Sex, Prayer and How on Earth These Two Fit Together
The following reflection first appeared in February 2009 as part of First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010..
In this month of Presidents and cherry trees, I cannot tell a lie: I did not write these words this morning, or yesterday morning, or even on some chilly morning last week. I wrote them on an even chillier morning in the time between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. I am being so candid and honest about this whole thing for a reason, though; and the reason is that I want you to believe me when I say something else. I want you to believe me when I say that, though I wrote these words almost six weeks ago, I wrote them specifically for this First Sunday.
For us in this country, February may be the month of Presidents; but for us as well as for far more folks than just us, it is the month of lovers. And it is with the business of love and lovers I am most concerned as we enter into the embrace of February … and this from a very old woman, no less!
Some of you may remember that shortly before Thanksgiving last fall, in Grapevine, Texas, the Rev. Mr. Ed Young kicked up a Texas-size media frenzy, partly because of what he did and partly because of the fact that he did it for, and from the pulpit of, his Texas-sized 20,000 member Grapevine Fellowship Church. In general, that is, Mr. Young doesn’t have to do much of anything to command a good deal of attention, should he wish to. Last November he wished to, and he knew how.
Pastor Young proposed a week of “congregational copulation” in which the married couples in Fellowship—gives the word fellowship a whole new connotation, doesn’t it?—in which the married congregants of Fellowship Church agreed to have sexual relations with their mates every day at least once a day for seven days. ( After the week was over, by the way, Pastor Young urged his people to continue with his program indefinitely.)
Now the presentation from the dais of Mr. Young’s pastoral proposal was accompanied, according to the New York Times, which made much of the story, by some bits of media-savvy showmanship. There was a large bed on the dais, for example; and the pastor lay down on it from time to time as he read aloud to his gathered flock the words and passages of scripture that urge sexual activity and marital consummation upon the faithful.
I cannot say, of course, how I would have reacted on November 16th had I been in Mr. Young’s auditorium as he delivered this message. I suspect—and here too is honesty in this time of honesty—that I would have been delighted by his message and amused by his methods. I would have been—Goodness, I still am!—down right enchanted by the fact that at least one evangelical preacher could praise sex for a whole hour without feeling any compelling need to discourse at length about all the sins its misuse can occasion.
Oh, my Anglican soul might have found the service on November 16th to be something “less” than fully Anglican and, as a result (for we are a haughty lot), less than fully ordered or properly worshipful; but that’s as far as the criticism would have gone, at least from me. I thought and still think Mr. Young is right-on in his premise or at least in the thrust of it, if you will forgive the pun. Marital sex every day, for those who are physically able, is the making of an intimacy and an entanglement of body and soul beyond fracture. It is also, as Pastor Young taught that morning, quite biblical. What Mr. Young taught as the reasons behind his campaign was, however, not quite as biblically complete as I might have wished it to be. That is, I think there was a bit of an omission in all of this, and that is what has gnawed at me ever since.
Standing on the dais in front of his double bed, exhorting his people to the most fundamental delight open to human beings, the pastor urged such happiness upon them because of its obvious benefits, culturally, morally, and personally. Frequent love-making is an almost sure-fire corrective for depression. Done right, it definitely exudes … or makes its participants exude … a sense of well-being.
Among other things, love-making produces the kind of well-being that pervades and strengthens a home, nurturing, as it does, children who are being reared within the protection of a bonded, parental pair. It corrects, the pastor indicated, the marauding eye and tethers the wandering heart. It purportedly can correct extra-marital affairs, though there is a part of me that questions this last one a bit; and it most certainly beats the gym for exercise and cardio workouts, though I think this last observation is of my authorship, not Mr. Young’s.
So why does all this matter to me at my age and this many weeks later? It matters because of what either did not get said at all, or else failed to be included in any of the national coverage I saw of that November sermon in Grapevine, Texas. It matters because every essential bodily activity we have and experience in our physical lives is an incarnated form of a spiritually essential activity in our religious lives.
Each such thing—the need for rest, the hunger for sleep, our thirst for drink, our appetite for food and our desire at times to control it and at other times to overindulge it, our struggle to articulate and communicate, our drive toward sex—each one of those physical things has its religious twin. Or put another way, the soul, which is the body, has the same drives as does the body, which is the soul; and each expresses and exercises and knows those drives in a manner appropriate to its milieu and substance. And for the body’s making of love—for sex, in other words—the spirit’s twin is private prayer, which is to say that now, at last, we are to the point.
Intimacy is of many kinds and of various levels of physicality, admittedly … each in his or her own way, each in accord with his or her own circumstances … but intimacy that is union and consummation … intimacy that is, by one means or another, the little death of knowing another fully and with all loss of borders or lines of separation … intimacy whose anticipatory delight is in preparing the self to receive the beloved … intimacy that can be trusted to return again and again and again in fidelity and in a constancy that is forever fresh, forever new … intimacy that transports one’s knowing to a knowing outside of time and/or space … intimacy …
Intimacy matters because, quite beyond the imperatives of biology and all the justifications Pastor Young correctly listed … intimacy matters because it teaches us, who presently spend almost all of our lives within time and space, the art and skills of meeting the holy lover.
There are all kinds of manuals about prayer, just as there are all kinds of manuals about sex, be they breviaries or kama sutras. There’s much talk about positions for both … i.e. centering prayer or athletic configurations. There’s a goodly number of suggestions about things to do preliminary to both—everything from walking labyrinths to perfuming the lover’s body. There’s no shortage of confidential conversation about how to best do either of them “better,” with “better” often being undefined and undefinable. But when all is said and done, what love making in fidelity really teaches us is how to prepare ourselves for intimacy with both the human and the divine. It teaches us the language of inarticulatable experience. It trains us to receive, but it also trains us to convey and give.
I think all of this matters to me so much this First Sunday in the month of lovers because I spend a good deal of my life in prayer. Yet like so many others who do likewise, I fall dumb and stammering every time someone asks me to tell him or her how to pray. I cannot do that. Beyond offering up some manual or other, suggesting some small book or other, I do not know how to teach prayer. I honestly don’t. But there is one thing I do know and that I can say this First Sunday and with especial thanks to Pastor Young for having set the stage for me:I know that while the need for praying may be innate in us, the art and practice of praying are not. Those things are learned and, at least in part, they are honed from the skills we, as physical creatures, gain in our loving of others who are also physical creatures.
That’s what got overlooked in all the hoopla about Grapevine, Texas. A congregation did the right thing, but for only most, not all, of the right reasons. In all our own courting and endearments this next few weeks and in all the days and weeks and years afterward, we could just as easily do the same, should we chance to forget the whole of what it is that we can open ourselves to when we make love, one with another.
Copyright © 2009 Phyllis Tickle