“Lover and beloved moved in unison”

In his poem St John of the Cross describes a search through the dark night fuelled by desire and longing. It’s a search that finds consummation as the lover and beloved meet and move together in unison.

It is a destructive view of human nature that sees the body and spirit as two separate things, they are continuous. Hence, s exual desire is one of the tributaries of the soul that leads to the wider desire for God; that is a longing to connect with the transcendent and infinite and to be united with another. If we follow desire’s leading, deep into the dark night, so we move beyond ourselves. 

The desire to be close to another draws us into the unknown and as we follow that yearning then we begin to touch, taste and smell s/he who we draw near to. In the Christian tradition the Eucharist (sharing bread and wine) is the most intimate act of worship. We taste, touch and smell the bread and wine that symbolise the body and blood of Christ.  

In that meeting, that touching and mutual exploration that consumes all the senses, there is the scary and overwhelming sensation of energy building. A blazing fire from within when lover and beloved meet that is the fire of life in the base of the abdomen. We are still separate but this energy pushes us together urging us to become one. Wanting to enter the other and at the same time to be open and receive. This is the slow opening up for the lover and the intensity of penetration as his energy enlarges and merges with yours.

Thus, in Christ, God yearns for us to come close to share Godself with us. I open my mouth and consume the body of Christ. The boundaries of self dissolve into the total giving of all I am to another. Energy flows with the soft caress of care and yearning and the feeling of another moving within. The energy is shared and becomes more than the sum of its parts. And in that moment of intense and deep connection there is transformation as life and energy overflows and can’t be contained.

As we allow ourselves to be penetrated by the Spirit of God with a fearful aching, opening up to accept Him/Her this giving of our bodies to someone else is an infinitely creative act. But joyful as this deep communion is the desire is never fulfilled. No matter how close we push, how deep we penetrate or are penetrated we are still separate. Hence the desire always leads us further and deeper into love, further and deeper into self-giving.  

This is the creative transformation of desire surrendered to.

St Teresa of Avila was a contemporary and friend of John of the Cross and she describes such an all consuming encounter with the Spirit of Christ that Bernini depicts in his ‘Ecstasy of St Teresa’: 

 

“Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form…. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire…. In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.”

Our body does have a share in that intense experience: nerves fire, muscles tense, hormones flow, blood rushes and the brain sparkles with sensation. Boundaries blur and the spiritual and physical are one, just as they were always intended to be.

This painting may not be safe for work viewing and is not appropriate for children to view but can be seen here
Advertisements

“You are in me and I am in you”

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

This is the second of my paintings reflecting on a poem by the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross.

They reach towards the experience of a deep and intimate engagement with Christ. They are not about sex per se but there is an erotic aspect to them. Sexual desire, our desire for the other, to be close to them and entwined with them is, to my mind, an echo of our desire for God and God’s desire for us. In the Christian tradition that is expressed in God coming close to us in the body of Christ.

This painting explores part of the gospel story when the risen Jesus meets his friend Thomas. The rest of the group have already seen Jesus walking and talking after he’d been crucified but Thomas wasn’t there. He doesn’t believe their story (who can blame him, I wouldn’t believe it either) and says that he will only believe if he is able to put his fingers in the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. When Jesus finally does meet him a week later he says “Thomas, Put your finger here and see my hands, reach out your hand and put it in my side”.

This is an invitation to a physical and intimate act. Touch me, feel me, and enter me. I can imagine the warmth of his body and the smoothness of his skin. Then reaching out my hand shaking with awe, desire and anticipation as I explore the hole in his flesh and penetrate him. There is something fearful and wonderful in the act of exploring another person’s body; a sensation of falling as we abandon ourselves to the other. This is a wholly positive and creative act, a love that reaches out to touch and to draw close.

In another part of the gospel story Jesus says to his friends that one day they will be filled with the Holy Spirit and then they will realise that “…you are in me and I am in you”. This is the promise of an intimate and passionate intertwining: just as he invites me to enter into his body so I can invite him to enter into mine.

Symeon the new Theologian wrote an astounding prayer in the 10th century that reflects this thoroughly embodied faith, a faith that is about touching and feeling real things and real people. It begins thus:

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

We awaken in Christ’s body

As Christ awakens our bodies

And my poor hand is Christ,

He enters my foot and is infinitely me.

 

Later he writes:

 

…all our body, all over,

Every most hidden part of it

Is realised in joy as Him

And he makes us utterly real.

 

The faith of Christ that I experience isn’t about separating myself off into some pristine spiritual sanctuary and escaping into a fantasy world. It is about bodies fully engaged together and giving oneself wholly to the other so as to become “utterly real”.

Dscf3206

“He touches my neck and all my senses are suspended”

Recently I have been stunned by a famous poem by St John of the Cross from his work ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. In the poem he writes of a spiritual encounter that is deep, beyond words and expresses it in the sensual language of physical intimacy:

Wind blew down from the tower,
Parting the locks of his hair.
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And all my senses were suspended.

I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
Among the lilies, forgotten.

You can read a translation of the whole poem here.

 When I read these words echoing down through the years from this 16th Century Spanish mystic I was cut to the heart as they resonate so strongly with my experience of Christ.

I need to take care here as I don’t want to universalise my experience, to imply that everyone should have the same kind of encounter. For some people the idea of relating to Christ at all is unhelpful. Furthermore, many people who do seek to engage with him may very well not do so in the same way as me and nor should they because we each need to work out our own way of engaging with the world and the transcendent. So take my reflections as what they are: the particular experience of a gay Christian using contemplative prayer to engage with Jesus. 

One of the key ideas in Christianity, that the church often doesn’t realise the full implications of, is that Jesus had a body. This faith isn’t about some vague spiritual thing wafting around but is about material things and is expressed in a real human body (And whether the stories of Jesus are historically factual or not is irrelevant to me on this because the truth expressed in the myth* of the gospel stories is that the Christian faith is about a real body).

If Jesus had a body then he had blood, mucus, hormones and all kinds of dirty, messy and beautiful things that make us human. He had drives and desires and was a sexual being. When I first thought of this it seemed scandalous to me. I was in a little Catholic Church on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I looked up at the sculpture of Jesus on the cross, his beautiful body twisted and taut in pain or ecstasy and I felt desire for him, a desire for the body of Christ. I wanted to touch his body and be touched by him, to possess him and be possessed by him and in that mutual possession be transformed. I had unwittingly stumbled on and tentatively touched that deep and sensuous spiritual experience expressed by St John of the Cross.

Over the last few months I have been working on some very personal paintings that explore this experience of Jesus and I will offer reflections on each of them over the next few weeks. I share them with some trepidation as it feels like I’m exposing something of my soul but it seems to me that the artists journey is a continual breaking oneself open as we seek to express truths that lie beyond the reach of words.

The golden numinous in each of the paintings is reminiscent of orthodox Christian icons. Icons are not used as idols or objects of worship but are windows to look through so that we may glimpse the divine. I hope these paintings may, in a small way, be windows that open up our horizons and the possibilities of understanding ourselves and of the beautiful transcendent reality that I find embodied in the person of Jesus.

Dscf3208

 

*myth is not a pejorative term but means a story that expresses a truth – often universal truths about human nature and experience