We don’t talk a whole lot about desire in the church. Some of that’s the legacy of the Gnostic duality of body and spirit that found its way into the New Testament. There is such tremendous fear about the places desire might take us, the harm it might set loose, the pain it might cause. And of course, if you are a woman, there is the misogyny.
A few days ago, I read an article about a recently published book on desire that got me thinking. Somewhere along the line, this fairly proper preacher person figured out that I have not ever addressed this topic as an essential part of our incarnation from the pulpit and I have a hard time imagining that I will. That puzzles me. I score pretty high on a risk-taking scale.
It also seems to me that a parish community would be a logical place for this kind of conversation. I adore being a parish priest because I get to work in an amazing space where at least some academic rigor can comfortably coexist alongside very down to earth, “how do we get to the next place” kind of practicality. I dropped out of Vanderbilt when I was getting my PhD in theology, in part because the work I was doing felt so incredibly disconnected from anything real or that mattered. I used to tell people that in class, I heard sentences like, “Jesus is the eschatological manifestation of the kerygma of hope as the ground of our being” and went out at night to bars like the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. There, I heard songs with phrases like, “and take your tongue out of my mouth ‘cause I’m kissin’ you good bye.” I liked that I understood the theological language in class. I was thrilled to be in my twenties and to “get” songs of love and desire. What’s so cool about my work is that with most things, there isn’t this either/or binary set of choices in most of what I do. Except around this topic that is carefully fenced in, with blazing signs that flash, “warning, keep away”.
There is also the fact that I am now in my fifties and people start referring to women in my age bracket as crones. What would she know about this any longer, right? Here’s the catch. If you get healthier, as I have over these past couple of years, if you go for long walks in the lushness of a South Florida evening when life is just bursting forth everywhere you look, it turns out that categories of who has it and who doesn’t aren’t quite so neat and tidy as they’d seem. It isn’t that I am about to go pell mell into some kind of freaky late mid-life crisis, cougar kind of adventure or anything like that. It’s just that I find myself resisting the idea that we have to walk so carefully, be so prim, be so scared of who we are.
In that spirit, here is a safe little story about desire.
I said in a recent post that my roommate at Randolph Macon and I were pretty intense. We were also protected and I, at least, pretty self-conscious and uptight. Someone taped a sign on our door one day that said, “The Convent”. Bless our hearts—I remember that sign really hurting because that’s what I was like, not who I was. I was totally intimidated by the party scene that involved road trips to Washington and Lee, Hampden Sydney, or VMI, the all-male schools that were counterparts to Randolph-Macon, Sweet Briar and a few other women’s colleges in Virginia. It made for a very wretched sense of isolation and of being fundamentally flawed. For Carolyn and me, going to church was a way out of the oppressive space of an all-women’s college. There was also babysitting. One weekend, a college professor and her husband left town and left us their kids and an old somewhat rickety but really cool convertible. Heaven!
But the really memorable babysitting gig we had was on a Friday night. I can’t conjure up the names – or even the faces – of the people who hired us and only dimly recall a suburban kind of ranch style house. But the babies were very little and went to bed early. HBO was still new and that particular night was transmitting a concert of classical music. Again, I don’t remember very much about most of the concert though Carolyn and I were immediately quite enchanted with the conductor who was some. kind. of. beautiful.
The very last piece of the concert was Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin—so sensuous, so tender, such a beautiful piece of music being conducted by such an incredibly handsome young conductor. Every now and then, Carolyn and I would look at each other and bust out laughing because we were aware of how absurd we were, totally enthralled by this performance—it’s a miracle we weren’t drooling on ourselves. By the rather dramatic end of the piece we were gasping and squealing and laughing our heads off all at once.
In a very bourgie neighborhood, on a very dull night of babysitting in Lynchburg, VA this was an ever so chaste and innocent ménage a trois. It was magical and I can name it for what it was without the least bit of shame or sense of having done anything wrong or impure because all we did was sit and watch a TV program. Nonetheless, that night made us giddy for the promises it made about incarnation. The music was beautiful, the conductor was an absolute feast for the eyes. It was Friday night, we were in college and life was just beginning. Desire was good and so were we.
We should be able to talk about these things with a little less trepidation. Our girl-children should know more about the goodness of their bodies and old ladies ought to be able to read that silly book, Shades of Grey, without feeling like they are doing something wrong. And mainly, we should all be able to recognize and rejoice in the fact that this is how God made us and IT is good. IT is very good. Amen and hallelujah!