Posts Tagged spirituality
Mary Magdalen as a Sex Positive Therapist: What Catholic Women Can Learn from the Most Misunderstood Figure in the New Testament
TweetOne of the mystifying aspects of my studying the US mainstream feminist movement has been the “sex positive” feminists. In my cursory reading of it (I nearly exclusively read authors on women of color feminism and poetry), my general understanding of it comes from the 1980s Sex Pos movement which came as a – somewhat – reactive response to the anti-pornography feminism that sprung out in the 70s, which placed pornography at the center of the women’s movement. It claimed, among many other facets of women’s rights, that true freedom was directly related to sexual freedom and choice.
In more modern and nuanced definitions, I’ve read more blogs and articles that sex-positivity is more of an umbrella to hold theories, prompts, and loose philosophies around ideas of desire, consent, gender, and sexual choices.
Even with the updated work on sex positivity, I was always confused by the phrase “Sex Positive.” It never really occurred to me to identify as a sex positive feminist because the title itself seemed to suggest that most people think of sex as negative. I never thought of sex as “bad.” Sure, I grew up in a more conservative Catholic Filipino culture, but as a Filipino American, I came to understand sexuality through books, friends, and sneaking a peak during the “shut your eyes!” moments in the movies like Top Gun, Ghost, and Dirty Dancing. (RIP gorgeous phenom Patrick Swayze.)
Catholics and sexuality. Er, um. A-hem. That’s not exactly our forte. Despite the rigid lines around Catholic sexuality, I grew my own sense of what it is, was, and what I wanted it to look like for myself. So, identifying as “SEX POSITIVE!” seemed odd, to say the least. Like, why don’t I go around saying I’m a FILIPINO POSITIVE feminist? Eh, that seems a bit awkward. And redundant.
Lately, though, the more I read and listen to Catholic news surrounding sexuality, I can certainly see why the term SEX POSITIVE is necessary. There is a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and silence when it comes to sex, sexual development, and gender for Catholic women. (Understatement of the year…)
Just last night, I taught a class on Mary Magdalen, a controversial and rather mysterious figure in the New Testament. It was astounding to see how people were impacted by her. It appeared, though, that everyone’s impression of Mary depended on how she was presented either in Catholic schools or by parents. Last night, one woman, full of emotion, professed her undying love for Mary Magdalen. Another identified her as, “the whore* of the bible.” People were all over the place and it’s no wonder. But, the one thing that they all had in common was that their reactions were strong. No one had a lukewarm impression.
Even in history, her identity is somewhat obscure. Her identity was conflated with so many other biblical women figures whose sins were deemed of the sexual nature. She was an adulteress about to stoned. She was the woman with the alabaster jar. She was Mary of Bethany who renounced sin and turned her life to Christ. She was the woman who cleaned Jesus feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair. But, in two gospels, she is simply referred to as one Jesus cured of severe illness; one who Jesus drove seven demons out. And “demons” at that time, were a way for folks to explain the presence of sin and suffering in the world. It’s not how we think of it when we think “demon.” (Read: head spinning from the Exorcist)
Mary Magdalene quite possibly was a regular, common person in the time of Christ who was healed of her illness and went forward in her life to eventually become the only witness to all of the most significant events in the last days of Jesus’ life. She was there at the crucifixion (John places her at the foot of the cross). She was there at the burial, and then she was the first witness. Pretty important stuff.
Since her historical identity is so supremely tied to the renunciation of sexuality and fornication, it seems odd to use her to expound Catholic feminism, but I think she’s the perfect muse.
Some theologians speculate (given the fragmented stories from the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip, and Mary), Mary possessed inner vision. She possessed sophia, the enlightened Wisdom, which the Apostles sought. It was with this inner vision that she led the women followers of Christ, supported Jesus in his ministry, and, consequently, became the first person to see the most famous miracle in human history: the resurrection of the Human body.
I surmise, two thousand and twelve years later, that it’s mainstream feminism’s lack of inner vision that inhibits it from truly leading a movement that sustains itself on principles of growth, altruism, and liberation. Much sex positive feminism equates liberation with liberation of the body and while I agree to some extent that one must have the rights and freedoms of body to feel and express empowerment, it is not just the liberation of the body and sexual relationship that equates to liberation for all. Perhaps sex positive feminists posit the body as the foundation for which all other human rights lie because without that basic acknowledgement, no other progress can be made. I think the body is a critical point to begin, but it’s limiting to centralize the body and sex (as defined by heteronormative mainstream feminists) for a movement claiming liberation for all persons. I do think, though, that the sex positive movement can teach a think or two to Catholic women and I think Mary Magdalen is the crux for that argument. A nuanced version of Mary Magdalen – as a woman who may or may not have been a sexual prowess – can lead some Catholic women to a more sex positive state of being.
So many Catholics get bogged down with wondering who and what Mary was that they forget she became one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, follower of Jesus Christ. And her ability to be visionary, her ability to act with radical love in a time of great chaos and persecution is the most incredible feminist lesson I can take from her life. If Mary Magdalen as the visionary leader of great Wisdom were to lead Catholic women in sex positive living, I believe she would begin with helping women trace the roots of female shame.
It was Pope St. Gregory the Great who officially announced Mary Magdalen as umbrella for sexually related female sins and labeled her as a prostitute. She became the poster child of regained spiritual and bodily virginity. In a time where celibacy and abstaining were pressed upon Catholics, creating a female figure who professed a sex-free life was beneficial. Mary Magdalen was the bearer of the scarlet letter long before Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about hypocrisy and societal humiliation. The problem for Catholic women is that while Hester Prynne was fictitious, Mary Magdalen – and her pseudo identity as a purified Eve – was real. Very real. And Catholic girls were taught to hate the “whore of the bible.” Thus, for many Catholic girls, guilt was born just as they hit puberty and boobs and hair started to grow. The relationship between sexual acts and Mary Magdalen is still very real. Her name has been proliferated through everything from non profits helping “save” girls from prostitution and brothel houses.
The good news is that the church officially stated that Mary Magdalen was indeed ONE person in the great year of 1969. Yes. You read that correctly. That tiny detail – Mary Magdalen was only one person and probably not a prostitute – was clarified just forty three years ago. While the Catholic Church can take a over a century to clear up a case of sexual mis-teaching, Catholics don’t have that kind of luxury to spend their lives in judgement and unnecessary guilt, trapped in false images and notions of sexuality promiscuity.
So what are we to learn from Mary Magdalen about being a sex positive Catholic feminist?
It would behoove us to start with courage. It would behoove us to stop seeing gender as a binary dividing line of battle. If she had the means, I would hypothesize that Mary wouldn’t have wanted to be separated into women and men traveling groups in the Jesus movement. I think she would have liked to see community coming together, not traveling with lines of power and separatism. I think she would want us to recognize our brothers and sisters who do not identify as brothers and sisters, those who identify as gender non conforming, or as trans, asexual, or simply unknown. Not everything is about boxes of identity, as her own complex history shows us. I believe we could also couple our courage with honesty. Honesty about who we are, who we want to be with, and when we’ve had enough. I believe that Catholics have spent so much of their lives hoping they’re on the “right” side of faith, they fail to truly know what they themselves want out of life, out of relationship, out of sex, and of God.
Desire is so heavily sided to mean “sex” that we forget that simple pleasures – sensuality – is a brightly starred cousin of sexuality. We forget that pleasure can be expressed in countless ways of touch, speaking, and exploration. When did it become a sin to be overwhelmed with desire for another person? What we DO with that desire is another conversation, but the allowance of desire in our lives deepens not taints our humanity.
Mostly, though, I believe Mary Magdalen would be worried less about what the mostly white men with robes on think about contraception, and more about what we truly believe in our hearts about our bodies, our sexual expressions, our ability to accept and be desired and desirable. I believe that Mary would have us reflect more about sexuality as spirituality, a gift that we alone can cultivate and question in the holiest ground we know: our conscience. And when we choose to share it, we do so with those who walk respectfully, maturely, and passionately on our ground.
*I take personal issue with the word “whore” and use it only in quotes to accurately reflect the rhetoric used. ”Whore” is often used to shame women and female identified sexuality. There is no equivalent for non-female, non-woman identified persons (e.g. “male-whore”) and “whore’ is typically used in pop culture to pejoratively refer to women who have a lot of sex. It also feeds the killer double standard facing most US female and girl/woman identified teens who are given options to either abstain (pro-abstinence) or dare to express themselves sexually and risk being labeled as such.
TweetIt’s well past 9pm and I’m on the internet.
I have not been able to keep off the internet as I resolved this Lent.
In both success and failure there is always a lesson.
These are my lessons thus far from going 0-2 in my Lenten vows:
1) How we unwind at night is not to be messed with.
How was I supposed to know I got so much relaxation from playing Words with Friends? After a long day’s work and chasing Isaiah around, and cooking, and cleaning, and driving, and thinking, and counseling, and brainstorming, and exercising, and rescheduling, and and and…
the last thing I feel like doing is depriving myself from something that helps me wind down.
2) Lent isn’t always about changing, but deepening.
The point of our Lenten vows are not to just simply “sacrifice” so we feel closer to God, it’s about transformation and conversion. My favorite Lenten hymn has a line, “return to me with all your heart…” Is the internet really going to make a dent in that? How can I deepen my relationship with God? One way I deepen is through thinking, and, right now, the internet is an easy tool to find articles, provide answers, and read inspiring perspectives from scholars, theologians, and deep thinkers within minutes of research. I don’t WANT to give that up.
3) I’m too damn tired at 9pm to push myself.
Wednesdays are known as Pushday. It’s the day I have a million things to do before I go to bed and each Wednesday night, I am so tired, I can barely take my boots off. I collapse on the couch, steal a handful of cheerios or whatever Isaiah has manage to sneak out for a night snack before I pass out with my work clothes still on. I don’t feel like fighting.
And if Lent is about deepening, is it something that should be further exhausting me? Yes it should require effort, but it should also be something meaningful and transformative.
I may take the weekend to rethink all of this.
Growing closer to God isn’t as easy as people think. It’s like how do you show great appreciation for the air you breathe? It feels almost impossible to create metaphor, symbol, or action that adequately describes our relationship to it.
Where does one begin?
I’ve got 38 more days to crack this.
TweetNick and I are on a private weekend getaway and we’re resting up before we go out on the town.
For years I got flack and ridicule because I wanted to see Miami Beach. I had the impression that unless you’re 21 years old and looking for club hopping, music thumping nights, it’s not really the place to be.
But your heart wants what it wants.
And I wanted to see Miami.
Just like that, years of want came to an end. Nick surprised me with an early Valentine’s Day and birthday gift – a long weekend to Miami Beach. While Isaiah frolics with his grandparents, he and I had the opportunity to travel together – alone – for no other purpose than to relax and be together for the first time in YEARS. And, oh, it’s amazing.
A change in geography can save your soul. Even though it’s been one of the warmest winters in Ohio’s history books, it’s still winter and entrapping. Gray. Cabin fever. NO VIBRANT COLOR. No human movement outside. It can take its toll. And here we are, with a simple plane ticket and openness to do “whatever” we find ourselves walking in near 80 degree weather, with small colds from the temperature change, down Espanola Way deciding whether to try the Brazilian tapas restaurant or give the Cuban restaurant a whirl.
A smile as big as the shore is on my face as I write this.
And to add to this gorgeous little nook of a weekend, I’ve begun Paulo Coehlo’s latest book, “Aleph.” To put it mildly, it is PRECISELY where I am right now: in a spiritual struggle for identity and clarity. I had no idea what the book was about, but I had to put the book down after the second page, stare at the front cover and converse with Nick about the possibility that I read the book before because it was describing my life with a frightening accuracy. And it’s fiction. Since it just came out, I came to the reality that it was not de ja vu, and instead something mystical that drove me to pick up this book and take comfort and challenge from the pages fraught with spiritual crisis.
As a minister, it’s difficult to articulate what spiritual struggle looks like. So often I am asked questions about faith that seek ANSWERS when faith itself is about struggle, unknowing, and unlearning. Faith is about leaping, all the time, from mountain top to the next mountain top, until we are comfortable with the air. The problem is our bodies are made for the concrete ground and we never, ever get used to the air beneath our feet when they need ground to feel progress and movement. I struggle not with God, but with all the aspects of human faith, human frailty, and leadership. Decisions on how to move forward in faith are some of the most frustrating and consuming questions one can ask.
Religion matters to me and it’s never been black and white. It is marred with history and sin, wars and oppression. The more I evolve as a mature person of faith, the harder it becomes to understand what I am about since it’s always evolving.
This trip, unexpectedly has become an unexpected but welcome place to sit with that uncertainty. As a minister for others, it’s never about MY faith, or MY questions. I’m fairly transparent and let others know what my journey is, but it’s not really appropriate to centralize my own anything when serving others. A routine of serving others can create distance between me and my own spirituality. I can’t remember the last time I sat with my own self and just let myself listen to what came up. I sit at work and wonder about what I should say or lecture about to and for others, but that’s hardly the same as cultivating my own relationship with God.
Nick and I often talk about God, heaven, and take our best shots at hypothesizing the greatest philosophical question of all time, as ageless as the sky: Why are we here?
And it’s funny that we’re doing it here in Miami Beach, surrounding by loud music, glitzy tank tops, and strong cologne. But beyond those details lays a seagreen ocean of renewal and promise, welcoming me to a place I’ve dreamed about for many years. It has not disappointed.
Bienvenido a Miami.
TweetComing up in this Sunday’s first reading…A few reflective thoughts…
I am the LORD and there is no other,there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun
people may know that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other
Most active Catholics can tell you that the first of the ten commandment: I am the Lord, your God. You shall have no other gods besides me. But the breakdown of that commandment can be much more rich and life-giving with a bit of reflection.
With our human minds, we could reason that God commands us to worship Him alone because, in worshipping other things or false gods, we commit idolatry and fail to give praise to the true Creator of all living things. But, remember a critical point: God doesn’t need us or our praise to exist. It’s the other way around: we need Him. Why would God give such a commandment?
Perhaps this “commandment” is less about God wanting to be the center of our lives for the sake of being in the center and more about God wanting to save us time and energy on what is not everlasting. What you chase in this life reveals what you hold most dear. Even with good intentions – for example, seeking a higher paying job to provide for your family – our goals can quickly transform into practices all too similar to worshipping the golden calf.
It is all to convenient to relinquish our moments, days, and lives to what we FEEL is most important instead of what we know is the most important. What is on your mind that moves God from center to margin? God doesn’t want you to ignore what is in your heart, or what’s troubling your mind. God wants us to bring it forward – embracing whatever it is – and give it to Him. Take the next step in your faith and when something strikes a match against your heart, instead of feeding the flame with attention, worry, and anxiety, extinguish it with acceptance and faith that God has put the tools in your life to manage or resolve the distraction. And then, knowing you have done all that you possibly can, be at peace.
TweetThere are many things I don’t blog about.
For as much as I write about “my life” there are certain aspects that I keep offline and in the confines of my home. One of them is my work offline, my work as a minister for a Catholic church. It’s odd. For as much as I love my work, for as much strength and insight I get as a minister, it’s very difficult for me to openly write about it.
Some of that changed this past week though.
Nick and I job share one position. He oversees all community outreach programs and non profits organizations, logistics of our trips to El Salvador and any service work programs. I oversee adult faith formation, spirituality groups, education classes, and women’s issues. It’s a healthy job, one that allow flexibility so we can be hands on parents with Isaiah as he grows up in the context of faith and relationship with other kids of all ethnicities, class, language, background, and race.
One of the things Nick and truly value about our position is the gift of community. For years – from Cincinnati, to Boston, to everywhere in between – we talked about community, how to build it, how to sustain it, how to define and identify it. Community. It changes throughout our life, but it rarely alters in its necessity. For the three years we have been in Cleveland, we have found and built a community here. It astounds me how in three years so many attachments can be made, but then again, prior to this move to Cleveland, I’ve never lived in one place for more than one year. From 18 years old to 29 years old, my residencies changed every year. Community, indeed, grows with soil and staying planted. We haven’t uprooted ourselves and have been overwhelmed by the gifts of community.
Being a part of community, though, comes with high risks of disappointment and heartbreak. In six days, I attended three funerals. The father of dear friend died, the brother of a co-worker passed from cancer, and the third, an active parishioner – wife and mother – suddenly died following the previous two. Three funerals. Three individuals whom I did not know well, but by association feel like were part of my family. I was in touch or close to family members of the deceased and to witness their pain, sometimes so raw I had to look away, caused my soul to ache. What people leave behind – love, brokenness, confusion, chaos, anger – avalanches the unsuspecting families and their pain becomes palpable. In my palm, I could almost close my fingers around the now motherless son standing by his mother’s casket.
I sat there, an observer, removed in some ways, but somehow more emotionally engaged at that point than any other point I could remember in recent history. It was then, at the third funeral for a young mother, after I questioned why I was so affected by her passing, that the definition of community revealed itself to me. Without word, without explanation, without voice, community revealed itself in the breaking of my own heart for a woman I knew but never exchanged much more than a few conversations, a handful of greeting nods, and group social moments. My heart broke – broke into handfuls – for this family who I had grown to know and care for to suffer such a devastating loss.
Funerals, Catholic funerals specifically, can be the most clarifying hours for believers. Nick and I talk about this often. We watch with regularity the glory of baptism and the darkness of death, and the range of human emotion is confounding and stimulating. The questions of life that we seem so obsessed with – career, financial security, relationship status, health – quiet during funeral masses. The only thing I really hear is a whispering voice, urgent but not wild, repeatedly asking, “What matters to you most?”
You take nothing with you. None of this. Not the furniture or the cars, the roses or the quilts, the letters or the journals, the diplomas or the scarves — nothing. We take nothing with us except what we carry in our hearts. And those don’t have physical hands, it has memory.
Death seeped into my life three times this week and I sat and watched it settle into the lives of three families, some with holes so large I wonder how God can repair them. And then I felt it myself, pain that did not belong to me morph into a dagger so big and sharp that it dug itself a hole in my own heart as well.
But I guess that’s one of the most profound lessons of community: to let my heart be broken with what breaks someone else.
TweetIn graduate school, I took a class called, “The Spirituality of the Body.”
It was an intense course, and took on the questions of life. The kinds of questions that are so deep, so mysterious that most people gloss over them in regular conversation. Or, in the discomfort with the unknown, find a short-fit answer and tuck it into their packets, satisfied to have to no longer struggle over the unanswerable questions of body and life. It seemed fitting that an entire academic course could be devoted to tackling such formidable questions.
There was a particular class that stands out in my mind that addressed the issue of mental disability. Specifically, we looked at mental retardation, individuals whose brain growth was either stunted or limited in its capacity. The class was confronted with a question: In the context of Catholic faith, how do you explain why some people are born with mental retardation?
It started a discussion that spanned nearly two weeks of class.
We tackled the answers that were passed down from other generations:
There was a sin somewhere in the family line and this is a direct result of that act of disobedience.
There are only certain types of people and families that can take care of someone with special needs and that is why that certain family was hand-picked by God to take care of “God’s special children.”
People with mental retardation serve as a reminder to those who are “normal,” that we are blessed and graced by God, and we should be grateful for those blessings.
People with mental retardation have special struggles in this life because they chose this path before they were born.
Each one was carefully considered at the heart of its meaning and intention and each one was eventually struck down.
It was then that the professor decided to let us know her thoughts. And even though she had finished her graduate work and dissertation at Harvard and taught some of the most distinguished theology on the planet, she offered a very simple reasoning, “Perhaps this is the regulation of life. We are not normal. They are not special. Nor are any people with special circumstances that require extra care for basic function. Perhaps this is the natural course of life. Whatever or whomever life comes from, this is the churning of it. It’s a part of life. There’s nothing to figure out. There is no why. This is – we all are – what life produces.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot: the natural course of life and how much value and preservation we put into assuring “normal” people in our births and pregnancies and realities. Over the weekend, a close friend V* shared a recent miscarriage from a few months ago. Even though it’d been a few months, even though she had a healthy son, even though she was pregnant again, her and her partner’s eyes filled as they told us the pain and question of what that miscarriage brought them. The heartbeat of new life and possibility simply stopped beating, with no explanation.
“There’s nothing to say,” V* told me. “There’s no consolation, no words, nothing. There’s nothing you can do or say. All I know is that life is so incredibly fragile and the line that separates life from death is very, very thin.”
She went on to tell me what doctors told her about miscarriage: it happens all the time. It’s a natural course of the body. It’s what the body does. It can produce life and sometimes only sustain it for a short period of time. It’s a mystery yes, but is it uncommon, no. The words “natural” “this is what happens” “normal functioning” were used. And while that did not comfort my friends much, it did ring bells of familiarity in my head.
It reminded me of, “The Spirituality of the Body,” and how some of the basic questions of life have no answers and our acceptance or refusal to accept the normality of pain, suffering, death, passing, illness, is entirely up to us when determining our realities. The more we accept, the more peace we find. The more we insist on artificial and superficial definitions of normal, functioning, healthy, productive, worthiness – the more disruption we’ll find in our spiritual lives.
The more we prize able-bodied, traditionally educated minds on two walking, shapely legs, the more we lose in our ability to see life – in its perfection – at every stage and age and state. Life.
I see my son differently because of this reasoning. I don’t see children as small things waiting to grow up. I see them perfectly whole and acceptable as they are. Every inch precious and fitting in the time they are born and in whatever step they are developmentally. When they cry, it’s from a place as real as my need to breathe and feel love. When they laugh, it’s every bit as joyful as when I slap my couch with loud squeals and giggles.
Children are not adult in waiting. They are complete as is, gifts today as they were yesterday and the day before that.
My cousin who is diagnosed with profound mental retardation is not part of a man. Or a sad story. He’s a 28 year old man.
I once had a mentor who said, “Life is sweet as it is short. Life is fine as it is fleeting.”
Like one sip of port wine. Like a faceful of an August breeze.
The longer you wait to accept life as is – as fair and unfair, however long or brief that time is, in whatever condition it is birthed – the more time you spend in the land of wishes and worry, and less in the world of learning and compassion.