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RE-IMAGINING IRISH RELIGION

LOST INSPIRATION

The fate of religion and a society’s vision has a lot to do with poetry and poets, the bearers of vision – in  early Ireland poet and prophet were virtually identical . The classic example of poetic influence historically is the revival of Jewish faith under the prophetic careers of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the former the voice of a sublime messianism, the latter the voice of a “new covenant”.

In parts of Ireland today churches are often empty, some even being demolished. The astonishingly rapid decline of Catholicism in Ireland in the twenty first century, though not total and having several causes including grave clergy scandal, renewed emigration and controversial replacement migration forcing increased multiculturalism upon an unprepared often unwilling population, is nonetheless a conundrum.

It is one paralleled by the strange weakness of Irish literature at the spiritual level. How and why is the native tradition in religious verse so limited despite the long and celebrated intensity of national religious observance and devotion? Where is the devotional or metaphysical contribution?. How and why since full Republican independence in 1949 do we find little more than a religiously deconstructive kind of contribution from the nation’s artists, especially the poets?

Somewhere something is lacking. I will offer some radical perspectives and will even endeavour to “re-imagine” Irish religion which I regard as long founded on certain misconceptions exposed by recent developments. But first, because it’s scene setting and neatly introduces some main issues for the modern crisis, I will briefly summarize Andrew Auge’s rather Catholic dismissive, A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish poetry and Catholicism (2013).

This study examines the religious deconstruction and/or adjustments that six leading poets have been making since the modernist/elitist Denis Devlin (1908-1959), not reviewed by Auge, left the Yeatsian legacy behind and wrote some genuinely metaphysical if rather abstract religious verse. Much inspired by Pascal and St Teresa of Avila, God for Devlin is both absent from and imminent to creation in a way that allows unexpected brief moments of illuminating grace. But deity is basically remote. There’s nothing very Irish or relevant to Ireland’s future development in Devlin’s contribution save perhaps in his rejection of Teresa’s extreme division of body and spirit, the sort of question that troubled our first poet.

SIX IRISH POETS AND THEIR RELIGIOUS ISSUES

AUSTIN CLARKE

Auge’s first poet is Austin Clarke (1896-1974). HIs outlook belongs with the common image of a repressed, traditional Catholic Ireland. “Being sent to penance, come Saturday/ I shuffled slower than my sins should”. His evocation of sometimes extreme situations as in Mnemosyne Lay In Dust ( 1966) which evokes experience of an asylum, are almost more suited to fiction and memoir.

From childhood Clarke suffered under the over-zealous examinations of conscience in the confessional occasioned by little more than some masturbation (theoretically a mortal sin in Catholicism), but the long term result was he suffered serious nervous breakdown followed by a year in an asylum and then a soon failed unconsummated marriage. Clarke’s stylish poetry includes scenes and situations from the distant mirror of medieval, Romanesque, Ireland and its tensions ignored by the literature of the more Protestant or secularist Irish literary nationalism.Instead of Joyce’s outright rejection of a Catholicism that gets exchanged for a secular priesthood in service of aesthetics, Clarke gradually works his way to a transmutation of values which grants him a certain independence, finally making him almost a prophet in relation to the persons and system that almost destroyed him.

Accepting that any poet is always to some degree a heretic towards his faith (Milton would be a supreme example), Clarke comes to realize that there can be an over-indulgence in continence. Even the eyes of the spirit may not be opened where sensual imagery is denied, while excessive self-scrutiny can become a transgression against innocence, a persecution of incarnation. He realizes, as implied by the Book of Kells with its half hidden elements of the erotic, eros is part a total energy, a continuum not to be completely denied. (This is incidentally a point I made in different connections in the previous article and earlier offerings). He also learns from traditional Irish repentance poetry as of Gearoid Denvir, that he can define his own sins himself, achieve a measure of autonomy and self-absolution and with this he can overcome some of the paralysis which, like the characters of Joyce’s Dubliners, he had experienced.

With this new confidence Clarke later assumes a species of poetic/prophetic role. Enlarging on the practice of a scrutiny of wrongs, in the sixties and well before the time the scandals of the Irish church became common knowledge, he was pointing the finger at the physical abuse of boys by Christian Brothers,(“Corporeal Punishment”) the cruelty of nuns towards exploited unmarried mothers, (”Unmarried Mothers”) the politicking and dubious financial dealings of church leaders. It was an interesting development even when it did not always produce the greatest poetry – Clarke’s opus is of uneven quality. He was perhaps essentially a satirist who agreed with Swift the world is mad and he hoped with the medieval Irish philosopher, Erigena, that all would be forgiven and saved. (It’s beyond present scope but what Clarke perhaps needed to know along the lines of Rabbi Boteach’s Kosher Lust: Love is not the answer, is that there is less (biblically at least) a distinction between love and lust than between two kinds of lust, one an acceptable part of life even reaching into the psychology of the relation to God).

PATRICK KAVANAGH

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was less prophet than (when thinking religiously and patriotically) a would-be mystic who falls against some unresolved contradictions. Born in rural Monaghan and rejecting standard nationalism in favour of “parochialism”, he sought any Irishness in a mysticism of local landscape and feeling harking back to early Gaelic writing like the Dinnseanchas. His ideal was a kind of Christian nature cult or animism which however never quite worked for him.

The post-Famine church had set the chapel against the well, locating all spirituality inside the often aesthetically inferior church building to the detriment of all traditional local sites associated with saints and miracles and often involving pilgrimage and festival dismissed as only superstitious. However, actual alternative experience of the wells doesn’t render the poet the hoped for levels of inspiration; at best they and the penitential pilgrimage site of Lough Derg (which looms large for numbers of poets including Heaney, who regard it as almost the epitome of Irish spirituality), suggest beyond the trivialities of popular piety, the real power of community and sharing. But gradually rural life with its domineering matriarchs, like the mother in Kavanagh’s masterpiece (The Great Hunger) and ugly churches becomes tomb-like. The poet will search new life and meaning in the city and community.

Anyone who has ever felt, as many have, including the poet AE with his talk of ‘the earth breath”, the peculiar “magic” of the Irish earth will be sympathetic to Kavanagh’s aims and intuitions. There is a magic but it’s a damp, GreenMan kind remote from the sun and deserts of early Christianity, (though it may have something of the first spring of the Song of Songs about it). Kavanagh doesn’t want Celtic nature feeling limited to churches or even just an altar with its “real presence” bread. Yet if one includes the altar and extends outwards into the world, has one not then arrived at simple pantheism with nothing really Irish and Catholic left? At this point one may feel that Kavanagh, like too many Irish Catholics,lacks either the theological knowledge or just liberty to go further and resolve the problems. The subject of the Irish and nature is in any case a big and historic one as is apparent from the medieval “Colloquy of the Elders” in which St Patrick is imagined  in argument with the hero Oisin over fundamentals of the native outlook.

But for Kavanagh the materialistic city would for years only present him another problem. His response was to try to evoke country and landscape within corners of urban landscape, bringing an extension of the rural into the urban. What he instead eventually realizes is “a placeless heaven”, essentially internal to himself (one might say archetypal?). The mysteries of nature are eternal to himself and he can impose them upon a scene. An urban scene like the Dublin Grand Canal can become renewing in the way a holy well was once supposed to be. It even reflects what in the poet/mystic’s mind is something of the flow of being that must be released and that can be the more positive side of what’s urban. Similarly to Clarke, Kavanagh has a felt need for the liberating flow suggested by everything from early Irish art to healthy eros. Spiritual health and inclusion is suggested by: “Give me ad lib/ To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech”.

This borders on a plea to be able to speak in tongues, something I always feel Joyce sought to do at some level in especially Finnegan’s Wake. Little or nothing of the sort has ever really manifested in Irish Catholicism as it has in some American and other Catholic circles under the so-called charismatic movement. This situation could reflect a strong underlying element of formality within Irish culture and religion that does not easily “let go”, but that a poet might always arrive to question as the mark of something lacking.  Which in a way it is. The problem is compounded by the fact national soul life is not helped by loss of the natural rhythms and  concepts of the mostly discarded native language.

JOHN MONTAGUE

A lot of modern Irish poetry has originated from Ulster, and John Montague (1928-1916) would be a prominent figure in this and one more directly engaged with the Ulster condition than the more celebrated Seamus Heaney. Montague shares with Kavanagh a strong feeling of place,  he likes traditions and dolmens but it’s not his main concern which is more  psychological. His        father was a Republican activist, a reason the poet was born in the America where his father was exiled, though early on the poet would live with relatives and be educated in Ireland. Montagu who believed “revolution is interior” is not easily summarized, but at the core of his poetry was a will to achieve cure for the wound occasioned by Irish partition and Ulster religion. Although not opposed to the Republican movement per se – Montague regarded the protests of a Bernadette Devlin and her followers the necessary release of a kind of “Blakean energy” – when it came down to it, the poet sought to bring not just people but ideas together, and via a mode of thinking more symbolic than literalistic (Ulster can be very literal minded!).

In works like The Bread God (1968), Montague re-visions the mass as a thought mode in its own right beyond familiar ceremony. He does this in the wake of trying to understand Ulster Protestant, especially Paisleyite, hostility to the mass as simply an idolatry linked to papal imposition, end-of-age scenarios and a whole range of assumed facts. At the same time Montague (never notably devout but church linked through a Jesuit uncle), was aware that a type of Catholic thinking might imitate or invoke just this Ulster Protestant response by the way it made the mass an object, the worshipped wafer, as in Corpus Christi processions. Still more this bread could become politicized, even rendered the sum of Irish identity itself as in the alienating Dublin Eucharistic Conference of 1932 which attributed Irish character, identity and survival most essentially to a Eucharistic devotion.

Even so, not only was the Ulster Protestant ignoring that Catholic mass certifies the presence of both Christ and the community in a sort of extension of incarnation, but that the ceremony is not just a recall of the past but an anticipation of the future. And this is how people of whatever persuasion could and should be thinking, joining together in awareness of the mythically charged Irish past (Ulster was mythically extreme long before its wars of religion and colonial plantation) but looking towards an interactive, open future.

Here could be another kind of “transubstantiation”. Common humanity and cooperation are more easily discovered amid symbolic and mythic modes of thought, more able and willing to improvise, especially as, (contra Yeats and his poetry of fixed cycles), history does and doesn’t repeat itself, but always requires us to respond.

It will be apparent that Montague’s remedy for the new Ireland is a kind of de-mythologization and re-mythologization of the whole concept of mass in which the layperson is very much a kind of their own priest to the task, somewhat as in the vaguely Protestant drift of Clarke. But I would note that like Kavanagh he does also perceive other registers of understanding. Montague recognizes language as authenticity related. In “A Grafted Tongue”  a second language is as “harsh a humiliation /as twice to be born…speech stumbles over/lost syllables of an old order”

SEAMUS HEANEY

By contrast, the less Ulster-engaged Seamus Heaney sought and (more or less) arrived at his own understanding of “grace”, which is a freedom away from the type of piety shaping his youth and as exemplified by especially his mother. That Heaney was genuinely devout in youth is reflected in the fact he visited the classic site of Irish penance, Lough Derg (which features in his  Station Island of 1985), three times. He began to perceive certain traditional Irish attitudes, especially of guilt and self-sacrifice as undermining regular action or else productive of the wrong kind of action, one based on the  resentment (or perhaps ressentiment as Nietzsche might controversially define it) of the downtrodden, and promoting some merely self-righteous vengeance.

Heaney arguably saw this kind of sweeping but only part true psychological summary of his fellow countrymen too much and well. It morphed into a sometimes unreasonably distanced, much criticized position away from what for Ulster Catholics of the Troubles era were often issues of basic justice as regards voting, housing, education and employment, everything that left them second class citizens under a quasi-apartheid. Nationalists on hunger strike to press their cause thus become for Heaney only a kind of belated Catholic fanatic and/or inheritor of ancient Celtic blood sacrifices – in his strangely ugly way of writing, Heaney says of one hunger striker who died, he “rotted like a pear”.

Aware he couldn’t offer either what fellow countrymen wanted politically, nor effect through poetic showings like those in North the kind of exorcism of root ills needed, Heaney retained his sense of guilt. Poetry had itself initially seemed to him a form of self-sacrifice or monkish vocation, repayment of a debt to God along the lines of the version of atonement theology on which he had been raised.

What he gradually discovered, however, was that much poetic inspiration came suddenly and unawares like a sort of unmerited grace and joining him to the flux of being. In short, poetic inspiration seemed almost the contradiction of religion. Christian poets generally have not been disposed to regard inspiration in this way, but Heaney is sunk in some mental Ireland of the perpetual guilts, among other things assisted by, as suggested in Canto 6 of Station Island, a cult of the Virgin that hampers a man’s natural relation to women. He will nevertheless strive towards what makes for freedom; he will not sin against its imperatives.

In one section of Station Island, a visionary account along Dantesque lines of visiting Lough Derg, the poet (who had once suffered like many academic Irish males pressures to become a priest) encounters a missionary priest he knew. He had died young in Africa and thus in many respects seemed, like the hunger strikers, to have wasted his life. Heaney also meets a ghostly James Joyce from whom he learns that when he refused to take the sacrament “I made my life an instrument of grace”. But Heaney cannot follow the completely secular alternative in the aesthetic priesthood of Joyce. Something mystical remains however awkwardly.

Also on the island he had learned from a Carmelite priest that poetry itself can be redeeming and read as prayer. But then, thinking of the negative way of the Carmelite St John of the Cross, Heaney understands Ultimacy in terms of “nothing” and “dark night” and so “when there is no thing that gives, there can be no demand that the gift be reciprocated”. This leaves Heaney free of “atonement” and reparation ideas of poetic labours and released to a more Wordsworthian ”wise passivity” towards reality. In this and with the God question left open, it’s “nothing”, or perhaps the death at the centre of all, that will supply inspiration.

A collection, The Squarings, attempts to articulate whispers, feelings, insights at this horizon edge of things. I don’t feel Heaney succeeds, but the project is meaningful for a type of Celtic knowing hard to convey yet vital all the same. It has something in common with the philosopher Heidegger’s idea of Being revealing itself in the light space, the Lichtung. It may have even more to do with German music, and I think that Heaney, less skilfully than the late poet and essayist Brian O’Donoghue, makes a way towards inclusion of the Germanic within the Celtic that always needed to be realized.

Heaney is too complex and verbally riddling with his ideas to summarize here. The main point however is that this post-Yeats, supposedly representative poet, gains the freedom of an alternative spirituality which hides or denies deity by ridding himself of a native self-sacrifice theme which he regards as the secret of an Irish paralysis akin to the one portrayed in Joyce’s story, The Dead…… I will add another less familiar way of summarizing Heaney.

Heaney was born in 1939 under the fighting, self-affirming sign of Aries that his Ulster Catholic upbringing repressed and which he let repress. Restrictive, demanding Saturn closely conjuncting his identity-giving sun reflects all of the repression, the hard work and guilt surrounding any will towards escape, firm action or self-justification. Heaney’s opus is often Saturn coarse and graceless, but since his sun closely conjuncts the Mars of modern Ireland’s foundation, he would be nationally influential, dragged into cultural conflicts and expected to take the sides he didn’t. His natal opposition of Jupiter (religion, faith) opposite Neptune (mysticism, self-sacrifice, vision) across the axis of the (Virgo/Pisces service signs, bespeaks his rooted spiritual conflict around service of all kinds.

EILEAIN NI CHUILLEANIN

Auge’s chapter on Eilean ni Chuilleanin’s poetry is headed Relics and Nuns in the poetry of Eilean ni Chuilleanin’s Poetry and subtitled Sifting the Remains of Irish Catholicism. This could be a bit misleading in the context of the whole book and my use of it here, because Eilean’s work does not present any obvious problem in relation to church decadence and decline. If there is a problem it is almost in the lack of any overt one and what that might betray regarding modern Irish religion.

Like many women in Ireland and outside it, Eileain ni Chuilleanin (b.1942) regards the nuns in her life, even the more eccentric ones, as a positive influence. Many Catholic women have felt the freedom of nuns from standard roles and the high culture of especially the teaching nuns, to be a liberating, even rather feminist example. In recent years when it has been impossible to deny all witness to the abuse and sadism of some nuns in such as Ireland’s Magdalene asylums, Catholic women have still been inclined to lay much blame for this on the use and abuse of nuns themselves by priests, bureaucrats and politicians rather than wholeheartedly condemn the women who enlivened and enlightened their youth.

Eileain, whose career has been rather successful by Irish and poetic standards, (she studied at Dublin and Oxford), attended a convent school and three of her aunts were nuns. We may not be so surprised as she herself is, that when she wants to write poetry, she so often mentally presented with the image of a nun. This leads to various musings and affirmations in which holy female figures convey mystery as in The Anchoress, Agnes Bernelle, St Mary Magdalene preaching at Marseilles  They can  imply a mystery of being or of a change into which they shimmer. The poetry generally would imply that Irish Catholicism can be judged against, improved, and developed by the faith of nuns, (or even ordinarily pious women) whose role may even somehow elide with those unfortunately abused by the few nuns that failed. It’s a case as per The Architectural  Metaphor of…. “Help is at hand/Though out of reach”

Influenced and possibly over influenced by the extreme Irish enthusiasm for the relics of St Therese de Lisieux brought to Ireland in 2001, Auge thinks of the nun and Eileain’s  nuns in terms of the philosopher Levinas’ theory of “the trace”, the something that exists between being and non being, between past and present, not tangible, not representable, something that lingers on after it has passed. The nun seems a bit  like the absent girl in The Absent Girl    who “searches for a memory lost with muscle and blood/ She misses her ligaments and the marrow of her bones”. But Auge is thinking especially of the poem The Brazen Serpent which manages to identify Moses’ Brazen Serpent with the True Cross.

Not to get into arguments about that poem, I sense the real issue for all the poetry of Eileain is this. To the extent the nuns represent things divine, it is as the Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, the feminine side of God. And Sophia can include knowledge and witty inventions in her character (Pro 19:21).

But at this point we touch on the little considered subject of the divine Yin/Yang (Catholicism associates the Sophia with the Virgin rather than God, thus avoiding if not compounding the definition problem). However;  to the extent “male” Logos initiates where “female” Sophia reacts, the Wisdom side of the faith does risk losing and becoming relic and trace, no matter how temporarily inspirational, given lack of sufficient, appropriate engagement with a Logos itself needing reform. Their modern situation is such that the nuns remind more than they reveal. Logos must be made to realize what the positive contribution of Sophia is, or Sophia will go to waste and Ultimacy itself be insufficiently seen or felt for the merely human input.

Eileain often sees the female body in terms of physical structures like the wrecked ship in The Magdalene Sermon, and the nun may even be the church; but the fact remains that though Sophia is a builder (Pro 9:1), Logos is the cornerstone and holding frame (Eph 2: 20,21). Eileain’s poetry is interesting for its unusual vision and implications; it doesn’t necessarily point to the future as it might and perhaps because it can’t quite do so where Logos is misunderstood or wrong…… The next poet’s contribution belongs with the problem of revealing and declaring truth from a more outsider position.

PAUL DURCAN

Priests are not a “trace” for Paul Durcan (b.1944). He has not had major problems with them (he respects many and has not joined the “paedophile priest” chorus), but he has long set his face against the hierarchy which, following his traumatic upbringing, he has made it easier to criticize. It is remarkable that Durcan has retained his sanity and humour in view of his story. His father was a circuit judge who got his son out of university and into an asylum where he was threatened with electric shock and a lobotomy because he was judged “too sissy”.

The prolific Durcan, best known for the collection Daddy, Daddy (1990), is not gay, he has been married with children, but original perception of him was that he was as good as an insolent, outsider gay. Auge rightly perceives the problem as somewhat linked to traditional binds affecting Irish masculinity.

The Irish male under centuries long colonialism was regarded as a weak, “feminine”, underclass figure. If he ever resisted (like the Fenians condemned to hell by church hierarchs) he was a barbarian lacking in proper manly self-control. There were no models for the male beyond sportsman, chaste solider (like arch nationalist Padraig Pearse who plainly was gay orientated) or the ubiquitous celibate priest. Even close male friendships could be suspect of homosexuality. And I would add that Ireland beyond Dublin used to be a place where it was not safe to be gay. Robert Drake, American author of the literary study The Gay Canon (1998) was crippled and part brain damaged for life when two homophobic thugs attacked him in Sligo in 1999. Violence of all sorts used to be easily excused. Durcan records his father thought it was no more than Protestants deserved when in the worst, most purely gratuitous case of IRA violence, ten innocent Protestant workers at a road block got slaughtered in January 1976.

Durcan would always be strong enough – and perhaps socially well connected enough – to fight back, buoyed by the conviction that the hierarchs uttering extreme things pompously (like declaring to allow any divorce in Ireland would be like releasing Chernobyl upon the nation), were ridiculous hypocrites. Even the titles of his verses would declare it like, Cardinal Dies of Heart Attack in Dublin Brothel. However this did not belong to a simple anti-clericalism. More spiritually it develops towards an examination, or rather re-examination, of images of Jesus whom he decides has to have been somehow androgynous, something he believes everyone should be somewhat. In effect, as stressed in my previous article, this matter is, (or at least should be) an unavoidable one for theologians and artists alike.

The undeniable fact is that Jesus is biblically described as both Logos (male) and Sophia (female) and then as married to a church with both male and female members. Short of ignoring this in the usual manner, how one treats of this matter stands to affect everything from art to social attitudes. Durcan was entering unfamiliar territory indeed, because it’s the Virgin rather than Jesus that is liable to be imagined and dialogued with in typical Irish Catholicism.

In his mature years Durcan would become an admirer of Ireland’s first female President (1990-97) Mary Robinson, a Catholic married to a Protestant who was prepared to embrace difference in people, including sexual. Durcan has also come round to the view and, in a measure of agreement with the implied position of Joyce in especially Ulysses, that fatherhood is a problem for Ireland and the Irish male may need to father himself. The troublesome father is a curse upon Ireland. It is common to portray parental problems (as in Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger) through the figure of the matriarch, but if this figure is a problem she might not always be where the trouble starts.

While Durcan brings to light perspectives and conversations long overdue in Ireland, because like Kavanagh he is not always theologically sophisticated enough to manage his own questions, he has also, however unwittingly released into the Irish atmosphere something bordering on spiritual pollution. Durcan’s style and themes would function like an invitation to the work of a leading poet Auge does not review, namely Brendan Kennelly. This poet’s 400 page succes de scandale, his stink bomb offering The Book of Judas (1991), may be said to have undermined clarity and respect in the whole area of religion – much of the collection is just abuse that only Kennelly’s academic status allowed him to get away with. The situation deserves poetic treatment – I give it some in “Judas stopped at Dublinhttps://wp.me/p2v96G-Bm

PAULA MEEHAN

According to an Irish Independent article for her sixtieth birthday, Paula Meehan believes “two lines of poetry can save a life”. You could call that faith! Poetry has certainly been good for Meehan (b.1955) helping to bring her from the Dublin tenements of her youth to Ireland Professor of Poetry to Trinity and University Colleges Dublin in the wake of much general travel and experience.. Except that she supplies poetry a new autonomy as virtual scripture in its own right, Meehan recapitulates many of the issues for the other poets here, the repression, the problems of Virgin cult, management of the flow of life and eros, the desire to read and feel landscape, tracing it even in the urban scene etc.

Meehan can be all ways radical but sometimes and in some respects is closer to tradition and even the Yeatsian legacy too. This is apparent in the strong and haunting poem that made her reputation since 1991, “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” It was inspired by the tragic death in 1984 of Ann Lovett, attempting to give hidden birth outdoors at night before a shrine of the Virgin. The poem’s irony is that the Virgin herself is trapped. Denying her role in which people “fit me to a myth of a man crucified”, she admits that for Anne, “I did not move/ I did not lift a finger to help her/ I did not intercede with heaven….” This because she is really a symbol or goddess of something else, “who cries out to be incarnate/ incarnate, maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed”.

The mid eighties was a time of Marian obsession in Ireland following strange reports of “the moving statues” in a Kerry church. Children first saw these and then churches across especially the West of Ireland were reporting the same. Noticeably, like the late Victorian Knock apparitions, the visions were at once very Irish for dream/vision yet untrue to national character in being silent. They supplied no messages unless implied.

Unknown to the Christianity of St Patrick, the history of Ireland’s Marian devotion begins just prior to the Norman invasion and was at its strongest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ severe English repression of Ireland and following the mid nineteenth century Great Famine. In short, the Virgin functioned as symbol of resistance and identity against the invader and death (and for the sort of reasons mentioned earlier, a male symbol could be more complex for men under repression, the Virgin could simply be sympathetic). In the mid 80s when some Irish laws and traditional values were beginning to be questioned, arguably the silent Mary can be seen as defending a threatened conservative national self-image.

Meehan’s development would be towards letting the goddess/archetype of Granard appear and speak as she finally does in “One Evening in May”. The poet hopes she will never regret being “bound to her rule for life”, the goddess having eventually declared, “Do my bidding”. Yet the authority and appearance of this figure could be disconcerting (her body is starry but she has “a great snakeshead”).  Meehan as in “The Man who was marked by Winter” can concede this goddess force may be pitiless and blind towards human nature. (I feel Meehan’s goddess has kinship with Robert Graves’ dangerous White Goddess). However, as Meehan seeks both vision and control, she must and does make adjustments to her object of dreams.

Her response develops in ways both feminist and Buddhist (though she always denies being a Buddhist despite poems like Dharmakaya). Like the shape-shifting shaman and his spirits Meehan will instead move between worlds, between rational and irrational, ancient and modern, urban and rural. The concern not to let herself and others be swallowed up by the visionary  forces of soul has brought her to work among addicts and prisoners (Meehan would see goddess energies in the heroin plague of Dublin in the eighties). A generalized Buddhism reflecting a strong influence from Beat Poet, Gary Synder, allows Meehan a distance, Zen or other possibly even Tibetan to the extent that  in Tibetan Buddhism one can create and dissolve worlds and gods. Meehan will also keep the earth goddess power under control by sharing record of this deity with especially those women who tell and share their stories.

The aim becomes a “democratic” spirituality. Instead of being in the hands of any elite group or patriarchal figures like priests and beholden to “doctrine”, vision will pass instead to women who share and modify what’s revealed, who accept the spontaneous and free ways of vision as perhaps exemplified in the ultimately inexplicable “My Father Perceived as a Vision of Saint Francis”.There is no reason why Meehan’s father should suddenly appear as that saint amid the musings of this poem.

But the prototype for  this strong emphasis upon vision’s power (and not necessarily accompanied by the Logos function of words), is the dream life of the poet’s grandmother. The latter used daily to recite her dreams to family and these dreams could function as prophecies – they were reportedly as impressive as any visions of St John on Patmos in Revelation! Although Meehan’s upbringing was loosely Catholic, the grandmother as evoked in verse gives a rather witchy even sinister impression as in “That Night There Was a Full Moon, Little Cloud”. Granny is hemming a shroud and knows the poet’s “black sin”, whatever that is, tells Paula her name should be “harlot” or “scarlet” and that she will have a song written in the blood of men who have displeased her.

Meehan is, as Auge concedes, complex; but I think it would not be too wrong to summarize her position as radically if unintentionally Jungian, a world in which symbol, archetype, the unconscious and perhaps very much the shadow, are paramount. I sense too that Meehan holds a rather special place within the new brew of Irish spirituality. Despite her visionary welcome of the wild and unprecedented, her persona is mild and almost dainty, quite similar to the continuously angels-aware Lorna Byrne who is now a cult figure translated into thirty languages and for many a new religion in itself and for some a natural development from their troubled Catholicism. More on Lorna in Part Two.

THE POETIC CHARGE AGAINST CATHOLICISM

Certain themes have emerged from these six poets that seem fairly negative and disturbing. We learn that:

1) Irish Catholicism has been not simply repressive but traumatically so to the point that for  health and sanity’s sake one might need to become one’s own priest and spiritual adviser –  a (sort of) Protestant position.

2) It also forgets, ignores or represses the original Celtic Christian nature mysticism so that what remains of this is no longer vital.

3) It has promoted an attitude of guilt and self-sacrifice undermining of practical action in the world, while through Virgin cult, it has helped confuse realistic relations of men with women.

4) It is however ironically nuns more than wives and mothers who make up for some of the damage and represent the better and visionary side of the faith and possibly its future.

5) Even so, individualism of most kinds, especially for men, has risked being the object of virtual persecution until quite recently (when toleration of homosexuality has been portrayed by conservatives as bordering madness or irremediable decadence).

6) Religious doctrine has been so rigid and rationalized some would prefer a life lived according to vivid symbolism and what  one  could call “myths to live by” (title of a bestseller by Irish American Joseph Campbell) letting go not least of the ubiquitous Virgin cult in favour of “Our Lady of the Facts of Life”.

It can be argued the poets cited are not quite fair or representative. Maybe. However, if one adds to the mix facts like how for centuries the hierarchy would be almost the diplomatic ally of the oppressor, a hinderer of much national identity and resistance instead seeking rather its own authority, keen to render Ireland as under De Valera’s government the world’s most Catholic society, a colony no longer of England but of Rome itself, the pressing question is: why did the Irish  engage with a version of Christianity so unhelpful?

Three obvious, but not completely sufficient answers are that:

  1. There was obviously a lack of choice, variety and debate. Protestantism appeared, politically at least, an even worse solution, though we do know that where the ambitiously called “Church of Ireland” made concessions to the native language and/or did not require allegiance to England it did make some headway .https://wp.me/p2v96G-19s

  2.  Once  Ireland had lost its main leadership through the Flight of the Earls in 1607,  priests became a multi-functional substitute elite. This might have mattered less if priestly loyalty was not so firmly attached to Rome as alternative power base which only bolstered many British and Protestant fears at the same time as it failed to serve national identity at a time of increasing national identity throughout Europe..

  3.  The Irish were in  thrall to a religion of fear. While the hellfire sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, is by any standards extreme, something of the kind would still have influenced many. As Auge points out, even before the confessional and the regular confession of Clarke’s youth became a major feature of Irish life (the sacrament was previously more communal and even just annual), many were fearful of the possibility of dying without priestly absolution. It is not possible short of outright denial and heresy to erase hell from the Christian creedal picture, but it should be possible to speak of it in more acceptable terms as considered in later re-visioning here.

I think there was another reason, possibly the most important, for the general stasis, but I shall consider that in the next part where it is indissociable from definitions of Christianity and Irish Christianity and any revisioning of them.

PART TWO:  DEFINING AND RE-VISIONING IRISH CHRISTIANITY

I shall introduce  with a personal reminiscence  the unexpected answer I think is most nearly correct relative to the final question of Part One about the strange Irish attachment to a Catholicism often experienced as more wounding than healing.

On the occasions of the passing of both of my parents there were elements of the kind might be included in a study like La Legende de la Mort, (a record of death-associated experiences among the Brittany Celts, a people more voyant and spiritual than the French). Years ago, my father had been amazed to see my mother’s spirit depart from the bed in her hospital room and twenty four hours or so before he himself died he had suddenly informed me he would depart because Jesus had visited and told him he would soon be taken.

If something of this order was once more common, it isn’t now. In 2019 a leading Australian journalist of Irish background, Greg Sheridan, published a book God is Good For You. In my review of it, https://wp.me/p2v96G-16w  I mentioned how little people he interviewed, even people of faith, strongly believed in survival in any meaningful form. This was similar to my own experience of people’s attitudes and responses following my father’s passing. The point is significant and raises questions, not least in relation to Irish spirituality and its history.

Anticipating what I have to say presently and which seems provable beyond just an impression, my idea is that much Irish attachment to Catholicism until quite recent times with its distractions, has been involved with a sense of quasi-salvation from structure and pattern rather than belief as such.

Moreover, the bizarre paradox I see as attaching to Irish Catholicism from medieval to modern times, is that it would manage either to justify, or at least sufficiently excuse, a kind of distinct unbelief and this unbelief’s related attachment to pagan customs such as the original Patrick Christianity would not and never justify.

In 433 at the hill of Slane Patrick won a contest against the druids in terms of their revered authority and magic, but across time he would lose against them more intellectually, as gradually the druids, or the druidic spirit among Irish leaders, made a comeback. Of this presently and also  concerning another quiet modern transformation of belief in the way that mild speaking, wildly popular Lorna Byrne is quietly drawing a lot of disaffected Irish (and Christians worldwide –she is translated into over thirty languages) into a substitute, default faith in angels. They are supposedly everywhere one looks if one can only look closely enough!

DEFINING “CHRISTIAN” AND THINKING RESURRECTION

Various people and churches have at times sought to define by creed and/or practice what it signifies to be Christian. There are nonetheless two early and minimalist ones from St Paul to keep in mind.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

“If there is no resurrection of the dead , then Christ has not been raised and if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God….” (1 Cor 15:13-14)

But resurrection here means something quite specific. It is not continued existence as a spirit in some heaven or purgatory, nor reincarnation in another body, but rather the eventual acquiring at the Rapture or Last Day, of a new, more divine, versatile kind of spiritual (“pneumatic”) as opposed to earthly body. In effect, this fulfils the belief statement of Job 19:26 “And though… worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…”

The ancients believed Celtic religion was a form of Pythagoreanism and that the Celts were fearless in the face of death because of their belief in some form of immortality. Even so, by the above Pauline standard, and despite a few early Celtic saints concerned about the site of their death and hoped-for resurrection from it, lively expectation of a new immortal body and existence, is absent to a degree that, at least at this level, the Irish barely qualify as Christian. It is probably true to say that traditional, average belief held vague expectations of a place in purgatory. Be that as it may, some kind of insistent imagining seems to go elsewhere than in the direction of heaven and resurrection.

A lot of significant Irish literature is about graveyards and the post-mortem condition. What is deemed the greatest Irish language novel, Mairtain O’ Cadhain’s Cre na Cilla, Churchyard Clay, is set there. It is a rambling, plotless, rather Rabelaisian record of the arguing, cursing, reminiscing dead. There are affinities with Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake which is about the wake prior to the burial. But whether it’s Brendan Behan’s Richard’s Cork Leg, set in a graveyard, or Yeats’ repeating purgatory in Purgatory, or many plays of Beckett set in indeterminate somewheres, all we receive is a sense of a meaningless, aimless continuation, not even a pagan voyage to some Tir na Og, Land of Youth. It would be hard to say what belief, unbelief or agnosticism is really entailed behind all this. When the Mary Poppins author, P.L Travers, asked her Irish guru the visionary poet AE, (the Irish Blake and reputedly a theosophist), what he believed about the afterlife he admitted he’d never thought about it.

One of the most significant novelists of modern Ireland has been John McGahern and his work is felt to successfully reflect the borderlines of traditional and modern and the effects of change. In That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) the characters attend mass as a regular ritual but without any special belief in its meaning. In Amongst Women (1990) the sceptical, unbelieving head of the family, Moran, decrees daily reciting the rosary simply because it will help keep the family together. (“the family that prays together, stays together”). Out in the fields through love of the country his children discover the meaning of the Benedictine ‘to work is to pray”. This is a family open to nature and its rhythms.

In many ways the life of Moran and his alienated family make sense of life through order and symbolism; it’s a way of managing what the Irish supposedly find hard to do – living in the present as opposed to the past or the future (even if it’s the graveyard!). Moran is a disappointed man who fought in those Irish Independence Wars forgotten and ignored in the new Ireland but in which he could perceive himself mythically as a sort of Cuchulainn. Also in a (rural or small town) society where emotional life is rich but intellectual life could be limited, people are minimally or accidentally understood. However, their  unexplained, hidden selves are respected and associated with through ritual.

Moran, who is not a believer, is puzzled that the priests seem to be afraid of death, don’t talk of it or anticipate beyond life beyond life. To the extent this is true of Ireland’s priests (I wouldn’t say it universally was), the reason is surely simple. There can be no easy, reassuring answer because, mired in secondary considerations, there is no simple Pauline statement of faith they would be ready and willing to affirm. The afterlife subject is instead hopelessly tied up with trying to decide, Dantesque style, what level of merit the person might represent for entry to whatever zone of purgatory or heaven, (not to say if inadvertently they might not be more qualified for a place below!). For most of its history Irish religion has been about merit to an excessive degree, so before proceeding a bit of history must be referred to.

FOUNDATIONS AND ST PATRICK

Asked what “Irish Christianity” means, probably most people would answer the faith of St Patrick. Patrick was the British, probably Welsh, missionary to an Ireland evidently not the pagan matriarchal utopia of some colourful modern imaginings – many of the first converts were women and Patrick said the condition of female slaves in Ireland was terrible.

Ironically, as becomes apparent from an honest reading of St Patrick’s Confession, (an at times wandering, slightly confusing testament that doesn’t answer questions we would like to know such as about his relations to the Roman and Gaulish churches), that the faith of the national saint has little in common with that of most Irish over the centuries.

Protestant claims to own the saint are not quite the fanciful chauvinism that might appear. Patrick’s faith, strongly Pauline and Trinitarian, knows no cult of the saints or Mary or purgatory, is all about faith and is  not far off what some evangelical missionaries and/or charismatics might write today, not least since Patrick believes he hears from and is guided by messages from the Spirit. The closest to any Catholic note is the mention of some converts becoming what sounds like dedicated monks and nuns.

Patrick’s mission was chiefly directed, strategically by the looks of it, on the Northern half of Ireland, the main centre of druidism and secular power. (There appears to have been some Christian presence related to Eastern churches earlier and in South Ireland, but it was not system-challenging like Patrick). Famously Patrick won a battle with druid power that was a landmark for Irish religion at Easter of 433, but I suggest the victory was partial only. The druids would make a comeback and they have more or less ruled the religious landscape ever since, either  through  the spirit of their own teachings or Rome’s.

Kidnapped as a youth, Patrick’s education was incomplete and he regrets his lack of learning, mentioning that the Irish aristocrats held it against him. Ireland would soon play a major role in saving the inherited culture of the West. If the country’s elite were so many primitives in a bog they would not have been able to do this. It is just unfortunate that the outlook of the elite  remained stuck in the druid mould where specifically faith was concerned…if they could be said to have “faith”.

It has been plausibly speculated that Patrick’s mission could have been encouraged by those in Europe at odds with the at one time influential heretical teachings of the British/Welsh monk Pelagius. This widely travelled monk taught salvation by works, Jesus being only a good example to follow. Since Jesus can be rather hard to emulate, practically such a doctrine can become a burden to carry! And in any case it was unbiblical.

However it struck some chord in the Celtic regions. Arguably the religious fate of the Celts, with its strange repressions and stuckness was even anticipated by St Paul in his epistle to Galatians written to the Romanized Celts of Galatia in what is now modern Turkey. Galatians is the justification through faith epistle that was Luther’s inspiration for a Reformation Ireland never had. Paul insists believers are already justified by Christ and an almost automatic curse is upon anyone who promotes otherwise and legalizes the faith: “you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?….for all who rely on the works of the Law are accursed” (Gal 3:1,10). He also exclaims (and one thinks of Celtic treatment of fairy thorns, and offerings to the sprites etc) “How can you turn back to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? (Gal. 4:9).

Has Celtic management of spiritual essentials been as undermining through history as Paul anticipated it could be? Do we perhaps see the root error of Celtic Christianity starting with the revered but impetuous aristocrat Columcille (St Columba) who, unable to forgive himself for a tribal battle he had occasioned with massive loss of life, then perceived almost the rest of his life as necessarily a penance.

The druids and/or druidized Irish leaders, and especially their brehon lawyers, converted to the faith, but they not only sought to retain many native customs but their own power too (the bans and curses of the druids had always been much feared); but some also fell in love with laws of Israel and in no time invented super severe penitentials (whose punishments might stretch over half a lifetime and more). These rules accompanied Irish religious on their missionary travels across Europe, missions that included the novel custom of private confession that would become part of western Christianity. Early Irish love of the Hebrew legacy is symbolized by the odd way in which the annalists decided that the prophet Jeremiah made his final exile in Ireland where he married an Irish princess. (Someone managed to ignore this prophet had been forbidden to marry but hardly appears to have been the marrying kind in any case).

Irish contribution to the West at the crucial early medieval period was often more civilising than spiritually redeeming as such. Most essentially the gospel is a call to general repentance (metanoia/ mind change) with acceptance by faith of forgiveness through the messianic Christ (i.e, universal anointed high priest to manage sin and atonement) (Mk 1:15). The implications in terms of grace is what has often been deemed the distinguishing, most original feature of Christianity among world religions. (Christianity and the Jupiter Difference https://wp.me/p4kNWg-mb)

The Bethlehem Star itself was Jupiter, universally star of grace, good fortune, religion and the teacher/guru, not Saturn symbol of law and custom. All the world religions in effect teach, like Buddhism with its wheel of the Law, systems of auto-salvation, effortful practices to increase merit and decrease ill effects (bad karma); but the absolute free and new beginning under God begun  by a will to place faith, is the Christian “good news” to the world.

If repentance was genuine something of its fruit in improved conduct should accompany it; but good deeds do not define, or earn, but only reflect and accompany salvation because “by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your doing …not the result of works …”lest any should boast” as St Paul has it (Eph.2:9). The early Irish conversion, which in effect is a will to sanctify oneself so as to become an angel if not another Christ, was very much a way of merit earned. For centuries  St Patrick’s Purgatory, the penance island in Donegal’s Lough Derg associated with the saint by late legend only, would be a, or the, sombre symbol of painful, effort-ridden Irish religion.

The Irish church never became fully Pelagian i.e. teaching nothing but works, but its elitist priests and saints both absorbed and, penitentially-minded, contributed to, the western church’s strengthening of the role of priest as the supreme Christian, mediator of Christ’s sacrifice. This sacrifice was seen as continuously repeated in the mass, a sacrifice added to rather than already achieved once for all time as per Heb 7:27, an epistle that implies what 1 Pet 2:9 states, namely that there is a priesthood of all believers, not of any exclusive priestly caste. This new, early medieval Celtic and Roman Christ is a half redeemer whose example and death are sufficient pretext and essential building block upon which the believer can build their fund of merit for themselves or even others in order to qualify for salvation.

Unsurprisingly, the situation was little inspiration for poetry of personal devotion. Needed would be someone from a more diverse historical  and cultural background like the Dante of medieval    Florence whose imaginative universe has fascinated so many Irish poets (even Heaney), whose spiritual  labour is to put everyone in their merited place at every level. Dante does so with the mind of a sentencing judge, not least in the purgatory, an extra-biblical idea said to have owed much during the medieval era to Ireland’s Lough Derg and tales around it. But metaphysical poetry like that of the English seventeenth century that engages conversations, arguments and relations with God is still scarcely possible because hardly even imagined. Instead the Irish poets fall back on the main alternative, some wonder at God’s creation.

Based on the tribal system and organized around monastic centres, the much vaunted early Celtic church whatever its virtues was not truly democratic. There is no concept as in the house churches of the Roman empire like the one addressed in Ephesians, that there could be a church with pastors, teachers, prophets etc (Eph. 4) all playing their role. There is simply someone with priestly function and (often part or wholly secluded) monks and nuns who if not at prayer and meditation are likely working at decorating scriptures themselves little discussed or taught.

Post Patrick, as far as contact with deity is concerned, there is a twofold localizing and distancing effect at work. Local holy sites and popularly acclaimed holy persons (saints) are a hoped for point of local contact. The distancing effect arrives with late medieval Marian cult where the Redeemer, biblically the supposed one and only advocate with the Father,( 1 Tim 2:5) is only approached through “the Mother of God” whom a half feared Jesus will never refuse. (Among medieval  bardic poets and reflecting the confusion entertained by Marian cult I think it was Philib O’Huiginn exclaims “Oh Jesus you left even your mother distraught”)

Somewhere between these two poles of near and far guardian angels sufficed for spiritual contact and special appeals. Ignoring that in the NT the saint word is applied to all believers, mention of saints’ prayers rising (Rev 5:8) would justify ever more elaborate doctrines of the special status of holy souls with God. (The Roman church ignoring Celtic and Greek style sainthood by local vote, evolved elaborate ways of deciding if a given saint was truly in heaven and able to receive and grant prayers or not). At this point I shall jump from the historical perspective to a modern one that’s currently almost unavoidable.

A   CONFUSION OF ANGELS

The new Catholic, semi-Catholic or post Catholic religion of Ireland is, or is fast becoming, Lorna Byrne’s faith in angels which she claims to have seen continuously around her from birth (a world first?!). Her belief in these spiritual helpers is promoted in books translated in over thirty languages (and, over the objections of some, sold in churches). She is now a familiar figure on TV and media generally. If a person’s Catholicism has already encouraged prayer to a guardian angel, the switch to Byrne’s ubiquitous angels is easy; but for all sorts of reasons those angels, if they’re not imaginary, aren’t Christian ones including for the following.

The biblical angel word means “messenger”, because they are bearers of messages on direct divine command. The notion angels can hang around “unemployed” if we don’t keep them suitably occupied is between hilarious and heretical. Angels, whom it’s forbidden to worship, are fellow workers with believers and prophets in the cosmic struggle the gospel addresses (Rev 22:9). As such they are portrayed as doers, who will at least occasionally intervene in the affairs of the world. Byrne’s angels can only advise or send feathers for signs but they do it all the time.

If and when angels intervene on God’s behalf, biblically it’s not a secret. From earliest childhood Byrne’s angels tell her to keep quiet about them. It seems they have chosen her without any special consent on her part. Unlike Gabriel to Mary, Byrne’s chief helper/teacher angel can’t be named (though she does claim to have dealings with the archangel Michael). Overall the picture is less one of vocation than something like psychic lineages in which because an ancestor engaged the occult some unwitting descendant receives the energies in whatever form they can understand.

Angels assist worship and knowledge of God.  This is why an angel will support the kind of proclamation an angel tells Paul and Barnabas to pursue despite opposition from religious authorities (Acts 5: 17-21). The reason there’s any gospel to proclaim is because neither angels nor Christianity teach like Byrne the basic unity and equality of all religions (Acts 4: 12) or the reincarnation (Heb 9:27) of souls.

Whether it’s imagination or real, I don’t consider Lorna Byrne a wilful deceiver, and I don’t question her kindly desire to help people, which she sometimes can and does. She absolutely appeals to the sentimental side of Ireland. She is also the perfect pupil to her unearthly mentors. Her deprived background and dyslexia have protected her from any doubts that could arise from intense study in religion or bible. In the same way, her situation has helped prevent trenchant criticism of whatever she claims. And now as regards especially universal religion, Byrne (who even envisages Christians worshipping at Mecca), can nowadays seem to chime with recent statements from Pope Francis that understandably trouble some Catholics who regard him as an anti-pope. Certainly, to declare as Francis has done that any proselytizing is wrong, flies in the face of Christ’s parting command to proclaim the gospel worldwide and Paul’s statements “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9 :16).

Lorna Byrne (b.1954) is all of a mystery, but an astrologer might note that along with the likes of Heaney and others who make big waves in modern Ireland, it helps that she was born under the Aries so emphasized in the birth pattern of the Republic. At the same time, one could note that her Saturn directly aspects asteroid Lucifer, name of that deceptive being who can manifest as an angel of light. Byrne is certainly no devil, but she does appear to be a source of insufficiently challenged teachings misleading from no matter what Christian standpoint.

A  RE-IMAGINED IRISH RELIGION

….Now finally for the re-imagining I’ve been leading to. In the wake of what’s already been considered, the following is obviously “Utopian”. It aims to stimulate thought, spark a few ideas, perhaps encourage a few new practices in the way just imagining things sometimes can.

The situation of  twenty first century Ireland both departs from tradition and, as  in the Byrne angel cult, radically develops it in broadly New Age ways.  There has of course always been change even amid the apparent conservatism of centuries.  The religion of Patrick, embroidered with a cult of local saints and holy sites, was eventually absorbed into the religion of Rome (which it in turn influenced). It disposed of much that was native from the anam cara (soul friend) to what looks to have been something like same sex unions, (which if so suggests some influence from medieval Eastern Churches which countenanced such). The Irish are perennially  good at sainthood and can achieve it almost anyhow, anywhere….like Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran (1955-1982) now deemed a Zen Buddhist saint worshipped in Japan as an incarnation of the goddess Kannon. If she had lived (and not died like her father before her in a road accident) she would like to have taught Ireland Buddhism along with the unity of all religions from a temple in Dublin (where there is however a Centre). I expect to devote an article to the O’Halloran phenomenon…… But short of such exotic, ultimately apostate developments, I shall consider how Ireland might  now be otherwise Christian.

Since the twelfth century Roman takeover assisted by English ambitions and Ulster’s reforming archbishop St Malachy, the only real alternative until modern times was a Protestantism that was political and didn’t appeal. Very belatedly we may ask what it could have done as an alternative and even how it could present itself as any distinct, viable option today.

Where it used the native language and didn’t impose loyalty to England as the price of conversion, Protestantism enjoyed some success. It would probably have enjoyed rather more if it had ritualized itself. For many Irish the flow of existence needs some organization and meaning via ritual, so….

1) The early Irish monks chanted the Psalms round the clock, some of them reportedly even did so standing in the sea. The Psalms as against the total biblical legacy is a bit limiting. Just as modern Ireland reads Joyce’s Ulysses round the clock for Bloomsday, I see no reason why the Bible couldn’t be read round the clock in selected churches.

2). Many Irish also need and value retreat. The spirit of the meditating hermits, the Culdees, remains. As the late mystically inclined Sean Dunne (1956-95) had it in The Hermitage:

A house for quiet built in the woods
One good place for a man alone…

Church of Ireland Sunday worship was never enough. Buddhism is wiser here than Catholicism here or Protestantism, despite the latter’s urge towards self-affirmation it is dead to reasonable spiritual individualism –   both Catholic and Protestant systems fail to see it should be possible to allow temporary vows lasting as long as the person feels is helpful and appropriate.

3) Both Catholicism and Protestantism in Ireland could use more and different forms of art and music. Irish Catholicism has too many “naturalistic” plaster saints around its churches and Protestantism too little of anything. As regards art, I don’t need either Yeats or Soshin O’Halloran to incline me to the conviction there are certain aesthetic strains of affinity between Ireland and Japan that could be developed in the direction of ornament, of li type impulse, of feeling for nature and zen type plainness (of which St Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo is a good example). There are even other Asian traditions of affinity (like the extreme detail of Tibetan art where everything has symbolic significance); and as regards music something akin to the more vibratory, meditational raga music of India could be employed on occasions in lieu of standard hymns. The insistent drone of the Celtic bagpipe is already half way there.

4) Because they lack saints, non-Catholic Christianity in Ireland (and elsewhere) lacks many festivals and the rituals prominent in traditional Catholicism. But rituals of some kind are almost a psychological necessity for the Irish. Whereas historically early Ireland made the mistake of turning Christianity back into the system of law St Paul warned against as contrary to the new era of grace, modern Irish Christianity could nonetheless well assimilate the not forbidden Jewish festivals. It could perhaps adopt the menorah (representing the seven spirits of God and the seven planets according to Josephus) as a symbol. The Jewish festivals are defined as moedim, times of special meeting with God, and some Christians who have experimented with the festivals do find them occasions of easier prayer, increased vision and renewal. Even just lighting a Sabbath candle and sharing a Sabbath meal could be meaningful. On the rare occasions I have attended a Shabbat meal I have been struck by the powerful and peaceful atmosphere it can evoke.

Regardless, it is beyond high time Ireland and its Christians sorted themselves out about Israel. It is disgraceful that Ireland could be nowadays described as perhaps the most anti-Israel in Europe. https://www.jns.org/why-is-ireland-the-most-anti-israel-country-in-europe/  It’s  a biblical injunction from the first not to be anti-Semitic ( Gen 12:3) but the Irish situation owes something to wildly distorted understanding of the Palestinian cause as somehow related to Irish issues plus, to add to the confusion, some alienating behaviour by those Irish who do support Israel like Eileen Byrne of the Justice and Equality department. This person is all for reminding people about the holocaust and Jewish identity at the same time as she has been involved with replacement migration hurtfully imposed upon those regions trying to preserve Gaelic language and culture. I can’t say more here than that massive (re)education and healing in this area is required, especially as in America it used be the Irish and Jews were often closely and politically involved. Both represent people groups who have suffered and endured a lot. Joyce through the Bloom theme of Ulysses, was aware of various Jewish/Irish affinities.

5) Modern Christian ritual in Ireland could use a new Rosary, one based on a more Trinitarian outlook and biblical/prophetic references. Even if you feel it can be justified by tradition and theology, there is too much evidence from Ireland that Marian cult is not experienced as psychologically helpful by many believers, especially not young ones. But objections can be raised against the rosary in itself including that (by tradition) its introduction is attributed to St Dominic, founder saint of the Inquisition. Why inherit from and affirm him? When I was growing up the mood was ecumenical and I was not encouraged to think of Catholicism as “wrong” or terribly different from Protestantism. It took residence in Mexico to persuade me something might indeed be wrong and the system considerably different. The cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, clearly Mexico’s true deity, alerted me to just what levels of paganism Catholicism can cover and excuse via its Marian cult.

There are differing versions of the Rosary, but listening to it with its sometimes single Pater Noster to ten Hail Marys in a section, one could receive the impression that for all practical purposes, Mary is the redeemer or guarantor of salvation. (Jesus is supposed not to be able to refuse his mother anything!).

The rosary is based on the main events or mysteries of Jesus’ life leaving out all the teachings in between the events, and it concludes with the non-biblical assumption of Mary into heaven to be crowned its queen. Mary as queen and virtual co-redemptrix is patent in the medieval poem Stabat Mater which finishes entreating Mary to deliver from hell. Just by itself the Stabat Mater, memorably arranged by leading western composers, amounts to a collection of statements contrary to some of the most central, explicit biblical teachings. See my article following the Notre Dame conflagration and the last choral music sung there. https://wp.me/p4kNWg-rw

6) Beyond the problems of Marian cult, Irish Christianity, too often hurt by radical gloom and doom preaching, needs to re-visit its basic proclamation. While serious issues like hell and the last things can’t honestly be censored from core doctrine, there are more or less reasonable ways of presenting them. Hell especially has always needed an understanding closer to that promoted in Eastern Christianities where the same (spiritual) fires that burn the damned, illuminate the saved because the matter is considerably one of will and perception. Why God would irremediably damn anyone and especially as per Anselm’s medieval atonement doctrine, because sin had “offended” the divine honour makes little sense. There has to be more behind this and there are surely more logical, saner answers, a matter I touch on in review of Greg Sheridan’s God is Good for You https://wp.me/p2v96G-16w

6). If one revises the message, it matters who will teach and proclaim what’s agreed. Ireland has been a mostly biblically illiterate society and its religious organizations, even Protestant, have reflected hardly anything like rabbinical instruction and organization. Any believer is supposed to know the bible and if need be argue over it like the commended Berean Jews in Greece who didn’t automatically accept what Paul told them but got down to study, waiting to be convinced (Acts 17:11). The first churches reckoned to distribute roles, pastors, teachers, prophets etc; there was no idea of a single presiding priest.

There is a distinct gay/queer strain within Irish culture – the ancients noticed a strong, openly expressed same sex disposition among the Celts. Whatever one makes of that, one of the subjects religious Ireland still needs to argue out is the question of sexuality,  something which always colours spirituality. It is a subject which has too often and still is cornered by inflexible fundamentalists unwilling to see that in some respects the same sex theme even constitutes a hidden biblical stream as indicated for example by this poem and its notes. https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm

Irish Christianity needs to reach greater theological sophistication in this and other areas if it is to be relevant and develop. If it is not to finish ignored as is happening, especially Catholicism will have to get beyond the evident attachment of some new nationalists to the oppressive De Valera ideal of nationhood. In this gays were without any rights and protection, divorce was unthinkable and women, even in extreme situations, would never have abortions. Irish mismanagement of issues  like these had been so misguided Christians should not even be surprised at the national turnaround and not treat the  legal changes as the prime symbol of a purely secularist rejection of Christianity.

A recent  youtube about How the Most Catholic Nation left the Church seems oblivious to the idea the churches could actually have contributed anything at all to what has happened.  The turnaround has to a considerable extent been a vote against a backlog of outrageous clerical failures and a  belated correction to a virtual medievalism in aspects of the laws that had caused more than enough suffering.  Even if one’s personal theological position allows only for strictest tradition, a nation must still allow a few concessions to dissenters or it is a theocracy, not a democracy, and one that is not honestly giving to God and to Caesar their dues. The theocratic tones of the new nationalism have effectively doomed that movement’s chances at a crucial moment in Irish affairs.

But can and will there now be any creative development? Some might say the times being what they are, the more pertinent question is whether prophecies like St Patrick’s concerning Ireland’s end beneath the waves, or St Malachy’s forecast that would render the current Pope the last, will prove true. Even without any Wagnerian finales, borrowing from Douglas Murray on Europe one could well speak of “The Strange Death of Ireland”, because arguably there soon won’t be an Eire to salvage and preserve.

My above suggestions towards change embrace certain images, but also basic truths, about Ireland as tribe, clan, nation, race or whatever. There has been and even into fairly modern times, such a thing as a “land of saints and scholars” (even if as regards the sainthood it is as surprising as Maura O’Halloran’s and in scholarship as perverse but uniquely encyclopaedic as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake).

Ireland, which effectively holds the last sizeable traces within Europe of the Celtic peoples and their culture, is too old and too young, too long alone within Europe as a colony and needing to be re-established from that, to manage the kind of social experiments, adjustments and massive immigration the nation’s irresponsible leadership has placed upon it in cooperation with a considerably myopic Europe itself in decline. The latter should now and again have been answered as by Hungary and Poland with a few firm refusals. Ireland of the welcomes cannot to its existential peril be the world’s doormat. The welcomes doormat ideal, evidently believed by the nation’s eccentric current president, is a mark of spiritual decline in itself because the only reason even Christianity is inclusive is because it can be exclusive also. Like any major institution and movement Ireland must always balance the two principles. A secular Irish leadership that ignores this prepares for a blowing out of the candle, the arrival of Patrick’s flood or the long Beckettian silence.

I began with affirming the importance of poets and poetry for religion and I briefly reviewed a book which included the problems and difficulties of six poets in the face of Irish Catholicism. This made for clarity in the face of a problem, but those considered sow few seeds towards spiritual renewal; Except perhaps sometimes Clarke, they don’t really speak in the high tones that poet and critic Kathleen Raine would maintain traditionally accompanies and triggers any vision – a lot of modern Irish poetry under the influence of American poetry can finish a rather prosy, meditative monologue on subjects great and small and often the latter. Soul is neither grasped nor sought.

It belongs with the current situation that a haunting, fairly traditionally presented poem about lost or absent faith, Denis O’Driscoll’s Missing God, gets quoted only in the Epilogue to Auge’s study. Its afterthought status is hardly surprising. I’ll not be vulgar and talk about the fate of my own religion relevant poetry, visionary, metaphysical etc – sufficient by way of complaint is included in the last section of my Staging Sweeney Frenzy article (https://wp.me/p2v96G-1b2 ) and its last section “To Lay my Burden Down”.

However, I do think in conclusion it might be necessary to stress that a true optic on the time and its possibilities is almost certainly not available to us. There are doubtless gaps resulting  from a degree of censorship, something which  must be seen as an ongoing, perennial Irish problem. Formerly it operated under Catholic influence, now through the secular prejudice of cliques. A handle on the Irish soul, fate and character that poetry should address, may need to be found in unexpected places.  But then,  historically, and not just in Ireland, this is where a lot of significant religious poetry has issued from and with it some recovery of soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2020 in culture, Poetry, religion

 

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GAY SEX, PLEASURE AND A PAUL PROBLEM

      PART ONE: MARKS OF ABSENT PLEASURE

AN ARGUMENT WORTH HAVING

There’s an old rabbinic saying “to love God is to argue with him”. It’s a saying influenced by the fact the Israel name means [the one who] strives with God. And sometimes truth, insight and justice are the product of a degree of testing, negotiation, even argument, with God or scriptures.

Gay conversion therapy is and remains controversial and on occasions I have observed it’s rare and special persons who are changed, or claim to be so, https://wp.me/p6Zhz7-m Over the years I’ve noticed it quite often seems to be, as one might expect, women who make the claims, because women generally are more sexually adaptable than men in the first place.

Recently I listened to a youtube with an ex-gay testimony from a female former LGBT activist. It was noticeable that it concluded that she felt more at ease not having to argue with the God and scriptures familiar to her from her family and upbringing. Arguably that is the main key to her story. Better accept, no matter the difficulty, than question and resist. Anyway, this extended article is about the kind of questioning that yields results in some significant truths and possible revelation in the face of a lot of current confusion.

RADICAL BEYOND THE BLINDSPOT

This is a quite radical and original article about the expression and meaning of gay sex and it contains ideas and perspectives readers won‘t have encountered via either gay or queer theologies (I’m actually rather opposed to the materialism and neo-Marxist bias of queer which disposes of spiritual issues  and I don’t represent any standard Progressive Christian position either. Ever since I obtained my world first doctorate in gay spiritualities I have retained an independent and as far as possible objective line).

The crux of this inquiry is related to the gay tantra trend plus account of an experience not sought or expected but whose implications could be significant for  ongoing thought about same sex issues  and spirituality. Just when it could seem much had been settled and achieved, there may be more to think about.

Readers could, in fact, stop here and drop in on the subject in Part Two first and return to this Part later. That easy-out can’t be recommended if anyone wants to bring the widest perspectives and greatest understanding to Part Two because as the article’s title indicates, I am also dealing with a “Paul problem” I endeavour to resolve. In any case, lest anyone would try to avoid the impact of what is argued here, I’m virtually obliged to precede any interrogation  of the  theme with thoughts in two directions:

  1. a) a peculiar blind spot in western religious culture around the beautiful with implications for spirituality and notions of pleasure.
  2. b) justifying the theological “revisionism” that, as in this inquiry, questions long unquestioned tradition, assumes tradition should be dynamic, not static, and that it’s doesn’t make for automatic heresy to think that way.

PLEASURE

Pleasure within Christianity (and many religions) can sometimes get very negatively regarded, a prime distraction as in, “they will be lovers of pleasure rather than God” (2 Tim 3:4). Arguably the original Christian take on pleasure was, or became, not unlike Buddhist notions of “attachment” though described as “idolatry”. (Just how close to the Buddhist idea Christianity would become is suggested by St Teresa of Avila confiscating a nun’s bibles because the unfortunate woman had remarked she was very “attached” to her bible!).

To the extent pleasure belongs with the temporal and “this body of death”, philosophically any spiritual system will be against pleasure as an end in itself ; but practically and as an everyday issue, one is faced with deciding the status of pleasure, natural, spontaneous, artistic, therapeutic etc more generally. Just as in the past music, women’s voices, dancing, acting etc have been opposed, so too sexual pleasure and just physical touch can get questioned with diverse results that compel us to question the evaluations behind this.

To speak of a cultural blind spot in art may not even seem an obvious, relevant starting point, but is so because depiction and perception of beauty, along with authentic depiction of Christ, itself belongs with the pleasure question. In the OT, beholding the beauty of the Lord is itself, as with all beauty, a kind of pleasure, even the greatest, the main desire (Ps 27:4). Granted that OT notions of the visual and the image were different to ours, if we’re honest there is a peculiar weakness at the heart of western religious art including that even in plain sight one hardly gets to see the desired beauty represented by especially the faith’s Redeemer.

The technical achievements and expressive verve of naturalistic western art (it’s naturalism sets it apart) aren’t in question; but the religious achievements can be strangely limited. And not on account of merely absurd and worldly depictions of rich donors adoring a Christ child or the many sentimental Madonna images (so many more of them than Christ images as Leonardo da Vinci, of whose Salvator Mundi presently, noted).

The fact is that despite the occasional El Greco or Rembrandt assisted moments of recognition some people claim to have, convincing, meaningful depiction of Christ is felt to be the exception. It’s almost a case of more naturalism, less reality! In my opinion as someone who has travelled extensively and lived years in Asia, even some popular Buddhist and Hindu images may more nearly convey what is thought and believed about the relevant figures of gods and gurus. Some kind of power is missing. Why?

  St Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo.

One possible answer is that the iconoclasts of the Eastern churches were right all along. It can be argued there was never meant to be a Christian art as we know it. And if you think that a ban on images in places of worship would have delivered sheer nullity, consider the impressive achievement of St Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo. Though most of us would however not go so far as to support the iconoclasts, there is undoubtedly some problem around Christ images and there has been from the first.

Whereas it’s part of sacred history for the OT that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Bezalel (Ex 31) to help him make beauty and decorate the Tabernacle, Christianity owns no comparable story. There is only the legend that St Luke was a portrait painter who painted the Madonna and so became the patron of artists who nonetheless were a long time coming into their own.

IMPLIED OR ALTERNATIVE BEAUTY

Beauty had a long way to go and any pleasure in it further. The art of the Roman catacombs is undistinguished. The icons of the Eastern churches, the first real Christian art, are not in a conventional sense art or portraiture but rather code and symbol and, at least originally, served a didactic function. Faces and bodies are usually distorted (thin lips, long noses, huge eyes), even sometimes uglified features perhaps to ward off merely idolatrous purpose. Icons of Christ, hardly striking are at most memorably staring. The vivid colours or gold alone make any icons the “windows to heaven” some call them.

Despite original hesitations about what the artist was doing, biblically, it is the idol or sculpture that is more clearly under ban than any image; and once Christ was understood to have come in the flesh and been seen, any case against portraying him seemed diminished, even incongruous (in today’s terms a bit like declaring a photographic image unholy). Even if the Jesus the disciples knew had not been walking about as a shining Apollo, as Messiah he could not have been unattractive (like the ugly figure imagined by some Gnostics); even regular priests could not have blemishes so a messianic figure could hardly be physically inferior, and it is actually possible as a descendant of David Jesus could have stood out for fair hair since the sons of David have been known into modern times for some fairness gene.

What I am saying is that if Jesus was to be portrayed at all, from the first and quite legitimately he could have been strikingly portrayed in terms of distinct beauty or else beauty marred through sacrifice and suffering. Except that the Eastern churches as opposed to the western never concentrated upon the crucifixion, it would have been acceptable to present a sub-beautiful image because it belongs to prophecy of the Messiah that his figure would be marred due to suffering, a person thus not obviously fitting the popular, typical expectations of a conquering hero messianic role (Is 53: 2,3). As it is, iconic art finishes up with neither a beauty overt, nor a beauty occluded; and absolutely (despite the inspiration some artists took from the improbable veil of Veronica), there would be no distinctive or memorable face.

FROM ICON TO ABSTRACTION

Outside the East with its icons, for centuries the Christian West under especially the influence of St Augustine located beauty abstractly, in the proportion and number that transcends the bodily. It was a bias at the heart of the otherworldly direction of especially medieval stained glass art and of course the mathematics based music (provided the potential sensuality of musical instruments or women’s voices did not accompany it, which for a long time after Augustine they didn’t!). Such physical beauty as was acknowledged was directed upon woman, especially the Virgin, at the expense of any Hellenistic notions of the male sublime.

For many believers, not knowing the face of Jesus seemed to render the person unknowable, or a symbol of unknowability, something a type of Eastern Church mysticism seemed increasingly to endorse with its controversial “negative” theology and its (almost Hindu) affirmations of “not this, not that” and beyond anything imagined when it came to description of divinity.

However, most people do still want a solution to the gap in sight and information. (After years, my most regularly visited article https://wp.me/p2v96G-lH has unexpectedly been one about Jesus’ appearance – it includes reasons why the popular Warner Sallman image can be taken as closer to the truth than some critics would allow). “Blessed are those who have not seen but yet have believed” (Joh 20:26) says Jesus to Thomas, and for many it can be a tour de force to emphasize relationship and knowledge in devotion without an image for people to be guided by!

Even so, I suggest that behind unsatisfied curiosity in this area there might be more than simple doctrine but instead an entire approach to the body and to beauty. Arguably we are lacking the image because we are lacking the requisite psychology and values and can’t manage certain root truths involved.

A FEAR OF BEAUTY?

Fast forward from the world of the first icons to today’s world, and at the Christian fringes there are people claiming end-of-days visions. For some this includes forecasts about a soon to appear false prophet Antichrist. I have noted something significantly odd about this. Especially the men, were insistent that their envisioned false Messiah was seriously handsome. But they were in knots describing or even admitting this. They pedantically assured listeners they were straight, were married, that they didn’t usually notice men and some such scarcely hidden homophobic variation on a theme.

Though I am neither captivated nor convinced by the gay Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi portrayal of Jesus, it is to be commended for the mystery it attempts to convey via a sort of androgyny. In some fashion or other this would have to apply to Jesus who is described as both Logos (Word and masculine) and Sophia (Wisdom and feminine) together. The first modern (nineteenth century) description of the gay individual was anima muliebris in corpore inclusa, a female soul in a male body. This if true would incidentally tie in with issues of gay tantra, because arguably the elusive big O some gays pursue in vain through many experiences, but that tantra may hope to deliver, is more akin to female orgasm.

No need here to discuss whether the anima muliebris description of gays was valid or if Jesus should be thought of as in any fashion gay. What’s relevant is that as long as religious conservatives reduce homosexuality to no more than a “lifestyle” or “choice” pursued around inner city bars as opposed to an orientation and identity, the implicit homophobia of the denial is a factor in the inhibition of discussion around, let alone portrayal of, any mystery or allure attaching to Jesus’ appearance.

I am persuaded that Christianity, traditionally deemed the religion of art and culture, in fact, and assisted by a degree of homophobia, has a major problem around representation and beauty generally, and with it pleasure too. If that sounds extreme, consider that whereas in the OT there are plenty of references to beauty as regards women, clothes, jewels, the cosmos, Jerusalem etc, along with some references to beauty in males (David has beautiful eyes and Absalom is beautiful top to toe), any concept of beauty is extremely circumscribed in the NT. Indeed it is almost non-existent and reliant on the OT as when it is allowed that Moses was beautiful before God, or, citing Isaiah, the feet are beautiful of those who bring good tidings.

A difference between Jewish legalism and Christian psychology could have something to do with this. Under Jewish law whatever is not expressly forbidden is permitted, whereas for Jesus the essence of the Law is something to be generalized and interiorized in terms of intentionality. Thus a voiced Jewish appreciation of male beauty would not necessarily imply you were a gay harbouring suspect desires; under Christianity of the narrower Ray Comfort variety, your appreciation might just imply unacceptable interests. The prejudice might then be justified on the basis of the often misunderstood words of Matt 5:28 about looking upon a woman (married woman understood since the subject is adultery!) to lust after her, (with looking in the sense is to look to do something), the strong intention being judged morally equivalent to the deed. This is not, it should be obvious, condemnation of all or any desire for women and women’s beauty. That would be unnatural!

BEAUTY TURNED INWARDS”?

But unless it’s the glories of Revelation’s New Jerusalem, beauty hardly exists for the NT and women don’t need to be adorning themselves either! (1 Tim 2:9). The New Jerusalem is perfect like the glorified bride who enters her and  who is “without spot or wrinkle…or any kind of blemish (Eph 5:27). Splendour of perfection is what is beautiful, not things in kind or in perspective as an artist would see them. In short, beauty is abstracted, viewed through the lens of rather priestly, ritualistic notions of the beautiful – a fact relevant to things said later regarding “purity”.

By implication the only or truest art is an  absolute and literalizing one, less an interpretation of anything than incorporation into the self of the divine image of Christ who is himself the image/icon of God ( 2 Cor 3:18).

Given the lack of overt and spontaneous emphasis upon sensuous beauty (apart from Jesus on the lilies of the field), there is a concomitant lack of emphasis upon pleasure generally. It needs to be positively assumed as in Ps 16 that at God’s right hand are “pleasures for evermore”, especially as nobody reading the NT could imagine that the beauties of the Song of Songs (attributed to an ancestor of Jesus) had ever been written!

Encouraged to turn mystically inwards by favouring an incorporation of Christ, overall, there is an absence of delight in either nature or the embodied; at the same time the world sometimes appears to border, as it did for Gnostics (usually opposed by Christians), on being a snare with little to offer beyond surface, illusory glamour: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of riches (1 Joh 2:16). And to note here, a point to which I will return, is that evil is seen rather in terms of actively, materially possessing as opposed to appreciating what life presents to us, (a difference I noted in an earlier article regarding attitudes that distinguish typical straight and gay approaches to sex). But by itself beyond that, just what is happening here in this radically puritanical swerve from biblical precedents?

Obviously there is more than one thing, but major is certain attitudes of St Paul as a leading church founder and indirectly through him as someone born in Tarsus, home to a then trendy philosophical Stoicism, various pagan values of his time favouring the rough, simple and plain with sex for reproduction only. Plus one detects within the apostle something that, whether or not it would be called homophobic today, excludes as virtually idolatrous any appreciation of beauty in especially men, even if it was in Christ himself. Like the disciples and despite claiming to have seen Jesus directly and in visions, Paul doesn’t describe him.

REVISIONISM AND “GOD’S WORD”

We can return to these matters, but before presenting a radical re-statement in relation to gay sex, it’s is necessary to justify to vocal and dismissive religious conservatives the practice of religious revisionism. Their position is that if something is absent from either “the Word of God” or long tradition or both, it can only be heresy. This ignores for a start that Bible believers ought really to refer to “Scripture” rather than “The Word of God” since the latter is supposed to refer principally to Jesus as Logos, the Word, the person who himself declared the scriptures are searched in vain if he isn’t found there (Joh 5:39).

My position, one that is widely assumed among believers and ought to be the normative Christian position, is that the bible is inspired but not infallible (not a paper pope as some would say!). It should even be obvious it cannot possibly be word for word infallible all of it dictated from heaven otherwise God would have to be experiencing the purely personal complaints and infirmities of the psalmists or be leaving books or persons here or there as per the diary style asides of Paul’s epistles. And if one insists that every word is infallible, it can only lead to wilfully selective reading with a touch of dishonesty and special pleading – for example American evangelicals can hardly with honesty ignore that Pauline views of authority are inconsistent with the American revolution itself.

In winnowing the chaff great discrimination must nonetheless be used because while the case against a few archaic texts (like Ps 137’s incitement to smashing Babylonian infants against the rocks are plainly unacceptable), revisionism cannot be merely dismissive of confronting texts either. Statements like Ecclesiastes’ that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecc 1:9) is confronting, but should warn against slash and burn treatments. Obviously cars and computers have arrived since the author’s times, but the statement, literally untrue, has truth at a certain level. If like astrologers we accept history is subject to cycles, things can and do repeat across history and there is indeed a time for war and a time for peace. Rabbinical interpretation of the Bible assumes four possible levels, (literal, allegorical, moral/homiletical and mystical) to a sacred text.

REVISION FROM THE FIRST

Despite these precautions, revision as a modification of given tradition, (but not against its general spirit), has been possible from the biblical outset as when the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27) successfully contest the inheritance rights of women under the Law. Within Christianity the clear case for re-shaping tradition, something Christians were doing almost from the first as at the council of Jerusalem, is found in the story of the apostle Peter’s dealings with gentiles in Joppa in Acts 10.

Peter is told in dream to accept unclean animals as clean, but more than once he denies the voice of God in the matter, declaring it is against the Law. Peter in short is guilty of a kind of bibliolatry duplicated to this day by the likes of American Southern Baptists for whom “the Word of God” is the written text, the Bible, which is the final word on everything.

This position is an implicit denial of the call to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22), perhaps especially in light of a new era or unprecedented circumstances. Whether or not the disciples knew it, their time was, as Jesus had indicated, a new aion (the age or era of grace or in astrological terms the age of Pisces). We ourselves are presently on the cusp of another aion, precisely a time liable to impose new questions and values demanding resolution.

It is a clear mark of St Paul’s prophecying “in part” and only “seeing through a glass darkly” that (regarding specifically any extended aion such as Jesus himself referred to), he incorrectly believed in a very imminent return of Christ and even promoted certain rules and values (like the desirability of not marrying) on that assumption.

There is no question that we need to revision Paul in awareness of occasional limitations in his thought, which is not to say he is not a major definer of the faith at many levels. To question his legacy while endorsing the greater pattern is not a cop-out to enable dubious theories; it is just to be properly realistic about texts and their authors in context.

“GREAT MEN MAKE GREAT MISTAKES”

Paul has been problematic from the start. The apostle Peter admitted many believers found parts of his writings difficult to understand (2 Pet 3:16) and that situation has not greatly changed. I am a bit of an anti-Paul, Paulinist who believes the apostle said too much that’s valuable for him to be dismissed even while he can exasperate and be questioned on points.

Reading Paul today one must anyway accept that there is hardly a major philosopher of any doctrine whose thought isn’t unsatisfactory at some point. Confucius inspired much that was best in Chinese life but in places his reverence for elders made for serious injustice. A father of western thought itself, Plato’s The Republic puts a blessing upon virtual tyranny. Descartes helped shape French culture but on animals is a disgrace. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a silly idea one wouldn’t need to apply in situations of war and torture. Luther was a reformer who truly reformed, yet his influential anti-Semitism is a painful embarrassment. The fact is “great men make great mistakes” and bequeath us their prejudices with their wisdom.

In fairness to Paul, even at his most dubious from a modern perspective, his statements emerge more meaningful in light of such as Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People (2011) [ 1] which contextualizes him amid abuses of his time the average reader will not have heard of or imagined but that make chilling reading. As regards homosexuality this author, a classicist, significantly adds to understanding by virtually settling the well-worn meanings and interpretations debate, insisting the main issue had to be the well-attested pederasty and its chronic injustices. I had some doubts about this but cannot overlook a doubtless relevant verse from the first century apocryphal 2 Enoch where the prophet is told hell is prepared for those who dishonour God, practicing sins against nature which is child corruption after the sodomitic fashion (2 Enoch 10:3).

But beyond the most enlightening knowledge of social context, we still need to read Paul dialectically because he is unafraid of contradiction as when he can notoriously refer to our bodies as “vile” (more accurately, “lowly” and as compared to the resurrection body), yet it seems he would have us love our bodies (Eph 5:28). And the apostle may not always be so biblically correct as appears, describing woman as only the glory of the man (1 Cor 11:7) whereas Genesis 1:27, more equally, has it that both male and female are made in the image of God.

What I am now seeing as more vital to discussion on sex and pleasure is that Paul looks to be considerably influenced by his rabbinical heritage (of which more presently) as opposed to direct revelations. It would anyway be sensible to recognize this when for example the apostle declares (uniquely within the bible) that women’s heads should be covered “for the angels”. Though pagans believed in the power of the tresses, this bespeaks the folkloric rabbinical notion that angels could be attracted to long tresses in women, hence women might be guilty of tempting them. However bizarre the idea, one notes it for possible wider implications. In Genesis the fallen angels have intercourse with mortal women. This would only be possible if angels possessed something like sex in the first place and thus heaven, is not sexless or anti “pleasure” as often imagined.

SEX THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

Millennia on from their composition, we should give the writings of Paul a wide berth. A few things nonetheless remain non-negotiable today for oddity or potential injustice and one must conclude that if Paul had a blind spot it was, (as long widely if tacitly assumed), focussed on sex. I shall try to pin this down via his distinctive character and especially rabbinical background which could even blind him to his immediate surrounding.

Though he probably knew much more than the average Jew, there were always limitations to the apostle’s understanding of pagan society. Faced with a case of shameless incest at Corinth, he declares this is sin such as is not found among pagans (1 Cor 5:1). In fact, in the previous century a well known satirical poet, Catullus, whose funeral according to St Jerome writing centuries later, had brought out the crowds in Rome, poured scorn on high society family incest several times.

One of the apostle’s worst errors (assuming he wrote the relevant epistle since arguments do surround the authorship of Timothy 1 and 2,) is that when a woman grows “wanton against Christ” (KJV version) she seeks to marry (1 Tim 5:11). This looks like ignorance or chronic insensitivity in the face of existing conditions. In these it was common for pagans to marry off young daughters, for economic reasons, to elderly men who would leave behind young widows who wanted their chance at life and love. Paul instead evidently wanted to secure virtual armies of praying nuns!

There perhaps wouldn’t be much for the average believing woman to do but pray. She should be silent in church (like Jewish women at synagogue) and not preach (though she might prophesy); her head must be covered like the rest of herself modestly and she must keep bearing children as it will help her make her salvation 1 Tim, 2:15). This itself is a point bibliolatry has to avoid because – another of the Pauline contradictions – it potentially undermines his doctrine of grace in Galatians which teaches that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that faith alone makes for salvation. (The contradiction is so great it does make one wonder about the authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy or at least their dating).

Also insensitive, this time to men, though hardly untypical for the culture and time, is the notion “better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9). Love doesn’t come into the picture, the technical state of chastity is all that counts as to a rabbi it certainly would; and if the partner really is the merest protection against lust, it is hard to see how the husband can then somehow love his wife “like his own body” as Paul advises in Ephesians. Indeed the husband sounds like he might have problems enough of his own because it is another of Paul’s impossible off the cuff declarations, (though for me one of the indications the apostle was not as per some recent trendy theories, psychologically a repressed and closeted gay male), “nor do I box as one beating the air” but rather he goes for the direct blow and “I punish (or pummel) my body and enslave it”. (1 Cor 9: 25/6).

BOXING AND VIOLENCE FOR THE GOOD?

I can’t imagine how evangelicals and Catholics don’t see the irony of their protests against the objectionable sport of boxing, the cause of many deaths and lifelong disabilities, given how one of their favourite saints evidently had some of his society’s admiration for, or at least interest in, this vicious entertainment.

The former persecutor of Christians, the man of violence, evidently never quite left all aggressive urges behind; and while we have no evidence to the effect the apostle did literally beat himself, obviously seeds are sown here towards St Benedict, founder of western monasticism, who rolled in thorns to subdue the flesh. Moreover, and in harmony with my prior article, if one opts out of the potential sex war of straights (in which women are from Venus, men from Mars), the Mars impulse can take over and redirect towards ascetical war, a dislike or even violence directed upon oneself or others…..

THE SARX/FLESH PROBLEM

A leading question for present inquiry concerns the possibilities via tantric means for disciplined self-acceptance as opposed to rejection, especially as regards gays, though the solution may have some relevance to straights.

And here for present purposes and the gay issue with the boxing metaphor we approach the crux of the matter in Paul’s notion of “the flesh” (sarx) itself related to “soul” psyche.. I say more in Part Two, but here I’ll stress the word today is better rendered “lower nature” because “flesh” for Paul can be involved not just in base sexual passions, it also governs dissensions, anger, jealousy, greed, heresies, sorcery, theft, violence (but not boxing?!) and much else.

Though sarx is more inclusive than soma (physical body), I imagine traditional emphasis upon “the flesh” as chiefly or only the body, owes something not only to the fact the body is pointed to by the very word even when plainly the subject is more psychological, but effects of a statement like : “Therefore do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies (soma) to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:12,13).

Before saying more, it’s relevant to draw attention to how Paul in Romans (that profoundly theological work that is nonetheless a horror epistle for the gay issue that its rhetoric introduces), appears to conceive of the sin and temptation to which the body/soul is medium. In Rom 7, identifying sin very much with transgressions against the old covenant now transcended, he suggests he would not have known sin save for the Law. (But others would surely do so, pagan moralists did exist?). Apparently accusing himself of sin in relation to especially covetousness, the Law at once creates sin and with it what we’d call conscience. We actively want what is forbidden because it is forbidden. We thus even do the very things we hate.

In making his argument that the Law is a teacher, one who brings us to Christ through whom is forgiveness and life as against Law’s condemnation and death, Paul says sin dwells within him, indeed “nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh ” (Rom 7:18). He says that in this condition he can will, but not do, the good he wishes.

While I can understand much that Paul says in Romans, at this point he loses me and doubtless others. This is not just because in an evil world evil can surely manifest just everywhere, not necessarily through the body above all else, but he seems to describe a type of will to gratuitous transgression I don’t have and have never had (which admittedly doesn’t mean it’s untrue for some people). I would however associate it rather with persons like schoolies and bikies, people who want to smuggle i-phones into classes or drugs into rock concerts simply because these acts are forbidden by authorities whose rulings they more oppose than question.

Because the Law as his ideal looms so large in the apostle’s thought, he has described one, but only one type of sin and the way to it. One way is enough because from a certain rabbinical position likely to influence here, the body vehicle is intrinsically evil, always to some degree thought of as ritually impure because subject to death.

Be that as it may, even seriously evil people don’t necessarily do evil from love of transgression in itself; they may just be racists and monster bullies like Hitler. And then in Paul’s understanding of evil, what is this evil within the body, a sort of diable au corps energy, that for Paul makes one want to do what one hates? What are these bodily “members” that can be instruments of wickedness, but that we should present to God”?

Obviously this late in time one can’t be certain here. The sin Paul explicitly accuses himself of is not sexual but the covetousness that biblically has a lot to do with that ownership of and attachment to wealth against which Jesus often warns. So perhaps that’s it, and we have no right to say more. But from what I have heard and read over the years, I must wonder if we are not dealing with unstated features of a more general rabbinic culture and its ritual perspectives.

FLEEING SENSATION AND PLEASURE

MIKVAH FOR RITUAL PURITY

Years ago a rabbi told me that the reason anyone (as per Lev 15:16) was briefly impurified by bodily emissions, (whether involuntary or voluntary for men isn’t stated), is because the emission not having served procreation represents death. It sounds to me like a version of original sin doctrine in which death is pre-eminent. The death association would anyway or additionally be present due to pre-scientific ideas of many cultures as regards homunculi. Lost sperm was widely considered to be lost or even murdered beings, not one of millions of sperm regularly lost in just the urine.

Such understanding was behind various ceremonies, apparently not unique to Jews but found among many agricultural societies, of mourning for the lost seed. I forget which notable rabbi it was who was ultra-concerned to have regular sex with his wife simply so that not one drop of semen would be lost. What that rabbi’s attitudes to wet dreams would have been, who can tell, but perhaps frequent marital intercourse obviated that worry.

Outside of Paul we again maybe see a connection of this type of anxiety around bodily fluids in the odd statement from the book of Jude (Jud 1:23) “and have mercy on still others with fear hating even the tunics defiled by their bodies” (NRSV). Radical Gnostics (Jude’s presumed target) certainly did weird, perverse things like ritually consuming menstrual blood, and one may assume that like Nero who lolled on his palanquin displaying sex-stained garments, they did similar; but plainly, ritual defilement through sexual emissions is a point of concern here.

Within this kind of cultural context it would be logical to hate and despise non-productive gays, often popularly dismissed to this day as “wankers” (masturbators) especially when, even among pagans like the moralist Plutarch, especially the passive gay was deemed the most morally disreputable of persons. (This was a reflection of how in the ancient world Paul inhabited, the entire treatment of same sex issues was determined by ancient notions of hierarchy in which it was a disgrace for any man to compromise the hierarchal order and be associated with the inferior role of women in any way, while a strong desire for pleasure was regarded as a form of disapproved, female pleasure-loving lechery. (Roman decadents went to orgies dressed as women to advertise their libertinism).

A case has been made, but I don’t consider it a strong one, that when the apostle declares malakoi (“effeminates” in the old KJV) won’t enter the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor 6:9) he means masturbators. It’s more likely, if the reference is sexual at all and not just to weak loose, immoral people generally as the expression would easily permit, he could be indicating the passive as opposed to the active arsenokotoi mentioned in the same vice list passage.

Ancient Israel like the ancient world had no clear, general word or image like “homosexual” to define persons, but beyond the OT Leviticus ban (Lev 18:22) upon same sex (which almost certainly originally referred to male sacred prostitution such as King Josiah excluded from the temple grounds), one might imagine the gay person would be regarded as a spiller of seed like (the not gay) Onan of Gen 38:9 who didn’t want sex according to the then duties of brothers in law. If so, this would be automatic grounds for a special revulsion. Such would be especially the case if, like some rabbis, great efforts and devotion regularly went into preserving seed and thus avoiding any kind of stimulation deliberate or accidental outside of intercourse.

DEFINING PURITY

What I am getting at here, (and my essential message will not be compromised if the speculation is wrong), is that Paul’s image and treatment of “the flesh” is considerably influenced by unstated, even unconscious (since Paul consciously transcends the old law) rabbinic attitudes and practices that avoided spilled seed and aimed for extreme bodily purity in ritual terms. Obviously such concern would be capable of turning life into the kind of melodrama of avoidance and ultra-purity anxieties later envisaged by St Augustine whose asceticism nonetheless owes more than Paul’s to non-Christian sources like the Manichees he had belonged to.

But since in any case even the holiest, licit sex will partake somewhat of the earthy and messy, one has to suspect that Paul’s notion of “filthy” and “impure” as applied to sex was overly influenced by rabbinical ritual as in 2 Cor 7:1 “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit”… as opposed to distinctly obscene, abusive, or degraded etc uses he could have spoken in terms of. I think this is something scholarship needs to look at more closely. It might help to avoid what should be grey areas getting treated as black and white ones like adultery –  as indeed has traditionally happened when the confessional worried children by exaggeratedly equating touching oneself with “sins against the sixth commandment” (which at the same time could also cover for the gravest of sins like the pederasty too leniently treated).

Arguably if there is an ingrained feeling of ritual purity but no accompanying aesthetic notion of the objectively beautiful, especially as regards male or female, it would be easier to dismiss all pleasure (epithumia, hedone), as it’s rooted in the eros energy and involving sight, as merely base. This is how pleasure is liable to be seen by Paul. And undeniably a lot of “pleasure” of his times was base and immoral, (the prostitutes supplied at the end of any banquet, the sexual services required of slaves and without their consent etc); but obviously pleasure is still not automatically and by definition base.

There is anyway always the phenomenon of art and its demands, and in India tantra, (though sometimes a cover for the dark arts), arose not least as an artistic reaction against a world without colour and sufficient acknowledgment of the senses that the native asceticism had imposed upon society. The Pauline outlook always risked engaging a similar situation and would always require a similar correction, certainly some recall of Solomon’s Song in praise of the embodied and ideal. Extreme Puritanism might call that “idolatry”, but the common sense line within Christianity has always known  something of the kind  can’t be entirely avoided, the reason the marriage ceremony includes “with my body, I thee worship”.

Three centuries on and for Paul’s admirer Augustine, the spontaneous, unpredictable movements of the penis in their seeming refusal of “reason” (which is why some traditional symbolisms give the phallus to the fitful moon rather than Mars), becomes a symbol of uprisen revolt against God. His youthful desires are “filthy concupiscence” whatever precisely “filthy” means, but as analysis has shown, these youthful desires are more likely to relate to his crushes on men than his little recorded dealings with women. Despite having a mistress and a child by her, he later rather cruelly repudiates than marries her. (The matter is unlikely to have been a purely religious one. He could have married her except that it would not be fitting to his class and then custom to do so).

Call me and dismiss me, as some feminist theologians might well, another of the gay “phallic theologians”, but I would say Augustine shows no proper (even biblically proper) sense of phallos beyond phallus such as even Paul has when speaking of circumcision of the heart etc.. It would surely not be impossible for the philosophical mind to envisage erection as potentially symbolic of a striving towards the infinite and the Creator, especially as the Creator is said to have a special interest in the phallus. God requires at least Jewish males to be circumcised as a mark of sacrifice and dedication, though at the same time (but the point is disputed) giving greater health safety and heightened sex pleasure with it, a case if so of God taking away in order to give.

It has been speculated Augustine was bisexual shorturl.at/wLMX9 and as far as I am concerned it’s certain because the birth data of this person, (who more than any other helped damn astrology among Christians), reveals the classic afflicted Neptune (specifically in his case Venus to Neptune) square which is virtually guaranteed to accompany bisexuality (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Bowie, Angelina Jolie etc, you name it).

But Augustine seriously does not understand himself or eros in this area. Sex is without use or purpose unless procreational. He fails to recognize how much it was an intense same sex attraction, or more precisely the death of this adored companion, which helps trigger his conversion and sends him to God. It’s the same denial principle at work, and one that readers conveniently ignore in the book of Daniel, where Daniel is allowed his way and makes career progress because of a same sex attraction God is evidently quite content to employ for his advancement. (See “Apocalypse as a gay issuehttps://wp.me/p6Zhz7-4p). Augustine’s tendency to regard the genitals as almost the enemy, is itself a subtle heresy away from their appreciation even as a symbol of devotion in the strange teaching of Jeremiah’s loincloth (See Jeremiah’s Loincloth: A Poem of Faith and Phallos https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm).

In the wake of this record of misreadings and misunderstandings I shall make a bald statement that developments in Part Two will help clarify and support. It is not possible or desirable to suppress the same sex eros. Society, religion and not just gays pay for it. It limits, even blindfolds vision and is even a reason western Christian art so often runs into difficulties.

Society now stands on the verge of the Aquarian age, but for a long time now Aquarius and its ruler Uranus have been associated with both homosexuality, and/or sex thrills and masturbation. Gays have even been dismissed as “wankers”, dealers in inferior, contra naturam sex, (“self-abuse” according to the Victorians, “sins of impurity” for the Catholic confessional which following Tridentine reforms rendered masturbation virtual source, secret and origin of most other sins), incapable of sexual maturity, or “mastery” of the passions, fixated on self-love. A few cultures and myths like Egypt’s with its god Khepera have given a species of creative as opposed to sterile associations to the act, but this is the exception.

It may be, however, that rather as poet Austin Clarke mentioned in Part Two was able to reverse the damage and turn the supposed sinning into new prophetic seeing (I may cover this in a later article on Irish poetry), the bad press hides certain unexpected, surprising truths with wide ranging implications..

 

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PART TWO: ENGAGING WITH PLEASURE

A TIME FOR…

Sometimes one thing or idea leads inexorably and unexpectedly to another. “There’s a time for….” a whole list of disparate things according to the author of Ecclesiastes.

It happens that in two prior recent articles, one on gay Douglas Murray’s treatment of the gay theme in The Madness of Crowds and the other on the influence of the art of Tom of Finland, I had mentioned new gay trends like tantra and so-called “mindful masturbation” and soloving (i.e. solo loving).

Time flies and movements mushroom ever faster, but the remote modern origins of the new eros seems to be in the eighties, California and the work of especially Joseph Kramer on “erotic massage” at the Body Electric School. Kramer had trained in massage at the Esalen Institute in California and later included some Chinese Taoist principles in his techniques and yogic breath practice.

For some gays and in what might even look like a rejection of the gay marriage drive, these tantric activities are a substitute or even preferred practice to any domestication of union being more able to produce harmony among those involved because being rid of the rivalries and inequalities of many marriages.  For a few it is almost a sex monk vocation  (and thus even a “taking refuge in Lord Phallus”  an extraordinary idea I fancy Buddhist have yet to hear of!) . The actual techniques reckon to intensify and prolong pleasure or extend them multi-orgasmically. The exercises, usually begun under a facilitator or DVD guides may be pursued alone or with a friend or friends, (partners sometimes wonderfully called “bate mates” if they are actively involved!). The various aims with their ecstasies are felt to be healing, especially in terms of a love and self-acceptance often missing from gay lives.

Anyone who dismisses such practices and their claims from the outset as so inherently decadent and perverse as to be beyond discussion, needs to concede to fact and explain why foetuses have been observed to self-pleasure themselves, why some mammals do likewise and why in women the clitoris appears to have no function unless for pleasure. God can’t be against pleasure as such, though God and we might contest the application.

In fact, pleasure of this sort has if anything been over-contested. In Andrew Auge’s A Chastened Communion about modern Irish religious poetry he states: “Thus for Austin Clarke….the trauma occasioned by the inquisitorial focus on masturbation in the confessional epitomized the Irish Catholic Church’s large scale effort to police and monopolize all discourse on sexuality” [2] The young Clarke himself was driven to serious nervous breakdown and time in an asylum over the matter.

In my mentioned articles I had also defined (what I have seen and known for years to be true), there are three main types of homosexuality that have manifested over the centuries and still do – they are perennial. These three can be represented in what Jung realized is the psychologically useful symbolism of astrology, in this case through the three outer, transpersonal planets as opposed to the inner, personal planets like Venus and Mars that define heterosexuality.

The relevant symbol-carrying planets are Uranus, Neptune and Pluto and they carry generational and trans-personal, mystical significance. Lacking strong connection with these factors natally a person will not be gay, while those who are straight but who do have the connection are more likely to have friends or family members who are gay drawing them into the subject in some fashion, even if sometimes in hostile and homophobic ways.

So I had written on this, but in the way that one thing leads to another, sometimes intensely over a short period of time, I had a relevant experience I did not expect or seek.

A TIME FOR EROS?

In an evening of mid November, thinking it was high time to be a bit clearer on the evolving gay tantra phenomenon, I started taking down notes on some expressions of the trend (it has its different teachers, schools, emphases from California to Germany). I did this in a very desultory, off-handed manner and as I did this I might breath in and out in loose imitation of rhythm and ways recommended, stretched myself here, squeezed myself there. I thought little of it except as some kind of aide-memoire to what I was writing, trying to imagine rather than perform the regime, but physically impressing on me some idea of the shape of these quasi-yogas or however one defines them. I wasn’t expecting and didn’t receive any special effects from this and feeling tired went to bed.

Since it would normally takes weeks or months to arrive at full proficiency in this area and while the phenomenon of especially FBO (Full Body Orgasm) is best induced by an expert masseur and can trigger reactions up to and including visions, what later ensued could be owing to a variety of factors. Perhaps I had touched some nerve; perhaps it was diet. Conceivably it bore belated connection to effects of an operation for prostatitis (an operation which runs a minor risk of destroying the sexual life for good or leaving you a bit erratic).

Whatever the cause, which perhaps doesn’t matter against the potential insight obtained, when I awoke next morning I was subject either to what gay tantra would call FBO or else something very like it. Not being under any guru I can’t exactly classify or normally certify it, but whatever it was it was sufficiently significant to leave strong impressions in the way that perhaps only a raising of the kundalini would do…. except that it wasn’t that. I’ve read and heard enough about risen kundalini states to be sure it wasn’t; such can even be alarming whereas what I felt was more reassuring and closer to a totalizing mystical state, in its way keeping me strongly calm and certainly not exhausted, depleted or disappointed after the manner of bad sex. I have never taken LSD or drugs to compare, but my sensations were surely rather trippy, a reasonable assumption since any sexual arousal releases a whole chemical brew with oxytocins, endorphins, testosterone and it may cause the pineal gland to release DMT molecules which have affinity for LSD experiences. I suspect however some would call my condition the mystical “choiceless awareness” one some believe relevant to Walt Whitman’s perceptions.

I had, as it were, become Eros. I was as though shaken into a fully sexual state, stronger than which I couldn’t imagine or desire. I am unsurprised by claims FBO states can lessen or outright cure sex addiction. It would, I think, be strange if subsequently one wished only to keep scoring and pursue some purely orgiastic or aggressive form of gratification along the lines of those images from queer artist Tom of Finland, subject of the prior article. It would be chasing a lesser degree of sex in almost caricatured imitation of straight sex and its conquest theme.

This was about sex-in-itself – the Hindu idea of rasa, the pure essence, comes to mind – and it didn’t even need a partner since any partner, or nature or the cosmos could be considered somehow implicit in its fullness much as I had stated in one of the articles on a purely intellectual basis, that gay sex seems to partake of the group consciousness associated with Uranus/Aquarius.(There could be some affinity here for certain understandings behind a trend in Japan and California towards people celebrating marriage to themselves).  

The heretical Swedenborg alleged that the angels exist in a state of potency. One wonders if his ideas weren’t influenced by Jewish commentary that would allow something of the sort – it’s widely held the wings that cover “the feet” of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision was a not unknown circumlocution for the genitals. Even if that’s mistaken, it would seem all-apparent from Gen 11 the angelic orders are not deemed sexless. But no matter what angels may or may not feel or do, some kind of angelic state of pure eros might be a way of describing what I had fallen into but it is hard to describe.

However, as one point of comparison it may not be irrelevant that it was a certifiably gay composer, Tchaikovsky (his correspondence betrayed the matter and he committed suicide over being gay), composed the impressive Hymn of the Cherubim. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggUtlUHIqQQ This hymn is remarkable for its sense of precisely totality, infinite extension, an irradiation in a mystical piece that, perhaps almost more than any other in classical music, combines characteristics of East and West.

The actual words of the hymn are given in note [3], but I’ll say that if they had emphasized Isaiah’s “Holy Holy Holy” chant the music might have been one degree more strongly, positively ecstatic and less melancholic in line with what I have been trying to describe. (As the actual words derive from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom who in the fourth century almost singlehandedly invented a radical homophobia and anti-Semitism cited by the Nazis, I like to think of the composer’s work as a kind of spiritual protest, a slap in the face to the “saint” who   should long ago have been de-canonized).

A  CERTIFICATION?

Self-absorbed though I was, enough of will or intellect was active to wonder what I was subject to, and I knew that if this wasn’t some complete illusion it would have to be shown by the celestial time astrologically if I could drag myself up and away to record and examine this. The pattern didn’t disappoint, in fact the Event Chart strongly and significantly confirmed the experience. Notable points were these:

Rising in the first house of the body was of all things asteroid, Eros – It would be a suitable time for anyone to feel fully Eros.

The moon, timer of events and anciently associated with the phallus more commonly associated with Mars, was conjunct the 8th house of sex. It was however near to an opposition to Saturn reflective of that fact the experience was both cut short by me and belonged in its way to tantra, namely a controlled or structured kind of Eros.

The average person familiar with any basics of symbolism might expect a strong Mars (sex) to be evident and in its way it was because magnifying, fortunate Jupiter was rising in the first house of the body in opportunity sextile aspect to Mars. Also for those astrologers who would require some emphasis of gay Uranus in the pattern, Uranus was in the fifth house of pleasure, love and any affairs and in its apparent retrograde meaning favourable to any interiorizing of themes in this area. Uranus was also positively trine the Midheaven of destiny and in an event chart like this signifies “here and now”.

But what was really and most “here and now” was a basically fortunate grand trine of the moon (as mentioned, on the cusp of the sex house), to Neptune in one direction and Mercury in the other. As both Neptune and Mercury are in apparent retrograde, this again means something could be internalized and opened to analysis, as indeed it was.

Neptune at the centre of the grand trine is in the fourth house of the origins of anything. Neptune should be highlighted because as per my prior articles, it marks is one of the three types of gay modality, the most mystical, artistic and musical as opposed to the more awake and brilliant Uranian one and the more rawly powerful and phallic Plutonian one. Neptune is also anything to do with mysticism and drugs and, though as indicated, drugs had nothing to do with the matter, there was a trippy and mystical quality to the whole thing. Significantly against the notion I was subject to demonic effects, Neptune was conjunct asteroid Theotes (God/Godhead), the Part of Fortune was in the ninth of religion and philosophy and Eros was degree exact favourably trine Isa (Jesus) [ 4]

The question some would pose next is: would the experience be less authentic or ethical if it had been directly, deliberately invoked by massage and still more so-called Mindful masturbation. I don’t think so unless your position is that all masturbation is always by definition wrong. This, as already suggested, runs against what we have to infer from the evidence of nature. Obviously, though, intentionality would count in this, and there is plenty of bad, unmindful, misdirected masturbation little better than Satanist Aleister Crowley’s black magical spells that employed it. I can return to questions of intentionality later.

TICKING ALL THE BOXES?

Assuming the uses and legitimacy of some form of mindful masturbation – I would prefer the term “meaningful” as “mindful” bespeaks the Buddhism that no more officially represents this direction than Christianity – I am now ready to speculate how this could, and perhaps even ought, to be the central, most essential expression/rite/sacrament of specifically gay sex along tantric lines. Theoretically it resolves all or most problems around gay sex on all scores religious, health-wise or whatever. Notable reasons for this would be:

1) it does not imitate or rival heterosexual intercourse or roles, (a main concern in traditional disapproval, Christian and other, of same sex activity) unless perhaps where some practitioners would include, but only as secondary, the more ambiguous and in effect half way house of oral sex .

2) it does not bodily and unnecessarily fully join two souls as, esoterically at least, any spiritual system would assume happens in any intercourse. (The implicit assumption it does is crucial to much biblical sexual ethics in definition of illicit unions and promiscuous relations). The lack of complete intimacy would seem relevant to especially the bisexual situation. Despite all the welcome signs and inclusion statements, many gays psychologically, and Christian gays more religiously, have long had problems with the B in LGBT. Short of a celibacy on one side of the bi equation, a bate mate arrangement seems like the only form of B that doesn’t run into the problem of distinct infidelity to any wedded and bedded partner.

3) orgasm does not necessarily entail ejaculation – it even ideally aims to avoid it, increasing awareness and pleasure by circumventing it through possibly even multiple orgasms. This helps avoid any non-kosher notions of ritual impurity through lost seed, while health-wise it avoids unnecessary loss of energy, bad sex feelings of depletion etc, (Augustine’s famous post coitum etc…). However, notable repeated retention of semen is deemed unhealthy if one is not in good health and exercising. (Health-wise there is a double bind here: insufficient release of semen can contribute to prostrate cancer – too much retention can likewise risk cancer!)

4) Meaningful masturbation is not necessarily or intrinsically image- dependent; if anything it should begin in concentration not on desired or admired others but upon the self; so this alters the intentionality issue, especially where some critics would controversially insist that intense imaging of others itself sets up soul ties esoterically.

5) it potentially integrates and transmutes elements of what has traditionally been most disapproved in “the gay lifestyle”, such as open relations (free love), addictive tendencies (drugs, drink) and orgiastic behaviour patterns. These trends, if and when manifest (they are common but not gay universal), neatly correspond to negative expressions of respectively: a) communally inclined Uranus, b) dreamy Neptune c) power proving Pluto. As regards especially a), the Uranian, this bears comment.

As mentioned earlier, as regards ethics and relating gay sex is “aesthetic”, more about appreciation than the dramas of possession launched by the Mars and Venus “battle” of the sexes among straights. Uranus especially is about sharing, friendship and the group rather than exclusivity. As such this is not any encouragement to monogamy though many gays do aspire to that state and religious gays will feel they anyway should. (For Matthew Vines in his bestselling God and the Gay Christian, gay relations are permissible because they can and should be monogamous). [5]

Even with the highest ideals, realistically however, the path to satisfactory, lasting union, if that more material as opposed to mystical tantric ideal is the object, may entail or require a half-way house. It has been observed many gays seem to need, rather along the old Greek style, the older mentor or substitute father figure to help them accept and manage their difference and perhaps overcome rejection feelings from a father.

To have one or more responsible, special “bate mates” that one has shared mind and feelings with rather than been fully joined to, would cover that issue which for others might be covered by the fact many seem to feel so-called “mindful” masturbation somehow implies the other and something like what gets called the phallic brotherhood.

As to types b) and c), any tendencies of the dreamy, addictive Neptunian type can be more positively and harmlessly transferred to prolonged erotico-mystical states, while the Plutonic, orgiastic type can interiorize the potency, can be the potency as opposed to keep proving its possession against and upon others. (One might however need to inquire what the mystical state amid the pleasure is, if it even is one, and I turn to that presently).

6) Tantric practice can help resolve many needed problems around self- acceptance – it’s remarkable how much men, but especially gay males, don’t accept themselves and are troubled, depressed or aggressive in sex accordingly. Although a new appreciation of touch through especially massage and by witnessing others can be a part of the tantric regime, acceptance includes, even for straights, of the genitals no longer seen as automatic enemy or aimless interloper in in the course of life. The story and sign of Jeremiah’s loincloth in course of which it’s said the men of Israel are supposed to be close to God as the genitals to the loincloth, discreetly hints at the need for such acceptance as opposed to the punishing ascetical Augustinian picture of the genitals as little more than a fallen world’s enemy to human reason and divine will.

The American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, herself born under the traditional sign of the genitals, Scorpio, is widely considered to have produced exquisite stylized floral images suggestive of the female genitals. She herself denied that was the intention and she maybe spoke true since as a Scorpio her work could have been unconsciously, archetypally determined.

If O’Keeffe had been a male in touch with the unconscious we might speak of portraying the broader, more symbolically vital phallos as opposed to penis. Anyway, it tells us something about contemporary culture and contemporary male culture, that there is no art of the phallos. (Obviously in Asia there are the lingams but unadorned rather than stylized, and any implications for worship as opposed to meditative integration, are problematic even for non-Christian cultures).

A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE? USES AND ABUSES

The gay tantric way is recent, relatively untried and unexamined. Traditional Hindu tantra never envisaged any such practice – though Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist sects may have a little – but some modern advocates now envisage almost limitless possibilities akin to at any rate highest levels of Asian mysticism. Practitioners can be  extravagantly imagined as creators of self and worlds, of vision, peace, and healing, members of a global phallic brotherhood whose awareness can rise ever higher in bliss towards all-embracing oneness.

At the other extreme, and since there’s no system cannot be misused, mindfulness can be replaced with a kind of unmindful, materialistic worship of technique where the aim is reduced to hooking up with new bate mates by the week and clocking up one’s number of dry orgasms in competition with self and others. Here the aim has become pleasure alone that was not the original sole purpose, though I realize that an emphasis upon pleasure may, as in the case of the tantra of Arnim Heining, a former Benedictine priest, may get stressed less from sensationalism than the aim of wide and de-mythologized application when ancient and modern myth can become distracting and unhelpful.

Personally I feel it might be quite enough if some basic practices fostered health and renewal with greater self-acceptance and some management of pleasure both more relaxed and controlled. These cannot be minor benefits.

The crucial question remains whether, as some imagine, gay tantra can supply any kind of mystical experiences (my peculiar experience inclines me to suppose it could give something of the sort), and, if the end point is a heightened awareness supported with pleasure/bliss, what is the status of that? Is this, can this be or reflect any real experience of ultimacy? Is there any kind of God experience involved?

Traditionally tantrism was rejected in the East because it was insufficiently ascetical or pure. If we look at this from a Christian and western standpoint, the bible presents us with an apparent contradiction needing resolution. On the one hand the lovers of the Song of Solomon are erotically in the fires of Yah(weh) and the implication would be that the erotic is within the divine, (the reason that illicit sex can be at once against one’s true self and against God who is the source of Eros); but then a Paul statement like “lovers of pleasure rather than God” is nearer the more standard Asian/ascetical line which discourages notions of pleasure as revelation of anything.

All is not quite lost where some consistency is desired. Some of the problem involves terminology and esoteric principles often overlooked.

A SPIRITUAL ANTHROPOLOGY

It should be clear enough from the Hebrew bible (OT) that the human person is seen as a trinity of body, soul and spirit. Partly in concession to Greek philosophy and also to cover for the disappearance in medieval Christianity of the original charismatic gifts on the Spirit, the Eighth Ecumenical council of Constantinople in 869, devastatingly for all subsequent religion, ruled the person is a duality of body and soul. The spirit is only an unseparated part of soul and is its more rational aspect as opposed to a distinct organ of ultimate revelation.

This shift in emphasis would cause a reading back into earlier texts and scriptures meanings and emphases not always there. The spiritual life has been reduced to a contrast and conflict of body and soul only, with soul the cooler, more organized part of the human self. The passions are the lower energies that soul’s “reason” will work to overcome.

This is scholastic philosophy but not biblical.There is an equivalence between Hebrew nephesh or animal soul and Paul’s sarx (flesh or lower nature) related to soul (psyche). Both these are crucial to life. They have many names cross culturally like the etheric body or body electric, jivatman etc but they belong with the vital energies, including sexual, that hold the person together and leave the body (Gk soma, Heb basar) upon death. Souls if they don’t die may be “lost”. Sarx/Nephesh is however the possibility of our sympathetic connection with nature (and animals) and the cosmos, and thus any expressions of natural mysticism as of the Romantics.

Spirit, which is Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, is as essential to life in its way as Sarx/nephesh. Ruach is a para-rational organizer and interpreter of soul energies, the vehicle for any hearing of the divine voice and knowing the divine will. (In some of my books I have suggested that Jesus could even be considered the Soul of God over against the Spirit of God). The Spirit may become clouded over and obscured, but is essentially pure. (One notable mystic, Juliana of Norwich, once went so far as to maintain the spirit is always pure, and “the elect” are those who never sinned in the spirit – everyone having done so through the soul).

In the NT from especially St Paul, spirit and soul are in conflict (Gal 5:17), the fallen energies of soul not being subject as they ought to the directions of spirit. We need not deny this situation – the conflict between truth and lies, wisdom and folly, peace and war, pleasure and addiction are everywhere evident – but we still need to take it as one of Paul’s rhetorical generalizations.

There is no way we could and should dismiss soul and its perceptions and pleasures as always all bad and bad beyond all cure. Your doctor will cure your soul/body and it is what God is said to restore (famously Ps 23 has it: “he restores my soul (nephesh)” – portrayed as done within a scene of nature which soul is deeply related to. The soul of the woman who loves Solomon in the Song of Solomon is nephesh (Song 3:2).

At the same time, the apostle interestingly places sorcery and idolatry (Gal 5:20), which is to say almost all known systems of magic and religion, under  sarx. At any rate an often supposed sex and magic nexus seems likely, a point driven home to me when I saw a film of Tibetan monks able to sustain freezing temperatures, and in what was perhaps a camera slip, it briefly revealed a monk with an erection.

Gay Tantra as therapy and for some as a good possible containment of the erotic energies of body/soul, would seem justified enough (short of objections from the most narrowly conservative and literalistic views that all non-productive and non-marital sex is unacceptable). The more vital question would seem to be: is there any mystical potential or divine contact amid all this? A few devotees who prolong pleasure for hours even sense themselves to be a new kind of erotic monk or mystic. Could anyone be such?

This is an important question whose correct answer could have implications for almost any kind of mysticism which locates its wisdom wholly within the meditating mind or the trained body.

I would maintain that if and when God is experienced at all by would-be pleasure mystics, it is only indirectly. It  is nothing more, save in degree, than anyone experiences things divine, namely like Solomon’s lovers  within the fires of Yah (Song 8: 6,7). It is because intercourse is a “divine” activity  of sorts, that it can also be immoral or demonic, the occasion of intervention from false spirits (Augustine would  fear succubi where women were concerned!). Some new age extremists would even  encourage this, maintaining there are peaceful aliens who want our sperm although, worldwide, experiences of alleged alien kidnaps record terrifying sexual interference.

  AN OVERSTATED MYSTICISM

Arguably the kind of mystical experience sex mystics claim, namely of “Oneness”, is inevitable for any mysticism which does not engage the spirit/ruach level and its energies. The soul overpowered by its point of concentration, cancels out distinctions and categories, turning mind back on itself in a great circle and its message is inevitably blissed out “cosmic” oneness and unity; especially so if I am correct that sarx corresponds to Neptunian inclusiveness and capacity for bliss which looks forwards to or implies, like some Buddhist systems, formation of a bliss body.

The new universalist kind of Catholicism, though unlikely ever to accept anything like gay tantra as such, ironically will nonetheless be open to its oneness idea (even Pope Francis whom conservatives consider an anti-Pope for heresies would do so), because although like most mysticisms Christianity’s are not sexual, the mentioned Constantinople decision has so reduced the role of spirit, human or divine, that everything and everyone that soul is thought or felt to touch is potentially “One”. All are on the same page with a differently named same God if only we could realize it. And arguably even the most Christian and ascetical mysticisms might as well be sexual. Some Greek Orthodox monks whispering, murmuring their Jesus prayers can seem half intoxicated or near to prolonged sex stimulation’s “gooning” phase where language is dissolving into a sort of shishing variant of speaking in tongues.

BEAT ONENESS AND EROTIC WRITERS

In short, as in any system there are pitfalls to be avoided and honest questions to be asked, and sexual mystics might need to be careful with the “magic” potential of auto-stimulation and masturbation-triggered ideas and images projected onto the ethers whether as this affects themselves or others. If there can be good masturbation there can certainly be bad – the poisonous writings of the Marquis de Sade were produced with such.

Beat poets of the sixties, Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac were frequent (non-tantric) masturbators, the Neptunian Kerouac ultimately deciding it was better than regular sex. The gay Ginsberg was an admirer of the rather obviously gay and also masturbatory Walt Whitman. On one occasion that he was reading and (unmindfully and absentmindedly) masturbating, Ginsburg was inspired, but alarmed when he allegedly heard the voice of the poet, William Blake, a figure who influenced his work lifelong and a basis of his oneness mysticism.   [6]

For a while Ginsberg was emphatic this wasn’t a hallucination. Later he decided it must be a form of his own voice, this seeming consistent with reason and everything being mystically “one”. But on that basis he then strove to call up the voice by uttering “Dance, Dance, Dance, Spirit, Spirit, Spirit” but the effect was, he said, “like Faust” and “he got all scared and quit”.

The fact that the disembodied voice of lifelong influence had seemed separate and couldn’t be duplicated, suggests it could actually have been a familiar spirit such as would manifest through sarx rather than ruach and contact with which is forbidden in Judaism (Ginsberg was born Jewish). The voice of God, often like thunder, would be unmistakable and communicated through the ruach –significantly Ginsberg regarded his Blake voice and Oneness mysticism, a swerve from God, which in effect it was. The poet’s subsequently adopted Buddhism is a-theistic. At the same time, Buddhism does not naturally lead where Ginsberg let it take him, which was not only into narcotics, but also into various causes among these, (though he was not himself a paederast), support for legalized child/adult sex relations.

Though straight, James Joyce, especially in Finnegan’s Wake, was a masturbatory writer and that may not even be too healthy for readers if they’re at all psychically sensitive which I probably am – as someone once remarked to me “you’re terribly psychic, you just haven’t realized it yet”. What I am not is a person who remembers dreams. Only with real effort did I once get to the stage I could just about catch how a dream ended with some question or worry like leaving a case at a station. Last year I undertook to read Finnegan’s Wake with the assistance of a commentary, last thing at night The Wake is Joyce’s novel of night and dreams. Some of it was poetic, some of it funny, some of it truly opaque beyond commentary, but some it particularly filthy too and the book anyway embraces normally taboo themes like the incest which is apparently the hinge of the whole “story”.

One morning after a substantial read I awoke with devil/ Baphomet images in my eyes. I tried to ignore it and pushed it off. Once could be just an accident, but when it happened again the next day after more Joyce I decided that Jung who knew Joyce and Beckett and called them the Antichrist writers, was probably on the right track. Not wanting Joyce’s black mojo around me I decided this anyway too obscure writer wasn’t worth struggling with, even if you’re Irish.

SEEING FURTHER

The images didn’t reappear, but the incident serves me as a reminder about what is absorbed and let out to the world (St Paul at Eph 5:4 would have it that “entirely out of place is obscene talk”. Sex always needs to have a degree of good intention about it and possibly any sexual practices, if they are not to leak out and impress upon the ethers as some imagine and I consider theoretically possible, they could use something like the self blessing with which some of the south European people have surrounded intercourse. Unblessed free-wheeling sexual activity may be more harmful than realized.

Despite the need for caution in any area that sex and the spiritual are explicitly or just implicitly in close neighbourhood (as they can be much of the time), I don’t feel the perennial, potential conflicts of sarx with pneuma, are grounds to write off the possibilities of the new field of what is basically gay therapy and integration with a few implications for even the heteronormative world.

Although, despite what some conservatives think, we cannot know with complete certainly just what and who St Paul was referring to where same sex issues were concerned (recreational bisexuality, pederasty, male prostitution?), what is certain is that belated popular understanding of the gay theme has been little short of a catastrophe. It has been so both for individual gay lives damaged or even suicided out of existence by it, and for the church itself. The latter has lost ground and engaged unnecessary hatred for itself on the subject, not just today but historically as when a major reason Japan never turned Christian is because individuals like St Francis Xavier fanatically declared the courtiers of Japan lower than pigs and dogs. As Matthew Vines pertinently reminds us in God and the Gay Christian, Christ states “every good tree bears good fruit but a bad tree bears  bad fruit…..every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down (Matt 7:18-19) [ 7 ]. What we so often see is bad fruit produced by treatment of this subject and one feels it’s time the tree of this doctrine came down.

Centuries before the eunuch word assumed its wider meanings and sometimes indicating the nearest thing to gay, Isaiah had declared the eunuch to be somehow special, even reserved for “better” than those (heterosexuals understood) whose heritage is through children (Is 56:5). Theirs is the greater monument. Whatever precisely that signifies, it’s like suggesting this individual is bearer of special knowledge or destiny. If so, it may be time to apply something of that knowledge which I would judge is more feminine and adaptive than masculine and aggressive in treatment of self and soul.

Everything suggested here may not be correct, but the subject matter is timely. The situation over gay issues of ongoing confusion, doubt, hurt, resentment, with congregations split over gay issues must be changed, indeed redeemed. It is not simply a matter of ethics, it goes rather further as I endeavoured to indicate in Part One. The very art of the west has a problem. It has never supplied a convincing portrait of Christ. The Redeemer is inadequately seen or not seen at all, which is like a parable in itself. Arguably the lack will not be corrected and the face not revealed until the entire issue of pleasure is better resolved. It is not a question simply of received doctrine sometimes fanatically defended, but a core paradox involving vision itself.

 

NOTES

  1. Sarah Ruden Paul among the People, Image Books, New York, 2011
  2. Andrew Auge, A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism Syracuse University Press, New York, 2013 p.13
  3. The words of the hymn are:

We who mystically represent the Cherubim
And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity
Let us set aside the cares of life
That we may receive the king of all
Who comes invisibly, escorted by the divine hosts

4. In the still working data I claim to have for Jesus’ birth, Neptune (widely accepted by astrologers to be a Jesus associated planet, is conjunct Venus and asteroid Eros all three in Scorpio sign of sex, suggestive for the   idea the fires of Yah(weh) associate primarily with Jesus – which would be logical if we think of Jesus as the incarnational, embodying person and aspect of the Trinity.

5 Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, Convergent Books, New York, 2014, Chapter 8.

6  Visions, Symbols and Intertextuality. An overview of William Blake’s Influence on Allen Ginsberg.  Alexandre Ferrere, Empty Mirror, June 7, 2019

7 Vines, op.cit. p 13

A SAINT’S MISTAKE: A POEM OF ST  PAUL    https://wp.me/p2v96G-yS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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“SALVATION” AND THE FREE SPEECH ISSUE

 SALVATION

 A FAITH LOSING POPULARITY

There are reasons for the current decline in the popular standing of Christianity. Some of them, like the shocking modern record of priestly paedophilia are reasonable, others less so; for if the church is not innocent neither is the world. But amid the pattern of shifting sympathies we have to recognize a growing impatience with Christian intransigence on some issues that have become more vital today than previously.

Why, people wonder, and especially when America’s churches have long supported separation of church and state, should recent years have shown quite the level of outraged, conservative legal opposition to gay rights and abortion that has been evinced? If churches had been generous to the welfare of an often bullied, discrimination-ridden gay minority, would LGBT rights ever have become the self-righteously protested demand they now are? If churches had been less ready to criminalize or excommunicate traumatized, raped women or those whose lives were in danger, would “a woman’s right to choose” have become quite the secular feminist issue it now is? And whatever one’s convictions, shouldn’t there have been more latitude towards especially those not church affiliated? So what too often looks like an inflexible, political boss church (now sometimes protesting it is martyred because its beliefs are no longer protected) has itself partly to blame for a worsening PR situation.

But….. today a new kind of intransigence looks set to spark further alienation and confusion. And this time the quarrel is more fundamentally around faith and its rights and with unavoidable implications for personal rights and free speech in society more generally. This time the subject, even if a materialistic world ignores it, is “salvation” – who has or will have it.

TALK OF SALVATION CENSORED

We shall be hearing increasingly about this subject because, even if and when the theme is ignored by secular society, the related question of free speech can’t be so but rather affects everything. So we can’t afford to get this wrong. There is increasing pressure in the once Christian West from Russia especially but even England, to prevent Christians from witnessing to their faith – in almost any way. Don’t wear a cross, don’t offer to pray for patients, don’t invite people to church (short of government permission in Russia), don’t hand out literature lest anything from people’s multicultural to their Muslim to their gay or their feminist feelings be offended. And so on. In America a sheriff has recently had to hand over   41K to   atheists for the misdemeanour of promoting Christianity on a department Facebook page though apparently some of the posts were as innocent as “living today is best done with a lot of prayer”. Recently an American duty marine was court marshalled for not removing from a work cubicle a verse from the bible that didn’t even mention God or Christ!  There’s a relentless slide towards silencing. (Some months ago it prompted a poem from me
https://goo.gl/VmUPtA )

This is a controversial situation of some real gravity. Democracy and liberal society ultimately depend upon free speech. This is why for the greater good it may be preferable that a few sensitivities be hurt than that society and the laws indulge the merely offended through whose actions freedom of speech can be gradually eroded in favour of thought police and rigid PC values.

The rights of faith or belief must be respected. To the extent they reach into matters of conscience that everywhere feeds the most basic sentiments of freedom and independence,  they should enjoy some special, careful protection if need be before what is closer to what’s  inconvenient or hurtful to the feelings of minorities (which is not to say the latter are unimportant). It’s not good enough, it’s even shocking, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has advised Christians not to speak about their faith now unless asked. Nothing could be further from NT counsels to preach the gospel to the whole world (it’s Christ’s own last commission Matt 28:19) and even to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or not” (2 Tim 4:2) and right now is not any favourable time.

PERSONS AND IDEAS DIFFICULT TO DEFEND

That said, plainly there are believers who would defend a right to something like “insistence” from attitudes and belief positions so extreme it helps bring the entire matter into disrepute. Although a distinct minority, there is a kind of uncompromising, aggressive evangelist, professional or lay, who on supposedly biblical grounds more or less sends to perdition anyone who resists their message. Just as free speech would not be best defended by appealing the rights of flat earthers to be heard in prime time, it would be better if protection of religious rights not have to expend too much energy defending the most absolute expressions of doom, gloom and damnation. But just what is the argument around “salvation”, one that threatens to increase as multiculturalism and the global village expand?

It is now trendy, liberal and many would maintain only good-neighbourly “inclusive”, to maintain universalist views with regard to belief. All religions are deemed essentially equal and the same: we all worship the same all-loving God (even if the Buddha denied the existence of any God/Creator and nowhere does the Koran assert that God is love) and everyone, unless the very worst, are heaven bound by default (although all religions have always had some version of Hell/Hades). We may call this (or at least its new pop version) the Rob Bell view of religion – its case is argued for by that ex-evangelical in his bestselling Love Wins favoured by the New Ager Oprah Winfrey. The doctrine can sound generous and intend well except that it now threatens to make an excluded enemy of dissenting voices.

Against this and as its polar opposite is pitched a conservative and would-be biblical position to the effect that only those who believe in Jesus can make it to heaven and escape the hell fires and  this because Jesus died not as early Christians maintained principally to ransom us from Satan and the powers of evil, but primarily to satisfy the wrath of his Father’s offended honour (an emphasis deriving from the twelfth century St Anselm).

This would seem like bad news for vast populations of humankind who have never even heard of Jesus and plain distressing to converts who are invited to believe they will never see or know their forebears again unless perhaps glimpsed through the flames of hell. We can call this the Choo Thomas view of salvation after a Korean-American woman visionary’s claims in her bestselling Heaven is so Real. Her love of Jesus was so intense and her heaven so real and experienced over a series of improbably frequent trips there with Jesus, that she was somehow able to come to terms with being shown her mother, a good woman who didn’t know about Jesus, screaming in torment……

DOES CHRISTIANITY HAVE ANY MIDDLE PATH ON “SALVATION”?

Salvation2

…….Something has to be wrong here, wrong with both parties in almost any way academically, theologically, spiritually, humanly. Putting my theologian’s cap on for a moment, what would I say?

Undeniably the second, conservative position has some scriptural basis as in the above quote from Acts, and certainly Jesus took perdition seriously – there are more references by him to hell than to heaven. The gospel is supposed to be preached in order to help save people from death and the damnation which in Jesus’ times, in the form of a dark and hopeless Hades, was more or less the default post-mortem destination even among pagans. (Elysian fields were reserved for the favoured few). Just because Jesus taught radical love and forgiveness it is absurd of the present Pope to maintain as in his  recentThe Joy of Love (understandably being criticized by leading Catholics), that damnation is not even in “the logic” of the Gospel. It surely is and backed up by all sorts of dire warnings like the famous “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”.

Even so, no reasonable or feeling person will readily accept the alternative to universalism, namely that almost everyone is doomed and damned and even like Choo’s mother in and for their ignorance amid the accidents of their birth in historical and cultural terms.

The astonishing thing is that even those most fundamentalistically  attached to what “God’s Word” has to say, don’t really absorb what it does say, seemingly incapable of taking any hint and making even and especially any common sense deductions from the text. At least three New Testament statements invite us to understand there is something like a middle path between the two mutually exclusive options. The three I would cite (I could cite more) all derive from Christianity’s St Paul, himself the first and most fervent missionary of the faith who insisted he would do anything and go anywhere to save souls even exclaiming “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

DAMNATION NOT SO ABSOLUTE

First and in the sermon at Athens the apostle declares:
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

With this statement alone (which follows upon a quote from a pagan poet to the effect we are all God’s offspring and live and move and have our being in God), we are given some hint that up to a point ignorance does excuse. The drama of salvation begins once Christ and redemption are actually proclaimed. This moreover seems consistent with the fact Jesus’ strongest warnings as in John’s gospel about unbelief and dying in one’s sins etc are addressed in the first instance to those with whom he had direct dealings like hostile religious leaders.

Second, although Christ may not be known, conscience always is.

When Gentiles who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these though not having the law, are a low to themselves. They show that the law is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when according to my gospel, God through Jesus Christ will judge the secret thoughts of all.

At least some people are thus self-excused before God and in some fashion via Law/Conscience. (By “Law” the apostle must mean the Ten Commandments or the general sense of the Law since pagans couldn’t be expected to intuit things like why not to ingest shell fish and many regulations that Jesus himself had already discarded for the new message and era!). The nearest gospel parallel to this position would be in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25  where the sheep (often interpreted as being nations rather than individuals) discover they have been serving Christ without knowing it through what is effectively conscience.  Obviously however individuals  would be less likely and would find it harder to follow true conscience where the gospel had not been preached as intended. (Supposing you had been born into a tribe of spirit worshipping head hunters!)

Third, there was the early Christian custom of baptism for the dead. (1Cor 15:29) mentioned in the course of Paul’s disquisition on the resurrection and the necessity of belief in it.

If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

This is a verse either much ignored or disputed though it should be obvious enough what it is about. New converts didn’t want to think their forebears were automatically lost to them and to God; so they claimed them, baptizing by proxy and St Paul doesn’t object to the custom. This is very different to the situation where, as often happened in missionary zones in the great Victorian era of expansion, converts were made to reject, or feel they had abandoned, everything and everyone that had gone before them. Instead, early Christians’ allegiance didn’t damn their entire past but could even hope instead to redeem it. (I suggest that Choo Thomas for her understanding about her mother and much else was deluded, even a species of false prophet).

While we can’t now know exactly what was practiced and understood as regards the Corinthian baptism, it surely belongs with the spirit of one of the stranger and often ill translated of Jesus’ statements, one which seems to imply that up to a point it would be possible to “claim” persons for heaven itself (assuming they weren’t rank unrepentant sinners). The point is made in Luk 16:9 cited here in the NLT translation which seems to have the right sense.

“Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly money to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home”.

No reference here to the merit, faith, repentance, being born from above or born again etc that the gospels would have us believe Jesus taught as vital items of truth and salvation.

TRUTH IN PARADOX

As in much else in the New Testament and writings of St Paul, the truth about “salvation” resides somewhere in a paradox. In this instance the paradox is that even though true redemption is from Christ alone and that at death many are at real risk of separation from God (the real meaning of the “wrath| of God) due to sin or unbelief, this does not mean that divine judgement is so completely arbitrary or formula bound that it cannot make independent decision, especially in the case of genuine ignorance of what should be believed and done in life.

To deny this possibility is to deny that God can read the heart as St Paul affirms or to dismiss Abraham’s rhetorical question “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”. God must be free to make decisions even though in turn mortals would be unwise to presume on divine mercy. (Attitudes like “if I’m good enough it’ll be OK” or “to err is human, to forgive is divine” aren’t truly spiritual where judgement of a whole life and souls are concerned!).

 A BOTH/AND READING OF AN IGNORED GOSPEL

All this and more should be clear enough, but the Bible is insufficiently studied today; or rather is so academically studied it is almost high jacked over issues like the dating and authorship of its various parts while it is inadequately appreciated on a more readerly level as Wisdom literature. The latter approach would absorb the many paradoxes which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed rationalist style as “contradictions” on an either/or basis but rather as information often given on a both/and basis.

But if the bible is insufficiently or improperly read today, likewise the gospel, originally described as “the power of God to salvation ( Rom 1:16) is rarely preached. Increasingly it is said even by Popes to be about “compassion”, social justice and “mercy” (which of course it is), but any honest reading must conclude it is primarily about repentance and right belief addressed to what Jesus would call (and would certainly today call) “an evil and adulterous generation”.

Belief as the driver of attitudes and actions always matters, always has concrete effects. The average universalist doesn’t understand this, not even today as regards, for example, the effects of Islam’s promise of certain paradise solely for those who are martyrs in jihad, (a strong motivation for some to be radicalized and reckless!).

All faiths make entry to their heaven dependent upon merit earned except Christianity which makes it free to the believer with only the degree of reward dependent upon merit. Yet today it could finish an offence if not crime against PC multiculturalism for Christians to point out to non believers that their faith is based on “amazing grace” and not effects of karma, yoga practices, devotion to jihad etc. But such is now virtually the situation. Statements of even true and obvious fact must hide themselves. In the global village that long ago the Roman Empire also appeared to be, its own version of multiculturalism was seen by early Christians as a providential opportunity to proclaim. Today’s global village is seen as mandating, when not outright silence, at most the easy option of “dialogue”, as opposed to proclamation lest anyone be hurt in the exercise of compare and contrast.

I am not a Catholic, but those Catholics who declare Pope Francis a heretic are essentially correct when he declares proselytization “the worst thing of all”. Really?  Practically, not just religiously, this is nonsense because where free speech disfavours the  frank declaration it is short sighted to imagine society will allow even “dialogue” for long. Dialogue doesn’t even exist in Muslim majority nations today from Afghanistan to Turkey and it has never really been tolerated. In Pakistan Christian woman Asia Bibi has been imprisoned on death row for years now for  the “blasphemy”  of defending her faith against the abuse of Muslim women who refused her water at a well. Re the notorious Bibi case see https://goo.gl/Xsf3cc

Pope Benedict properly appealed for Bibi’s release….as our politicians should be doing, as the people of London who voted in a Pakistani supposedly a defender of human rights should be doing. But Pope Francis is is not  known to have intervened or protested, simply looking  on  in appalled silence at the testimony of Bibi’s relatives to their anguish. Beyond periodic  lament for martyred Christians, the Pope’s vision cannot reach to the challenge of dealing with a widespread Islamic intransigence in persecution that the secular West  as a whole prefers to ignore …..at the same time as it bends over backwards to accommodate Muslim rights and sensitivities otherwise and to accuse any critics of Islam of “Islamophobia”.  (Currently there is even talk in California of introducing a Muslim appreciation month). The Pope persists in speaking of “our  Muslim brethren” and their religion of peace as though no fundamental problem existed or as though Muslims of the  Ahmadiyya  branch of Islam were the only true kind. (This often persecuted Islamic minority deemed heretical refuses violence and doesn’t believe Mohammed was their faith’s final prophet) .

Last year the complaint of a British Muslim women had a colleague dismissed from the workplace for the “bullying” crime of describing her faith and inviting someone she supposed to be her friend to a church. To undermine a Christian right to declare beliefs is a fundamental and disturbing new denial of all personal rights and freedom of speech, one which will eventually hurt even those secularists who for the meantime might be pleased to silence a few nuisance believers. (Actually secular humanists are becoming concerned they may not be free to criticize Islam as they would wish).

BELIEF WILL ALWAYS MATTER

And so the trendy heaven-for-all universalism threatens to become servant of a new and uncontrolled PC censorship. As a doctrine it has no basis in any known faith but is a development of Enlightenment Deism and optimistic, mainly free church generalizations upon Christian notions of love and mercy that New Ageism has made its own. It creates as many problems as it solves because it begs the question should such as of the serial killer, the child abuser or a Hitler go unpunished, and can and would God permit sin, especially unrepented, into where it could only corrupt? (According to popular Conversations with God author, Neale Donald Walsh, Hitler is in heaven because there’s nowhere else to go!). Can we really imagine  Hitler rejoicing in heaven and would we really want it? And if sin and its effects cannot be self-cured, change must depend upon grace, which means it also depends upon faith which means it requires some measure of right belief.

And right belief according to Jesus is not the cop out or irrelevance some imagine, but rather the work we should do (Joh 6:29), something we grow into. Believing is itself something people do. This is why there is no automatic or total, faith versus works contradiction between the gospel declarations about the importance of faith and the fact that at the Last Judgement (which applies to all peoples of all ages and backgrounds) they are judged by what they have done. (Rev 20:13).

Even if we take this more  “middle path” position regarding salvation, for the modern reader of the biblical texts other questions of a purely theological nature still impinge . It can be questioned why if hell exists as the alternative to heaven should it be eternal, forever punishing “merely” finite transgressions? One answer and a short one could be that hell exists like heaven outside time in an eternal present. But such questions are beyond present scope and even relevance – ( I broach difficult themes of the kind in some of my writings like The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness.( https://goo.gl/oI543k) but most would agree those laying stress on what used to be called “the last things” and wanting an assured public hearing should give more a bit more thought to the underlying rationale of the claims they make.

But wherever you believe souls are bound, if you believe souls exist….. one certainty is that the largely post-Christian materialistic West is in terrible trouble. It believes so little on the spiritual plane that it risks accepting almost anything or being imposed upon by almost anyone. Ironically, what to some may seem an irrelevant concern with an outdated concept – “salvation” – is set to be crucial to how society will manage freedom more generally. Salvation entails a promise of freedom. Correctly and sanely guarding the concept is an important guarantee of ongoing freedom at more than one level.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2016 in religion

 

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A SAINT’S MISTAKE: A POEM OF ST PAUL

[It’s arguable that tradition is wrong and St Paul never quite maintained what is popularly believed as regards “homosexuals” and “homosexuality” – words not used in his time. But belief about what he famously or notoriously wrote in Romans still has effects. Yet if the Apostle did say things along the line attributed to him,  both popular and scholarly understanding does not then consider the evidence for  an element within Pauline experience which suggests the possibility of real error in his outlook in this area – even one divinely anticipated and disapproved. Within poetic limits that difficult and controversial point is addressed. Related notes add a little more. Ideas for the poem came to me after reading the  outrageous extent of homelessness of gay people in America as a result of some ongoing conservative Christian attitudes]

Conversion

(The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Caravaggio c. 1600)

A SAINT’S MISTAKE: A POEM OF ST PAUL

From birth those energies defining life
May be transformed but keep their force,
There’s limit set upon the chance for change.
The angry youth may live to father revolution
But, lifelong, yearning visionaries may never
Grasp all truth; the times, society, a weakness of
The vehicle determines where and how each will
May grow. Light can enlighten when not blind,
But sight may need what’s heard to truly see.
Let eyes be opened, ready for the sun
Of Truth, but still recall that Logos speaks
Across the universe of space and time
Through ages, not one age alone which ends,
As ours, its spiritual life enfeebled,
Lacking true prophetic view, even
Ignoring such as you, St Paul, wilful,
Doubting or perhaps confused, refused
The words of Agabus. [1]
Upon Damascus road met by great Light,
You saw, you gazed, you fell and then
Three days remained alone in darkness, blind,
Till, helped by human hands, scales fell like leaves
From off your eyes. But what was that your ears
Had heard? Your mind in shock no doubt turned much
Upon a sacred history, ancient Law,
The Lord, but had you in that solitude
Absorbed the fullness of the uttered words
And even when preaching soon the Christ as
Son, repressed and left unlearned what echoed
Through the flashing of celestial light?
Even God had seen you on the road
Not just as Jew devout to last extremity,
But kin to pagan Pentheus face set against
The worlds of women and of difference
And spoke to you the words of question and
Rebuke once given by Agathon’s lover to the god
Of ecstasy and the flourishing vine.[2]
Of this, though Christ alone is truly he,
The shadow also speaks to depths of mind for
In yourself and God a Gentile dwells as
In the Gentile there’s a Jew. To soul within
And world without your call was to a wider field
Than even you would quite allow, lands and lives
Not only to address with a new gospel
Of deliverance and transcendent Law
But in their essence to reclaim. Such would require
Not only persons of the Way not fall sad victim
To persecutions of your policy
But – what and who are more remote to
The conservative, devoted mind – also
Minorities, the outsider, the enslaved.
The stubborn ox resists the goad, so hard
It is for even the good to heed God’s voice;
But harder life then weighs on many more
If that same voice is disregarded or misheard.
It draws a canker to redemption’s rose,
It hid a poison in the new and good,
And justified whole centuries of harm,
Of inquisition, secrecy and dull despair
Of suicide, of souls denied the family home,
Of youth made objects of improper cure
Confused by a false loathing of the self,
Lives lived as though beneath a curse,
And so because you never learned, not even
From Jeremiah in his difference,
That never the leopard lost his spots
Nor did the Ethiopian his skin.[3]
The pedantry and prejudice of one once
Proudly Pharisee, stayed blind to what
In nature, art, and even just humanity
Might teach. You failed, as even great Luther
Later failed the Jews. [4]
Within a Roman world whose ruling might
Your angry will alone could hope to oppose,
Scarce noticing the slavery and pleasure
Taken in refinement of all cruelties,
You made a scapegoat and the symbol
Of most vice and sin, (almost the fall
Of this whole world and worthy of death itself),
Those whose eros and whose loves inclined them
To one side, their own, by this made
Enemies of a “Law” – transcended and fulfilled,
You taught – yet holding you still much in thrall.[5]
Not only was the scapegoat harmed but also
Spiritual lives identified most narrowly
With nature’s way. [6] Vague rumour, petty hate
In place of information or of love, worldly
Obsession with oppressive law and politics
Sometimes rank violence on the streets,
Such was and is the legacy to those
Whose loyalty is wholly to “God’s word”
And your authority, all ignorant
Of just how little the Spirit spoke
To you on the contested theme but
Rather echoes of Apocrypha, pressures
And customs of your familiar world.[7]
Like Peter struck with vision by the sea
But who denied the wisdom shown because
It seemed to oppose a written source, [8]
Likewise idolatry of tradition and of text
Chokes inspiration of the Living Word.
Oh Spirit who should lead to Truth and who
In your own being is the Truth, descend
Upon the human mind that thought
May rise to judgements on a higher plane,
Not timeless only but aware of time, its cycles
And those changes they intend. [9] Together let
Inspiration, scriptures and the kairos speak,
And not one source alone lest faith’s whole vessel
Run aground or sink.
No theory, no philosophy, no abstract
Statement of a rule will summarize
The Spirit’s truth whose will embraces
Situations and hurt souls as even
Holy Law was forced to do for daughters
Of Zelophehad.[10] Alas that Tarsus
Was the home not just of you, St Paul,
But to that Stoic thought defining
Nature, pleasure and a universal law
Too abstractly in the face of plain
Reality and human need. How hard
It was for you to accept the nature of
Even that youth, the gospeller Mark. [11]

11

These facts despite, the Good can redirect
And heal what harms. But wrong’s a wild weed
Reproduced and strong, and stronger still
When unacknowledged where it grows. Within
The fields of faith yet worse than choking weed
Stands visible and alone the bending,
Stricken tree of noxious fruit. It should
Be left to perish in its place, but those
Encircling it for its defence as though to guard
A relic’s power, and then their foes (seeing
More the persons than the tree), both these
Partake in what corrupts at root and branch.
Truth is feared and inconvenient to both;
Those who defend the tree will not admit
Beyond all claims of justice and of evidence
Their saint and scripture might be wrong – even while
They do not dare to cite them now on
Due obedience of slaves. They are themselves
Enslaved to Paul, so much they’ll even join
Their voice and vote with unbelievers in Christ’s
Name if only still to impose their way. [12]
Their mouths speak lies and foolish summary:
Difference becomes but “lifestyle” and a “choice”,
Let none admit it should exist lest youth be
Tempted to perversion. talk of discrimination,
Harassment can be ignored, just as indeed
They always were, the righteous mute before
While witness to a thousand wrongs, even
Approving marriages in name alone
(But these deemed holy –  other kinds impure).
This way “the unnatural” could be simply
Punished or erased and heaven’s blessings,
Not its wrath, shower down upon a Pauline
World sore needing knowledge more divine
Of being and persons in themselves. For
Grace itself is para physin – Paul
Deemed it work against the natural. [13]

Those who attack tradition’s tree and tribe
Are but soul brothers of their tyranny.
They’re almost what was so long feared
Or banned or damned, emerged like hell’s
Own self to manifest in monstrous style
A beast conformed to worst imagination.
Revenge lends savour to its policies
And once again an abstract value – now
“Equality” – spreads widely a new chaos.
The sacred, soon a target for the secular,
The atheist and hedonist demand full
Equal rights for ceremony and employ
All places from the college class to
Altar’s rail. Appeals to conscience, failures [14]
To welcome well or grant request,
All can be deemed new forms of insult
Or discrimination, grounds to pursue
A case at law, if need be, ruin livelihoods
And lives. For now what’s spiritual seems only
False and what is ethical but relative
Though what is sexual can seem true –
Even honest as pornography,
Itself a model for new modes of life.
It’s why beyond love’s rights, sometimes
Demanded with fanatic zeal, too often
Lies what’s scarcely more than sex as sport,
And heartless exploitation of the young.
And while the theorist and the litigant
Hold forth, indifference meets the
Youthful homeless and perplexed. But then,
Beyond “acceptance” at all costs, what
Will the monster’s tribe provide for life
And health beyond its empty round of
Party revel or narcotic haze?

III

Enough! The false can only bring forth
Lies again. The conflict of inflexible minds,
Harms everything and everyone, disturbs
The life of faith and human rights alike
With argument too close to cavil and to kvetch. [15]
Both parties see repeatedly but
One another to their shame in that dark
Mirror of St Paul. [16] In him, amid
Deep revolutions for the mind and age
And strivings with a hostile world, what seemed
Like sordid issues round the few, bore little
Weight save something to dismiss, deride,
Though history would prove that wrong
Like any utterance on a theme
When one admits to “think”, not fully know,
Just what the Spirit of God declares [17]
Or by pure silence does not judge. Even so…

Unless to say it can be that the first
Are last [18], amid the sufferings and long
Martyrdom of life, let none too quickly
Judge the words of you, St Paul. For scarcely
Will the saint or sage (and others less)
Attain full knowledge with perfection.
Each soul needs a Damascus with its light…
Yet there, let even saints not only see
But hear what makes for life and should set free.

NOTES

[1] Acts 21:10. The prophet Agabus warns Paul against going to Rome and the Christians beseech him not to go but he goes anyway. It is not clear how much he believes the forecast and how much God is understood to give a choice in the matter through the warning, but anyway Paul remains adamant. He had always intended or wanted to go to Rome (Acts 19:21) though it is not specifically stated the Spirit told him to go there as opposed to Achaia.
[2] Jesus is self-described as the true vine (Joh 15:1) so by implication the vine god, Dionysius (whom Gentiles believed was the God of the Jewish Temple) is the false. However the archetype is still relevant. We now know even pious Jews attended the pagan theatre and there is reason to suppose both Jesus and Paul could have known the celebrated Bacchae of Euripides (“the lover of Agathon”, Agathon being one of Athens’ most beautiful men). In the play Dionysius manifests like Christ to Paul, to accuse Pentheus of disregarding and persecuting him…”a man defying god”. Although Acts 24:16 says Paul heard  in Hebrew, the apparent quote from Euripides’ Greek is exact. It has unnecessarily kept the dramatist’s plural form of kentra goad/necessity (which would fit rather with a common proverb in the singular) that Euripides employs when Pentheus says,  “You disregard my words…and kick against necessity/the goads”. Euripides has only pluralized to make his poetic metre go. It is also important to note that the necessity/the goad could have sexual implications which the KJV bible’s “kick against the pricks” accidentally reflects. Though I don’t accept theories Paul was a closet gay, it’s possible the conversion narrative contains a hint Paul needs to examine his sexual being and attitudes at deep levels, as otherwise they could affect his teachings, treatment of people and understanding of what Jesus himself is like.
[3] Jer 13:23, On the basically gay/queer character of Jeremiah see for example Chapter 8 of my Cosmic Father: Spirituality as Relationship  and my poem Jeremiah’s Loincloth   https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm        .It is beyond present scope but contained in my writings is that some persons do, or appear to make, at least partial change from their orientation. There are reasons for this but in most instances persons are what they are and remain what they are  from childhood.
[4]  Luther reformed much that was needed and lit a torch for liberty in Europe generally, but his record of anti-Semitic prejudice (he proposed synagogues should be burned down) left a legacy in Germany facilitating Nazi attitudes centuries later….a case of a great man making great mistakes.
[5] It could be that Paul’s famous/infamous Romans 1 describes male prostitution, paedophilia, recreational bisexuality or just blasts the extreme indulgence of ancient Rome. Practically however, this is rant influenced by the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon on sex and idolatry. But by referring to whatever precisely same sex as “degrading passions”, “shameless acts” “degrading of the body” etc “for which they deserve to die” this part of scripture works out as hate speech and a life sentence if not a hell sentence for anyone remotely same sex attracted. It is what makes for a great proportion of the homeless of America being gays thrown out of the house by “good” Christians. Christian rejection was the reason of the now eternally remorseful Linda Robertson’s son took to drugs and overdosed at eighteen. Romans 1 would have been better never written and it should be excised from our bibles for the damage it does. For vastly less good reason even the sola scriptura Luther declared the epistle of James “an epistle of straw” that should be censored from our bibles. At the same time, it must be allowed Paul and Christians past and present have a perfect right to maintain that “homosexuality” like heterosexuality can be the basis for excessive, immoral, decadent behaviour (such as really does exist in America as in ancient Rome) It is troubling that the defence of gay rights now so often today also seeks to indite all and any criticism of gay behaviour as “homophobic”, even an indictable offence. Queer theory doesn’t accept the notion of morality in any normal sense and there is much to legitimately question in the work of leaders of gay/queer theory.
[6] i.e. associating sex with nothing but reproduction like the pagan Stoics which is scarcely biblical – Paul seems not to have read or absorbed the Song of Solomon..
[7] Paul’s diatribe is owing to the Apocyphal Wisdom of Solomon and is not untypical of his society and times – numbers of pagan writers like the satirist Juvenal spit out hatred of effeminates or any male who seems “different” from some militaristic masculine norm. The subject was confused by various class and military factors that no longer apply today. Any male passive towards another male was disgraced, the reason sodomy was used on prisoners of war. Masters could use slaves sexually. Doubtless because so many non gay persons were made to function that way that St Paul confuses values to this day by talking about “and such were some of you” ( 1 Cor 6:11) still the scriptural basis for praying or exorcising the gay away.
[8] Acts 10:14. Peter wrongly rejects the vision given him (three times!) because it contradicts or modifies scripture.
[9] The point is little stressed hence unfamiliar, but that the Spirit is God as Truth is indicated by 1 Joh 5:6. It is suggested here that the Spirit oversees/interprets the ages and cycles of time which promote changes and the new which are meant to be accepted.
[10] Numbers 27 recounts how these women petitioned to have the inheritance laws changed. This would imply the Law, (apart from core covenant with its Ten Commandments), is not written to be and beyond questioning and negotiation. All secondary law is besides for organization of the society of the covenanted Jews. It is not presented as any universal prescription and it is controversial if St Paul (and various Popes and councils) privilege and universalize only items almost at random following generalizing philosophical principles which is what Paul does re laws even his Jewish contemporary Philo believed applied to sacred prostitution.
[11]  St Paul did not get on well with the young John Mark, probably because his character was different in some way – perhaps gay/queer. Various controversies around Mark like The Secret Gospel, however heretical nonetheless likely reflect traditional suspicions around this gospeller’s character.
[12] In India minority Christians have successfully joined with Muslims (who elsewhere persecute their faith), to campaign for a recriminalizing of homosexuality laws against which were repealed in 2009. In 2014 conservative Christian pastor and politician Danny Nalliah who has been constantly opposed by or opposed to Muslims in Australia has recently supported them in opposition to gays.
[13]  Paul fails to see the irony that at the same time as he will approve whatever is unnatural, God works against his nature (his perfection) in grafting Gentiles onto the tree of Israel and salvation. Rom 11.24
[14]   Politically correct Gay/Queer rights are theoretically inclusive of atheist or libertarian gays having the right to teach religion classes or run church and university religion clubs etc or, in some radically liberal churches, to be priests without beliefs or usual  moral standards. While religious people can be blinkered bigots,even the individual bigot may still appreciate and support a larger community sense of the sacred which the rationalist libertarian may not. A community should have the right to retain what makes for the sacred, and arguably the owner of property (such as a hotel) should have some right to set the rules which may include a preference against gay couples? Conscience should be educated rather than state  coerced by laws, and where gays conspire to coerce Christians they are not better than those they oppose. Presently churches  are just being split apart and charity services curtailed due to arguments and court cases over gays and their rights.
[15] kvetch is Yiddish for ceaseless outlandish complaining, grumbling, blaming. It is suggested St Paul somewhat indulges this in Romans 1
[16] St Paul famously states we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12), a principle forgotten when writing on things and persons “unnatural”!
[17] 1 Cor 7:39. It seems controversial that in pronouncing on marriage and divorce St Paul can only say he “thinks” he has the Spirit of God on the matter. He should surely know in making rules so vital to people’s lives, though one could say it’s liberating in that it leaves the door open for alternatives and exceptions. But if he only “thinks” re divorce, how much more likely is it he would have “thought” what he claims about same sex loving and lovers about which even just humanly and socially he would know so much less?
[18]  Matt 20:16

 

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2014 in culture, ethics, gay, Mysteries, Poetry, psychology, religion

 

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COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE

(You Tube film versions of parts and eventually the whole of this poem available at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vv3fmsaxDBU and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIV1JtM0Bp8 )

After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose
figurehead was the Twin Brothers…And landing at Syracuse
we stayed three days
” Acts 28:11

PART ONE: A CITY, ITS ISLAND AND ITS MUSE

Sing of arms and of the man no more
The human person can suffice, and then
A city and its island’s life. [1]  While wars
Still rage and rumours of the same escape,
Instead relate the struggle of cultures and
The soul with which as lengthy ages pass
Each day and century are filled, driven
Onwards by strong forces little grasped
And rarely seen, whose impulse shapes
The mystery and course of fate, their truths
Concealed within an implicate order.

Syracuse, great Syracuse, arisen besides
Ionian waves that anciently Tenians and
Corinthians braved, like Athens born anew
You shone, for wealth, trade, theatre, science and law
And all as if to rival a later Rome
While yet the glory of a larger Greece.
As though Athena’s second child you thrived
And from afar, some said, were joined to fields
Of blest Arcadia from which a river
Flowed beneath the ocean’s depths. Still others
Then devoutly claimed you housed the spring
Of Arethusa by a legend famed which tells
How on Ortygia’s isle that nymph poured forth.

A victim of the river god’s lust
She’d tried to flee; yet even hidden
By Artemis, first in a cloud then
 

Fountain

Caverns of the sea, she learned that haven
And safe place from Alphaeus there was none
Unless as water. And even with that
The cruel pursuer found a way
All suddenly to merge with her until
The earth itself was opened up, when
Artemis had given means so that
The nymph in freshest salt free jet
Emerged in new found freedom, all alone.

Oh light of Sicily whose sainted patron
Too was light [2], where went the freedom and
Your knowledge with its widespread beaconing,
And then the wealth of fields beyond
Whose grain fed Rome and Italy itself?
Since Alphaeus forced illicit claim
And Verres stole from land and shrine, what street
And parcel of your earth has not known loss
And fear through Carthage, Rome, Byzantium,
From Norman lord and Saracen and violent
Clan, all this bound fast by a colonial curse
So multiplied, so like the sea nymph’s mergence
Much renewed, each person’s left to wonder
“Who am I?” and “Who are you?”. Thus all
Become like characters without, yet striving
Still, to find the pattern and their author [3] ,
Step children of Pythagoras round whom
Biography dissolves in myth, though history
Receives his theories and his numbers.
Yet theirs remains the blessed ground of
Idyll and the elegy whose being rests
With inner landscapes of the mind, bucolic
Scenes lit by the eternal and ideal
In which through fancy and through reverie,
Hopes of the soul and its regrets speak quietly
As you of Syracuse, Theocritus [4] ,
First did and with such art that even as male
Some hailed in you another muse. Though
In our times main streams of inspiration
Fail, be now if not a muse, a guide
To help our tales and teachings flow through
Lands and pastures rich as Arcady’s.

PART TWO: A SICILIAN CURSE

CERES

Begin with Ceres and her loss and how
From out the earth all of a sudden evil rose
And Etna had its part in this. Enkelades was
The titan’s name or some said Typhon;
Either way, amid the struggles of
The gods Athena caught and pressed
Him down beneath the weight of
Etna’s heights. Desiring still to rise to
Heaven, the demon struggled in his bonds [5]
And raged and screamed so fire and smoke
And tremblings deep beneath the earth
In what was also Vulcan’s forge, at
Unexpected times broke forth. Within
Tartarian depths and far remote
From sunlight and the fields above,
Upon his throne of darkness now and then
Even Hades took offence and felt alarm [6]
Enough to draw him up to inspect
The pillars and balance of the earth.

It was at Enna in the spring that
Earth being shaken, opened up
And steeds of wrathful Hades galloped
Forth, nor did they stop until the god
Who drove his dusky chariot alone,
Glimpsed from afar a radiant maiden,
Proserpine, carefree, at play and
Gathering violets in a grove. She,
Although herself divine as Ceres’ child,
Was not yet strong against the will
Of Venus and her son who bore
His arrows and, as ordered, shot the girl
To leave her victim to those powers
Of love till then it seemed she might reject
Or else she was too young to know.
And so it was that Hades snatched the
Maiden’s innocence and thought it love.
His victim screamed in terror and she called
Repeatedly for Ceres’ aid and yet,
Though she resisted, due to Cupid’s dart
She somewhat loved her rapist too
And passed below where soon she would
Be honoured as the hell king’s queen.

proserpine2

But not before the Underworld’s mad steeds
As though enraptured by the violence
Still rushed across and round the trembling
Isle and by a pool where Sicily’s nymph,
Cyane, in vain protested at the crime,
And wept. So great was Hades’s wrath at that
He threw his sceptre in her pool returning
To his home from there, while she dissolved
Into her tears and her no longer sacred place
Until she was but silent water. Meanwhile and
Soon, Ceres to whom no child returned
Began to fear, to grow in anger and to mourn
And, tossed like waves at sea in her distress,
Set out to search the whole wide world, first
Sicily then that island last. And at the pool
Where now Cyane was only voiceless water
She saw, just as the sorry nymph intended,
The maiden’s girdle floating free. Here
Was the proof the island held her daughter still.
But Ceres while she quested on grew more enraged
And bitter at the Sicilian earth. With no child found
And seeking vengeance ever more, in grief
And comfortless this Mother caused all
Natural gifts of fruit and grain to be
Withheld so round about whole deserts spread
As fields were wilted, blackened and a
Blighted earth fell barren of its previous life.

At Arethusa’s fountain, there alone
It was that earth gained some reprieve.
The nymph, who now loved Sicily as her home,
Made plea to set harsh punishment aside,
Assured the troubled mother that the
Very land opposed the crime to which it was
The sad reluctant witness, and, from what
She’s glimpsed beneath the earth where Hades
Bore his bride away, there was no doubt
It was the dark Lord surely did the deed.
At first struck dumb, the anguished mother soon
Resolved to take her outrage to the courts
Of Zeus, rose there in haste and stood upon
Olympus’ heights. But Zeus was torn between
The claims on him of his own sister and
A brother too; and what his sister called vile theft,
To him seemed more like love gone half astray.
But witness to so great distress with consequences
For the world, his will allowed his niece could
Be returned to the maternal home. Except
This boon was now impossible. Within
The realms of hell its king had given his spouse
To eat; and once a soul, even one divine,
Had taken of food outside the world,
There they must stay and there belong. So
Zeus decreed a compromise that half the year
The girl might spend some time on earth
And every spring she could return.

Which is what many have believed. And
It is true that every spring the sun
Gives light and heat and violets blow
First and more early in Europa’s fields
In Sicily than anywhere. But even so
Some curse still lurked and whispered to the land
And that same sun that spreads on Enna’s walls
Would see the challenge to that city’s rule,
Conflict repeated and oppression too
Where it now stands athwart the island’s centre.
And to the north still Etna groaned and
Spat and had no mercy on a man
Except its slopes at rest gave honey [7].
It swallowed up even Empedocles who,
The last philosopher to write in verse,
Defined the fundamental elements
And thought all change results alone from
Strife and love in their perpetual motion.
Strife with gods and elements he met
When, seeking proof for his divinity,
Into a fiery crater of the mountain’s side
Himself he flung and was consumed. It is
As though in Etna’s shadow lie heaven
And hell, there sky and earth cannot agree
And from their violent colours, violent ways
Like poisoned flowers; and out of Vulcan’s
Forge and from the Titan’s jail arise
The retribution that lays waste…. But
To the south rose Syracuse whose bays
Face eastwards to the sea and Greece and
Do not look to, nor are overseen, by
Any mountain or dread Typhon’s place.
There, even if a tyrant ruled, the light
Of day could still be hailed like so much
Radiance of Reason’s rule, the blessing
Of Athena’s aid on every thinking citizen.
But darkness hides in many forms,
Sometimes even most and longest in the light.
And always there is love and strife.

PART THREE: TOURISTS AND VISITORS TO SIRACUSA

Arethusa

Alex:  From Dionysius’ Ear to Arethusa’s fount
And other places in between I have a feeling
That you’re following me. What’s on? You’ll
Make me think you want, I’ll not say what.

Cori:  Mi dispiace Sir, Signor, Mein Herr,
You make me feel confused, the route we take
Is all coincidence; but what you sense
Is that I’m looking rather hard at you
Because I’d say we’ve met before,
Somehow, somewhere…Could that be true?

Alex:  If not met seen, that is the likelier thing,
I’ve been so many places near and far
Where were you last? Half choked in Beijing’s fog?
To rest and breathe try Taormina or Tahiti’s shores.
Today all travel’s much like work.

Cori:  I’ve been in Europe, not much past Italy, I find
It’s good enough for me, from Mantua’s plains
To Etna’s height all’s fine, even Rome and all
The crowds – I’ve just come here from there
But Taormina, that I like, it’s heaven,
So even Goethe said when he could stop
Examining varieties of Sicily’s soil.

Alex:  You sound like Verdi who declared
The universe is yours if Italy’s for me.

Cori:  Well, I’m not Verdi but wherever I go
I write some songs or poems for each place .

Alex: You have them here? I’ll listen to them
If you wish. We should sit down,
It’s rather hot to keep on walking in this sun.
Let’s find the nearest tree – beech, oak
Or cypress, willow or plane. [8] Let poets
Find them different meanings, what’s certain
Is trees offer shade.

Cori:  Just there is fine, things aren’t so certain with
My words. On Syracuse they’re very new
With some of them I must admit, still rough,
They’re all a bit impromptu. More than
Description of a place I write of people
Native here or those who visited and stayed.

Alex:  I’ll listen anyway when you begin.
.
Cori:  Born in Eleusis where in Greece the cult
Of Ceres flourished most, the father of
Stage Tragedy was raised. He was familiar
With the Maiden’s fate, indeed according to
The Stagirite [9] the plays of Aesychlus – most
Now are lost – betrayed some secrets of
Initiate rites. Save but for bravery at war
At Salamis and at Marathon in which
The playwright lost a hand, he would have forfeit
Life itself. Even so he was attacked with
Such degree of violence by a crowd
It’s likely why before too long he took
To sea and Syracuse. At Demacopus’
Theatre there his tragedies could be
Performed (first The Persians which had won
A prize), but though among all ninety plays
We’re ignorant what depth his Women of Etna
Plumbed, in Reason’s cause the playwright wrote
What sounds like homage to Athena’s power
And then the benefits of rule by men.
Which would not have been clear to all – the
Play which most affirmed it was the same
At which a pregnant woman died in shock
At sounds too supernatural. Even so
It must be said that though in youth it was
The vine god told the dramatist to write,
With age and Syracuse he grew more like
Apollo’s devotee, a lover of the local light.

Dramatist

At Gela not at Enna Aeschylus died,
His end, alas, was all too tragi-comic.
Due to a forecast he had heard he feared
To stay too long indoors, but outdoors
Proved no safer. An eagle thought his head
A rock and on it dropped a tortoise.

Alex:  That must be myth. I’d guess the last act of the
Playwright’s life got written by his enemies.

Cori:  I think…. I’ll let you read the next piece
If you choose. Philosophy’s more serious.

Alex:  As though for life’s experiments Sicilia
Was the Promised Land, Pythagoras once
Settled there, in Croton where disciples
Learned new simple ways and diet too –
None caught or ate an animal. Perhaps
Recalling the example shone, great
Plato sailed to Syracuse three times.

Plato

With politics corrupt in Greece then
Hearing how across the sea within
The largest colony that gluttony
And debauch were rife, the best solution
Seemed to be to educate some leaders.
Indeed he would feel honour bound
And working for the good of all.
With sober Dion, an admirer, he began,
(He was the local tyrant’s brother in law)
But fears of too great influence at court
Had Dion placed beneath a ban and
Plato flee the hostile shores. And later
Visits ended much the same. Once come
To power the tyrant’s son, at Dion’s urge,
At first submitted to the Sage’s way, but
Wearied soon and once again intrigue
And violence arose. Dion, long cheerfully
Exiled abroad and pupil at the Academy
At last returned and being Reason’s child
And thus an enemy to mere anarchy,
Placed rule and order on his home
But by recourse to sword and force.
The island slid towards new chaos.
And thus with age and grave experience
The visitor from Athens learned that
Teaching can’t alone suffice; the maybe
Necessary second best is rule by Law,
So what he’d deemed the Good might need
Assistance from strict rules and greater
Limitation. And so, O Syracuse, alas,
Your world and history helped to shape
Ideas for later generations of
A state less democratic than policed,
All poetry suspect or simply banned
And gays – the sage now changed his mind
And allowed for laws against them.

Cori:  Now me again. Next in my line is
Someone born in Syracuse….

archimedes

Archimedes found out many things in
Physics, maths, in pumps and screws, and managed
Too to map the heavens. But even so
His fame lies chiefly with his bath,
Where inspiration in a trice revealed
How he, beyond whatever science knew,
Could judge the buoyancy of water.
Up from his seat within the tub he
Jumped, screamed but one word, “Eureka”
And then while still a-drip ran out
Stark naked through the streets
To share the thrill of his discovery.

Alex: How fortunate police weren’t there,
The type to think him criminal!

Cori:  No, it was a Roman called him criminal
And killed him with a sword for studying
Maths with Carthage at the city gates…
But clothed or nude he was so little
Loved and lost to public memory soon,
It was alone the brave and gold mouthed
Cicero, when not attacking Verres’
Crimes, discovered and restored his tomb.

At this point there’s an interval, a tuning
Of the instruments let’s say, in which
We introduce some other themes that follow.

When, because he would look back
Sad Orpheus lost a wife to Hades’ realm
His interests turned, and, so it’s said
He taught and loved young men instead.
But his own magic lyre, the legend goes,
Had floated down from Thrace to Greece
And stopped at where fair Sappho dwelled….

Alex:  With that did someone wish to imply
That love and lyric verse are gay
And maybe even music too?

Cori:  Perhaps, or possibly they thought bisexual,
For some say Sappho had a child. Consider too
King David loved to play a harp and he had
Wives and sons; but then, as scriptures tell,
He loved and entered – sort of – marriage
With a man – the word they used was berith.
In Sicily no doubt things were more free
As long before Von Gloeden had a camera
Trained on charms of local naked youth,
Greek Diocles who admired just such, once
Dead was honoured and at his own grave
With competitions in the spring for boys
To meet and greet and in the grandest style
To kiss in harmony with vernal gusto[9].
(Just what they did in Syracuse remains unsure
We only know Theocritus approved).

Gloeden Faun

Things weren’t so easy
For the other sex, but nonetheless…
Your turn. Pull the stops out for a great Poet

Alex:  To Siracuse from Lesbos Sappho came
In flight from Pittacus, a tyrant and intrigues
Back home. The citizens were so agog
That she whom Plato called tenth muse
Inventor of new music and poetic forms
Should seek to make her home with them, that
Even before they saw her face, as welcome
To their refugee, Silanion was engaged to carve
A statue in her honour. Before the town hall
It was raised but then, like Archimedes tomb,
This too was doomed to disappear
– only the pedestal was left – another of
Those victims to gross Verres’ thefts.
And yet, how like the symbol of a fate
That was. One poem from nine volumes
Is what now remains, and for the rest, like
Marble chips, we own but scattered fragments
And they’re unclear – the dialect in which
The Lesbian wrote itself died out –
And like her image fades away as when
It’s said this poetess was fair and tall while
Others think her dark and low, so in the end
It is the name and fame alone endure.

Sappho2

Such was the fate of one who wrote, alas,
As she herself would once admit, despite
Her social and erotic themes, chiefly
To be recalled when she passed on and not
Be lost to night within the Underworld.

Cori:  I’ll come back again, I represent Italia…
The centuries passed but then, as though
He had to pursue the Lesbian (as surely
Later fathers would to hell), the apostle Paul
Sailed into harbour with a companion Luke –
A doctor, (though there’s legend claims a painter).
An unlikely pair they might appear
One strict, the other generous, the
Apocalypse of one, some deem indeed,
Half gay with two men sleeping in a bed [11] ;
But anyway, even twins affined can be
At odds and disagree and of the
Heavenly twins beneath whose sign
The two embarked at Syracuse, we know
That Pollux was a boxer as was Castor too
Though he was more disposed to sleep.
As to St Paul, (I cannot speak for Luke)
He maybe liked to box, but not the air….. [12].

PAUL

Alex:  I’ll interrupt you there…I want to say…
With no church founded nor epistle
Written and just three days Paul was
Ashore, could time here be significant?
A small church only, not a cathedral
Or cathedral square exists in town
To commemorate his stay, and that stands
Close beside some ruins of Apollo’s shrine.
Which some might feel was almost right
Because if mildly, quietly in its way
This place is somewhat pagan still.
It’s transformation is its style and not
I think conversion. In centre town,
With little change, the Virgin’s cult
Now owns Athena’s temple.

Cori:  No, once again I think this is symbolic.
Three days Christ lay within the tomb and
On the third day he was raised. Recall Paul’s
Company was tossed about and nearly died
Devoured by fiercely angry waves until
They ran aground in Malta. A pattern of
Pure woe indeed, one much akin to storms
And tempests of our lives. When three months later
They could leave, safe harbour lay in Syracuse
As well as calm and brief serenity
Three days before the apostle sailed to Rome,
To judgement on his life and work,
His final days and execution. Thus say
That Syracuse is the sacred pause,
The moment of vision and of rest,
Maybe a fork within the traveller’s road,
Almost a place of heaven’s door, as
Have not others said before, this island
Stands a portal to heaven as to hell?…..

Escaped from out a prison cell above the bay
Of Malta, that artist Caravaggio,

Caravaggio

The same who claimed – he was no Paul – that
All his sins were mortal, found home awhile
In Syracuse. His goal was Rome and
Pardon there, though he met death along the way.
But in this harbour city he still gained
Some favour with its leaders. These all were keen
He turn a hand to make fine image
Of their patron saint – he showed her dead
And ready for her burial. Her story goes
She had been dragged towards a brothel where
Her throat was cut because she’d wished to
Sacrifice both life and chastity to God. The image
Shows….

Alex:  Oh, something morbid I dare say
But then that was that painter’s way
He loved the shadows more than light
But Lucy stands for all that’s bright
So white is doubtless in the picture…
Enough of history and the town
Let’s follow sunlight to the beach
I’ll put the sunscreen on your back

PART FOUR: THE COMING AGE

ROMAN

Now for a higher theme, its flight ascends [13]
Above all trees and forests that give shade
And beats strong wings to fly beyond firm
Harbour walls of ancient Syracuse,
Its aim to reach into our larger world
Beyond even noble monuments of Rome.
As to its seeing, may that be with vision
Like the eagle’s eye which looks upon both
Heaven’s sun and earth beneath as though
Those two could be the same.

Sicilian muse, soon is again the time
For which now dreamers dare to yearn
When through the circle of celestial signs
There dawns a new age for humanity.
Yet can it savour of that Golden Age
And be the crowning era of all prophecy
Once sung so hopefully but only spied
Through darkness of a glass where rose those
Images combining true and false amid
A too great trust of Caesar as a god
And reverence for Pan in every field?
For prophecy indeed is hard and harder
Than all poetry (even though those two
Are much allied), for in it farthest futures
Show as though a virtual present, and this
Because main words of prophecy derive
From outside time, their usual frame and
Speech being symbol and their working out
All bounded by the round of stars,

For no, throughout the world wars have not
Ceased, nor fear, nor is wild nature purified
So that a fertile land grows to support
Itself with no fields harrowed, no vines pruned
And even the ox  and lion reconciled [14].
But though you grasped how for redemption and
The age the sign of Jupiter was core [15]
And though from heaven the First Born came so that
Past evils could erase, most that was forecast
And desired did not occur and that
Because true alteration knows two kinds,
One gradual, the other born of crisis.
Within the time that cycles and their symbols
Shape, freewill exists to choose a higher
Above a lower way of the same thing,
And thus to learn and change as persons
And societies. When that’s refused
So evil thrives, it’s God and Nature bring
An end and introduce the new by force.
For when the Good is little taught or learned
How could your Golden Age be realized
Or Nature form new harmonies when amity,
Forgiveness, love are rarely settled in
The heart? Relentless hatred must be
Swept away, and will, with all confusion
Of the names of God lest poison through belief
That’s false and misnamed vision keep its
Hold, prolonging strife with every wrong.

Then only does the monarch of this world,
No more a mother’s child, but even now
Awaiting and prepared within the light
Bring near the justice of a longed for reign.
For this come soon, the world is impatient
To rejoice, the gate of welcome is unbarred,
None may resist the sceptre of your rule…..
And yet, before the new age can begin
And when within the heavens the Water Bearer’s
Sign lets freely flow the healing springs of
Spirit beyond the lightning flash and sudden
Fear and wakening towards new dawn [16],
Some years a weary earth must suffer still.
Whole multitudes, alas, must die as seas
Will rise and mountains fall and many
Cities be destroyed and even Rome itself
Fall once again beneath barbarians.
And all these things shall be because the world
Must be renewed and those who cannot
Live aright must learn instead how well
To lose what’s theirs, and even maybe
How to die, to perceive that life alone
On earth is not the sum of all that is.

It’s only then and following the years
Of strife and loss, of false beliefs and none
Another world, one wholly new, can rise,
All history and life such as was known
No longer there except as records read,
Or told as tales, by which fresh offspring of
The age will be amazed, sometimes amused.
Though travelling less, within their lands
And in their minds they’ll travel more
As with all cities rare, villages and groups
Combine, communication being total,
While on its mountain Zion rules above
All peoples and beyond all memory of
Terrors past, the division and confusion.
Each person shall be free, at last more free
Than all before and their own leaders,
Who’ll be few, will – much as once in Plato’s
Dream – be guardians of a single Law with
Wisdom and philosophy empowered and
Knowledge of most things divine, an absolute.

Then, what remains of Italy in which
No more a pontiff reigns to speak of deity
Or take its place, the beasts of field and forest
The  hunters slew, and slew to desolation,
These now as nature soon revives, return
Not to devour but roam in greater harmony
As centuries long all life itself
Will lose much of it that was entropy –
Even age extends, a hundred years like
Infancy as time grows closer to eternity.
And then, those fortunate of the coming age
Beneath the shade of beech and elm
Again in midday idleness they’ll sing
And speak of love that’s everywhere and everything
And under clusters of the vine, breathe in
Deep peace and view all Being as benign.

PART FIVE: OVERHEARD AT THE THEATRE

GKTHEATRE

He:   It’s really quite a mystery. This theatre
With the largest stage this island holds, the
Birthplace of so many plays, and many
Now deemed classic, has least to show by way
Of natural vista. We’re even told that sites
Like these were chosen for their setting, it’s
Integral to the drama. Segesta shows
A pure sublime; there’s nothing here to rival it
Or Taormina’s majesty. See… just a tiny
Sliver of the bay, its distant blue half lost
To clumps of cypress – the tree of death
So Virgil wrote. But then I’d say these plays
Are guilt and death-filled first to last.

She:  So deaths are all we’ve come to see?

He:  It must be said the action is quite minimal
It’s mostly chorus plus much commentary,
On serious actions little seen whose outcomes
You evaluate.

She:  If this is Greek and philosophical I’d think
We might need help with that.

He: ……Well, rather as Plato once dismissed
The Homeric gods so as to affirm
Some higher principles of good or God
Beyond those poor Olympian morals,
So Aesychlus evokes a holier Zeus.
He tries to make existence seem more
Sane and tangled fates more rational
By teaching Zeus one time decreed man learns
Through suffering alone. While things this poet
Does with myth can be ingenious and
Original, the messages may not convince.

She:  What messages are those? I’m sure to miss
Them for the spectacle and sound!

He:  To understand and two millennia on
I’d need to give the Oresteia storyline …
Be patient if you can, it’s this:

Oresteia

The Trojan war being at its end, King
Agamemnon now heads home. However
There’s some guilt on him. To appease a goddess
And to help the Greeks he’s sacrificed a daughter.
Clytemnestra who’s his wife and queen
Resents this death and, having suffered a
Ten year absence of her spouse has taken
A lover, though of course she hides the fact
Declaring strict fidelity. So guilt’s on her
(as on Helen who began the war). The king
Himself has not been faithful (what king is?)
And guilt of sorts is on his mistress too
Cassandra a prophetess and true
But whom a god, Apollo, cursed to
Never be believed for any oracle made.
– he took offence at her because she
Was unwilling to return his love.
The unfortunate girl foresees that if she
Enters in her lover’s house she will be
Murdered as he will be too. She prays the sun
In vain to be delivered. At palace entrance
King and queen might just be reconciled
Again except – it’s maybe fate –
There’s something makes them disagree.
The queen plans welcome on a tapestry
All purple where she utters praise that’s
So extreme – more suited to the very gods
Her husband feels – that he recoils, in both
Humility and fear. But then, reluctant still
He gives consent and enters in though later
Resting in his bath he’s murdered by the
Ambitious queen abetted by her lover.
This spouse, condemned by Chorus members
On the stage, rejoices in her evil deed
Whose fatal blow she offers to the god
Of Earth. She feels no guilt; it helps her lover’s
Party to the crime and he, Aegisthus,
Can declare it’s just and even proof the gods
Are good because he now sees vengeance on
The death the father of the murdered king
Had put upon his brothers. Thus retribution
Vengeance, guilt seem all combined and likely
To continue, the Chorus left with little choice
But to concede whoever acts must suffer.

She:  Yes, that’s exactly how it seems,
Should gods and men do nothing? So far, so bad
What is the next part of the Trilogy?

He:  It’s all the worst fears of the queen come true.
Fate intervenes when out of exile in disguise
Orestes, the king’s son, makes his return
He with a cousin, Pylades, goes to the tomb
And there, both for his father and a nurse
Sets down two locks of his own hair. Elektra
His mourning sister soon appears with bearers
Of libation, themselves arrived because
The queen now seeks to appease the dead
Due to her suffering from dreams by night.
To Hermes, god of dead souls in the underworld
Elektra prays for vengeance and on seeing
Both the locks of hair and certain footprints
In the ground suspects at last her brother’s
Near. This he can prove when he presents
A robe his sister helped to stitch. Rejoicing
At reunion the pair invoke high Zeus
For vengeance which Orestes now reveals
Is highest duty and a need since in an oracle
Even Apollo told him blood needs blood
And that ignored more curse and sickness
Follows. At which the Chorus calls
On Zeus for justice and is free to reveal
What dream it is haunts Clytemnestra in
The night, though not before declaring (at some
Length) the madness of all women’s passion.
The queen dreamt that a snake would suckle
At her breasts but then draw blood, and this
Orestes feels assured is forecast of
The matricide he must pursue once he
Has entered in his home and readied it
For vengeance. Requesting shelter but disguised,
Orestes meets his mother telling her
That he himself is dead abroad. Distress
Is feigned but he’s admitted and Aegisthus told,
Then with the Chorus’ aid, Orestes’ nurse
Will lead the lover of the queen to
Where he’s all alone so that Orestes
Is left free to strike. He does this and the
Dying screams bring Clytemnestra to
Aegisthus’ side. Now all is clear, mother and
Son are face to face and against the queen’s
So desperate pleas the son is deaf
Refusing mercy to fulfil quite other laws
As he sees fit. Although the deed once done
Both Chorus and the prince rejoice,
No sooner has the matricide declared his right
Than he falls victim to gross torments,
Visions and pain avenging ancient Furies
Place on him. In agony he flees the scene.
The Chorus is now left to ask, can deliverance
Exist or must there be another death?

She:  I must agree it’s getting worse and what
The Chorus asks makes sense.

Orestes

He:  Now comes the final episode, Part Three
Of this most dire Trilogy.

No longer Argos now the scene is Delphi
At Apollo’s shrine. Its prophetess appears
And terrified. She flees at sight of hag-like
Furies fast asleep sprawled in a circle round
Orestes, still a hunted, haunted man.
But soon Apollo, newly lord of earth
Appears with soul guide Hermes at his side.
Apollo’s promise is the curse must end
But not before Orestes makes appeal to
Athena in the city that she rules.
As Hermes leads the matricide away
The ghost of the dead queen appears and
Rouses the vile Furies to pursue their prey
And they, enraged to see their quarry gone,
Renew their curse and rail against all
New gods on the earth and Apollo who
Is firm to order them away. In Athens
Its own goddess will appear to declare
Orestes and the Furies, both, must be
Submitted to her rule which will include
Trial by a citizen’s jury. Still vehement
And unsubdued, the Furies rage against
All thought of any process and the law
Which might curb warning terrors and
All retribution of their kind which is
True justice, so they claim, which once denied
Expose even parents to all crime. But
Athena and Apollo too know that
The Furies rise from earth and hell and
Speak for earlier ages and for women.
Apollo who is witness and an advocate
For the victim now his protégé,
Maintains Orestes did a deed once
Forecast by his oracle itself made
With the authority of Zeus. He also
Rules true parenthood belongs not to
Mothers whose wombs can only nurture seed
But rather to Fathers from the first.
The court holds session and the count
Is equal save that Athena casts her vote
Through which the haunted prince is freed
And it’s agreed henceforth the city
Will have trials and be a seat of justice.
Again the Furies rage but seeking peace
Athena promises them a noble home
Within the city’s bounds to which
At last with hesitation they agree.

She:  And so, despite the misery and gore
The story isn’t quite a tragedy.

He:  How much of misery and gore could
Any audience hope to stand, even if, as
Aristotle held, such drama gives catharsis?
But for myself I’d say there’s tragedy of
Another kind and hidden on another plain.

She:  What’s that I’ve missed?

He:  In essence there’s no formula for good
Nor any real redemption

She: Not even with Orestes freed?

He:  Well, think of it. The Furies may be loathsome
But they have a point, or almost so, because
What flame is it the new gods bring to justice?
Apollo was cruel to Cassandra
And to Marsyas too, his rival in music
Whom he skinned alive. Compassion never was
His style. Orestes is quite right to plead
Compassion of him, and though we hear his
Father Zeus stands closer to true mercy,
Why would that Father then endorse
The crime of matricide Apollo gives
To Orestes as an oracle?
And why does that same god of prophecy
And truth maintain that blood needs blood
In what, if taken as a rule, which
In the dramas it can be, might run to
Unending tolls of sacrifice and vengeance?

She:  It doesn’t make much sense I must agree.

He:  The friendlier Athena will declare
For practice of a noble mean and peace
But only for her city. All war that’s
Made abroad to garner fame or win
More land she can approve. Her stated “mean”
Is scarcely something rational, more like
A shaman’s trick in primitive societies
Which holds the forces of the night at bay
By admitting just sufficient light. It’s

Athens

Much the same for what’s approved for life
Within society, its rule by men, a point
On which even gods can be agreed
But it’s the poor name for or an alternative
Form of Hellenistic Reason. Hence,
Practically, and faced with problems that
The Furies pose, it’s change is the redeemer
Its cure a lie akin to how – although
Apollo claims he could not lie – The Furies,
Pacified, will be renamed the Kind Ones.
In sum, there’s never exorcism nor
Is there banishment or blood of final
Sacrifice. Like Lucifer as angelic light
The new gods, greatly idealized, could hide
New rule by demons. But what is plain –
The gods themselves admit it – is how
Even cutting bonds and granting boons
It’s life they do not and they cannot give
In either this world or the next; no years
Once lost, as lost they were beneath Troy’s walls,
Can find their recompense and be restored.
Those few in fields of bright Elysium
Are wraiths who have no body and no home
And thus the only prospect for mankind is
Endless night in Hades. From Acheron’s
River none return because the family of Zeus
Though worshipped widely and still more appeased
Don’t deal in life as resurrection. And
Reason as a path to Truth and peace is
What the sages offer for this life
And then Gods utter versions of the same;
But it’s the fact that purest Reason
Never is entirely of the intellect,
Nor is it wholly male or something men
Alone may guard. Its thought is for this
Middle earth and really, truest Knowledge
Has a span encompassing the heaven above
And hell below, the visible with
The invisible. When that’s ignored
The human mind Is too divided, vision split
And, never reaching true control, our thoughts
Fall prey to forces not quite understood,
Misnamed, misused and so we walk to death
Alone  in blindfolds and in ignorance.

She: Well, something I now understand is why
The natural scenery as a setting counts.
It’s like a counsel to enjoy this life
As being your nearest to the world of
Gods before your brief hour of existence
Ends. In which case I’m inclined to say
I’d rather sit and contemplate this world
From Taormina than from here.

He:  But here the stage is sacred for its drama.
In Taormina Romans changed the theme,
No longer tragedy but combats of the
Gladiatorial kind, fights to the death
As entertainment. With such the memory
Of its stage is stained. Recall that
Syracuse rose faced away from Etna’s
Height. Maybe it has more light, less curse,
There’s just less past to exorcise.

She:  No curtain rises but the play begins
All light and sound, I’m ready for this tragedy.

PART SIX: EVENING, NIGHT AND GOING HOME

EVENING

 Alex:  You should finish our journeys with a song.

Cori:  I’m not so sure I really can. It might be
That the problem’s you.

Alex:  What’s wrong with me? What words or tunes
Do I prevent?

Cori:  I thought I knew, but now I feel less sure
Just who you are, from where or why?

Alex:  You must think I am secretive!

Cori:  More like just strange. You sometimes visit
In my dreams and always it’s so long ago
Though vivid as true memory; but often too
You disappear and manage to escape me.

Alex:  Oh such imagination! What ages past
Did we call home?

Cori:  It was whole centuries ago and then
At times we talked of poetry and Rome
Of distant futures and of love.

Alex:  So long ago and serious? Well, certain is
We never had a life before. If we made
Poetry and talk then think when
Certain stars are in the skies
That people much like us return
And say things that are similar
Which some repeat and may recall.
It’s really nothing more than that…
Well, as it seems you won’t perform
Now maybe I should be the poet.
But since I don’t profess to own your
Kind of special talent, I may be left
To work with scarcely more than what
Are merely borrowings from others…
“Now I am wearied with the day”
My longing happily receives the starry night [17]
(That fits, the sky tonight is clear enough
And I’ll admit I’m rather tired)

Cori:  I know the verse, what follows is..”And then
My unfettered soul desires to soar,
Freely into night’s magic sphere to
Live there deeply and a thousand fold”
Don’t say you’re trying to escape again! [18]
It’s very “north” and sounds too like those
Hymns to Night Novalis wrote in hope
That night’s eternal. I never understand it.

Alex: No need to try. It has a lot to do
With mood and time or simply place…..
Another poet of the sunset wrote
“Soon it will be the time to sleep…
Let’s not lose our way within this solitude
O vast and tranquil peace,
so deep within the evening’s glow!
How weary we are of wandering..”. [19]
(And don’t you think by now we are?)….

Cori:  Weary of wandering here and now
Or wandering simply everywhere?
Well you, I know, have seen the world,
And yes we’ve gone quite far today
But that’s not how the poem ends…
Don’t repeat it, you might trouble me.

Alex:  No, nor is there need to ask what’s next,
Or where. The sun’s gone down.
I feel, and so may you, a special radiance
As much from earth as from the sky
The peace, that glow; they are enough;
They join what has been and will be
With or without our journeys or our songs
Think we are here and we have paused.
Right now there’s nothing to complete
Say only that we came to Syracuse.

[This poem is now available in a second edition of New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas, http://amzn.to/1tKdkJr ]

NOTES

[1]  Arma virumque cano….”Arms and the Man I sing” opens Virgil’s Aeneid , the epic of Rome’s conquest by survivors of the Trojan war.
[2}  St Lucia, a saint associated with light and vision, is patron saint of Syracuse (Siracusa)
[3] Six Character in Search of an Author is a classic play by Sicilian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello
[4} Theocritus ( d.260 BC ) was a Greek poet born in Syracuse whose original Idylls and Elegies influenced the work of especially the Roman Virgil
[5} The Demon…….Here the Titan sent to Tartarus and effectively all titans are identified with fallen angels of biblical account. This somewhat influences the theory and theology of this account of spiritual influences.
[6} Hades. Strictly speaking, if one keeps to Roman names and myth it was Pluto, not the identical Greek Hades who raped Proserpine (Gk Persephone),
but Hades is not just a name but a place and concept. It thus  works better and more widely for meaning in the poem, but any reading could substitute the Pluto name since both names have two vowels and similarly Zeus could be substituted with Jove..
[7]  During Etna’s dormancy its slopes can be very fertile and the best honey in Sicily derives from there.
[8] The mentioned trees feature extensively in the poetry and symbolism of Virgil’s Eclogues.
[9] The Stagirite was a title for Aristotle who defined the aesthetic rules of Greek drama.
[10] Baron Von Gloeden (1856 -1931) settled in Taormina for health reasons and became famous for some early homoerotic art photography. It’s hard to tell whether in Idlyll 12 Democritus means that the spring male kissing competition took place in Sicily or not – he refers to Diocles as the Athenian “stranger” (visitor in this case?). We know he was born in Megara on the Greek mainland and went to Athens where the competition was celebrated by his tomb, but whether also he went to Democritus’s Sicily is not clear. He may just have influenced it.
[11] Two Men in a bed. See Luk 17:34. Although their sleeping together in not condemned and probably only refers to the fairly common ancient custom of shared beds (albeit Luke’s gospel does include the story of the centurion and his boy), what is implicitly condemned is the spiritual  unpreparedness of one of the men who is not taken  at the end of age Rapture.
[12] 1 Cor 9:26. “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air”
[13] “A higher theme”. Eclogue 4 concerning the Golden Age, describes its theme as more important than tamarinds and shrubs and hopes it will be worthy of forests.
[14] Virgil’s Eclogue 4 speaks of lion and ox being reconciled. It is like a echo of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Millennium from earlier centuries and is one of several features that makes one wonder how much the classical world was aware of biblical prophecies.
[15]. Jupiter is core because Jupiter is traditional ruler (Neptune is modern co-ruler) of Pisces on the cusp of whose era Virgil was writing, but also because Jupiter would be the Bethlehem Star that stands at the entry of the New Age with the messianic birth Virgil, I think, dimly foresees. Virgil’s coming child of the gods is the representative of Jupiter. Modern criticism in its easy sceptical rationalism dismisses the Eclogue as any kind of prophecy such as by tradition the churches regarded it as paganly being. I feel however that despite its misses and confusion it was intended to be prophecy and mixes current events with future developments dimly seen.
[16] The Water Bearer is Aquarius. As Aquarius is the sign of any Utopias and idealistic group work, it is closest to the idea of any Golden Age and Millennium of harmony, freedom and new Law.. The New Age is inaugurated in, or its inauguration is like, lightning which is a symbol of Aquarius (Matt 24:27).
[17] “Now I am wearied with the day….” from Hermann Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen
[18]  In Eclogue 2 the shepherd  Corydon suffers frustrated passion feeling that Alexis is ignoring and avoiding him.
[19]  From Eichendorff  Im Abendrot   Both this poem and Hesse’s are set to music in Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzten Lieder, Four Last Songs 

 

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in culture, Poetry

 

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