excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]
Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?
The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?
And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.
What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?
Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.
No. Want. Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it. Want it all.
Desire. Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life. Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.
What The World Needs Now
(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)
What does it mean to love and be loved? What is healthy love and what is not? What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?
In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine. Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull. I thought we were going to be talking about eros today! I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?
Okay, let’s talk about eros.
Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean? In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river? Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth? Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn? Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth? Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one? Has longing ever pierced your heart? Has beauty ever made you cry?
These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us. We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved. We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself. We are part of a great communion of all life.
Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion. Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners. These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible. The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal. Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine. Do you remember your first mutual love? Did colors seem brighter? Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand? Did every breeze seem to caress your skin? Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you? The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.
This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia. Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy. He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life. Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun. He fell madly in love. His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah. In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming. In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved. The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole. In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation. It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for. The name of this concept is tawhid. According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.
Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:
Some Kiss We Want
There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.
Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!
At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.
Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]
Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being. Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.
Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought. Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.
“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.
Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]
In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is. These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent. Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.
One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound. Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent? The universality of divine love?
This is not actually a coincidence. Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism. The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists. Think of William Ellery Channing writing: “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.” And Emerson writing: “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”
Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.” Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships. As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,
“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give. It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another. It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness. It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world. Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]
These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong. Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws. Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships. She writes:
“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate. Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be. Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]
Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth. It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life. Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm. Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence. At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.
Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative. We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros. We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy. Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life. Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love. Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms. Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose. We are ourselves fulfilled.
This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros. It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere. Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies. It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life. As Rebecca Parker writes:
“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy. This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism. It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]
May this community be such a home for love.
Artwork: Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green
[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power. Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996. Life Prayers From Around the World: 365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.
[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.
[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.
[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010. “A Home for Love.” Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century. Beacon Press, Boston. Pp. 130-131.
[v] Ibid, pp. 124-125
[vi] Ibid, p. 136.