I have seen it a hundred times, the moment during High Mass when the priest, vested in white, circumnavigates the altar, blessing it with burning hyssop or frankincense in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist. Recently, however, the beauty of this ritual took me by surprise. The mass was a funeral for a Haitian-born woman. As the priest, who was her friend, walked the perimeter of the altar, swinging the burning fragrance on a chain to the accompaniment of the organ, West Indian steel drums, and Haitian-Creole vocal Musica Sacra that fused and ascended into the apse of the church, he drooped a little: the sorrow of this wonderful priest was as palpable as his hope. My eyes watered. I choked up. My body directed my soul to the fullness of the moment and to the strength of my belief, which sometimes fades, and which I sometimes take for granted. I have been accused of being Catholic because I like the smells and bells. That's not entirely untrue. I'm a poet. Anyone who's ever read Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" knows that we have a weak spot for beauty.
But "smells and bells" are more than pageantry. They open the body so that the spirit can enter. They call our senses to the altar of the Lord. Not long ago an experience worshiping in another faith helped to clarify some of my thinking on the connection between sensuality and religion. I attended Neilah for the first time ever in the fall of 2009. I had prayed in Jewish services before but was entirely unprepared for how Neilah would make me feel. Neilah is the closing service of Yom Kippur, the Jewish "Day of Atonement." Neilah is designed to arouse a feeling of urgency. The word neilah means "locked," and those gathered in observance of Neilah move and are moved, in haste, it seemed, through a sequence of prayers that leads one to the Gates of Repentance, which are about to close -- this, as Yom Kippur comes to an end. Neilah is the last of several Yom Kippur services. I remember the service starting out slow and then quickly gaining momentum. Because the Torah is out, those gathered pray standing. The singing mounts gorgeously. Outside daylight fades. The prayer felt rapid. Sunset hovered.
I have been trying to learn a little Hebrew, and I was able to pronounce some of the prayers, but the speed left me in the dust. It seemed that in Neilah, one prays on the run. That pressure registered in my flesh, offering me a small taste of how a history of having to pray on the run might feel. I felt privileged to incorporate a tiny measure of this knowledge into my body. I happened to be seated beside a Hebrew school teacher. A few times along the way, seeing that I was trying to follow the Hebrew letters, she took pity on me and brought me "up to speed." A small group of rabbis stood in at the bima (altar). Each wore white robes and tallit (prayer shawls). They followed the prayers silently at some points and aloud at others. Nodding and bending at the knees at prescribed junctures in the texts, they "davened" at various rates. I found this sacred choreography astonishingly beautiful. I noticed at first that there was something faintly erotic about the way the boyish, middle-aged rabbi leading the service bent his knees and seemed to rock his hips as he prayed, then thought with a spark: Of course. It makes sense! But what hit like a kick in the solar plexus was the beautiful, pregnant rabbi davening at the end of the line. I generally avoid the phrase "poetry in motion," but she was just that, a living, breathing image of the merging of a beautiful body and an eternal soul, full with promise of new life, a vessel whose pristine sail was inflated with spirit headed for those Gates -- and a world made new.
The body is spent when Neilah comes to a close. I fasted this year and thus was reminded of how the flesh is never more present or more infused with God than when it is weakened. Neilah ends with closing of the gates and a fresh start. But the ironies abound. One leaves Neilah thinking hard -- about God and a bagel. Spirit and flesh. I left feeling queasy, turned inside out. My body had pointed my soul in a new direction.
To say that Roman Catholic practice is sensual is an understatement. People with little interest in God travel great distances to sit within Catholic houses of worship so as to be moved by their beauty. It is not unusual for even poor Roman Catholics to worship in architectural masterpieces, in perfumed air, as colored beams descend in streams from leaded windows. At the fore of every Catholic church in the world, one beholds an image of Jesus spread open, nearly naked on a cross. Creamy angels and a God we eat. Could a religion be more carnal, more sensual? Almost every poem St. John of the Cross wrote in praise of God reads like an erotic poem. St. Therese of Lisieux is often characterized in art as being in an orgasmic state. Eros has its place in faith and religion. Tamping it down doesn't eliminate it. Ignoring it doesn't neutralize it. Our liturgies and temples are designed to arouse us, to bring the beauty of the created world into focus. But the Magisterium clamps down, ruling by fear when it should be guiding with love.
It is inevitable that the tension between Catholic sensuality and its hierarchy's commitment to repression should give way to perversion. Why does the Catholic hierarchy devote so much ritual and design to awakening sensuality in us, only to clobber it out of out of us? How do we Catholics square naked cherubs in the Sistine Chapel with learning to bring a copy of the Yellow Pages to the high school dance in case the need to sit on a boy's lap in the car arises (so to speak)?
Why does a religion so erotically charged condemn healthy sexuality in so many ways when it is entirely possible that sexual longing and ecstasy are the closest human beings ever truly get to experiencing the kind of desire and joy we are taught to feel for God? How did sex become more sinful than holy? And if Christ is love, as we Catholics are taught, why must so many women, gay Catholics, and victims of abuse continue to live as collateral damage in the Church hierarchy's unholy war on Eros?
Because perpetuating the idea that any sex outside heterosexual marriage is a sin allows the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to ensure that Catholics continue to feel morally unfit to discern. It keeps Catholic women powerless and fecund. It keeps the priesthood a precious, over-trusted caste comprised of lonely, sometimes arrested, and, too often, not quite fully human men. What would happen if the hierarchy were to loosen its grip? Some of the sublimation, repression, and perversion might fade. The hierarchy might learn to put conscience before self-preservation. The voice of women would finally be heard. The Magisterium could begin to repent for the sin (and right the wrong) of preaching against contraception in the developing world. The Church might purge itself of the anti-Semitism that persists in poisoning the Church from within. The Church might finally have the opportunity to do meaningful penance for its sins against the victims of child rapes. The priesthood would be enriched and, possibly, healed. And the Church hierarchy would desist in preaching hatred from pulpits.
According to the Vatican, homosexuality is a disorder. In propagating bigotry among its own, the teaching authority of the Church also sends prejudice forth into the secular world. One need not look far in order to see the many faces of homophobia in Christ's name. While the Catholic Church is more polite in this than, say, the "God Hates Fags" set, the message is in many ways the same. Catholic hierarchy insists that sexually active gay Catholics are unfit to receive the sacraments, declines to sanctify gay unions, and deems all lovemaking between members of the same sex sinful. Ironically enough, gay people do a lot of the "heavy lifting" in the Church. If every gay church worker, closeted or otherwise -- music directors, nuns, priests, and lay ministers -- were to call in sick for a month, the Church as we know it would collapse, yet the hierarchy mercilessly punishes members of its Church for the transgression of being born gay.
It is reasonable to assume that at least one out of every ten Catholics is gay. Gay Catholics learn at an early age that the pope regards being gay is a disorder and teaches that without exception, that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are inherently sinful. However, the Vatican does not shun gays entirely. Nor does the Vatican exhort gay people to seek a cure for their "disorder." That Church leadership accepts the premise that gay people are born gay underscores how simultaneously heartless and expansive the Magisterium is on the matter of homosexuality. God loves gay people, according to the current doctrine, so long as they abstain from loving sexual relationships. Fortunately, many gay people are "pick-and-choose" Catholics who recognize that they, not the Vatican, are the Church. The Church has a name for this principle: we call it "discernment."
By some estimates, as many as 50 percent of Roman Catholic priests are gay. Are homosexual men called more often to the priesthood? No. Do gay men have an easier time with giving up the prospect of marriage to a woman? Obviously, yes. For a devout Catholic gay man who struggles with being homosexual, ordination can offer a lifeline. Ordination can endow him with power, prestige, and respect within the framework of the religion that taught him in boyhood (as it continues to teach now) that he has a "disorder." The priesthood releases a man from the expectation that he will live as a Catholic husband and father. Ordination can appear to render moot the sexual orientation that his pontiff views as a "disorder."
But being gay is not a disorder. Yet just as children in Catholic schools and Catechism classes are still taught that sexual purity is the greatest gift a Catholic can possibly give to God, they are taught that sexual love between members of the same sex is unholy. We learn in the Old Testament that both eating shrimp and homosexuality are abominations, yet Communion lines are filled with shrimp eaters. We know that the Jesus of The New Testament was soft on Jewish dietary laws. How do we know he was not soft on homosexuality? We don't. We know the Jesus of the New Testament said nothing about homosexuality. For all we know, Jesus of Nazareth was gay.
Some prominent Catholics have linked the preponderance of gay men in the priesthood to sex offenses perpetrated by priests, and the alacrity with which some offer up gay priests as scapegoats in this is as alarming as it is disgraceful. Thus we see Church leadership at its venal worst. So well sown are the seeds of prejudice against homosexuals in the Church that pinning the rapes of children on gay priests proves a nearly perfect strategy for shifting blame away from Catholic leadership onto gay priests and, by extension, homosexuality itself. Worse still, this analysis casts victims (children!) as consenting seducers. The glitch in this near-perfect plan is that most pedophiles are heterosexual.
Some abuse cases do fall into the murky category of sexual encounters between (older) priests and younger men -- or older teens. A priest who uses his authority to procure sex from a person old enough to consent is surely a sinner and a sleaze, but he is not necessarily a rapist. There is a reasonably clear line of demarcation in this; a child who has not reached the age of legal consent cannot lawfully consent to sex.
The rapes of the children by priests are by far the gravest evidence of the sexual dysfunction that infects the Church as a whole. Sometimes the Vatican's response to the victims of abuse by priests reminds me of Jesus's penultimate sentence from the cross: "I thirst." (John: 19). Someone reaches up from the foot of the cross to offer vinegar. The Church thirsts. And though the pontiff and his legions talk good game when it comes to love, so long as they continue to offer vinegar, it's just talk. Without the love.