The Irish people continue to inspire by their vote for marriage equality. If one were to put the impact of this in the form of a cheer one might shout, Suas Erinn, or “Up Ireland!” Perhaps as the understanding of marriage widens out from the focus on procreation and physicality (in American society today over 60% of all births occur without benefit of marriage) we will acknowledge that the mutuality of marriage is really about commitment, persistence, trust, and compromise. And we will place more value upon the great hope and promise that undergirds each couple’s marriage vows. As the Irish might say, “It’s about who you love, darling, and who loves you back.” For once love is established then, and only then, can a couple begin the discussions of these other fundamental aspects of marriage
Be that as it may, marriage equality sheds light upon notions of gender fluidity. No longer are we locked into rigid forms of gender identity. Rather, we are all of us on the identity spectrum. One of the great lines my Father used as he raised his seven sons was to say, in almost every case of trial and turbulence, “Be a man!” And we all knew with what gender definition those three words were defined. (I’m not sure how or whether that translated to my Sister.)
Such locked-in identity no longer exists (or so one hopes). Gender fluidity has freed us to appreciate a much wider variety of ways to live and to express ourselves. It has also shed light on some limits of current secular ways that glorify bodily identity and physicality. For example, we read in some places that it we are required these days to affirm the body. One could say that particularly for women the claim to assert control over one’s body is an essential requirement of living today.
Writers such as Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, and Sarah Coakley have an array of views on the question of affirming one’s body and its performance. A postmodern secularist, Judith Butler values the performative independence of the reclaimed body. Performance, in essence, is all. But isn’t it curious that the glorification of body undergoes such punishing ascetical lengths to experience such glory. The monks of old, with their own variety of asceticism, never came up with such grunts, groans, stretchings and pummelings. Which leads an ethicist like Martha Nussbaum to ask the question “to what end?” or what is the purpose of such bodily assertions? And Sarah Coakley takes the secularist view to further task by celebrating today’s gender fluidity as it may be found to shed light on the writings of long-past mystics who can be read afresh in such a light.
So, if we are to celebrate gender fluidity then how might we repurpose ourselves, our bodies, our souls in light of such a gift? The mystics – those teachers in spirituality and practices of contemplative prayer – have just such gifts. You see, once we pay less attention to the pronouns like he, she and him, her, which is to say once we get beyond the binary of male and female, and we pay more attention to purpose (as in, to what end) we can discover the desire for and the road to intimacy with God (today read here, Trinity) which the mystics give us. The erotic imagery of these prayer leaders was locked into some pretty rigid gender roles. Yet, even they could break through. For them, a “she” could be a “he” and what’s the difference when one is trying to shed light on the relationship of each soul to the divine Three Persons.
John of the Cross writes about the darkness one experiences in reaching for intimacy with God: “Thus the soul must rest in darkness, like a blind man, leaning on obscure faith, taking it as light and guide, without seeking support in anything else that she understands, tastes, feels, or imagines.” Notice that the soul is referred to as “she” and she (the soul) is to recognize her situation as being like the blind man. Male or female references are only used to drive home the deeper purpose, the ultimate end, of being intimate with God.
Jean Danielou, in his book “God and the Ways of Knowing” (1957), also speaks of the feminine soul (regardless of man or woman) when he writes, “It’s the very Trinity itself and its hidden mystery that is related to her in the darkness of faith.” We are all she when we are a soul relating to God.
My point here is that our modern appreciation for gender fluidity makes it easier for us to take on she or he or whatever spectrum-based gender identity that occurs by way of personal discovery. And our prayer, when led by our mystical sisters and brothers, has a better chance of deepening in purpose when we can shed the pronouns of he and she. It does not matter that Jack’s soul is a she. What matters is that through such a reference Jack just may deepen the life of faith with which he has been gifted in Baptism. After all, one assumes that Jack values a relationship of intimacy with God.
This ease of gender fluidity may also serve us well when we approach our faith in the Trinity. After all, there are male references to Father and Son as there are female references to the Spirit, the Holy Wisdom of God (She, that is, Wisdom was with God at the beginning). In this Oneness of God, we are presented with both male and female images. What a jumble!
And here is a real Gender Stew. In the words of Danielou, “It is the property of all that concerns the life of grace that every relationship with a Divine Person leads necessarily to a relationship with the other Persons.” Still we say this Trinity of Persons is one God! With the blessing of gender fluidity we can let these relationships be about depth, purpose, intimacy, and let the gender references flow over, around and through us without leaving, say, a residue of absolute maleness, as one possible effect, when it comes to our relationship with the Divine Persons, the Threeness of Trinity.
On this Trinity Sunday, if we are to move beyond the binary of he and she, of pronouns that really are only placeholders for a deeper purpose, then how might we achieve such intimacy? It could be that the relation to Threeness with its jumble of gender references is a basis for freedom from the binary, freedom from “Be a Man!”, for example. Beyond the binary how do we express intimacy with God?
Maybe intimacy is on the basis of shared feeling. For example, comfort may just be in and of itself an experience of God with and in us. We pray with and in Holy Comfort.
Or maybe intimacy is trust realized. We pray with Holy Confidence.
Or maybe intimacy is simply about “at home-ness.”
With a nod to today’s ecological warnings maybe intimacy with the Three Perons is about environment. For example, darkness and light may speak again from the mystics’ past. We pray to abandon the darkness of understanding that we may willfully embrace the light.
Jean Danielou reminds us from the misty past of 1957, “God is present in the soul before the soul is present to him.”
Also, “Thus the soul appears as the image of God in a new and more perfect sense that her works have a Trinitarian structure.” For we are all called to create boldly, to love sacrificially, and to inspire glowingly.”
A Trinity Sunday Prayer ©Jim Ryan
Baptize us, Most High,
In clear water that is not polluted by human mindlessness;
In a flood that fills our hearts yet does not destroy;
In a surge of creative actions that reflect your glory;
In a sacrificial regard for and openness to difference;
In a fire of clarity leading to Oneness.
Holy Threeness—Creator, Redeemer, Spirit—may we care for one another and all others in your way of giving comfort, of being trustworthy, and of shedding light, now and forever. Amen!