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.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.