Pleasure is Prayer

My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.

Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;

You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

Song of Songs 2:10–12, 7:11–12, 1:2b-3a, 4:7, 2:13

In my tradition we have a practice of honoring the saints, the ancestors of the faith who have gone before us and lived lives that model holiness for the everyday person.

St. Teresa of Avila is a favorite among a lot of people I know. She lived a radical, monastic life in 16th century Spain. She fought to reform the monastic tradition she was a part of — while the convent was becoming a sort of country club for social elites to pass through and socialize, she said that the nuns needed to live a simple life of prayer and solitude. She made it so that the community did not own property, in a time when monastic communities were seeking to accumulate private property. Her reforms sent her town of Avila into a panic — she even had several Inquisitions brought against her during her life!

But Teresa was more than a reformer. She was a mystic. There’s a statue of her in a Baroque church in Rome called The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The first time I saw a photo of this statue, I was a bit shocked and confused. I mean, look at it. What is going on up there?! There is clearly some kind of climax happening…is it a bodily experience? Is it a spiritual experience?

And I don’t know about you, but when I see this kind of imagery ~ all adorned in gold and ornate decoration ~ I can sometimes have an allergic reaction to the pomp and circumstance. Isn’t it funny that someone who fought to reform her tradition away from wealth and privilege, towards simplicity and prayer, gets enshrined for all of time in the finest marble and the shiniest gold?

And yet I’m drawn in.

I’m drawn in to the way the statue captures her bliss. Her pleasure. Who is this woman, and what kind of ecstasy did she experience?

And isn’t it similar with the Song of Songs? I don’t know about you, but I come to this text with so many questions. So much wonder. And a little awkwardness. Are the lovers human? Or is it a story of the relationship between humanity and the divine? This question has kept interpreters debating for millenia and no one can settle on a final agreement. Is it about God? Or is it about human love?

But so much of the Song of Songs, and the spiritual journey, resists these binaries and straight lines and final answers that we so often seek. The book is a collection of Hebrew love poems, of erotic poetry that expresses desire, and longing, and pleasure shared between two people. Like all Hebrew scripture it’s layer upon layer of mystery and meaning.

I’m inclined to think that a lot of Christians feel odd approaching this text. How often do we hear it at church? In a recent conversation with some church folks, I brought up the Song of Songs. They either didn’t know what it was at all, or they giggled and got a little embarrassed when I brought it up!

Sure, maybe some of us enjoy the mystery and the beauty of the language, privately. Certain passages are definitely appropriate for a wedding, right? But any kind of public expose of the full details of this book seems downright taboo for church!

Our tradition has made us uncomfortable with — maybe even afraid of — Song of Songs because when we experience it, we cannot avoid being in our own bodies. For too long the Christian tradition has severed our relationship with our bodies. Too often our faith has taught us to love the spirit and hate the flesh. Prayer has been about conquering our flesh. Transcending our physical experience for a holier, spiritual one.

And this severed relationship has been in service of the systems and structures that wreak havoc on our communities. Theologian William Cavanaugh says that when the church is only worried about the soul, we surrender the bodies of our people to the state and its death-dealing.

Our severed relationship with the body is what allowed “upstanding Christians” to go to church on Sunday morning and attend a lynching on Sunday afternoon. Our severed relationship with the body is what allows “church-going Christian men” to rape and abuse women and then get elected highest levels of leadership in this country. Our severed relationship with the body is what allows “Christian preachers” to instill self-hatred in the hearts of LGBTQ teenagers.

Christianity has a problem with the body!

I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection between the problems Christian culture has with the body and the structures of power that oppress people. Audre Lorde and Kelly Brown Douglas and many womanists and Black feminists have shown us what the rest of us have often failed to see: that there is a power inherent in our bodies, in our access to the erotic. The powers and principalities know that they can maintain control over our lives and our communities ~ and particularly the lives and the communities of the MOST marginalized bodies ~ if they can distort our relationship with our own bodies, including pleasure. These writers talk of the importance of reclaiming the erotic as a way of reclaiming our power.

And to be clear, the erotic doesn’t necessarily mean sex. In the ancient Greek philosophy of Plato, Eros was the fundamental creative impulse of life, expressing itself through human sensuality. Sudeikis of Omnia Sancta, who has taught me a lot about the dance with Divine Eros, has described this holy force as the “anticipatory delight” of being in another’s presence.

It’s a way of learning to listen to our bodies. To their YESes, and their NOes.

Because when we taste what we most desire in pleasure, we grow much less tolerant of all the compromises we have to make in other areas of our life. Our NO, as adrienne maree brown says, clears the way for our YES.

If you’re not familiar with brown’s work, she is a writer and an activist. She has done a ton of work on the ground in social movements for liberation. She has recently published two books that take a bigger picture, spiritual view on liberation work, and her most recent book is called Pleasure Activism. She defines pleasure activism like this: “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and supremacy.”

adrienne maree brown challenges us to wonder: how can we make justice, and liberation, and dare I say — ministry?! — the most pleasurable experiences we could have on this planet?

Just as the female narrator sings in the text today, the winter of our distorted relationship to the body could be over — if we are ready for it.

“Come, my beloved” she invites. Arise! / The time of singing has come / The vines are in blossom / And the anointing oils are fragrant.

The sensuality of the lovers in the text tells of the ways that our bodies come alive when we commune with the natural world. Of the pleasure in letting our eyes gaze upon beauty and our lips taste delight.

Dare we call this sacred?

For as much as the Christian tradition has severed us from our bodies, its hidden treasures have kept the mysteries of pleasure alive, too. Because if the experience of pleasure in the human body wasn’t sacred, why would this book be in the Bible? There it stands among the sacred scriptures as the dance of lovership; between us and our beloveds; and between us and God. A first century rabbi, Rabbi Aquiba, called it the “holy of holies” of all of Hebrew scripture. Thomas Aquinas had his brother monks chant this book to him upon his death bed! The sacred lovership before us has resisted millenia of body shame and violence and calls us to wholeness.

It’s like that statue of St. Teresa’s ecstasy — for all the shame so many catholics carry about pleasure, here we have this 17th century statue of a saint having a spiritual orgasm! It’s right there. It’s part of our tradition.

The dance in Song of Songs shows us that God speaks to us through our bodies. And we must learn to listen. If our peoples’ relationships to the sacred portals of their bodies is severed, how will they fully hear the Holy Spirit speak?

As I meditate on Song of Songs, I am reminded of a hymn that we sang in my church growing up.

Taste and see,
Taste and see,
the goodness of the Lord!
Taste and see,
Taste and see,
the goodness of the Lord, of the Lord!

Beloveds, God is calling us to a full-bodied relationship. The healing of our tradition depends upon it. The healing of our communities depend upon it. Will we heed? AMEN.

This homily was given on 2/3/20 as my “senior sermon,” a tradition at my seminary where graduating students offer a word to the community. It was deep in my heart to share this devotion as a gratitude offering for the Web of Life, the great Mother, and Divine Lovership. 🙂

Image credit: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–52. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: