One of the most shocking aspects of many true mystics is the use of erotic imagery in accounts of their spiritual experience. Neither Reformation Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism found this comfortable and their legacy of repressive suspicion continues within much of Western culture today. In recent times however there has rightly been a gradual rediscovery of this vital tradition.
Within Christianity this has been aided by the rise of Christian feminism which has sought to honour the long despised lives and experiences of women. This has brought about a slow but significant re-evaluation of the place of the body, touch, tenderness, desire and the sensual in spiritual expression and symbolism. In the process, the very earthy nature of most biblical experience has been highlighted, including the typically sensate character of most of Jesus' encounters with women and men, even/notably in the accounts of the Resurrection. Female mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg have also been happily 'rediscovered' and acclaimed.
What is often less prominent, perhaps because it is arguably even more subversive to patriarchal religion, is the acknowledgement of similar experience and tradition among men. This has been greatly aided by gay men's experience but is no mere contemporary novelty or confined to sexual orientation. Admittedly somewhat corralled by Neo-Platonist and ascetic concerns, it was after all Origen (the greatest of the earliest church theologians) who was the great founder of Christian erotic spiritual symbolism and it was Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monastic reformer, who was its greatest champion. More widely however it is also found, often in unacknowledged and awkward silences, in the experience of otherwise 'ordinary', heterosexual men. For me, this has always been powerfully expressed in Billy Bragg's song Tender Comrade, speaking evocatively of the anguish, vulnerability and bonds of love of otherwise very masculine men in the face of adversity. In St Luke's Toowoomba, it is similarly poignantly seen in the Warriors Chapel side window, where a struggling soldier reaches out to touch the feet of the crucified Christ. This is no denial of the toughness of God and of human conflict. It is however a pointer to the deeply intimate nature of love at the heart of all our being. For Christians, male and female, gay and straight, are called to be both lovers and transforming soldiers of Christ: tender comrades of deep intimacy.
One of the initiatives of the Toowoomba 'Model City of Peace and Harmony' project is an Australia Day event (this year held on 25 January at 4.30 pm - all welcome). Coordinated by, and held at, Pure Land Learning College, it brings together people of many different cultures, faiths and none. Usually our multi-faith events rightly have opening prayers from different traditions, said separately but received together with respect. This Australia Day I was however asked if we could say something together. The following is my attempt: a litany which, I hope, is both inclusive and meaningful...
preceded by a Welcome to Country and with different voices/representatives reading different lines: all to join in with the last line of each section
For this land and its diversity,
For her many landscapes and charms,
For her ancient peoples who have been stewards for countless generations
And for all kinds of later-comers who have played their part.
For the beauty of our seas and rivers, our hills and plains,
For all creatures who crawl, or walk, or run, or swim, or fly,
For the achievements of our ancestors
And our children’s dreams
For Australia -
We give thanks and praise today:
Many faiths, one people
For freedom to meet and be together,
For peace and harmony in our midst,
For all who preserve the life and virtues of our community
And for all artists and entrepreneurs who nurture them afresh.
For the wisdom of the ages and the enquirers of today,
For the gifts of many voices, visions and vocations,
For the splendid tapestry of our many cultures
And the joys of every heart.
For Australia -
We celebrate our nation today:
Many faiths, one people
For healing and reconciliation,
For kindness and generosity,
For open hearts to share our wealth
And for a warm welcome to migrants and refugees.
For justice and an end to poverty for all,
For a valuing of the diversity of beliefs,
For growth in mutuality
And smiles on every face.
For Australia -
We ask for grace and strength today:
Many faiths, one people
In times of joy and in times of struggle,
In stable weather and in fire, storm and flood,
In the peace we enjoy
and in conflict here and elsewhere.
In confidence and in uncertainty,
In hope and in despair,
May we face the future with love
And be a blessing to all we know and meet.
For Australia -
In which we share our lives together:
Many faiths, one people
Do you see the wood or the trees? Only a few seem capable of seeing both. My friend, and former ecumenical colleague, Glenine Hamlyn is one of these special people. She possess both a compassionate grasp of the world's crises (not for nothing has she worked in development issues) and also an acute sensitivity to the immediate and the specific. This is revealed in her art, something to which she is currently able to give more time and focus. The picture to the left (now hanging on a wall in my home) is a wonderful example. In the midst of busy Brisbane, this one Moreton Bay fig captured her attention and in it amazing detail is revealed. So many people pass by daily without really seeing it, just as we pass by so much without really seeing. An artist can thus draw us back to proper attention, not so that we lose the wood, but so that it comes alive with the intricate complexity which is true wholeness.
In what ways can we join together with others in praying and witnessing to peace? I am most thankful today to friends from Toowoomba's Pure Land Learning College for their kind work in putting together a video of our celebration of the International Day of Peace at St Luke's Toowoomba last year. It is a lovely new year's gift to receive at this time and can be viewed below (click on more). Our event took place in the context of St Luke's flower and music festival during Toowoomba's Carnival of Flowers and is just one example of how churches and others can cooperate and be hospitable to others for the sake of the wider world and our greater mutual understanding It was the third time we have held something similar at St Luke's, with each occasion being particularly special. Last year, for example, children from The Glennie School helped us by sharing their own prayers, as leaders of different faith groups in Toowomba joined together to light candles in prayer. Through videos, speeches and songs, we were reminded of how Toowoomba can be a model city for Peace and Harmony. This video compilation shares something of how Toowoomba is giving a real lead, as well as how we try to link in with other initiatives overseas. It shows how we can find times and ways to relate together without compromising out integrity and instead be enriched by one another. Indeed, for myself, in this event last year I was especially humbled by an older Sufi Muslim man from Iraq. He greeted me before the start with deep and fulsome thanks. 'This is so wonderful', he said, 'I grew up in Iraq in the shadow of the Anglican cathedral and became great friends with many there. We truly loved one another. So it is so sad to see and feel the religious hurts of Iraq today. This however is one marvellous way we can begin to reestablish sanity again.' At the end he was full of tears of joy and compassion. He grasped my hand as we exchanged the peace. 'May the peace of Christ be with you' he said. I have rarely experienced such a truly meaningful exchange of peace in a religious setting.
Mary Oliver's beautiful poem 'The Summer Day' encapsulates so much of the real challenge of a spiritual life. As she writes elsewhere, in 'Wild Geese': 'You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.' How hard it often is for us to believe, and, still more, trust and live this. We have so often allowed ideas of exile, death, sin and punishment to predominate in our psyches, rather than welcome, life, grace and forgiveness, which are so much more central and eternal. All too often even so-called rebels, rakes and critics have protested, and lived, a false dichotomy between the material and spiritual, the now and beyond, the human and divine. Mary Oliver instead calls us to attention, to the mystery of the everyday and everywhen, and to living of life in all its fullness.
The final words of the poem 'The Summer Day' have also been ringing round my consciousness for the last two and a half months: 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?' Perhaps this blog and website is but one small step for me in responding to that challenge, an expression of my own call to attention, and to expression of the mystery and meaning I glimpse and seek to live. Maybe my good soul-friend Graham is right, self-effacement can be a frustrating buried treasure. Graham introduced me to Mary Oliver's work and a wild and precious life certainly demands more. That phrase also came alive for me this weekend as I pondered two men whose funerals I had been asked to lead. One died only a year older than I am now. Like Bob Dylan's admission about Lenny Bruce, 'maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out', but he was more spiritually awake than many. Bruce Laurie was somewhat wild in several senses, but he was also precious and he lived life to the full. The other man was a Toowoomba country man of the old school but of a high intellectual calibre. His late wife Olwen was a weekly communicant in our Anglican parish but Reid was more complex, not just more shrewd but more sparing, in his spiritual commitments: perhaps his very unpretentiousness kept him from expressing publicly, or aloud, the deepest longings and experiences of his heart. He was full of life and virtues however, which shine on in his grieving children. He paid attention and seized life's opportunities and challenges, passionately but graciously. Now he rides his wild horses beyond the western sunset and into a new summer's day. He, like Bruce, would have loved to have argued and agreed with Mary Oliver's poet-forerunner Horace, drowning a beer together on the verandah (or in Bruce's case perhaps something stronger in a nightclub): Carpe Diem. May they rest in peace and rise in glory, and may we attend and let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love.
When I was younger, I spent much time in the delightful cathedral city of Lincoln, close to where I was raised. That city's great symbol is the Lincoln Imp, found today in its majestic cathedral's Angel Choir and the emblem of my, all too often wayward, childhood football team. About the Imp there are many stories. At the legend's heart however is the transformation of evil into good and the coming together of dynamic playfulness and ordered truth and beauty. Playfulness can become destructive mischief and ordered truth and beauty can become confining. Yet, when entwined in grace they are hallowed and hallowing. Maybe that is part of what John Bunyan meant in my favourite hymn. For life is not about being a hobgoblin or too pious. To be a pilgrim is to become a blessed imp, simul justus et peccator. Just as the Lincoln Imp is transformed at the top of Steep Hill, so may our wayward 'daimonic' energies be transfigured on the holy mountains of our life journeys.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.