Monday, August 30, 2010

Queering our Masculinity

Why go on so about the spirituality of queer men in this blog, if Spirit is what binds us all, ultimately erasing distinctions between male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, white and racialized, able and disabled, young and old?

For me, it’s a rhetorical question. I have no hesitation about my answer: only by entering more deeply into what’s particular about our experience will we come to know better our place in a world that’s not just about us. Among feminism’s most important insights over the last forty years has been the insistence that truth is relative to the experience of the one who knows and speaks it, and most especially to his or her gender/sexuality. French psychoanalytic feminism in particular charted the ways that patriarchy distorts and discounts women’s ways of knowing, speaking, and being in the world. Writers like Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous put the finger on (and gave the finger to) patriarchy for claiming that only men’s modes of thought and language count, and for discounting women’s views and expressions as secondary and derivative.

I feel passionate about feminism, but let me be clear: not only out of guilt, but more importantly out of a solidarity born of shared interest. If patriarchy puts men on top–and of course it’s done that for millennia in unjust and violent ways-- the price we pay is the fullness of our selves, our souls and bodies. Patriarchy doesn’t exult the lived experience of men. Instead, it asks us to renounce our frail, embodied, contingent existence, and to pretend that there’s something inherently universal and standard about masculine ways of being, acting, speaking, and knowing. The French feminists called this distorted, abstract understanding of male identity “phallocentrism.”

The problem is, if we carry the phallus around long enough, we lose track of our dicks. The phallus, patriarchy tells us, is perfect, unchanging, universal, and all-powerful. Not so that strange, changeable, capricious organ between our legs. Not so the whole range of pleasures we’re capable of feeling with our bodies that have nothing to do with an obsession with “normal” male sexuality. Not so the multiple ways that those varied pleasures can impact our souls and shape our understanding of who we are and who we’re capable of becoming through the call of the Divine.

When Jesus queers a normative understanding of marriage in Matthew 19:10-12, he caps off what he has to say with an outrageous parting shot worthy of the provocative queen he often is: “There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Hear it if you can. [SNAP]” Saying no to patriarchy in order to say yes to the fullness of our experience may look nelly, but only to those who are still under patriarchy’s spell. Saying no to patriarchy means saying no to a power structure that serves no one well. Saying no to patriarchy, we smash an idol that we’ve been in thrall to for far, far too long. And we gain the whole world outside the closet door.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As Spirit Descends Into Flesh

How do you feel about your spiritual life when you’re naked and have an erection?

When you connect to the Source of your being–whether through prayer, meditation, corporate worship, or a walk in the woods–can your erotic energy still flow freely? Or else, between the Hot and the Holy, is there a great gulf fixed?

Christianity in its mainstream packaging succeeds, more often than not, in setting up the erotic and the spiritual as polar opposites–and ironically so, since the tradition is founded on a paradoxical belief that the infinite life of the Divine has joined itself to the world of matter and of flesh.

For some, the conflict remains irreconcilable. Everything I’ve read of the work of Andrew Holleran, an accomplished and much-admired gay writer of the last thirty-five years, has seemed to me predicated on the arid notion that a life engaged with the flesh can only be lived at the expense of a lost, nostalgically charged purity. If his characters succeed in redeeming themselves, they do so only by renouncing a sensuality that, however alluring, finally proves to be shallow and unsustainable. As evocative as his prose can be, his characters’ growth and deeper integration seems endlessly arrested by the closet wall running down the middle of their souls.

But the sharp dichotomy hardly does justice to the complexity of some gay men’s experience. In reviewing my own spiritual biography, a desire for God has been folded over in complex ways since my early childhood with my bodily longing for men.

I don’t recall how, when I was five, the object of my adoration entered the hospital room. He simply materialized at my bedside. He subsists in my memory like the resurrected Jesus walking through a locked door to greet his cowering disciples, supported on a sea of half-conscious associations, a macho angel with a heavy five-o’clock shadow. Extraordinarily loquacious five-year-old that I was, bent on engaging whatever adult I faced, determined to charm them into sustaining me, I was utterly reduced to fascinated silence. His blue cheek and jet-black hair hovered just out of reach as he sat down. He must have been twenty-four or twenty-five, a third-year seminarian, less than half my present age, with the pastoral and spiritual sophistication of, well, the average devout seminarian. But for me, he was ageless, or the perfect age of the perfect man–once more like the risen Christ. I fantasize now, fifty years later, that his eyes were dark brown, his skin pale, his build solid but trim, slightly shorter than my adult height–but that’s pure erotic riff. He must have greeted me by name. More importantly, he named himself: “I’m Vicar Riehl.”

So much for the essential core of my memory. No conversation. He finally suggested we pray together, perhaps relieved to close a routine hospital visit, frustrated that he could elicit so little response from me. Or maybe the silence only seemed to me to last forever. Did he take my reticence as his own lack of rapport with a peculiarly silent yet uncomfortably intense child? Did he read in it my fear of the hospital, or anxiety at the prospect of surgery? Did he recognize raw, inarticulate desire when he saw it? I didn’t see the point of praying. It imparted a weight to my circumstances I didn’t register they actually had. Everyone, after all, had their tonsils out. Nor did prayer in general make much sense to me: prayer was acquiescence to the expectation of adults. God had simply loomed, an immanent feature of the landscape, until this man drew down divinity into the world and into my heart. If he wanted to pray, and it would keep him in the room for another two minutes, then I’d happily comply. I felt sadness that I didn’t share the impulse, since my lacking it separated us, and I wanted nothing to separate me from him, ever. He left as soon as we’d said, “Amen.”

How could he imagine he needed to introduce himself? My cousins–sixteen and obsessed with every male in sight; twelve and dazzled at the threshold of mysteries her older sister had entered into–rehearsed his every movement, his every word at youth group. Their fascination with him flowed through me in a torrent, a desire for a masculinity that felt no more mine than it did theirs: perhaps I wanted no more to possess him than to be him, but I wanted him to the depths of my soul.

And so it’s gone in my life for a further half-century, without my ever really getting to the bottom of why my sexual energy has been deeply stirred at the moments of my most intense devotion, or why the best sexual experiences of my life have felt so much as if I were praying with every cell of my body.

One of the most cogent approaches to the integration of erotic and spiritual life that I’ve encountered is the second in a series of recorded lectures by Michael B. Kelly entitled The Erotic Contemplative: Reflections on the Spiritual Journey of the Gay/Lesbian Christian. (You’ll find another appreciation of the power of his work at At the heart of what he has to say, he draws a vivid and fruitful analogy to a great river that divides along its course into two streams, the erotic and the spiritual. We perceive these as separate energies in our lives, he suggests, until through deepening experience we begin to swim back upstream towards their shared Source. The further we travel thus along either of these streams, the more fully we intuit its proximity to the other, until their intermingling rivulets begin to impart an increasingly intense sense of their ultimate common origin in the inexhaustible waters of uncreated Life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fragments of the Self

Drama queen that I am, I’ll say this: collage saved my life.

Six years ago, when I was up to my monkey mind in unresolved grief–over my mother's death, over the collapse of a relationship I'd expected would continue the rest of my life–I opened my friend Sara Norquay’s e-mail. Packing up for a stay in Paris, she made her modest proposal: I'll send you the first sentence of a story. Illustrate it, she said; then send me the next line. You won't see my pages. I won't see yours. The words we'll share in common. At the end, we'll find ourselves in the bargain we've struck with each other.

Great, I thought. Now I’m an illustrator who can't draw for shit. I'm in, I said. Hit me. Sara threw me a line. It became thread through the labyrinth, clothesline enough to hang myself with, fragments shored against my ruin, an unfamiliar garden long seen but known for the first time.

As I struggled to make Sara’s words mine, I sat with a miscellaneous pile of scraps: haiku my ex-partner and I had written for each other on paper napkins in the teahouse of a Japanese garden. Banknotes in European currencies no longer accepted as legal tender. A wasp’s nest collected on the campus where I teach. Playbills and invitations to exhibitions. Notecards I’d received. The wings of moths. Ticket stubs for Götterdämmerung. My own sketches, now cannibalized as raw material for this new project. A tourist map of Venice. A page torn from Remembrance of Things Past, partially burnt as the paper in which I’d rolled a joint.

The private associations of all these materials jostled with what they could possibly mean to anyone else. I found the freedom to lay these shards of memory out on paper precisely because they were neither wholly part of me nor wholly separate. Veiled safely in enigma, I spilled my guts.

Who wrestled with whose angel? Over the course of twenty images, I became Narcissus at his well; Icarus at take-off; Orpheus in the Underworld; shaman; fool; slut; Destroyer of Illusion; Brunhilde at the pyre; Blake’s tyger in the forest.

Collage is a natural medium of expression for a self always in process, always gleaning fragments from the treasure-house of experience, always asking, “What do I do with this?” Think of your deepest self as a sheet of flawless paper: perfect, receptive, awaiting transformation. Your experiences are the materials that you're given. Every day, you are the artist; every day, you are the work of the Artist. To sit with a sheet of paper and the scraps of your life, the images that lie to hand; to wait patiently until they’re ready to arrange themselves; to enter into a dialogue with what’s emerged and then to move it further along: this is a point where the material world can rub up against the evidence of things not seen.

My collaboration with Sara, “Mouffetard’s Week: An Unfamiliar Garden,” will be on display at Sage Café in Toronto during the month of September. Meanwhile, next week I head to Easton Mountain’s Gay Spirit Camp to lead two collage workshops, along with three on Queer Midrash as a response to Judeo-Christian Scripture.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Amagansett to Provincetown

With the rising tide
men swarm the estuary:
August light falling.

Fallen in the sand,
slate-gray and effulgent white,
this gull dead four days,
and still the feathers pristine,
the wing still calligraphic.

The sunlit deck. Far off,
flash of black like a crow's wing
from his eyes and beard.

Three men embracing
waste-deep in opalescence,
radiance eclipsed
against the angled light's flash:
their whisper lost in the surf.

Mirrored at low tide,
two men, their children, a dog
tread no land in sight.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.