I remember a time more than 20 years ago, when, as a striving doctoral student in systematic theology, I gave a paper at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. All I remember are comments from two more senior people in the academy. They both said, rather vehemently, that “desire” is not a theological category.
I was surprised. I did not make such a claim overtly in my paper. But as they spoke, it dawned on me that their analysis of what underlay my argument was correct, even though I thought they were wrong in their judgment. Desire is a theological category because desire is of God.
Let me quickly add this caveat: not everything we desire is godly, part of God’s desire for our lives, any more than everything we claim is love actually meets God’s understanding of love. But the activity and reality of desire are gifts from God.
I will now fast forward to a time several weeks ago when I was enjoying an evening with nudist friends—a social group that gathers monthly for a party in a private home. I have met some lovely people through this group, including a young man who is becoming a dear friend.
The rules of the group preclude sexual activity—this is true of almost all nudist, or naturist, groups—and as one happily committed to monogamy in my marriage, I would not participate were it otherwise. And yet, I find desire.
The people, perhaps numbering 30, come in all shapes and sizes, colors, nationalities, and sexualities. I am not aware of transgender people, but I could be wrong. Certainly, all genders are welcome.
Some of the body appearances are more appealing to me than others. I have my gay tilt toward the male ones, of course, but as nudists often say, all the bodies are beautiful, just as they are. And in some way or other, I desire connection with them all. Not sex, but desire.
Frankly, I find it easier to start connections with new people who are naked than with people who are clothed. Naked people have removed a layer of protection, we’re more vulnerable. Vulnerable people make connections more easily.
Here’s where my theological point comes in: In my experience, God wants us to connect more—with God of course, but also with each other. That’s why I think naked bodies—the ones God gave us for which we eventually become responsible—are beautiful, powerful expressions of the divine. Each human body is an image of God, and more than that, each is a means, an opportunity, to create connection. I call this connectivity “eros.”
Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde first introduced me to the erotic as something more than physical sex, calling it “an assertion of the lifeforce of women.” I think that is true of male-identified persons, too. I know it is true of me.
Lorde also said “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”
At this party, I also witnessed a sign of eros. Several of the men, at various times in the evening, exhibited full or partial erections. I do not know precisely what they were feeling, but imagine they found some other body alluring, or perhaps something someone said or did gave them a charge, or perhaps they were just feeling happy. Who knows, maybe all of the above?
What I know is that such a beautiful sight touched me. I’ll admit they were good-looking men but my reaction was not so much about them, or even wanting them, as it was about me. What I felt, rather keenly, was my desire for an erection of my own.
Regular readers of this space know of my erectile dysfunction and issues related to my prescribed treatment of testosterone replacement therapy. Erections are not very common for me.
But then, even when earlier I could more easily get hard, I never did except during sexual encounters or solo masturbation. For a long time, I carried shame about my small cock, and even as I worked at shedding that I still felt an erection was only for private times, only for having sex. I had bought into our culture’s view that bodies are mostly meant to be hidden, and certainly male bodies with visible erections.
But as I gazed upon these men I realized the truth of Lorde’s observation. I was experiencing myself—feeling my own embodiment in a deep way (partly through something I could not achieve then)—and experiencing strong feelings of desire, of connection, feelings that in that moment felt chaotic because I was being drawn simultaneously more deeply into myself and toward others.
I did not seek sex with them, or they with me, and yet I wanted to connect with them. I wanted to talk with them, I wanted to learn more about them in general as well as to learn more about what caused them to get hard in that moment.I wanted, and I still want, to see the world through their eros as well as my own.
I am not sure I am explaining this very well, because I think I am still trying to figure it out. But as I continue to reflect, I am coming to understand that my erotic feelings—certainly those I share with my husband, but also those I experience at other times by myself and with others, too, including in more common moments like feeling the sun on my body or the touch of soil as I dig in the garden or observing or participating in a moment of human connection or human/animal connection—are a form of prayer. Eros is for me embodied prayer, a prayer for connection with myself, with others, and with God.
I have read a number of articles and books about body prayer. None of them mention the genitals and anus. It is as if we cannot mention that part of God. But God will not be stopped or ignored.
The good news for me is that whether I get a really good erection ever again (and I’m working on it—more about that another time) or not, God continues to desire me and I God, and others, too. I know I will continue to call out “O God, O God,” when I ejaculate (dry or wet) because God is in that moment of chaotic, exuberant joy. And I know I will continue to be blessed by my own eros and the eros of others—with and without obvious arousals, just by being open to, and desiring, each other, the world, and God.
Let us pray.
When I think about prayer, I have the quintessential image in my mind of someone kneeling by their bed, hands folded, head bowed, saying their prayers before bed. I must have gotten this image from pamphlets and movies because that’s never something that was a part of my life or experience growing up, nor is it something I really do now.
Thinking about prayer makes me think a little about worship, and how the image in my mind of worship is also very different than my physical experience of worship. The word “worship” brings to mind the image of being in church on a Sunday morning, perhaps hands raised, in celebration of God. And while I have worshiped that way at different
points in my life, I don’t currently have a home church I am attending…but I certainly still worship.
I can’t help but think about the intention of these ideas- the intention of prayer and the intention of worship. To me, the intention, the purpose of worship is to celebrate: to celebrate a God who loves and cares for us, to celebrate that we are made in God’s image and that God is in each one of us. “The God in me recognizes and honors the God in you.” We can worship with our whole bodies. We can worship through dance and singing, through cooking and sharing conversation, through cultivating gardens and protesting, and yes, we can absolutely worship through sex. If our intention behind our actions is one of honoring and celebrating our creator, then I call that worship.
So what, then, could be said about prayer? I believe the intention of prayer is desire and connection: we want a shift in something in our own lives, or we want someone we care about to be lifted up, or we just want to put something out there, outside of ourselves, because it feels too big for us to carry alone. And if those actions we take outside of church that are done with intention of celebration can be worship, can’t those things done with the intention of desire and connection be a form of prayer?
It’s something I haven’t thought much about before, to be honest. I’ve certainly appreciated sex as an act of worship, but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of it as a form of prayer. But it makes sense to me that
prayer is something I have often felt disconnected from- I have a hard time, sometimes, sitting with my own desire. And I’ve learned to listen to those things that are mirrored disconnections in my life, because they are often related. If I am feeling disconnected from my own ability to name my desires, then prayer becomes that much more difficult because I’m not always sure what I am bringing to the conversation.
Prayer is, to me, an active conversation. It’s one in which we bring ourselves and our desires and lay them out honestly- both with ourselves and with God. I don’t think prayer requires us to know the answers- in fact, many times, I think we come to prayer because we don’t. But I do think that we have to have the awareness of what we want from ourselves, from one another, from God, to be able to name it in some capacity. It’s vulnerable. We may be saying, “I can’t do this alone.” We may be saying, “I need help and guidance.” I think about the times- particularly this most recent time- where I have struggled with my own sexual relationships, and how thinking of my own needs and desires as a form of prayer might have helped in those situations.
I also think of how many people will have sex following the death of a loved one. It’s often called an affirmation of life- in our grief of losing someone, we affirm that we are still living, still capable of feeling connected and good in our bodies. I wonder if that, too, can be thought of as prayer- raising up our grief, our desire for healing and wholeness and connection.
Prayer can also, of course, be celebratory, coming from a place of gratitude and thankfulness. Prayers of connection and reconnection.
Prayer is hope. And worship and prayer are intrinsically intertwined, I think. We can act out of a place of celebration and desire simultaneously: celebration for what is and desire for what comes.
But prayer is, I think, a conversation we have with our whole bodies- not just with bowed heads, speaking words aloud or in our minds. That is absolutely a form of prayer, and a valid one, but I think we miss something of the conversation if that’s the only way we can envision prayer.
I think about conversations and communication styles. A vast majority of our communication is non-verbal: facial and body expressions are a crucial part of how many people communicate. By not entering into communication with God with our whole bodies, what are we missing in the conversation? What are we holding back by viewing prayer within such rigid parameters? How might we envision new ways of praying that include the use of our bodies, minds, and spirits- a conversations from our whole selves?
I know, for me, that I’m going to struggle with this idea for a while. I’m going to have to think about what it means to communicate my desires as an act of prayer. I’m going to have to think about what it means to have conversations with God with my whole body- to do so with intention and purpose, instead of thinking arbitrary thoughts toward God when it’s convenient for me. So I am thinking more about how to relate to and connect with the idea of prayer- one that fits with how I worship, rather than something I saw in a movie. I don’t have answers, but I do have a fervent desire to be more connected. And it seems desire is a good place to begin.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
What are your desires? Do the sexual ones feel holy? Do you recognize any type of eros in your life? How do you experience sex as a force in your life that impacts your spirituality and your mental well-being, and how do those other aspects affect your sex? Can you imagine sex as prayer? Do you think God participates in your sexual life? Does your sexual life connect you with God? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us in about two weeks, THURSDAY, March 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.