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JOANNA MANNING, PART 1
PERHAPS WE COULD START... YOU WERE A NUN.
I was, yes, for seven years.
AND THEN YOU STOPPED BEING A NUN.
TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
Two things happened actually, Mike. It was at the time of the '60s and the Second Vatican Council, and the Catholic church was really expanding and energizing in dynamic ways, and I realized that the future of the church lay with laity, the people of God. That was the pilgrim people of God was the great symbol that came for me out of the Second Vatican Council. And I thought that I could no longer hold to a vision of religious life that had come out of the 1950s where, you know, it was a sort of hierarchical thing. The next best thing to being a priest was being a nun and you could only - only those got married who couldn't manage to be celibate kind of thing. Marriage was an also ran thing. Whereas the Vatican Council put marriage as a way of holiness equal to that of being priest or nun. That was a real breakthrough. So that whole movement was one thing. And then also I met somebody with whom I fell in love, and we decided - he was studying to be a priest and so we decided that our future lay together. And we both decided to get married and that was the way in which we could live our religious life together.
HAS THAT PROVED WITHIN THE DYNAMIC OF THE FORMAL CHURCH TO BE POSSIBLE?
Yes. I think that a lot has come out. It's not as possible as one would like it to be, and there's been a backlash. There's been a movement against the liberalizing and the energizing trends of the Vatican Council, especially with this pope, who has reasserted celibacy as the norm of holiness, has tried to crush the rise of the feminine within the church. But at the grassroots level in the church and in theological circles, certainly the life and the dynamism is still continuing in the Catholic world.
WHY DID YOU NOT CONTINUE AS A NUN? WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO STEP OUTSIDE OF THE CLOISTER?
I think because of the idea that - well partly because the cloister itself was breaking down. That was one of the things I realized was the, the so to speak, the protections of religious life , the habit, the cloistering, the - the rules against too much - I was going to say intercourse. That's the wrong word, but too much going out into the world and into secular society. All of that in a way kind of protected the way of being as a religious. And I felt that if I was going to be outside and part of this pilgrimage of church, that I couldn't live - it would be a schizoid existence, trying to be at once celibate, cut off, a little distant and yet the whole movement of the church was, according to the Vatican Council, to be immersed, to be incarnated in the culture of the time. And it was - it was a - I would say it was a 360 degree turn in the spirituality in which I had gone into the convent, and I just couldn't live that spirituality any more.
HOW DID YOU AND THE MAN YOU LOVED AND BECAME YOUR HUSBAND, HOW DID YOU PRACTICE AND LIVE IN THE TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH IN THE WAY, IN THE SAME WAYS THAT YOU WOULD IF YOU'D REMAINED A NUN.
Well, we practised a very strong prayer life. That was an important part of our life, and our sexual life in a way became intertwined with that. We always had the idea that making love was part of our holiness, and indeed in the best tradition of the church, it has been seen as that, as a communion at a very deep level. Sometimes it's been too spiritualized and so on. There's been a lot of negative stuff around sexuality. But at its deepest level, the union of marriage is really an expression of the union of God with humanity, as it's expressed in the Old Testament, in the Jewish scriptures, and of the union of Christ with the church also in the New Testament. Although again there's been a lot of negative stuff around that and a lot of deconstructing of that. But that has been the marriage, the symbol of marriage and of the wedding feast is a very, very deep one in mystical and scripture. And that's how we tried or we began to try to live our spirituality and our sexuality as one.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE DEEP MYSTICISM OF THE MARRIAGE ACT AND THE VOWS AND THE CEREMONY AND THE LOVEMAKING.
Well, I think that if you look at what lovemaking is about, it's about being taken out of yourself. In making love at a very deep level, with a beloved in a mutual situation of partnership, there is a total surrender of yourself which is very similar to the surrender of mysticism into God. And there's a total vulnerability to the other which I think is again very much the way in which prayer opens us to God. And in mystical writings, there's almost a sense in which there is an orgasm, there is an expression of an orgasmic state of bliss, an ecstasy. And if you experience, you don't - one doesn't experience this obviously every time one makes love, but there are times when one experiences an ecstasy of being, where one is totally joined and totally connected and in total bliss. And that to my mind is a divine. That is what divinity is about, that is how God has been revealed to us in the Christian tradition as Trinity. God existing, God in Trinity only exists in connectedness. Although God exists in God's self, there is a connectedness that is so fundamental to the being of God that God exists in a communion of persons who are constantly, as our ancient writings tell us, in communion, at play with one another, energizing one another and drawing on each other for the being of the other. And that to my mind is a fundamental symbol of how connectedness, eroticism, sensuality, vulnerability, openness, all of that is within the being of our God and is at the heart of the universe. And the love of humans for one another is a reflection of that.
IF TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED TOGETHER IN MY NAME, IS THAT THE ESSENCE OF WHAT YOU'RE SAYING?
Yes. That in prayer and in liturgy and so on, for sure, is a part of it. But I think at its most deep and intimate level, it's expressed in erotic union and the total openness and vulnerability that that symbolizes.
WHY COULDN'T WE BE TALKING ABOUT TWO MUTUAL OR TWO PARALLEL TRACKS THAT HAVE NO CONNECTEDNESS WITH EACH OTHER, EVEN THOUGH THEY MAY HAVE THE SAME OUTCOME, THE STATE OF BLISS FROM INTIMATE AND DEEP LOVEMAKING, THE STATE OF BLISS FROM PRAYER, DEEP PRAYER. BOTH MAY REACH A STATE OF BLISS BUT THERE'S NO CONNECTEDNESS BETWEEN THE TWO OF THEM, PERHAPS.
Perhaps, although in mystical writings, there is a sense that the body also is taken out of itself. There is a connectedness of the soul, the body, and the sensuality of mysticism, if you look at the writings of Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross of Hildegarde of Bingen, they speak about their union with God in incredibly sensual terms, of the flower, the bee settling on the flower, the bee drawing pollen from the flower, the honey dripping from the rock. And Catherine of Sienna, for example, in part of the dialogues that's often censored, talks about the marriage between herself and Jesus, where he actually cut off at the time of being circumcised his foreskin - the skin of the foreskin of Jesus was made into a ring with which she was married and united to him. It's a very - that's a very daring image but it expresses, there is a connectedness of body and soul. And in the same way in sex, in deep sex and deep union, there is a soul element. It's not just a physical element. There is a drawing of the mind and the soul into union, into an ecstatic awareness of the joy and the ecstasy of love and giving and mutual pleasuring.
THIS IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE FORMAL TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH, WHERE WE HAVE - AND YOU'RE SAYING THE SAME ROOTS.
Yes. A lot has happened in the 2,000 years of church history that has suppressed a lot of this, so there's always been - I think it's always been there. You can see it as a river that runs through. Sometimes it's underground and sometimes it's more above ground.
WELL LET'S START AT - LET'S START WITH CHRIST. AT THE TIME HE WAS TEACHING, DO YOU PERCEIVE THAT THERE WAS A HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE-
THAT THERE WAS A SEPARATION OF THE SPIRIT AND THE BODY?
No, I see the early Christian way and the immediate - the community, such as it was after the death and resurrection of Christ, and during the time - Christ was against any kind of hierarchy. I mean he's incredibly radical in speaking against power, in speaking against, like the traditional father, you know, call no man father, call no man teacher etc., all of those things which were conveniently forgotten by later people in the church. But Jesus was quite anarchic in the way that he went about things and called people, women, to be close - that was absolutely unheard of, for women to be close to the teacher, for women to be called, as Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the other women that followed him, to be called into mutual discipleship along with men. So he set the pattern there that St. Paul in one of the earliest writings in Galatians says that now in Christ there is no more male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile. It's all the old hierarchies have been broken down. And in the early church movement, there was a mutuality and an equality of men and women. A lot of feminist scholarship now has uncovered the leadership of women in the early church and in the Gnostic Gospels too that were written and also suppressed later, but were written around the same time, Mary Magdalene, for example, is portrayed as very, very close to Jesus, a very almost sensual relationship which caused some jealousy amongst the male leadership amongst the disciples. But that movement, that radical equality and partnership, discipleship of equals, as some people are calling it now, was very soon lost. And I think two things happened to cause this. One was the movement of the church into the Roman world, where the Roman family I think was threatened. First of all, slavery as an institution was threatened, and secondly the rule of the pater familias, the man, as the head of the household. And you can see this very early on in the Letter to the Ephesians, which we used to think was written by Paul but was actually written later, incorporates some of the household codes from early Roman writings which tell like slaves obey your masters, wives obey your husbands etc. That's almost lifted directly because I think that the church, some of the people in the early community realized that they would have to soften the radical equality of Jesus' message in order to convert Romans into the church. That was one element.
WHAT ABOUT THE SEPARATION OF THE BODY AND SPIRIT?
That's the whole other thing that came in with early Greek thought, or rather early Christian thought drew heavily on Greek thought. And one of the fundamental elements of Greek philosophy is that separation of spirit and matter, that matter is an impediment to the life of the spirit. Plato's image of the cave, for example, where it's very clear that he regards the senses as the veil of the spirit and the senses and the body are what holds us back from reaching absolute goodness and absolute perfection which resides in the transcendence and in the spirit. So those two influences coming together, Roman administration, Roman government, Greek thought and the separation of body and soul, then later in Christianity, the imposition of mandatory celibacy, the downgrading of sexuality and especially the downgrading of women. All of this has been a wound, really, I think, from which we have suffered in the Christian church, and which we are now only beginning to heal.
BUT IF IT'S YOUR CONVICTION THAT THIS IS ALIEN TO IN FACT WHAT CHRIST TAUGHT AND THE LIFE THAT HE LED, THE EXAMPLE HE SET, WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
It was power, it was a means of control and a means of power. When the church took over from the Roman empire, it became a power, an institution of power. And celibacy and the control, the male dominance of the church, the hierarchical institution of the church, all of this became predominant. And there's nothing that corrupts as absolutely as power, as I think it was Lord Acton or somebody said power corrupts and absolute power corrupts. And that's an element of corruption that I think spread into the church. And well, not perhaps corruption but an element of negativity and abuse that, that crept into the church but which has always been resisted. There's always been the other side, the popular church. The church of the saints and the mystics has always existed alongside of it. So it's not as if the church itself became corrupt, but elements of the church really went off track, especially in the area of sexuality and celibacy.
BUT, AS YOU ALLUDE TO, THERE IS MUCH IN THE RITES OF THE CHURCH THAT IS VERY SENSUAL.
Oh, absolutely. The sacramental system, again that's an element where we've preserved this integrity and this oneness and this wholeness. The use of flowers and candles and oil and water and fire. I mean fire is at the heart of the Pentecost experience, for example, when the spirit is released as tongues of fire. Now if that isn't a sensual and an erotic image, then I don't know what is. So there's always been that element, yes, of unity in Catholicism, in the sacramental system, where we have used the sensual symbols as part of our spirituality. So it's always remained strong. The bread and the wine. My, I mean that, the changing of bread and wine. Wine symbolizes so much of joy and beauty and again the wedding, the first miracle of Jesus is at the wedding. But wine also as sex as well, in sexuality and eroticism. There's also an element of suffering. The wine symbolizes the blood. There's always an element in self giving of the losing of the self and there has to be. So there is an element of dying, a mystery of dying that is at the heart of giving as well, which of course is symbolized by Jesus on the cross, where the blood and the water are the two symbols that came out. It was almost as if now some writers are saying that when John talks about water coming from the side of Christ, this is like the opening of the womb. Christ on the cross as the mother of the church, giving birth to the church, the gushing forth of the water from which is birthed the community, the beloved community of the church in his - his dying and then later in his rising.
LET ME JUST INTERRUPT FOR A SECOND.
JOANNA MANNING, PART 2
WAS THERE A DEFINING MOMENT IN THE SHIFT FROM THE UNITY OF BODY AND SPIRIT, DO YOU THINK, IN THE CHURCH?
No, I think it happened over time. It was a gradual thing. Like it started very early. As I have said, even with the New Testament, the elements of Roman rule that came in there, and then with the fathers of the church, the whole Greek element came in. And then Augustine, I think Augustine was very influential in that, yes. Because Augustine also had been a Manichee for a while. Now he had renounced that, but I think there are tendencies that remain of their - not only did they have the split between matter and the spirit, but they believed that there were two forces, two almost spiritual forces. Matter was under the control of the evil force and the spiritual was the realm of the good God. And so with that split into body and spirit, there came a powerful reinforcement that the body was evil with Augustine and the domain of evil, and who of course is more bodily and more tied to bodily functions than women. And so again Augustine's thinking was pivotal, but also his own experience because in his youth, he had been pretty wild and had sown a lot of wild oats. He had an illegitimate child and he had many women. And so his attempt, once he became a priest and a bishop, he struggled with his own sexuality. And as has happened, unfortunately very often in the Catholic church with mandatory celibacy, those who are struggling with their own celibacy become obsessed with sex and the control of sex, and the control of it in others. There's almost a prurient need to investigate and control the sexual lives of others. And Augustine in many senses became obsessed with this control, focusing it on the control of women and the control of the sexuality of women. Augustine was also the one who linked original sin with sex in saying that original sin passes through the active generation and specifically through the male seed, and that of course led to a whole gamut of things. Sin sort of predominantly became associated with sexuality. Indeed some of the fathers of the church erroneously began to write that Adam and Eve fell through having sex, which is absolutely not there in the Bible at all. But that was, so strong was the feeling of sex and sin being allied together that that was a lot of the interpretation. So those first, maybe the first four or five centuries, Augustine was writing at the end of the fourth century and then the fall of Rome too occurred about that time. And he wrote this whole thing about the city of God and the new city of God which was the church, reinforcing the power of the church as being the new temporal order as well as the new spiritual order. So all of this became allied together and the system that arose in the medieval church of centralization, authority, celibacy, anti-sexuality etc. all became fused into - into one system.
WERE THERE SEEDS TO BE DRAWN ON IN THE OLD TESTAMENT FOR THIS KIND OF HIERARCHICAL VISION?
Oh yes, the priesthood of the Old Testament was a male hierarchical priesthood, one which Jesus actually renounced but which they fell back on for a lot of their ideas. So yes, there were - there were seeds and also male authority in the Old Testament who is there.
AND YET THERE IS ALSO A GREAT DEAL OF SENSUALITY IN BOTH PARTS.
I MEAN YOU READ THE SONG OF SONGS, LET HIM KISS ME WITH THE KISSES OF HIS MOUTH, YOUR LOVE IS MORE DELIGHTFUL THAN WINE.
Absolutely. The Song of Songs, the prophetic writings which talk about, you could see in the writings of Hosea, for example, when God is portrayed as jealous. God is very passionate in the Hebrew scriptures, in the prophetic writings. God expresses jealousy, anger, love, desire, a need to be with. Like in Jeremiah, I think it is, or Hosea, probably in both, God talks about seducing Israel, leading Israel into the desert. In Ezekial, God talks about lying with Israel, in rescuing Israel from its blood - Israel is a young girl having come to the age of puberty and then having been dishonoured sexually. That was the image of idolatry in the Old Testament, was linked with sexual infidelity. And God's longing to be the only one with whom Israel would seal the covenant in this wedding. And also in the Song of Songs, there's a beautiful connection with the love of the man and the woman, with the love of nature. There's a great connectedness. He talks about taking her out into the fields and lying in this beautiful bed under the trees and under the stars and consummating their love in nature. And that's an element that has been strong in mysticism as well, the natural with the sensual.
AND YET THIS IS INTERPRETED STRICTLY AS A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND THE NATION OF ISRAEL OR THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL.
Yes, and it's been spiritualized, as was everything, into a purely spiritual relationship. But I don't think when it was originally written, certainly the Song of Songs was not a spiritual document. It was a wedding song that was probably sung at one of the weddings of the king Solomon. So it was not at all spiritualized. It was very earthy and sensual and sexual. But it was spiritualized by the celibates in the church. It was threatening this idea that the sexual union could symbolize and could express in its bodily self. The union of God and humanity was quite threatening to those who were attempting to impose celibacy. And also the woman - this is an interesting element - the woman in the Song of Songs is equally, not dominant, there isn't a dominance, is equally in partnership. She invites the man, she searches for the man, and it's a very mutual relationship. It's not a relationship of headship of the man to the submissiveness of the woman. It's a mutual eroticism, which again was very threatening to those who were allying celibacy with male dominance and the suppression of the feminine.
THIS INSISTENCE ON DUALITY, THIS HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE, IN YOUR VIEW, WHAT HAS THIS DONE TO WOMEN?
Well, it's also what it's done to men. But what it has done to women is it has really made women think of themselves from the start as inferior, as - I mean we were brought up to think of ourselves, I know when I was being educated, a lack of self-esteem, as we are brought up to cater to the needs of men. To show any kind of assertiveness, especially sexual assertiveness, is considered unladylike. It's, there's a duality in women that we are given on the one hand an unattainable ideal of being the perfect mother and also in the church, the perfect virgin. Those two in the person of Mary have been thrust upon women by the celibate church as the ideal of womanhood, and still are.
COULD I ASK YOU TO REPEAT?
Yes. I think it has split women into two. Basically some feminist writers have called it the Madonna-whore complex. On the one hand, women have been asked to be unattainable, to reach an unattainable ideal of being the nurturers, the motherers and the - the fulfillers of the needs of not just men but of the whole of creation, of the whole of civilization, of children, of being totally responsible for the emotional aspects of a relationship etc. But also then women have also been brought up to think of themselves as whores. Like women who are sexually active, sexually assertive are regarded as sluts. And we've had this whole double standard. It's all right for a man. What is considered admirable in a man, who might be called a stud, is considered reprehensible in women, who are called sluts. So there's been a split in women, and women have either been regarded as having to be totally asexual or when they are sexual, they are regarded as whores. So there's no middle ground for women to express their sexuality in a mutual partnership. Also what it's done to men, I think it has deprived them of the mutual experience of pleasure. Like sexuality for men has been passed down as a form of dominance, as a form of control, a form of assertion, of power, and a form in the celibate male of denial of the feminine, of denial of the feminine within the church, which I think in our day is beginning to express itself in, as we've tragically seen, very perverted ways in sexual abuse of children and so on. It's coming out, all of this is kind of breaking down, I think, in our day. And in order to heal the split, the duality within women and within civilization itself, to me the rise of the feminist movement has been one way in which we're working towards healing of that duality once again.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WE'RE MISSING AS INDIVIDUALS, AS A SOCIETY, BY HAVING A HIERARCHICAL VIEW OF OUR WORLD, OF HAVING THIS SEPARATION BETWEEN THE SPIRIT AND THE BODY?
I think we're missing being able to tap into the power that, of love, where if you look at the universe and the way that it's shaped, we're discovering this through modern science, I think now, and also modern mysticism. That at the core of the universe, there is a connectedness, that everything is connected. Like you and I are connected to the stars out of which the universe was formed, the atoms and the molecules and all of that energy of the universe is profoundly connected and in communion. And I think what we have done in Western civilization is we have missed out on that relationship of communion and interdependence and we have gone into a pattern of relationships from the home, the household, to the nation, to the church, which is patterned on dominance and submission. And unless we recover the connectedness of everything, which includes sexuality, nature, all of that, we are going to destroy ourselves. We're going to destroy ourselves and we're destroying our planet. And what is happening now, I think we're at a very crucial stage in our evolution and in the evolution of the planet. We have a choice of healing or of hurting, and insofar as we choose power and control over others as our mode of being, we are going to continue to hurt ourselves and the planet. If we look to connectedness and communion and to eroticism and a true energy that that will bring in our relationships - we need to heal sexuality itself as well, which is still patterned very much on dominance and submission. The whole industry of pornography, for instance, sells through that. But there are movements towards healing. We've got to move towards healing the power relationships that we have. And I think probably the most fundamental healing will come between the relationships of men and women. This is the most fundamental power relationships that shapes all the others in a sense and it's the deepest. And it's the most difficult and intractable. It's also the healing of our image of God that again is - this is rooted in how we see God. And the resurgence and the reemergence of the feminine in God is one of the keys to this, and the female and the woman as being able to represent God and being equally made in the image of God, as the Hebrew scriptures tell us, as men. And we've got a way - we're beginning. This is beginning, but it's also being furiously resisted.
IT'S NOT IN KEEPING WITH THE TEACHING OF THE CURRENT CHURCH.
With the hierarchical church, no. And I think that they realize that their power, the continuance of the power of the male dominated church rests on their continued idolatry, I would put it that way, of the golden calf of a god made in their image. I think that's what they're doing. I feel very strongly about this, that they have created an image of God made in their image, which they are continuing to worship while the rest of the pilgrim people of God, which is in the desert, is going on its journey. I think they're going to be left behind. I think they're going to be left behind, dancing around this image that they've created because the rest of the world. The movement of the spirit is leading people into healing, whereas they are continuing to hurt both themselves and the church by insisting on this dualistic model of God, and of insisting that women do not have the right to represent God. And as long as they do that, is not going to be healed.
YOU'VE SPOKEN AT LENGTH ABOUT HOW YOU CAN REACH CERTAINLY A HEIGHTENED SPIRITUALITY THROUGH SEX. CAN YOU REACH A HEIGHTENED SEXUALITY THROUGH SPIRITUALITY?
Oh, definitely. Like to pray together with the beloved is one of the most beautiful experiences of prayer that you could have. It's the joining of your soul. And to me, you cannot have a sexuality that is divorced from the soul. I mean you could have sex, you can have athletics, you know, you can do sex or whatever. But making love is something very different than the true - the truly erotic is something that is based on a holistic acceptance of the other, not as a physical object but as a total being and a total mutual partner, which includes the soul, the spirit of the other as well as the physical essence of the other. And that to my mind, the two are, have to be melded in order to have a truly deep sexual experience. You can have pleasure, you can have pleasurable sex, sure, but to have that deep joy and ecstatic union is a holistic experience.
THANKS VERY MUCH.