From Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God
It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)
For Christians, Paul announces to the Philippians, the life of faith expresses God’s good pleasure. Writing to the community in Ephesus, Paul returns to this conviction: God’s plan of salvation is being carried out “according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9) The Hebrew prophets, too, gave testimony to divine pleasure: God’s word, like the rain that waters the fields, “will not return to God unfulfilled, before having carried out God’s good pleasure.” (Isaiah 55:11) But pleasure, especially sensual pleasure, has been a stumbling block for many Christians.
The place of pleasure in our spiritual lives is influenced by our starting point. If the spiritual journey begins at the foot of the cross, we honor the redemptive significance of suffering as it has been transformed by Jesus’s life and death. From this vantage point, suffering is a privileged pathway to holiness. Christians will soberly seek salvation in the midst of the sinful world. On such a search there is neither time nor place for the dangerous delights of sensual pleasure.
But if our spiritual journey begins with creation, as does the Bible itself, pleasure appears in a different light. God’s creation, wounded as it is by violence and evil, still sparkles with beauty. Extravagant colors, enchanting sounds, and fragrant aromas delight us, reinforcing God’s own judgment that “it is good.” The simple testimony of our senses convinces us that we are designed for pleasure. From this alternate vantage point, pleasure appears less as a scandal and more as a sacrament.
But the puzzle of pleasure endures. Pleasure’s intimate association with addiction and violence undermines our confidence. Pleasure’s gifts – the fragile delights of our senses, the passion we share in sexual love – soon seem suspect. How does sensual pleasure find its honorable place in Christian spirituality? Can pleasure serve as pathway to a passionate God?
Our religious ancestors were keenly aware of pleasure’s temptations. Living in the midst of the hedonism and decadence of the Roman Empire, early Christians struggled to affirm the goodness of the body and its sensual delights. In the fourth century, Augustine described his concern about the pleasures of food. “In eating, a snare of concupiscence is laid for me in that very process, for the passage itself is pleasurable. In eating and drinking, a dangerous pleasure makes itself my companion.”
Two hundred years before Augustine, Clement of Alexandria composed a rule to guide the Christian community in North Africa. Acutely aware of the abusive sexual practices rampant in the public baths, Clement advised that Christians might bathe for purposes of hygiene, but not for pleasure. Puzzled by the problem of pleasure, Clement could not call on the experience that many of us cherish today: the sensual delight of a hot bath at the end of a long day of work or worry. As warm water loosens aching muscles, prayer springs spontaneously to our lips: “Thank you, Lord. Thank you.” Such a movement from pleasure to prayer was alien to many of our religious ancestors. But for many Christians today, this heritage of suspicion stands at odds with personal experience.
GENUINE PLEASURE MAKES US PRESENT
What then are we to make of pleasure? What gift does sensual enjoyment bring to the journey of faith? Perhaps the most important gift of pleasure is also the most humble: pleasure makes us present. We live our days distracted by both the past and the future. Past failures and recent mistakes plague us with guilt; challenges await in the coming weeks, making us anxious. Little energy is left simply to be present now. Often it is pleasure that bring us back into the here-and-now, making us present again to our lives.
Personal examples may help. A colleague shared with us this story:
Several years ago a friend gave me a gift, arranging for me to receive a massage from a staff member at his health club. One wintry day, I drove out to the facility with some trepidation. The establishment was certainly reputable, but I still had some misgivings about disrobing and giving over my body to unknown hands. I was introduced to the massage therapist – Ivan – and learned that he had only recently arrived from Russia. Apprehension grew into panic as I conjured up memories of Ivan the Terrible! Almost immediately I noticed that Ivan’s wrists appeared thicker than my biceps. But, when his hands began to work the taut muscles of my neck and shoulders, my fear began to give way to pleasure. As his hands kneaded my left arm, its tendons and muscles began to release. Suddenly I became aware of my arm, as I had never been aware of it before. This unnoticed part of my anatomy, faithful servant by my side for more than half a century, was for the first time being acknowledged and honored. The pleasure of this respectful message startled me into sudden recognition – now I was present to my arm, conscious of it and grateful for it.
Or recall the taste of a truly delicious peach – not the standard supermarket variety, protected by preservatives to assure a six-month shelf life, but a peach from a small organic farm rushed for sale to the local farmer’s market. Holding the peach, you feel its slightly resilient firmness. Biting through the skin, sweet juices flood your mouth. So this is what a real peach tastes like! In this moment, your attention is riveted in this delight. The pleasure makes you present.
Or, driving home after a busy day at work, you turn a corner that gives a sudden view of the western sky. This route is familiar territory, and usually you spend the time reworking the day’s affairs or planning the evening’s events. Today, the sunset grabs your attention, as you are confronted by an array of vivid colors splashed across the horizon. Pulling to the side of the road, you sit for several moments, fully present to this dazzling display. No space here for regret, no call for advance planning – simply presence. The simple pleasures of touch and taste and sight do not remove us from the world but rather intensify our awareness of it.
A counter-example reinforces the link between pleasure and presence. A friend telephones you one morning, inviting you to stop by her apartment that day briefly for a quick lunch. Having discovered a new soup recipe, she has spent several hours preparing the vegetables, simmering the stock, and adding herbs. It has been weeks since the two of you have had any time together; accepting her invitation will accomplish two goals – lunch and conversation. So, reluctant at first (remembering your hectic schedule), you promise to join her around noon. But your eleven o’clock meeting runs way too long. When it’s finally finished, you rush over to your friend’s apartment. You apologize for arriving so late and, aware of the work waiting for you at the office, you hurriedly consume the meal your friend has set out. As you are preparing to leave, she asks: “How was the soup?” For a moment you panic: The soup? The soup? Then your well-honed social skills kick in: “The soup –” you exclaim, “yes, the soup! It was wonderful, delicious. I loved the soup!”
To tell the truth, of course, you hardly tasted the soup. As you sat at your friend’s table, your mind was far away. The morning meeting still concerned you and you were anxious about the afternoon’s work. The pleasure of the soup, your friend’s special gift, was meant to nourish you and draw you into her presence. But distraction defeated the pleasure. You simply were not “there.”
The link between pleasure and presence serves as a reminder to us: Christian spirituality is about presence. We struggle to be present to God’s gifts and invitations. We long to be more present to our friends and loved ones, mindful of how easily we neglect them and take them for granted. We aspire to be more alert to our inner spirit, with its fragile hopes and frequent misgivings. Spirituality invites us to be fully alive; being fully alive involves becoming more available, more present – to ourselves, to others, to the Spirit’s action in God’s world.
The sacramental rituals of the Christian tradition – involving bread and wine, incense and oil, colorful clothes and sensuous sounds – prompt our awareness of God’s presence. The sacraments use our senses to bring us in contact with this elusive mystery. In solemnity and celebration, religious rituals proclaim that the sensual and the spiritual were made for each other. Pleasure is the medium; presence is the goal.
GIFTS OF GENUINE PLEASURE
Genuine pleasure nourishes us. Superficial delights can serve as distractions from the labor and boredom of life. But the pleasures of sight and taste and touch are designed for much more. Consider a meal shared with friends or family to celebrate a birthday or anniversary or homecoming. This is no fast-food event. Instead we take time to enjoy each other’s company. The pleasure of this meal nourishes us far beyond the calories consumed. When we go too long without such celebrations, our spirits begin to starve.
If the communion of shared meals nurtures us, so too does touch. Physical contact – a comforting embrace, a playful cuddle, a gentle caress – heals our spirit. Novelist Saul Bellows describes a man who goes to the barbershop weekly, not because his hair has grown too long, but because he needs to be touched. Research on premature infants has found that daily exposure to a parent’s skin – suckling at the mother’s breast or lying on the father’s bare chest – enhances the child’s physical growth.
Caring touch nourishes and nurtures us. But in American culture today we are keenly aware that touch can be abused. Sexual molestation and pedophilia have been epidemic in Christian churches and elsewhere. As ministers and teachers and counselors, we continue to learn about the boundaries between healthy touch and manipulative intrusions into others’ lives. But with today’s heightened sensitivity, many caregivers lament that they no longer dare to hug a distressed person, lest this caring gesture be misinterpreted. Anglican priest Jim Cotter writes of the discipline that must protect our touches: “To discern when and how to touch and be touched is an ascetical task: to live by the Spirit is neither not to touch, so hating the flesh, nor to touch indiscriminately, which takes no account of the other.”
Recognizing the signs of genuine pleasure helps resolve some of it ambiguity. If pleasure simply distracts without making us more present to our lives, it if tightens our grasp rather than opening us in generosity, if it diminishes us or others rather than strengthening our spirit, then such pleasure may be a moving away from more abundant life.
A second gift of pleasure is gratitude, which flows easily into generosity. At a coffee break in the midst of a long conference, a friend rubs your tense shoulders. “Thank you, thank you!” you respond. And almost spontaneously you are eager to return the favor: “Let me rub your back, too.”
This dynamic describes the pleasure of a delicious peach, as well. First I enjoy the peach myself, for the pleasure of its taste. Then I extend my hand to you, wanting to share this delight: “Taste this peach!” The pleasure itself makes me generous. Sharing this sensual delight would seem to subtract from my joy, but it does not diminish my pleasure. In fact, sharing introduces a deeper delight. Witnessing your enjoyment magnifies my pleasure. Here we learn one of life’s happiest lessons: Sharing pleasure can be richer and more gratifying than experiencing pleasure alone.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis distinguishes between two important experiences of delight: pleasures of need and pleasures of appreciation. Need-pleasures, Lewis suggests, are urgent and instinctual; they impel us to quick satisfaction. Working several hours under a hot sun, for example, we experience a sharp desire for water. As we quench our thirst, we feel a deep satisfaction and our need is quickly extinguished. This experience of pleasure focuses on very specific biological needs. The need is so rapidly satisfied that we speak of it in the past tense – “That was really good!”
Pleasures of appreciation are less urgent and less instinctual. They have to do with satisfactions of the mind and spirit. An example is the pleasure we experience when we come upon a field of wild flowers. The profusion of colors and their gentle movement in the breeze arouse our delight. As we gaze at this sight, another kind of longing stirs us, one not so quickly sated. We linger over this pleasure, and savoring the experience does not diminish our interest. Our mood is not relief but gratitude. We tend to describe this pleasure in the present tense: “How good it is to be here!”
Sexual pleasure encompasses both need and appreciation. Neglecting this complexity, we diminish sexuality and imperil its pleasure. If we focus on sex as instinctual arousal, the goal is speedy relief. As with the thirst on a hot day, genital arousal can be quickly satisfied. The pleasure comes through physical stimulation, not the presence of a lover. But this release leaves us gratified rather than grateful.
The sex drive is a profound biological reality, the basis of our survival as a species. Nevertheless, the need pleasure is enriched in the pleasure of appreciation, the special delight that stirs in the presence of our lover. In a pleasure akin to wonder, we recognize that this is not just someone with whom to have sex. Erotic appreciation makes us eager to explore and embrace every aspect of the person – body, ideas, values, feelings, hopes.
As our appreciation grows, we desire to give pleasure to the partner. This pleasuring – in body and in spirit – brings us great joy. When sex involves more than satisfying a biological need, its pleasure leads us into the complex world of partnership. We learn, perhaps only after some initial awkwardness, the different rhythms and moods of sexual pleasuring between us. Honoring these differences, we find that shared pleasure deepens our life together. More at ease in letting go of control of ourselves and of the relationship, we surrender to the pleasure-giving initiative of our partner.
Erotic appreciation invites us to linger in one another’s presence. This complex pleasure emboldens us to risk a lifelong commitment and to open ourselves to new life that may be a gift of our love. Learning to receive pleasure as well as to give pleasure comes as the gift of eros.