This is post 2 of 3 entitled: "Consecrated Sexual Attraction." Read Part 1 here.
Growing up, my father and I talked a good deal about women, marriage and sex. He's a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, as likely to talk with you about flowers and fig trees as he is baseball or politics or God. In describing what it was like to remain faithful to my mother, he talked about it being rich, rewarding and the right thing to do -- but he never pulled punches.
"Just because you put a ring on your finger, it doesn't mean you stop being attracted to other women."
He was right.
It's worth stating that I'm not pathologically attracted to my female clients, and I don't size-up females that come through the door.
But, I am healthily, reasonably attracted to some of them, in this sense that my dad was talking about.
As it was for my father, the challenge is to remain faithful. In this case, to the ministerial call of Jesus Christ to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and the year of the Lord's favor.
But doing this with women can be complex for men -- for me -- as complex as the confluence of emotions I feel when I'm alone with them in my office. In many senses, it's more about me than them.
This complexity is a fact butchered in discussions by many Christians addressing male-female ministerial relationships. It makes men out to be monsters, women to be seductresses, and, again, the relationships between them to lead inevitably to sex or romance.
Or, perhaps worse yet, the other end of the discussion minimizes the reality of sexual chemistry in intimate settings, making lofty appeals for higher order thinking and interaction, but with no practical suggestion on how it might be accomplished. This kind of response is often pervasive in more "progressive" Christian discussions -- the kind of people who know what gaze means without having to consult Google, and who easily engage in social critique at coffee shops and on blogs. They have the right idea, but no field experience. It's more innocence than malice.
So, let me make it simple. And let me make it practical. And let me start with me.
Since I'm a heterosexual male, if I'm going to minister to women effectively, including the women to whom I'm sexually attracted, it requires a frank conversation at the outset about what really goes on in my heart and mind. Here's how that conversation might start out:
I am attracted to many of my female clients and students.
I have been titillated by stories of sexuality and intrigue in females who seek my help.
I am sometimes most attracted to the women who most need my help.
I sometimes feel helplessness when around women who are overtly seductive.
I am often nervous about the position of power in which I am placed as a therapist and professor.
There are many more disclosures I could make along these lines, and where one goes with the conversation once these disclosures have been made, makes all the difference in the world. The Western Church has almost unilaterally gone to shame, avoidance and control. We chastise ourselves for our impulses, and we knee-jerk to create external boundaries to limit their impact.
Safeguarding ourselves from the possibility of sexual indiscretion is actually very wise. Yet, when we create structures without doing the difficult work of investigating and understanding the impulses we're guarding against, we negate Christ's admonition that adultery begins in the heart- - that's the thing we're trying to guard against. In short, we fail to see that the core of the problem is us, not them. It's like the alcoholic whose solution is to avoid hanging out at bars, pursuing an external fix for an internal problem.
To boot, structures of shame, avoidance and control run the risk of creating a prison of their own. In a ministerial sense, avoiding one-half (usually more!) of your congregation in one-on-one ministry just seems crazy. On a personal level, men who have tried to live a life according to Every Man's Battle can attest to the exhausting nature of trying to control themselves by "bouncing eyes" every time they see an attractive woman. It's hard to do that and look into a woman's soul at the same time.
Many men in Christian leadership aren't responding creatively, vis-à-vis Yalom, because they're never able to have this kind of frank discussion. They're prevented from doing so because it would carve at the joints of their inner worlds, which are under tight lock and key.
It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most Christian leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in the true sense. Most of them are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools and hospitals, and running the show as a circus director. They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the Spirit.
Some forty years later, not only are many ministers out of touch and unfamiliar with the movements of the Spirit in their inner lives, but our churches have institutionalized the trend -- a man who is familiar with his inner life is often no longer a desirable candidate to be a pastor. How could he be? A pastor reared in a system of shame and control, who has not learned to shut out his inner life, is more dangerous than one who has been tortured by shame, but unable to ignore it. His suppression eventually becomes bedlam, and bedlam eventually erupts on the front page of the morning paper.
Back to Nouwen.
But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other way than to find the courage to enter into the core of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.
The goal of such an undertaking is to consecrate our inner lives, not to shame, avoid, or control them. As Nouwen would later remark: "The great question of ministry and the spiritual life is to learn to live our brokenness under the blessing and not the curse." After all, it seems realistic to think that Jesus Christ, being fully consecrated, still had sexual impulses toward the women to whom he ministered. And I'll bet he didn't spend all of his time with them eye-bouncing. Interaction with a savior, bereft of eye-contact, hardly seems likely to have earned the devotion of prostitutes and adulterers.
It is post 2 of 3 entitled "Consecrated Sexual Attraction."