Oddly, twice in the last couple weeks I have seen and mostly read two articles about ecstatic experiences arrived at through sexuality. Even odder, the author of the first one I read claims that this touching of the divine put her off sex altogether.
I didn’t read through the second one.
An odd fashion in journalism, it seems to me. Perhaps one editor read the first one, liked the subject matter and went off to find her own sufferer of sexual ecstasy.
Or perhaps it was just an editorial coincidence. Simultaneous creation, as it were.
Then, even more recently, reading a short article, a list really, over on David Virtue’s blog (Virtue Online), I noted that the reasons given for ardent churchgoers leaving the church were mostly about broken socialization. Leaving a small group. Leaving a ministry. Having a serious spat.
And so I sat. Balancing one with the other: sexual ecstasy as a means of connecting with the divine that puts people off the method of connecting with the divine; and what looks to be the main mission of a church: to get people together to do things together.
As I have matured I have learned to evaluate priests not on how they get people to group up and have fun, which many a priest does, but in how he teaches the sacraments.
How he offers the sacraments.
What meaning the sacraments have to the individual people in the pews.
All the rest, the wars between members in the altar guild, the fierce competition in the choir stalls, the displays of testosterone by vestry members, all comes off as pretty silly – and essentially meaningless – when confession is not being offered to the congregation. Or the meaning of baptism is reduced to, yes, just another social function in which all involved should be made to feel comfortable.
Or, the worst to my mind: refusing sacraments to people considered not members of the church. (To whom did Jesus refuse the sacrament of his ministry?)
I want to say that this is beside the point of what I am really writing about here, but it isn’t. Because what a church teaches affects not only the members sitting in the pews, but the community that holds that church, and further even, out into the world.
If churches are essentially turning away from putting any emphasis on the sacraments, the ones that they even acknowledge, they are turning even further away from teaching their congregants about prayer.
I listened to a course that began by trying to define what religion is. And trying is a good word for the attempt. It was awkward at best. Awkward because the teacher of the course was doing his best to bring together definitions written by very disparate writers and making it all one whole concept.
I think perhaps the awkwardness was not unplanned or unconscious. I think perhaps he was trying to make the point that defining religion is almost an impossibility. Because definitions are a bit of the absolute. They have to apply to everyone. Not that people can’t use a word in such a way that its meaning is changed or added onto. But the fundamental definition, the starting-off point, has to have a real meaning for anyone looking it up in Merriam-Webster.
So, what, this professor asks, is a meaning of religion that everyone could agree upon?
(Shrugs all around.)
In the end, for me anyway, there was a small beam of hope. There it was: the suggestion that religion is the coming together of people to explore, share, and experience the divinity of God.
(That’s my rewriting of what he said.)
I loved it.
For once, God was the center of the definition of religion, and not just as the object of belief – which puts all the responsibility on the congregant – but as the giver, the supplier of divine experiences. Which puts all the responsibility on God.
We, the members of the church, have to be there to have this experience. We have to put ourselves in the way of the experience.
We have to open ourselves up to it.
Whenever I have put forth this short-but-sweet definition of religion, either through the internet wavelengths or face-to-face with someone seemingly excited to hear what I’m about to say on the matter, the laughter in response to this assertion is so hearty I am almost spit at.
What?!?! That’s not church!
To be quite frank, I’m never all that interested in what the other person might want to pose as his definition of religion. If he’s not going to at least incorporate divine experience, if it’s out the door altogether, then what, in the end, is the use of church?
It’s all in the prayer, it seems to me.
A number of times throughout my life, when I have been praying for something deeply, or when I have been praying for something not-all-that-deeply, I have experienced a shock running through my body.
A multi-gazillion bolt of divine energy surging through me. I never “know” how the prayer I am making, the tsunami of God juice, and the outcome of the prayer all connect.
I just know I have had these experiences.
I can’t say that I enjoy them. There is some discomfort. And I always wonder if there will be affects on my body as a result of them. Negative affects. (I’ll take any positive affects. But I will fuss over the possibility of strain on my body.)
When I read about the woman who turned her back on sexuality – an experience that was once so important to her that she studied it thoroughly in order to write a book on it – I compared her story with my own experiences.
And I understood, yet again in my life, how blessed we are to have Christianity. How we can have God-connecting experiences and not be put off of God. Or prayer.
We can have a profound spiritual episode during contemplative prayer and because of the nature of Christian prayer, can fold that experience of having our awareness heightened back into our prayer practice.
I can take those zaps of prayer lightning and continue to pray. Because the grace of prayer is that that energy is there all the time. And when it is quiet and seemingly at a low level, it’s like a river where it is quiet and caressing the bank.
The times of torrent always smooth out. The rapids always end in the peace of the collecting pool below the falls.
There is always opportunity for incorporation.
Always opportunities for growth and expanded understanding.
This is why people should be coming to church. To gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing. To remind ourselves that one thing that we do with our lives is to open ourselves up to God, his energy, his grace, his wonder.
We don’t have to understand it completely; we don’t have to have the ability to articulate it.
We just have to be there.