Flickr photo of couple by Tammy McGary

Sex: a metaphor for knowing God

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By Martin Elfert

Skin… is sacred, deserving of praise. This is true, especially true, when skin meets skin, in sacramental sex, and temple commingles with temple. Not an easy thing for us to accept. It seems too earthy to be spiritual. Consequently we generally lack the courage to accept a theology of sexuality that is earthy enough to do justice to how shockingly physical the incarnation really is. In sacramental sex there is eucharist, just as in eucharist, God enters, caresses, and kisses human skin.

– Ron Rolheiser

A few days ago, while leafing through one of Portland’s weekly newspapers, I came across an advertisement for a burlesque show. The advertisement featured an image of two young women, both of whom were dressed (and forgive me in advance if this is vulgar) as what I can only call Sexy Nuns: their costumes were raunchy caricatures of a nun’s habit. The two young women’s hands were clasped in front of them, as though in prayer, and the expressions on their faces suggested a mixture of longing and anxious piety.

Because the theater at which I used to work hosted several burlesque shows (at least half of which included Sexy Nuns – I guess it’s a go-to trope in that genre), I have a pretty good guess as to how the two women from the advertisement will feature in the upcoming performance. We will spend some time with them in the convent, where the not-yet Sexy Nuns are living lives of repression and (because it’s a burlesque show) unspoken erotic tension. Shortly thereafter, some accident of fate will result in the nuns encountering a group of barely-dressed libertines. The nuns’ mother superior will be scandalized and appalled by the libertines’ behavior, but the younger sisters will be drawn in. And they soon will discover that the libertines represent freedom from the oppression of the convent. Thus, the nuns will join the libertines, and their transformation into Sexy Nuns will be complete.

Perhaps because of my job, perhaps simply because of my faith, I have become something of an amateur anthropologist; my area of study is the way in which Christian ideas and imagery appear in popular culture. And so I am fascinated by Sexy Nuns. Or more accurately, I am fascinated by what they have to tell us about our culture’s understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

The message of the Sexy Nun couldn’t be much clearer: Christianity is profoundly afraid of the body and of human sexuality in particular, and so finding freedom and agency and joy necessitates escaping from the shackles of faith.

Now, in fairness to all of the burlesque performers who are building nun costumes at their sewing machines right now, the church has done a lot over the last few centuries to promote the very assumptions on which the Sexy Nun is predicated. We can’t really blame folks for concluding that saying yes to Jesus also means saying yes to a repressed, embittered, smug, and inflexible understanding of sexual morality.

What we can do, however, is to tell a different about who Jesus is and about what faith is like. We can share the good news that sexual rulemaking is of remarkably little interest to Jesus; in the Gospels, it is poverty, not sex, to which Jesus directs our moral imagination. We can share the good news that the Song of Songs, that erotic love poem situated partway through Scripture, tells us that sex is one of the gifts in which God invites us to delight.  We can share the good news that the creation story and the Incarnation and the Eucharist alike proclaim that having a body is good and worthy of our celebration.

These days, it is possible to go a long time without meeting a nun — gone are the days when nun-sightings were standard in hospitals and in schools. I was probably 35 when I met a nun for the first time. And I was immediately struck not only by the fact that she was wearing street clothes (unlike Sexy Nuns, many regular nuns don’t wear habits) but also by her profound calm and compassion and happiness. Nothing I could see suggested to me that she was living a life of repression. I’ve subsequently had similar experiences meeting other nuns: several of them are among the most radiantly joyous people that I have ever encountered. Everything about these women’s manner suggests that they are in deep conversation with God, that they have found the deepest kind of freedom. These nuns’ way of being in the world illustrates what the mystics are getting at when they liken their relationship to God to lovemaking.

The problem with the trope of the Sexy Nun isn’t that it goes too far. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. Sex really is a fitting metaphor for knowing God. Not the superficial, tittering sexuality of the Sexy Nun, but the kind of sex that a couple sometimes discovers only after years together: sex which is predicated on mutual love, on mutual vulnerability, or mutual freedom, on mutual joy. Sex which, for all the world, looks like communion.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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8 comments

  1. Liv Larson Andrews

    Gorgeous, Martin!

  2. I think this excerpt:

    “Christianity is profoundly afraid of the body and of human sexuality in particular, and so finding freedom and agency and joy necessitates escaping from the shackles of faith.”

    Is an **incredibly** mistaken assumption. Granted, it’s not clear whether the author himself believes this, but it should be made clear that the “message of the Sexy Nun” is very, very wrong, and that reality — that so many have come to equate Christianity with a hatred or disdain for the body and by extension with sex — is a very sad thing.

    The idea that only the spiritual was good and incarnational matter was bad was one of the first heresies — Gnosticism — and despite being soundly rejected by the earliest of Church Fathers, it has reared its ugly head again and again over the centuries.

    But this much ought to be clear: The Catholic Church has never, and will never, consider the sexual act to be a bad thing. Surely, it can be used in a way opposite to its intended purpose – as can anything else – and thus become an evil act. But the union of the married couple in marriage that participates in God’s creative nature, producing a new human soul, is always one of the greatest of goods.

    • I can agree with most of what you say, Martin, and certainly agree with you. However, you seem to assume that spirituality is in an opposing or dichotomous relationship with the physical. The tradition of our language does suggest that, but it is the result of Platonism not Jesus or our Judaic roots. Many do not make that distinction, and , like me, hold that the physical can be very spiritual, and that often what we think is spiritual wit out being physical is possible. I’m not so sure, and hold that just because something is physical does not mean in any way that it is not also spiritual. After all, there is only one substance that wwe have any knowledge of, the empirical reality, and that is physical.

      • Thanks for your comment, Tom. Reading your reflection in concert with Matthew’s, it is apparent to me that I did a poor job of formulating my argument. The assumption that “spirituality is in an opposing or dichotomous relationship with the physical” is the very thing that I intended to refute in this piece. I’m disappointed to think that I have accidentally made the opposite case.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Matthew. I’m sorry to think that this piece is ambiguous, that it could read as suggesting that the caricature of sexuality and of religiosity that we find in the Sexy Nun is something to be admired or celebrated.

      With regard to parents and celibate folks, it’s worth emphasizing that some of the folks who employ the metaphor of sex for communion with God – think of Richard Rohr, think of Ron Rolheiser, whom I quote at the article’s beginning – are themselves celibate. Their point (and mine) is not that sex is a prerequisite for love; that is, as you rightly observe, full-on nonsense. Rather, my sense is that these folks are employing lovemaking as a metaphor for something that is, ultimately, miles beyond what words can capture: the deep freedom, meaning, healing, and joy that we experience when we say “yes” with our lives to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Martin! It does help a great deal, and I appreciate your response. I have much respect — and know many good priests and bishops who have great respect — for Fr. Rolheiser in particular.

        A couple of other good places to dive deeply into this issue, whether for you or for the casual reader, would be:
        – John Paul II’s Theology of the Body; basically a series of audiences he gave while he was pope on our incarnational reality – both in terms of sex and just as physical beings
        – John Paul’s “Love & Responsibility”, a book he wrote back in the 1960s while still a college prof and bishop. A little more esoteric philosophy, but still a classic.

  3. Additionally, to assert that sex must be involved for one to be loved or to be happy is also a very precarious position. In this case, a parent/child relationship could never be truly loving or produce true happiness. However, any person who has even a remotely strong relationship with a parent knows this to be nonsense.

    As such, celibate clergy or religious men/women do not need an active sexual life to love well or to find happiness. The most quintessential example of this is Jesus himself.

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