity to stay present to the higher frequencies of spiritual energy.

For exactly this reason — that celibacy is a “storing up” process — its shadow side is avarice. One must be alert to a subtle tendency to withhold or “preserve”oneself, to hold oneself back from full engagement in the human sphere in order to have access to those higher realms of truth and light. Under all the aura of “selfless giving” with which the practice of celibacy generally cloaks itself, there can be a subtle spiritual acquisitiveness at work, betrayed in the very phrase “spiritual attainment.” Which “I,” one wonders, is this “I” who attains?

Cynthia gives her reader pause to consider what’s really at work in spiritual attainment. She then turns toward the life and death of Jesus in a most remarkable portrayal of him as being anything but enstatic in his public ministry.

By contrast, the path that Jesus himself seems to teach and model in his life, and particularly in his death, is not a storing up but a complete pouring out. His pranic energy is quickly depleted; on the cross, as all four gospel accounts affirm, he does not hold out even until sunset, but quickly “gives up the ghost.” Shattered and totally spent, he simply disappears into his death. The core icon of the Christian faith, the watershed moment from which it all emerges, is not enstatic but ecstatic — love completely poured out, expended squandered. In contrast to clarity, it is the archetypal image of purity, the complete self-giving of the heart.

Such is the character of unconditional love: “. . .the complete self-giving of the heart.” This reminds me of Jesus’s words to his disciples during his sermon on the vine and the branches: “Greater love hast no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.”  He was giving them all that he had to give, and for a truly selfless reason: “. . . that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” (John 15:13)

The joy of giving fully of oneself is like no other joy.  It’s a joy that utterly sets one free. This, I believe, is what’s really behind the mad rush to buy presents for loved ones and friends at Christmas time every year. We do get much joy out of giving.  I’ve actually read of a tribal community where there is no word in their language for “Thank you.” Such is their awareness that the pleasure and joy of giving are the giver’s as much as, if not more than, the receiver’s. I love Cynthia’s portrayal of this great Teacher as one who spent himself fully during his three-and-a-half years of public ministry. It is the Jesus that I can easily hold as a hero and model of true manhood.

In my next post I will share Cynthia Bourgeault’s view of and commentary on “The Path Jesus Walked.” So, stay tuned for more inspiring posts on my Healing Tones blog.

Wishing for you a Happy New Year and a healthy and happy 2016!

Anthony

Read my HealthLight Newsletter online at LiftingTones.com.

 

 

On Human Relations . . . . . part 6: The Path of Romantic Love, page 2

My Chorale PicFar 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.

Anthony

Read my Health Light Newsletter online at LiftingTones.com. 

On Human Relations, . . . . . part 6: The Path of Romantic Love

My Chorale PicAn intimate, romantic, and sexual relationship with another human being, far from distracting one from spiritual attainment, can open a fast-track path to spiritual transformation: the path of romantic love.

This path is cluttered with signposts bearing moral Christian doctrines that warn of a sinful destination for those who seek erotic pleasure in natural sex drives that were designed to bring couples into a state of ecstatic union, along with the function of propagating the human species — sex solely for gratification not withstanding. The church is solely responsible for the degradation of sex from sacrament to sin in human relations, using Jesus, the celibate divine redeemer, and Mary Magdalene, the human “sinful prostitute,” as models upon which to base its thwarted and therefore false premise.

I’m in my second reading of Cynthia Bourgeault’s profoundly insightful and thought-provoking, if not controversial, rendering of  “The Meaning of MARY MAGDALENE – DISCOVERING THE WOMAN AT THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY.”

This is unequivocally the most powerful book I have yet read on the story of Mary Magdalene and her role in the life and ministry of Jesus. The author, an Episcopal priest, literally plumbs the depth of my soul and awakens dreams of a “perfect world,” almost to the point of disturbing my default inner peace by arousing once again that painfully familiar longing for a seemingly unattainable state of “singleness” as a whole human being — ironically, a singleness that can only be obtained, according to her insight and perspective, in the state of holy matrimony. Cynthia’s Jesus came to “reclaim the path of romantic love” and to uplift marriage between a man and a woman to its original state of “one flesh” that no man can “put asunder”– and he walked his talk. He was not celibate by any connotation of that word. Nor did he recommend celibacy as the higher path to spiritual transformation. His was a life fully “enfleshed” as a whole human being, and that’s what made him such a powerful magnet and lightning rod. The people loved him for his authenticity. The governing religious leaders of that time hated him for the same reason.  Actually, in their gross darkness, they simply did not comprehend his light, and it frightened them and threatened their self-serving authority.

This book has a Voice. One that speaks from out of the ancient past, spanning time from the “beginning”– the Edenic origins of Man and Woman — up to and including the life, public ministry and death of Jesus the Nazarene, only not the Jesus introduced to us when we were children and foisted upon the Christian world since the fourth century Council of Nicea.  Cynthia’s Jesus is a whole human being who “emptied” himself fully of both his humanity and his divinity, leaving no part of his soul and body unused in service to his heavenly Father and to Humankind. And it was his intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene to which Cynthia attributes the fulfillment of his mission and purpose for incarnating on the planet when he did. I should say the fulfillment of their shared mission and purpose.

That said, I don’t think that I can do Cynthia’s book justice in a blog-long book review. So, with the thought in mind that my readers may be inspired to read Cynthia’s book to fully enjoy her viewpoint on these timely issues, I will simply share a few passages from her book that moved my soul to the point of shouting “YES! That rings so true!” I will share and comment on them as they come up in my second reading. Enjoy and be blessed.

I will start at the beginning of Chapter 7, “RECLAIMING THE PATH OF ROMANTIC LOVE,” just to give you a sense of the tone of Cynthia’s voice, along with the context in which she writes. Here she speaks to the issue of celibacy in a priesthood supposedly modeled after Jesus and his celibate apostles — or were they?

NEARLY TWENTY YEARS ago, long before The Da Vinci Code uproar broke, I was serving as parish priest in a small Episcopal congregation in Colorado. When the gospel appointed for one particular Sunday in August was Luke’s account of that anonymous “sinful” woman with her alabaster jar, I decided to take the risk of breaking open some of the insights that even back then were beginning to emerge from a growing spate of Mary Magdalene studies. My parishioners were a bright and intellectually curious bunch, so why not? During my sermon, I gently presented Margaret Starbird’s assertion (in her book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, named after this very gospel passage) that the anointing of Jesus’s hands and feet described in the text was not simply a random act by a penitent woman, but an exquisitely symbolic ritual enacted between two lovers about to be separated.

The fire storm was predictable.

I had tried to pave the way as carefully as I could. My point in raising those issues, as I made clear both in the sermon itself and in the discussion that boiled over afterward, was not to argue the case one way or another, but rather to get at some of the attitudes underlying the way we Christians do theology — and more important the way we do love. “How do you feel about the possibility that Jesus had a human beloved?” I asked these parishioners. “Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Why?”

The responses were pretty much what I expected: “But if Jesus had sexual relations with a woman, he couldn’t be sinless.” “If he loved one in particular, he couldn’t love us all impartially.” “How could he be the son of God unless he gave himself completely to God?” The overwhelming consensus was that if Jesus had known erotic love, he could not possibly have also been the full embodiment of divine love. It would somehow disqualify him as the divine redeemer.

I could hardly blame the congregation for feeling that way.

After nearly two millennia of reinforcement, these assumptions have become so much of the landscape of Christianity that they appear to be part of the seamless structure of revealed truth. But in fact, assumptions are what they really are — not core tenets of the faith, not anything that Jesus himself taught, but superimpositions of a male, celibate, priestly theology which for nearly two thousand years has been the only game in town.

The complicated history of how this situation came to be could fill a book in itself (and in fact has several times over). The short version is basically this: during those first four centuries of Christian life, as leadership moved from a charismatic eldership model to the threefold sacramental ministry we know today (bishops, priests, and deacons), part and parcel of this evolution was an increasing tendency to view both Christ and his apostles through the prototype of celibate priesthood. This is of course a flagrant anachronism in light of the unambiguous scriptural references to Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14) and the only slightly more ambiguous allusions in Luke to the other disciples’ “companions.?”

But counterbalancing the testimony of the gospels themselves was a growing discomfort with conjugal intimacy, a discomfort whose roots probably lie in the extreme Essene asceticism out of which Jesus himself most likely emerged (we will be exploring this topic in greater detail in the following chapter). Beginning as early as Paul, this unease was magnified in each succeeding generation by a chorus of Christianity’s most influential thinkers including Marcion, Tatian, Jerome, and Augustine. The consensus grew stronger and stronger that sex and the sacraments simply didn’t mix. By the fourth century edicts were in place forbidding married priests to have conjugal relations with their wives. Not long thereafter married priesthood itself dropped astern in Western Christendom, and celibacy became the entrance requirement for admission to the power structure of the church.

It gives one a bit of a start to realize that for the better part of two millennia, Christian theology has been written, shaped, formulated, and handed down almost exclusively by celibates talking to other celibates. In that respect, it is extraordinarily monolithic. And from this exclusively celibate template emerges the only image of Christ our tradition has allowed us to entertain: of a celibate renunciate whose “sinless” purity would necessarily entail sexual abstinence.

At the age of twenty-one, this very requirement barred my own entrance into the Roman Catholic priesthood after seven years of seminary life, during which I tried in vain to suppress my body’s natural erotic urges and my soul’s longing for a feminine soul mate.  Cynthia goes right to the heart of the highly emotionally charged premise that in addition to all the roles attributed to Mary Magdalene — apostle, visionary, healer — “there is still one remaining to her, which may just be the most important of them all: soul mate.”

Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene lovers? Were they secretly married? That, of course, is the claim laid out in  The Da Vinci Code and a number of other books and documentaries and which the church angrily refutes.

The question would never have a fair hearing in Christian circles, she goes on to say, where the “mote” has not yet been cast out of our own eyes while we dare to pass judgement on those who entertain a different view from our own.

It is one thing to argue the case for reclaiming Mary Magdalene as apostle and wisdom-bearer, purveyor of a sorely needed feminine presence in the church; it is quite another to tie this claim to the theologically taboo subject of a romantic involvement with Jesus. Two-thousand years of dogma and tradition have left the field so thoroughly land-mined with negative assumptions and stereotypes that it is virtually impossible to see anything other than red, like my congregation that morning. The question will inevitably be heard as an attack on Jesus and as an act of sabotage upon the Christian faith itself.

After two-thousand years of programming that celibacy is the highest Christian way when compared to the second-rate path of committed spousal love, “it is hardly surprising that our Western anthropology of human sexuality is abysmal.”

In the secular version relentlessly foisted upon us by contemporary culture, it’s all about pleasure, performance, gratification. In the bedroom of the faithful, it’s still all too often about duty and shame: a begrudging debt to future generations which, even when carefully managed, is still tainted with carnal sin. Mention “erotic love” and people will immediately hear “sex,” then immediately thereafter, “dirty.” The idea that there could be anything holy about this kind of love is too alien to even consider. That’s simply the way our ears have been trained to hear it; we are all children of a cultural stream whose vision of human love  has been shaped by the shadow side of celibate spirituality.

From the gutter, the view of the gossip and speculation around Mary Magdalene and Jesus in various studies is less than holy and rather “scandalmongering,” Cynthia writes.

We are really presented with only four options:

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.”

With that, I will leave you to ponder these options for yourself and return in two weeks to compare your choice of options to Cynthia’s in my next post as we continue to explore romantic human love as a path to spiritual transformation. I will present 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.” Until my next post, then . . .

be love ~ be loved.

Anthony

Read my Health Light Newsletter on-line at LiftingTones.com.

 

 

 

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