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