The Risk of Desire

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When the breeze blew from the turret,

Parting his hair,

He wounded my neck

With his gentle hand, 10

Suspending all my senses.

(The Dark Night, stanza 7)

Given that institutional Christianity represents for many queer individuals the most visible source of oppression, asserting the potential godliness of gay sex from within a Christian framework fulfills a crucial theological and pastoral role. On the other hand, from the far left wing of Christianity and within a more spiritually ambiguous queer popular culture, the association of sex and transcendence has (in the interest of pro-gay apologetics) been made so strongly and so frequently as to become cliched. We have been told too often that sex is sacred for the force of the claim any longer to influence either our sexual or religious lives. In addition to obscuring the more damaging aspects of sex, this repetition thus risks undermining the effectiveness of the association and, worse even, trivializing the sacred completely. We consider in this section St John's focus on distinguishing divine desire (desire for God) from sexual desire, a necessary condition both for responding to those aspects of sex which are stumbling blocks rather than signposts on the spiritual path and for strengthening and honing the soul's desire for God. As should become clear, John's intent here is not to denigrate or dismiss sexual desire, but, on the contrary, in bringing it to a more discerning alignment with divine desire, to allow the close association between the two to function more effectively.

According to St John, the close resemblance between sexual desire and desire for God encourages us to attribute unwarranted significance to the sensual aspects or accompaniments of religious experiences, a failing evidenced, I believe, in much queer writing. A frequent argument within queer theology (and within other sex-affirming theologies) is that sex provides a unique intimacy, an openness to another which is also an openness to God. Robert Goss, for example, a former Jesuit, self-described erotic contemplative and queer freedom fighter, and the author of several books on queer theology, makes this claim with sometimes shocking vividness, connecting experiences of God (or Jesus) with moments of sexual pleasure.

There was a sense of oneness with each other and a deep sense of Christ's presence in a dynamic energy flow embracing our bodies. There was a letting-go and a surrender to rapture that transported us into a meditative realm of consciousness where boundaries dissolved and where the body of Christ was experienced in intimate touch, taste, smell, play, and so on. (Goss 2002: 22)

From these experiences follows a queer theology accenting the overlap between sexuality and spirituality alongside a harsh critique of institutional religion which has denied these gifts thus alienating us from our bodies and from God. Goss borrows considerably from the mystical tradition in order to evoke the spiritual qualities of these pleasures. "Orgasmic bliss has many of the subtle qualities of intense, sublime, nonconceptual contemplation of Christ," he claims, and also "when one's body and mind are joined meditatively together in love-making, the sexual/spiritual potential moves beyond the ordinary orgasmic threshold of both partners into a new dimension of reality" (Goss 2002: 15, 22). For many gay men in particular, Goss asserts, sex is intrinsic to experience of God, an essential component of any spiritual path (Goss 2002: 78).

My purpose is not to question the genuineness of these experiences, but rather, following St John, to address them as real and therefore perilous. Although John (speaking primarily to the presumably celibate) focuses more on the body's frequent erotic response during times of prayer, communion, meditation, and so on, than on sex itself, the conjoining of experiences of God with sexual pleasure is for him no great stretch. The risk of such association relates instead to St John's surprising ambivalence concerning religious experiences in general and to the various distractions and failings towards which all of those pursuing a spiritual practice are susceptible. Put briefly, one will become overly attached to these experiences, gradually allowing the pursuit of them to replace the desire for God, a desire which is not "an understanding by the soul, not the taste, feeling, or imagining of God or of any other object, but purity and love, the stripping off and proper renunciation of all such experiences for God alone" (A 2.5.8; John of the Cross 1991: 165).

The circumstances of queer religious experience - alienation from institutional authority, the political and theological apologetic value of such experience, its obvious erotic appeal - suggests that the temptation John describes will be particularly strong. This lure of "spiritual savor" according to John encourages a pursuit of pleasure that ignores purity of intention, virtuous moderation, and the discipline of obedience. "Their only yearning and satisfaction is to do what they feel inclined to do . . . They are under the impression that they do not serve God when they are not allowed to do what they want" (DN 1.6.2-3; John of the Cross 1991: 371-2). The tendency in queer theological writing towards self-indulgence would seem to validate John's concerns.

I should say here that I do not find Robert Goss unusually susceptible to this temptation among queer writers. On the contrary, his training and commitment to Christian liturgy seem in his writings to resist allowing God to be subsumed within sexual pleasure. My concern is for the general direction of queer theology, committed to sexual liberation and based in sexual/religious experience, and for the religious (and sexual) lives of those Christians (queer or otherwise) for whom such experience constitutes an important access point to God.11 The eventual consequence of this confusion of desires is fixation on some particular pleasure, image of the divine, or means of religious sensation, and thus loss of God.12 One begins to equate God and one's preferred source of pleasure - an offense to God which then leads to pride in the possession of God - to a gluttonous pursuit of more and more intense experiences, and to the habit of measuring God according to human purposes. Excessive attention to sensual pleasure, particularly when linked to religious experience thus, for John, leads towards a perverse reversal in which spirituality becomes a means for sexual advancement rather than vice versa.13 Taken to its extreme, this tendency makes of queer theology a technology for better sex, an erotic spiritual dimension to supplement the strictly secular pursuit of pleasure. This secularized erotic appetite is never satisfied and leads the soul further and further from God as "those who do not hesitate to order divine and supernatural things to temporal things as to gods" make their souls incapable of spiritual progress (A 3.19.9; John of the Cross 1991: 300).

The error here is not the queer claim that certain experiences of God have homoerotic content (or that certain homoerotic experiences have sacred content) but the privileging of the erotic as the sole, primary, or simply most appealing means for such experience and the concomitant tendency to equate unity with God with the satisfaction of one's own desire.14 It is in short not true, according to St John, that gay men require sex to experience transcendence (though such experiences may indeed occur); furthermore the belief that sex is necessary represents a barrier to further intimacy with God. As a spiritual director, St John makes suggestions as to what is required to accomplish the separation between desire for God and desire for these more immediate and sensual experiences. Taken out of context, this can seem a fairly dismal view of sex: warnings against lust, a forceful dichotomy between sensual and spiritual desire, and the suggestion at times that all sexual desire must be eliminated in preparing the soul for God. My hope, however, is for a queer theology which will, instead of dismissing St John, attend to what John seeks here to accomplish.

Let's return again to the question of religious experience. St John's criticism is not of religious experience itself but of a particular emphasis on showy, discrete, unpredictable, and distracting experiences. The experience of union with God he describes by contrast is inseparable from an extended and demanding religious practice, a gradual intensification of desire and awareness of God.15 Similarly, John calls for a uniting of sensual and spiritual desires which requires self-discipline, a gradual transformation of one's understanding of sexual experience, and the purifying intervention of God. Erotic desire (and practice) can and should serve God, but this requires significant internal renovation, a stripping away perhaps even of those elements which at first seemed most conducive to relationship with the transcendent.

As a spiritual director, John of the Cross would often insist that one of his charges give up, at least for a while, a favorite cross, some specific prayer practice, or a distracting pleasure. In part this self-denial helps strengthen and prepare the soul for greater trials ahead, but more basically it works to distinguish desire for God from those habits (and particularly sensual pleasures) with which it has become too closely associated. Just as for John, "a more intense enkindling of another, better love ... is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of [sensory] pleasure" (A 1.14.2; John of the Cross 1991: 151), so the discipline of self-denial makes us more attentive to that love of God for which we, our bodies and our desires are created. Such self-denial should be a transitional process not an enduring state. The goal of disciplining sensual desire and of distinguishing it is eventually to bring it more fully into alignment with desire for God such that we, upon "feeling the delight of certain tastes and delicate touches, immediately at the first movement direct [our] thought and the affection of [our] will to God. . . that he be more known and loved through them" (A 3.24.5; John of the Cross 1991: 310-1). Likewise, St John encourages us to apply discernment to our attractions, distinguishing lusts which create remorse from that affection where "love of God grows when it grows" or "the love of God is remembered as often as the affection is remembered" (DN 1.4.7; John of the Cross 1991: 369). Yet even here we sense the risk of mistaking our own pleasure for God's. In the end, it must be God who prepares us for the fullness of divine love, guiding us through a dark night in which, according to John, all our former gratifications disappear and all of our understanding is undone.16

St John of the Cross seems here to resist principles of sexual ethics or any permanent rules for sexual behavior (including celibacy). Despite his frequent use of bridegroom imagery for Jesus, it is difficult to forge from his emphasis on ongoing transformation, openness, and continual discernment a firm argument for marriage, gay or otherwise.17 Those practices which seem the most good may themselves be occasions for forgetting God. What the close interaction of sexual desire and desire for God demands of us is a constant vigilance that sex does not become a substitute for God or an alternative source of authority. We seek here to develop a sexual practice which is also an experience of God, not in the immediate sense described by Robert Goss at the beginning of this section (though again St John assumes such experiences may occur), but as part of a gradual spiritual ascent in which sexual desire contributes to desire for God, both at its peak when it lends its intensity to our love for God and when God completely withdraws it from us so as to turn us to God alone.

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