Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This Might Be Mary's Hymn to Her Husband, Jesus

I translated the Coptic “Exegesis on the Soul” for one of my graduate courses back in the 1970s, but I did not at that time realize its possible significance. Recently, working on a novel, I looked at the translation in the Nag Hammadi Library in English, saw that the middle section might be useful, and handcopied it into a notebook. Handcopying always changes the way one perceives any writing.

I have been thinking for a while that Mary might have written a prayer or a hymn addressed to her husband, but how could it have survived? Yesterday, I was looking at that “Exegesis” material, which appears to be an allegory about the soul—yet the soul is mentioned only once. Its focus is on a bride. It was in third person. “This would be far more dramatic in first person,” I thought; so I began to rewrite it—and it caught fire: Observe:

1. When I was young, I waited for him, not knowing when he would come, or even if he would come.
2. I did not know what he would look like; I had forgotten his appearance after I left our Father’s house.
3. I dreamed of him, knowing that I loved him.
4. On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.
5. Then he came to do his Father’s will, came to me in the bridal chamber he had prepared and beautified,
6. .Saying to me, “How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
7. “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
8. Our marriage was not merely physical, for our lovemaking was a glory that joined us into a single mind and soul,
9. As Moses wrote of the first man and woman, “They will become a single being,”
10. For we were originally one being in one another when we dwelt with our Father [and our Mother].
11. My self has become one with my true love.
12. When I adorned myself in beauty, I enjoyed my beloved and he loved me in our joy.
13. As we made love I received the seed of the life-giving spirit; so I bear good children and raise them with love.
14. Such is the great and perfect marvel of birth, for our marriage was made perfect by the will of the Father.
15. It was good to regenerate myself, to become again what I was before.
16. I received my divine nature from our Father for my rejuvenation, my restoration to where I had originally been.
17. This is the resurrection of the dead.
18. This is the ransom from captivity.
19. This is the ascent to our Father in Heaven.
20. Becoming young again, I will ascend, praising our Father and the brother who has rescued me.
21. By being born again I will be saved, not by repeated words or learned skills or knowledge in books,
22. But by the grace of the gift of the Father.

Now, some commentary:
A. I added lines 4, 6, and 7 from the Song of Songs; they fit and it is obvious that the writer was referring to it.
B. Line 5 establishes that the bridegroom is Jesus; therefore the woman must be Mary, since there are no other plausible candidates.
C. Line 8 is the crucial statement: I think it confirms my speculation about what Jesus meant by “They shall become one flesh” and “When you make the two into one” as I discuss in my essay on Aphrodiphobia on this blog. It does seem like evidence that Jesus did know about the orgasmic enlightenment that is the reward of an ideal marriage.

Could this originally have been written by Mary? Not very likely. Is it about Mary? That seems a plausible interpretation. If so, it shows that these particular Christians looked to Mary as not only the apostle who founded their community, but also as the Co-Redemptrix with her brother. I have discovered a recently established Gnostic church in Oregon which calls her “the Lady Christ.” Here’s an interesting question: if you believe that the Father sent His Son, can you also believe that the Mother sent Her Daughter?

Clement of Alexandria wrote about these Christians in his area that “These … treat … sexual intercourse as a sacred religious mystery and think it will bring them to the Kingdom of God” (Miscellanies 3.2.29). This could be the specific text he was complaining about. . He could not perceive it as possibly being true, since he was a devout heretic.

Who, Clement? Yes, along with a great many others. Putting this no doubt way too briefly, thinking about the first commandment (Gen. 1:24, “Go forth and multiply”) has led me to conclude that the belief that sex itself is inherently sinful is the first and worst of all the heresies that have corrupted what I now think the Radical Rabbi from Nazareth (or maybe Capernaum) must have taught. I will expand on that idea later. I think I’m beginning to see how it might expand into a book. Stay tuned. (You wouldn’t want to be out of tune, would you?)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The End of My Catholic Boyhood: Chapter of my autobiography, "To Madness Near Akin"

Making peace with the Church. Why was that such a challenge? Because I had stopped being a believing Catholic at age 14.

Many details of my childhood help explain what sort of person I became. There are also many details that are utterly irrelevant. I must do my best to avoid the latter.

I am from a Catholic military family. My Catholic boyhood was not unique or even unusual—although looking back, I can see that the Jansenist sort of Catholicism I was indoctrinated with had driven me to the brink of suicide by age 14.

Both my parents were college-educated and were teachers at one time or another. However, my father, who graduated from West Point in 1939, was a covert operative for military intelligence—he would not have burdened a child with that knowledge even if he could have. We moved on average about once a year, usually by means of very long road trips.

I remember, somewhere in the Midwest, at about age 3, watching the barns and silos passing by, silhouetted against the horizon. Perhaps we visited friends on such a farm. Distant silos still call up a longing, as if for a safe, friendly place to go.

I remember long drives from Perris up to Pismo Beach, watching the rocking horse oil pumps, which looked much giant chickens pecking for bugs, along both sides of the road. I discovered that road again in the 1970s, driving up the switchbacks from Ojai to Highway 33; alongside it, almost up to Coalinga, the oil pumps still rocked, now mostly dressed up as dinosaurs and other fanciful creatures.

In the early 1990s I discovered there were still orange groves along the highway that cuts from Magic Mountain to the coast near Santa Barbara. I remembered visiting a ranch in Orange County—where there are no longer oranges growing—where the family was hastening to light the smudge pots to protect their orange trees.

I remember driving across Texas in late 1944, from Woodbridge, Connecticut, where my father had spent a semester at Yale, learning Japanese, to Fort Ord. There were few bridges in Texas. Instead, the car would plunge suddenly down one side and up the other of a gully. Each time, I would call out, "Dip!” so that my mother, in the back seat, would not hit my brother Bill with the spoon of baby food.

I remember watching my father board the troop train at Fort Ord in September 1945, on his way to Korea. After my mother, brother, and I had lived with a war widow, Gretchen Wagner, in Carmel for almost a year, my mother gave up on receiving a port call and drove us and her mother, who had come out to visit, across country to New York. Within a month we received the port call and rode the passenger train, in which I and Bill shared the upper bunk in our sleeping car, across the country to Seattle. I had strawberry shortcake for my sixth birthday on the train. Three seasick weeks on a troop ship in the north Pacific followed. I remember being inside the world’s largest statue of the Buddha when we stopped briefly at Japan.

During 1947, when we lived in Taejon, Korea, my father was given the former Bachelor Officers Quarters, a rambling Japanese-style mansion, to be our family residence. (The combat sergeants to whom I taught English and philosophy at Fort Lewis in 2002 assured me that was not how the army housed a mere major.) We had domestic servants and many Korean friends, both adults and children. The first thing I ever learned about Communists was that they controlled the power plant in Taejon and purposely turned off the power whenever an American wife was trying to prepare for a party.

I had started trying to sightread comic and other books when I was three. One day, when I was six, I stumbled over a word, and my mother showed me how to sound it out. I instantly got it and could thereafter read anything I could find, which was not very much in Korea.

Another seasick voyage in winter brought us back in the States, where my father did a third tour at the Pentagon, then was sent to Fort Sill in the middle of 1948 for a year of advanced training. Leaving Oklahoma in June 1949, we drove counterclockwise around the country, visiting friends in Little Rock, in Columbus, Georgia, and in Ville Platte, Louisiana. I remember reading Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, in their rich, difficult black dialect, in the back seat, looking out at the Spanish moss dangling from the trees in the bayous where critters like Br’er Rabbit might have lived.

We visited grandparents in Florida and in Brooklyn, drove up and across to Seattle, where we visited General Barney Oldfield and his family, then down to San Francisco, where we stayed with my maternal aunt Dolly and my uncle Wally Izzo (who was in Naval Intelligence) until my parents bought a house in the Rollingwood neighborhood of San Pablo. I did not then know how odd it was for an officer to have three solid months of leave time. In September he began teaching as a Professor of Military Science at the University of California for the next two years. For the first time, I completed two grades in the same school.

At the beginning of fifth grade, when I was eight, the teacher took us to the nearby public library. When I asked my mother why she had never told me about such a wonderful place, she said she had thought I already knew. I began reading about a book a day, a practice I continued for at least the next ten years.

The second thing I learned about Communists was from my father’s angry comments to my mother about Socialists who were passing out literature on Berkeley street corners. His words were, “As far as I’m concerned, a Socialist is the same damned thing as a Communist!” I wasn’t sure exactly what Socialists were, but now I knew they could be found in Berkeley.

After completing his teaching assignment, my father was transferred to Fort Lewis, but after a few months was suddenly ordered to Germany. We drove across the snowed-in West in December, arriving at my mother’s parents’ home in Brooklyn. Shortly after Christmas, my father left for Germany. I, my mother, my brother, Bill, and my sister Pat lived with my mother’s family for the next eight months.

Nana’s home, half of a duplex, was on Ocean Parkway, just below Avenue U. A friend at San Francisco State later exclaimed, “But that’s a Jewish neighbor hood!” It was also a very Italian neighborhood. My grandparents lived there because my grandfather, William Henry Kelly, was Jewish, given that his mother, Katherine Scheer, was Jewish. She had married an Irish cop, John Raymond Kelly, whose beat was in Central Park; was disowned by her family, as was the custom in the 1800s; and raised her 18 children as Catholics. However, she told them they were Jewish Catholics and taught them the traditions, which my grandfather passed on as best he could to his three daughters.

As a result, my mother, Marie Cecile Kelly, devoted to the Sacred Heart, knew how to keep kosher, although she didn’t; would swear under her breath in Yiddish, so we shouldn’t know what she was saying; made a wonderful sandwich spread for school lunches that I later learned was called chopped liver; and when asked, as occasionally happened, if she was Jewish, always replied, “Who’s asking?” She once told me, “Jesus was Jewish, his mother was Jewish, all his friends were Jewish; so for me being Catholic is just another way of being Jewish. I don’t know from Protestants, but they’re not my problem.” Well, that was Paul’s theology.

Seventh grade at Boody Junior High, P.S. 228, was intense and my first contact with Jewish culture, but I don’t recall anything of great significance for my intellectual history. My most pleasant memory is of getting a knish stuffed with meat and covered with mustard as I walked to the local movie theater on Avenue U with my cousin Tommy every Saturday.

Always before, being Catholic was merely something I did with my parents on Sundays, but in Brooklyn I began to learn the content of Catholic faith, taking catechism classes at age 11 in preparation for my confirmation at St. Patrick’s parish. The Baltimore Catechism seemed like a logical system. At least, each point of doctrine had to be true in order for the ones following it to be true, but I could not see how one could deduce the latter from the former. I was most struck by, and have never forgotten, the Catechism's first two lines: "Why did God make man? So that man could love Him." That is a genuinely religious concept, because it states a fundamental value, because it cannot be falsified by any conceivable fact, and because almost every other Christian belief follows from it. It is specifically the basis for free-will theology, which does much to justify God’s ways—not that I was aware of any of that at age 11.

In the 1950s Catholicism seemed (at least to me) to be all about sex or, more precisely, about not having sex. Jesus was a virgin, his mother was a virgin, all his friends were virgins, and all the saints were young women who had been martyred for refusing to have sex. We were taught to be pure in thought, word, and deed. Even thinking about sex was a terrible sin that God would punish us for. Nothing was taught about forgiveness.
One night I had an erotic dream, in which I was standing before a naked woman. On her right thigh was a tiny devil, on her left a tiny angel. They beckoned me, and as I stepped forward, one of them shoved me. I fell into her, exploded into a fire of ecstasy, and panicked awake. Afterward I wondered: Was sin such joyous fire? Should I have confessed for having such a dream? And which one shoved?

One day I found a copy of Abraham Merritt’s The Kraken Wakes lying on the sidewalk as I walked home from catechism. I read it, fascinated, certain that doing so was sinful, given how utterly different the world he described was from Brooklyn Catholicism. When I finished it, I threw it in the garbage.

My catechesis had long-term consequences for me. In my entire life, I have never had a wet dream, despite my high libido. That is how Catholic my conscience has always been. That is how deeply that programming penetrated. And during that period I suffered for weeks from the first prolonged depressions that I can remember.

Brooklyn at Eleven

What is more intimate than death—but love?
I dream of abandoning myself by night
And by day. The Spirit's siren song above,
The body's gut demands on left and right:
Greeley's left me half in love with God
Again as I was, at eleven, with Ozma.
Fascinated by evil: thus I read
Abraham Merritt's romantic phantasma-
Goria I found on a Brooklyn street
On my way home from catechism,
Terrorized by hellfire, sure my defeat
By sex was at hand. Grace's sweet schism
Would not save me from my self or the kraken
For years to come: Brooklyn, let me awaken.

On the troopship, the S.S. Barrett, going to Germany in August 1952, I read through Herb Philbrick’s I Led Three Lives and was quite appalled to learn that Communists intended to destroy America. When we joined my father, he was battalion commandant in Dillingen, a former episcopal seat, halfway between Ulm (birthplace of Albert Einstein) and Augsburg (of great significance to Protestants). We lived in the next village to the north, Lauingen am Donau, in a twenty-room mansion confiscated from a Nazi party member; it also had been the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. I played beneath the walls of the castle where Albertus Magnus was born (as I later learned), on the banks of the Danube where he had played as a boy. Almost every day we drove from Lauingen to Dillingen and back, across what had been the border between Catholic and Protestant Europe for several centuries.

I was very active as a Catholic during this period. I remember lying on my mother's bed during the afternoons, saying the rosary with her and my siblings. The post chaplain had a special mass for us kids on Saturdays and would not allow any adults at it. I don't remember any details of his homilies, but I felt very comforted by them.

I read all the church pamphlets that he kept in the lobby. One of them, intended to defend the Church against Protestants and other scoffers, seemed especially important. A passage in it, answering a question about how Catholics can believe in such strange doctrines as those of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, asserted that Catholics are not required to believe anything by blind faith, but instead have all the doctrines of the Church proven to them logically. "Clearly," I thought, "one purpose of the catechism was to prove the doctrines to me, but since I didn't see how their logic worked, I will have to learn about logic in order to understand the proofs." I filed this pamphlet away for future reference.

In the summer of 1953 we did the Grand Tour of Europe; my father again had many months of leave. Being 12, I missed a lot. In the Louvre, I did not see either the Mona Lisa or the Venus de Milo. In the cathedral at Pisa, I did not know to look up at the chandeliers from which Galileo had deduced the pendulum law. Sliding toward the decrepit railing on the edge of the tilted top floor of the Tower is not fun if one is somewhat nervous about heights.

But I did get to meet Pius XII. My mother got us into a general audience.

My father never did get to see the Pope.
By the time he had found a place to park,
The guards had closed the gates;
So my mother took me and Bill in.
In the Sistine chapel my mother said
The paintings were by Michelangelo.
I had wondered if they might have been by God.

Soon he came in, rather frail and tired.
I knew nothing about holiness, but I know what I felt.
All the fat Italians cheered and clapped so much
He had a hard time blessing us all correctly.
(My mother said they were probably Protestants.)
I only pretended to kiss St. Peter’s ring.
I didn’t think it holy enough to not have germs.
He looked at Bill and asked, “Is he a good boy?”
(My mother said later, “He speaks seven languages.”)
“Oh, yes, Father, he tries,” she said.
Pius smiled and blessed him and passed on.
Outside in the plaza again, she said to Bill,
Triumphant, “See! He knew!”

As a result, I later remained aware of Pius’ career. I know he enabled Catholic scholars to participate fully in modern scholarship. I know he personally saved half a million Jewish lives during the war. And I know he set up all the machinery for the Second Vatican Council. All John XXII had to do was push the start button.

In the fall of 1953 we moved to Feudenheim, a suburb of Mannheim, and I entered ninth grade at Heidelberg American High School at age 12. In late October, I had a manic episode that lasted about two weeks, during which I believed that I understood the nature of the universe, the theory of relativity, etc. After a day or a week of logorrhea, in which I "explained" my discoveries to anyone who would listen, I wrote a paper of 1500 words on my understanding, but it made little sense later on; so I threw out the last copy of it in 1957.

One Sunday afternoon we went to see a Castle Frankenstein, somewhere near Mannheim. On the way there, I asked my mother if this was the castle that the story was about.

"No, dear," she replied. "Frankenstein is a novel by Mary Shelley, and it has nothing to do with this place. Frankenstein just means `the French castle.'"

I think I must have felt very ashamed not to have realized that already. It was a lot like thinking one could visit the Tooth Fairy's Palace.

I think now of Russell at eighteen
In the dark stone spirals of Cambridge.
He first hears "The Tyger" when a friend,
Descending toward him unseen, recites it,
And his mind, widening,
Reverberates among the walls.

The castle was on a mountain,
The mountain on a high plateau.
The air in its courtyard was so thin
That when I dropped a straw into my Coke,
Breaking its surface tension,
It erupted over my head: thus
The mountain air geysered in my eyes.
When I looked out across the landscape,
That air thinned all colors to pastels,
Making nearby farms see far away.
It curved the landscape up,
Horizoned it at eyelevel,
Making me and the castle seem bowled
In the bottom of the world, and excused from time.

Just as I knew the castle must have a history,
I knew the tapestried bowl before me
Must be an illusion of the air,
But drunk with breathing such thin air,
I suddenly sensed that there must be
A vision in some even rarer air
That would make sense of everything I saw,
Some other tapestry, everywhere at hand,
Disguised by its transparency,
That I could see by looking with my mind.

But as I looked, my mind denied my eyes
The outsight that would have visualized the air,
As if by some sin I'd lost the right
To understand. Had I sinned? What sin of mine
Could have been so mortal it condemned me
Never to make sense of things, ever to live
In a world of surfaces that refused to mean?
I wondered about my dream with an angel
And a devil as the guide began our tour.

As he marched us, Germans, American
Officers, wives, children, the occupied
And the occupying, down medieval halls,
Up spiral stairs, I heard him speak
(Although my German was still too weak
For me to understand what he was saying)
Of neither history nor Mary Shelley,
But of the creation of a monster, saying
Here this, there that, episode had happened.

Standing in the tower, in a stone spiral,
I looked down into a room where sunlight
Transfixed the dusty air from empty window
To empty floor, a floor smoothed by centuries
Of emptiness, a potsherd whose inscription
Had been smoothed away, a floor that Mary
Shelley, a monster in her mind, had never seen.

I looked at the guide standing below me,
His face in shadow, his hand, palm up,
Offering us that room, confusing us
For his own reasons, offering us
A kingdom of illusions, and I knew him
For an emissary of the Prince of Lies.
I wanted to cross myself, but was afraid
To give myself away; and then was ashamed
Because I was afraid; so I turned away,
And silently I cried, and prayed for help.

I looked at my parents and all the others,
Wondering why they accepted his lies,
And saw that they wore their faces as masks:
They did not care about reality;
Preoccupied, they were content to see
Neither the historic tapestry
Nor the fictive truth, but only
What their self-made masks imposed,
The masks they had bought with their souls.
The Baron Frankenstein's sin had been
That he could not give his creation
An immortal soul; so these adults,
Having traded their souls for a lie,
Were each both maker and monster in one self,
And bowed beneath the maker's guilt.

I realized then that I knew nothing too:
I had not read the novel, did not know
The castle's past. I knew only
That the ragged tapestry,
Which these adults did not even see,
Could not be all—but if I could not part it,
Tell the merely real from what might be,
Tell what things meant, then I would know
No more, and be no more, than they—and that
Was the most mortal sin I could conceive.

And having conceived it, at once
I was guilty of it: beneath my hair
My mind collapsed into a tarry ignorance
That glaciered down behind my eyes,
Blinding me to what any shape might matter,
Pitching every chasm of my soul.

And that was the state of my soul for a year --
In what would have been despair
Save that I never ceased to hope,
Without one idea to guide me,
That somehow I could learn to see.

In this way I rediscovered gnosticism for myself: it seemed intuitively obvious that for me salvation lay in understanding, in knowledge, though not merely in intellectual information. But at the time, since I lacked such understanding, this "Castle Frankenstein" experience began a period of cyclic depressions, which arrived every two or three weeks for a year.

In the fall of 1954 I took geometry. I also came down with pneumonia for six weeks, for the middle two being confined in Heidelberg Army Hospital. I’d brought my textbooks with me in order not to fall too far behind. One afternoon, I puzzled over a geometry problem. Are transverse angles always equal? They look equal. Why not assume that they are? Wait.

Angles A plus B are a straight angle, 180 degrees.
Angles B plus C are a straight angle.
Therefore angles A plus B equals angles B plus C.
Subtract B from both sides.
Then angle A must equal angle C.

That was a proof, not an assumption, not a guess. In a flash I grasped the nature of geometry as a logical system: given a set of self-evident axioms, the conclusions deduced from them had to be true also. Such knowledge was certain and universal; it did not depend on anyone’s opinion. When I returned to class, I had mastered geometry. I'm sure I was a burden to the teacher, whom I could now correct.

In December 1954 we returned to the States, in time for Christmas at Nana's house in Brooklyn. There my cousin Tommy taught me about masturbation, which was almost as great a revelation as geometry had been. In California we arrived at San Carlos, where we stayed with Aunt Dolly and Uncle Wally for two months, while my father began his final assignment at the Presidio, as second-in-command of the California National Guard. We went househunting every weekend. During those two months, I investigated the history of alphabets and invented a phonemic shorthand system that I used for note taking in high school and college. My father finally chose a house at the uttermost western end of Tamalpais Valley, the southern portion of Mill Valley. In March I entered Tamalpais High. I was too far behind in geometry to catch up, and I was rather envious of a guy named Alan Rein, who was the best student in the class.

The preceding merely sets the stage for what follows.

One evening in the summer of 1955 I was sitting at my desk in an alcove of the basement suite of rooms my father had built for Bill and me. The black moods had come and gone every few weeks; one was on me that evening. I was wondering why people, especially my parents, would so often say one thing but do another, why beliefs and actions seemed generally unrelated. I was wondering why my friend Ted Giesecke should have to go to hell for being such a happy atheist, but I could draw no other conclusion from the Church's doctrines. (It was Ted's throwing firecrackers at the workmen building the new Catholic Church below his house that must, I thought, have condemned him, for he certainly didn't have the respectful attitude toward Christianity that apparently let some pagans through the pearly gates.)

Especially I was wondering about sex. After Tommy had shown me how to masturbate, I did not at first realize that this wonderfully pleasurable activity was something that the Church forbade. It took me even longer to get up the courage to go confess it. When I did, the priest said what I had expected, what I had nevertheless hoped he would not say: that it was unconditionally evil, that I must stop it immediately and never do it again. But when I got home, I realized that it seemed an innocent pleasure to me, that I did not, could not believe what the Church said about it; yet I also believed that I should believe what the Church said. This seemed an insoluble problem for the moment; so I laid it aside.

Rummaging in a drawer, I came across the pamphlet I had saved, that nihil obstat et imprimatur official teaching of the Church. I reread the passage I remembered, and thought back to my catechism. Since I hadn't understood the logic of it, I wondered whether anything had been proved to me or not. Oh, but I had mastered geometry; and since geometry is the archetypal logical system, I now knew how a logical system worked; and so . . .

(The thought that would have risen into consciousness next would have been something like, "The axioms of any logical system must be accepted on faith, but since this pamphlet, which is official teaching of the Church, says that nothing need be accepted on faith, I now know that nothing has ever been proved to me, and that I am under no obligation to believe anymore." But, before that thought could reach rise up into awareness, the whole Thomist system in me, its bubble pierced by a paradox, all that bound-up psychic energy, layer upon layer of social conditioning, exploded; a ball of ecstatic, intelligent light filled my vision; and all ordinary, rational consciousness ceased.)

The Renunciation

I learn at this wooden desk
How dogmas pretend a triangle's sharpness,
But darken by degrees between unmeeting lines.
I read they need no belief unproved,
But feel their millennia weigh black behind my eyes
Until I cannot see the matter in a shape,
Feel it curse the stiffening between my legs.
The tickles in my brain think almost only black-robed words,
But one thought breaks the surface of my mind.
As if the sun has come to visit,
Mind bursts light before my eyes,
Speaking too fast to hear but not to know.
As dark degrees sublime to joying waves
Breaking within and out of me,
I am wind over mountains.
But from tickles to wind, my heart beats once,
And I fall with the Earth around the Sun.
At this wooden desk, where words boil out,
I chant the agony of fall into myself;
I wail release of waves until I sleep.

Thus the tower veil is parted,
From the other side,
For one lightning frieze
That still informs my eyes.

However long the experience lasted—it felt both instantaneous and eternal—when it ended I broke forth in a babble of praise and sorrow, a lamentation that I was merely myself again, a lovesong of thanksgiving that such a thing had happened to me. For it seemed that, since the Church and all its doctrines had burdened me into blackness, nearly into death, God Himself—although I no longer knew whether he even existed—had stepped in and removed that yoke from me, saying, "This is forgiveness"—and forthwith I was in heaven and have known ever since that I dwell in his kingdom, that I am safe and always will be, that ultimately nothing can ever go wrong. The torrent of words poured on and on, until I dropped asleep in exhaustion.

(When I later read Bill Wilson’s account in Alcoholics Anonymous of his own enlightenment experience, I was surprised by his also describing it as feeling like “wind over mountains.” As for “joying waves”: too understated. The essence of such an experience is its bliss; it is ecstatic, an order of magnitude more pleasurable than even the most intense orgasm. The beatitude of the angels is not a tranquil serenity. It is an uproarious, never-ending, uninhibited sensual delight in playing with the divine. The Witches are far closer to understanding that Mystery than most Christians are. I’ll come back to that.)

The next morning I examined myself curiously to see what had happened. I no longer believed in God or in any of the tenets of the church—I was freed from that burden—yet now I felt a new obligation: to go discover for myself what the truth about things religious might be, not to settle for what anyone else believed, not to depend on anyone’s authority or opinion, but to find out what could be known with the certainty of at least a geometrical proof. I have been carrying out that obligation ever since.

I did not understand what my experience had been, but I knew that it was precious, and that I should not speak of it—especially not to my parents—until I did understand it. I knew it had been a great gift, and it began a period of freedom from the depressions. I learned later that some have called this sort of experience “the gift of divine grace.” That seems not too bad a name for it. I was given a “state of grace,” a certainty that I live in a state of spiritual innocence that cannot be revoked against my will, no matter how much I fail. As Blake said, “The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.” But that certainty of my ultimate safety did not and still does not isolate me from the world, does not keep me from making mistakes or thus from learning and growing, does not excuse me from any of the frailties and foibles common to humankind. It is just there, at my center, to tell me who I am whenever I ask. It also keeps my failures of self-esteem, a major symptom of my illness, from progressing to termination. I did not know at age 14 how close to suicide I must have been; a sufficient reason for the gift is that it saved my life. Salvation, after all, means saving. And since I know now how many have struggled for even a touch of what was so freely given to me, I know even more clearly how great a gift it was, for what could have I done at age 14 to have earned it?

Ever since then, it has seemed obvious to me that our concept of ourselves as isolated individuals, separate from each other and the divine, is an illusion. I come back to that theme many times in my poetry. Finding an explanation for how and why that illusion exists has been an exceedingly gradual process.

More recently, I have thought about how similar, and yet how different, my experience was compared to that of Joseph Smith, Jr. We were both 14. We were both in a state of severe clinical depression. We were both asking a profoundly serious question about the truth of religion. And we both were given an experience so joyful, so extraordinary, that it is inherently almost impossible to describe to other people. But, with due humility, I do not believe my experience was as profound or as important to humankind as his was. I was given another question. He was given an answer.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Turning Point--being the first chapter in To Madness Near Akin: The Spiritual Autobiography of Aidan Anthony Kelly

On the evening of Saturday, September 11th, 1976, I was attending a meeting—at Lydia’s home in the Richmond district of San Francisco—of the local council of the Covenant of the Goddess, the national church for Witches that I, my dear friends Tom DeLong (who wrote under his Craft name of Gwydion Pendderwen) and Alison Harlow, and a great many other people had created the year before. We were rather jazzed about COG. Seventeen covens of at least half a dozen different Traditions had signed the Covenant on June 21, 1975, bringing the church into existence, and had elected an interim board, with Alison as First Officer. A year later, the first official national board had been elected by the full procedures laid out in the charter and by-laws. At this meeting, we were electing the first official board for the local council; Lydia was chosen as its First Officer. Finally, the business completed, about a dozen people went home, leaving the rest of us to socialize.

I was still 35 that evening; I am now almost 70. It was exactly halfway through my life, so far. The story of how I became fascinated, then involved, with Witchcraft during the years from 1955 to 1976 needs to be very detailed. I will save that for later.

Because I had promised to help Dick and Judy move the next morning, I had decided before I left home not to take the first drink that evening. Long experimentation had proven to me that if I did not take the first drink, I could not get drunk. However, while my right hand was gesticulating punctuation of whatever we were discussing, my left hand reached out, seized the wine jug, and poured me that first drink.

After a while people in twos and threes began disappearing into the bedrooms. I wanted intensely to join them, but I had not yet drunk enough to overwhelm my still very good-Catholic-boy inhibitions. I could not go in by myself, but could not decide which woman friend to invite to come with me. Finally I took the hand of one of our priestesses and entered the master bedroom with her. As soon as I stepped into the dim room, a beautiful woman (now well-known as a writer), with a triumphant “Aha!”, grabbed me with both hands, helped me remove my clothing as rapidly as possible, and pulled me into a bed.

Later on Gwydion was teasing me, saying that only a true Irishman would insist on carrying the wine jug with us as we wandered from room to room, talking about . . . Goddesses? Magic? I cannot remember now.

Later still, an exquisite young woman gave herself to me. We made love; we walked about with my arm holding her close to me, talking with everyone; we went back into the bedroom and made love again. You see, I was an alpha male back then, not rich or powerful, true, but famous enough as a writer and ringleader in that faith community and immensely attractive to women, although one effect of my Catholic upbringing was that, even into my thirties, I could not grasp just how attractive I was. My wife, Melinda, has looked at photos of me from that era and says simply, “You were hot.”

Perhaps I glimpsed what rock stars experience with “groupies.” Melinda, who worked for ten years in the entertainment business in Hollywood, has told me of respectable middle-class women who did not hesitate to jump into bed with an actor or musician, then were bewildered afterward about what had come over them. That “what” was atavistic instincts, buried in each of us, that once helped guarantee the survival of our species.

A Puritan, ill-advisedly reading this, would by now be thinking, “Those Witches really do have orgies!” No, that’s not what they were—at least, the pejorative overtones of that term are completely inaccurate—but there is no established name for such events. “Dionysian” comes closer. They happened only spontaneously, by inspiration, never by planning. They happened when the energy of a group reached such a peak that it exploded into joyous celebration. And they happened rarely—I can remember only a half dozen such occurrences during the decade before that night—even though we all knew they were among the most extraordinary spiritual experiences we had ever had. Witches often refer to that phenomenon simply as “the Mystery.”

Puritans will also generally find it impossible to believe that, let alone comprehend how, such an event could be spiritual at all, but the Witches I know do not believe that the flesh and the spirit are opposed, or that sex and religion are opposed. Many have come to the Craft movement specifically because they felt, as I did, that they had been abused by the community they grew up in. They too resented having been lied to, by being told that sex is evil, sinful, dangerous, immoral, and so on. Many of them instead believe now that sex is religious, that religion is inherently sexual. Those beliefs are in complete accord with the genuinely fundamental tenets of both Judaism and Christianity—but that is a topic I will explore later.

Many people these days do think it perfectly okay to have sex just for fun—if your mental health allows you to. The atmosphere of a swingers party is hedonistic and, as far as I have observed, guilt-free—but not spiritual at all. In contrast, the “Mystery” of the Witches is not pious, not reverent—it is far too wildly exuberant to be so serious—but afterward all who have partaken of it know they have been in touch with an aspect of divinity that most people never realize must exist.

So I do not regret the sacramental sexuality of that September evening. I cherish the memory of every woman whom I have been blessed and privileged to adore with my body, my mind, and my spirit. Even 35 years later I still have a tenuous but perceptible spiritual bond with that woman writer. I regret that I did not ask that other young woman her name. But what I deeply regret, the grievous sin I did commit, was that about 3:00 a.m. I drove six people, including Gwydion, home over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, in a car with no brakes, fading in and out of blackout. I don’t remember how I got us all home.

The next morning, sitting on a bench in Judy’s yard in San Anselmo, hung over, having had little sleep, listening to the bells of St. Anselm’s, thinking about the previous night, I realized that my decision to not take that first drink was still sitting there, rather like an IBM punch card behind my left ear. It had not been executed. I had not changed my mind, but I had gotten drunk anyway. Deciding to not take that drink no longer kept me from drinking. I had no control left over whether to drink or not. “My God,” I said, “I’m an alcoholic!” Then I wondered how I knew that.

I thought about the insanity of that drive home not many hours before. I must have a guardian angel who’s been doing double duty for me. I felt a presence to my right. Turning toward it, I saw my angel clearly, in my mind’s eye. He was tall, robed in white, had no wings, and was glaring at me. He said, in my mind, “All right, turkey. Now you know. You do that again, you’re on your own.” He slammed shut his attaché case and left. Having felt his presence, I now felt his absence. I was alone.

I got up, went to find Alta, told her what I had realized. She was not pleased. She had been trying to ignore the evidence. She knew that when I drank, I sometimes ended up in bed with another woman. She did not approve of that, but she understood it; she never threatened to divorce me over that. But she did not want to believe that I was indisputably an alcoholic. She had gotten herself to Overeaters Anonymous a few months before, and she and my stepdaughter had often been discussing the Twelve Steps in my hearing. I was not consciously paying attention to their discussions, or perhaps I was unconsciously trying to ignore them. But I had heard; that is why I knew.

Because Alta had a copy of the A.A. Big Book, I was able to read through it before going to my first meeting. When I came to the Fifth Chapter, to the Twelve Steps, I thought, “This is how you do it!” I came to the Third Step: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our Higher Power.” At that moment I made the decision to do that; I knew that was what I would need to do; but I had no idea how to do it. Turning my will over to God seemed about as impossible as picking myself up by the hair and holding myself out at arm’s length. Looking at the rest of the Steps, I thought, “Perhaps these are the process that enables you do that.” As I later learned, that was not a bad guess.

On the evening of September 12th, 1976, I attended my first A.A. meeting, at the Island Fellowship on Lincoln Avenue in Alameda, California. I had trepidations. I had no clear idea of what I might be facing. Perhaps I would have to swear allegiance to 39 incomprehensible articles of faith, paint myself blue, and dance on the tables. That made no difference. Whatever it was, I had to do it, because the alternative was to die. There’s an A.A. saying: “There’s nothing like the threat of death to make a man reasonable.” It was a great relief to discover that all I had to do was sit at a table, tell the truth about myself, and listen to others telling the truth about themselves. Not that discovering such truth is easy or simple.

Thus I added a daily A.A. meeting to my schedule of freelancing as a book editor and continuing with my doctoral program, now beginning its fourth year. I explained what I was now doing to all those in my life who deserved to know: Wayne Rood, my mentor and best friend at the Graduate Theological Union; Bruce Armbruster, since I was editing science texts and monographs for his new company; Sarah.

“What happened to you?” she asked at Kirby Cove, where we were performing our annual commemoration of the Eleusinian Mysteries at the fall equinox.

“I got sober,” I told her.

She was more than disappointed. That was at least the third time I had walked away from her.

I also told Elaine Feigenbaum, the new Managing Editor whom the German owners of Scientific American had recently sent to take over the editing at W.H. Freeman and Company, its book-publishing subsidiary. She didn’t deserve to know, but I was being thorough.

After I had graduated with my M.A. in Poetry from San Francisco State in June of 1968, I went to John Gildersleeve, then the Managing Editor at Freeman, for whom I had done some freelance editing, and asked if he had an opening for me.

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t,” he said, “but there is a possibility.”

So, because Elmarie Hutchinson had asked if she could freelance instead of being on staff, John hired me to fill her position. For the next five years, it was the almost perfect job. For me it was relatively easy and stress-free. Not only was I good at it, but I also worked with some of the most brilliant scientists in the world, some of whom, like Fred Hoyle, had been my heroes during my teens. It also left me ample time and energy to work on our creating of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn—but I’ll come back to that.

In early 1973, just after my oldest daughter, Maeve Adair, was born (on January 12), Alta asked me if I had thought any more about going back to school to get my Ph.D. Sitting at a traffic light in Berkeley, I made the decision to do so at that instant. Maeve’s birth had forced me to grow up a little more; it was now or never. I also knew from talking with friends that at the Graduate Theological Union I would be able to design my own doctoral program, instead of being forced to study what someone else thought I should be interested in.

But I needed letters of recommendation, and almost every teacher I’d worked with had passed on, moved on, or become otherwise unreachable. Wondering what to do, I remembered the advice I’d given to Elmarie a year or so earlier. Having rejoined the staff, she had decided she needed to go earn her Ph.D. in genetics. (Publishing is one of the very few industries in which having a Ph.D. is considered an advantage rather than a disability.) But she too had lost touch with previous teachers and was wondering what to do.

“Elly,” I said, “you’ve only been working with some of the greatest geneticists in the world. Ask them. They know what your abilities are.”

“Oh,” she said. “I wouldn’t ever have considered imposing on them.”

“I don’t think they’ll consider it an imposition,” I said.

And they didn’t. The Freeman authors were generally very grateful for our work on their behalf. She asked; they wrote; she later received her Ph.D. from the University of California.

Now I needed to take my own advice. The major barrier I was facing was that the GTU worked in cooperation with the University of California, to which I needed to be admitted as a graduate student. And so it came to pass that my application included letters of recommendation from John Archibald Wheeler, then the world’s greatest expert on the mathematics of relativity; Sir Fred Hoyle, astronomer and science-fiction author; and James Schevill, whom I had studied with at SF State (Wayne was later much impressed by my having the letter from Schevill, whom he considered to be one of the greatest religious dramatists of the century). The application also mentioned my GRE score of 1560. (I’ll explain later why that score resulted in good part from my being an Army brat.) Soon after I had mailed all that, I received a phone call, at 10:00 p.m., from a UC administrator, saying essentially, “You’re in! You’re in!” I did feel very smug about that.

During the last half of 1973, I studied a Greek textbook for about an hour a day, on the commuter bus from Oakland to San Francisco and back. As a result, when I began my program at the GTU in January of 1974, I could already read the New Testament in its original language, as well as the Septuagint. A translation is always someone’s opinion about what the original meant.

I resigned from Freeman at the end of 1973. Richard Warrington, then the President, was quite supportive. He commented that for the very talented people who were good editors, working there was merely a way station. I took the $5000 I had accrued in my retirement fund and prepaid for my entire doctoral program. (Those 1974 dollars were equivalent to about $50,000 now in buying power.)

Just before I began my program, Mary Hogue, a secretary at Freeman and the divorced wife of Harlan Hogue, who was somehow still a professor at the Episcopalian seminary within the GTU, recommended that I immediately look up her old friend, Wayne Rood. I did find him in a hallway on the first day of classes, gave him Mary’s regards—he was glad to hear about her—and asked if I could please enroll in his seminar on creativity. “Well, it’s already too full, but come on,” he said.

There were 16 people in the seminar—a huge class for that graduate program—and a very varied crowd they were. There was Jim Gauer, an ex-Jesuit who had done undercover labor union organizing in South Korea and who went down to Hollywood to edit a film whenever he ran out of money. Kent Nerburn was a sculptor who could articulate the creative process of his work. I wish I could remember all the details of the lives that were shared. The discussions were wide-ranging and intriguing. By the end of the quarter I had asked Wayne if he would be the chair of my doctoral committee. He accepted and said, “As your political commissar, my job is now to make sure you get your degree.” The GTU, staffed almost entirely by ordained ministers, operated with rules far more ethical and compassionate than the rules at many other schools.

At the end of the quarter, the seminar went for a weekend retreat at a campground in Marin County. On the first evening, after the Roods had gone off to their cabin and the rest of us were sitting before the fireplace in the lodge’s main hall, in the midst of the conversation, one of the others said to me, quite hesitantly, “Aidan, do you know there are rumors going around the school that you’re involved with witchcraft?”

I thought for a moment, then said, “Well, the reason for the rumors is that they’re essentially true.”

There was a silence. Someone asked, “So, what are you into? Dark forces?”

“No,” I said. “Goddess worship.”

The group erupted into laughter, and Kent said, “Heck, I worship a goddess myself.”

Phil Mullins, who would become a philosophy professor, hunkered down into the couch, chewed on his pipe, and said, “People are so damned interesting.”

Much conversation followed, with me giving an overview of the history, theology, and practices of Gardnerian Witchcraft. They were fascinated, but they offered to not mention any of it to Wayne. Although we all loved and trusted him already, no one was sure just how he might take it.

Wayne was an amazing man in many ways. He was raised as a Seventh-Day Baptist, a tiny dissenting sect from England, with one seminary, in West Virginia. He earned his doctorate in historical theology, but little theater was his avocational passion; when he got tired of the traditional lecturing format, he began using theater as a vehicle for teaching theology. I composed and helped perform incidental music for performances of Auden’s For the Time Being in late 1976.

During a course on, essentially, educational psychology and pastoral counseling, Wayne told us his autobiography, explaining that, at graduate level, students must understand who the teacher is in order to understand why the subject matter of the course is important to him. He told us of the day when, walking down along Strawberry Creek on the University of California campus, he realized that he needed to become a minister, which he proceeded to do. He told us of the day when bodies began washing up on the seashore by his church in Connecticut, and he realized he needed to volunteer to serve as a chaplain. He told us much about serving for forty months, with no vacations, as a chaplain for a beachhead battalion in the south Pacific (they go in the night before, in order to hold down a beach for the Marines to land on in the morning). When he joined his unit, it had 15,000 men; by the end of the war, it had 300. His unit was scheduled to be among the first to begin the invasion of the main island; Wayne knew he would not have lived through that. But instead, because of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his was the second unit to begin the occupation.

There are no standard names for what I felt at that moment. Wayne, one of the most admirable human beings I have ever known, this good man, who had touched and improved the lives of thousands of students, was alive because of that appalling evil—perhaps Hiroshima saved more lives than it took, but Nagasaki was pure evil. He commented that he had turned his life over to God early in the war, and when he returned home, he had never bothered to take it back. So when I first saw the Third Step, that decision to turn one’s life over to God, I knew that it could be done.

From 1974 to 1976, I freelanced almost fulltime for Freeman. But then, in late 1976, when Gunder Hefta, my good friend from the poetry program at San Francisco State, who had become Managing Editor after John retired, decided to move on, the Germans sent Elaine (we have completed that loop), with orders to cut loose all those uppity editors with ridiculously high standards whom John had hired. Another editor, Michelle Liapes, who had been a year ahead of me at Tamalpais High, filled me in on the in-house machinations. Nevertheless, I found myself with no cash flow by the end of the year.

However, my good friend Peter Beren, whom I had met through the brilliant clairvoyant reader Helen Palmer, who had connected with Alta and me at the Berkeley Psychic Society, had earlier that year been offered a position as Managing Editor at And/Or Press, a new publishing company in the East Bay, on the condition that he get some hands-on training in copy editing. He asked if I could help him; so I had him work with me on editing some science monographs, until he felt confident that he knew enough to supervise the copy editors. He then accepted the position.

Now I went to him, told him what had happened at Freeman, and asked if perhaps he might have some work for me. Yes, he did.

And/Or was a rather odd company. It had been put together by half a dozen Jewish ex-dope dealers who needed something legal and interesting to do with their money. They would put out many reference books dealing with psychedelics, as well as radical politics, holistic health, and many “fringe” topics. Their authors included Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Jacques Vallee, Ernest Callenbach, among others. I co-authored about half a dozen books for them during the twenty years that I worked with them on and off.

The project that Peter needed help with was indeed a mess. The beginning of the book was already in page proofs, the end hadn’t been written yet, and everything in between was at every stage of the publishing process. Could I possibly get it straightened out?

Looking it over, I saw that I could. It was essentially an agricultural textbook; I had handled several of those for Freeman. With a great deal of hard work by many people during the following months, the book was published and became a huge success. The irony is that, starting at three months sober, I thus helped create the Marijuana Growers Guide. It was given rave reviews, as an agricultural textbook, by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the High Times. It was used as the handbook for most of the marijuana grown in the USA for the last 35 years. It is still listed on, with my name prominently displayed as its editor. I have wondered just how much bad karma I thus accumulated.

Getting sober—more accurately, getting comfortable with being dry—was not easy. It never is, for anyone. I have not had an alcoholic drink since September 12th, 1976, but I had to totally restructure my life and my beliefs in order to persevere in that. My initial problem was that I was the only sober Pagan around. I had no idea how to use the Craft to work the Twelve Steps, and there was no one, in the Craft or outside it, who could give me any advice. I had the First Step down; I admitted with no reservations that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. But the Second Step? Came to believe? I then had no beliefs that were of any use for working the Steps. I understood that the program, that recovery, depended on rigorous honesty. It was not only useless but probably harmful to pretend to believe something that I in fact did not believe. So what did I do? I went to a meeting every day, and complained every time I spoke about how painful life was.

I had disengaged greatly from the NROOGD in late 1973, in order to free up time for my doctoral studies. Now I had to disengage even more. After the athame had been dipped into the chalice, which was then passed around the circle—those had been the most frequent occasions on which I had taken the first drink, and it was difficult to be in circle and yet not drink. On October 29, 1976 (according to the records that I have kept), Sarah was going to take her Garter as High Priestess of the Moebius Strip coven, and she begged me to come to the ritual. I was sorely tempted, but I knew it would be a rather high-energy evening, and Alta convinced me that I would in fact be risking my still very fragile sobriety. I apologized to Sarah, I declined, and I tried to explain. She could not understand my reasons and was furious with me. Fortunately, she was never able to stay angry at me for very long.

I began going to A.A. meetings up in the hills of the East Bay, in the wealthier neighborhoods, where the members did not think I was showing off if I mentioned my graduate studies or that I had read a book. One evening in January, after the meeting, Paul came over to me and said, “Aidan, you’re a lot like Samson. You’re going to kill yourself with the jawbone of an ass if you don’t learn to shut up at meetings and listen. You’re spending your time thinking up what to say when your turn comes, instead of hearing what everyone is saying. Do you have a sponsor?”

“Yes, Art N.”

“I don’t like the way Art sponsors. He’s too laidback. He’s not going to give you the kind of guidance you need.”

Paul went on at great length. When I got home, I thought about what he had said. I knew Paul was smarter than me; that was essential. I knew I could not lie to him, by omission, commission, or putting a spin on anything. He was half Icelandic, half Native American, Jesuit educated, and one of the best Oriental art dealers in America. I called him up and asked him to be my sponsor.

“Good,” he said. “I was hoping you would ask. Now that I’m running your life, this is what you’re going to do. At meetings, you will say, ‘I’m Aidan, I’m an alcoholic, and I pass.’ I want you to listen. I’ll let you know when I think you might be ready to talk. And if I ever hear that you’ve talked at a meeting I wasn’t at, I’ll come over and knock you through the wall. You know that’s not how A.A. works, but that’s what you need, and if you don’t like it, you can fire me.”

I knew it would be stupid to ignore the advice of a man with twenty years sobriety who obviously cared a great deal about me; so I began following his instructions. And I did learn more by just listening.

By March 1977, I could not stand the stress of circling but not drinking any longer and dropped my Craft activities entirely. Alta had resigned from our coven, Eurynome, in December and turned it over to Judy. For the next six months I went to A.A. meetings without any outside source of spiritual strength. It was as dry as living on a diet of sand.

After I had been silenced for six months, Paul gave me permission to speak at a meeting one night. Afterward he came over to me and said, “Aidan, you’re still not getting it. You haven’t connected with the heart of the program. You’re going to die drunk. You have nothing to prevent that.” And so on. His intensity frightened me. I did not doubt that he knew something I could not yet comprehend.

When I got home, I used a trick I had read about. I kicked my shoes under the bed, got down on my knees to pull them out, and while I was down there, prayed. It was a simple prayer, but one I meant: “God, please help me. I don’t want to die drunk.”

And while I was on my knees, it occurred to me that it was now nine months during which I had not taken that first drink. I knew I had no more power to avoid that drink than I had had on September 12. Somehow the impossible had in fact happened. Somehow what I could not do for myself had been done for me. One plausible explanation for this utterly improbable fact was that there was Somebody Up There (or in some direction) who did indeed care enough to do the impossible for me. And this was my story. This had happened to me. Everything else, the Gospels, every other scripture, was someone else’s story—but this was mine, my version of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum: I have not drunk; therefore I am alive; therefore God (or a reasonable approximation thereto) must exist. I had already had to totally rethink the philosophical bases for my life many times—and this time would need to be even more total than ever before.

I had not arrived at any firm decisions or conclusions before September. As my first A.A. birthday approached, Alta and I began discussing what religion we might try to raise Maeve in, now that we were no longer practicing the Craft. (Wayne told me that, since she was almost five, her religious proclivities were already firmly in place.) I suggested to Alta that we might try going to Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes, down by the lake. I had heard that the liturgy was very different from what it had been back in the 1950s. Alta thought that was worth a try.

So, on Sunday morning, September 12th, 1977—which was also Alta’s 43rd birthday—we sat down in a pew in that church. For the opening hymn, I found myself singing “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” an English version of Freude, schöner Gotterfunken, the chorale in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and I began weeping. (I’ll explain later why that chorale has special significance for me.) The Cantor (that’s what he was in that particular church) led the congregation in amazing new hymns and prayers. Before the Nicene Creed, he remarked, “If the theologians can sing our songs, then we can pray their prayers.”

I was thinking, “So, the Reformation has finally caught up with the Church—or vice versa.” I had passed my doctoral comprehensive examination in New Testament Studies in the middle of 1976. I was trained as a Roman Catholic theologian—although, oddly enough, most of the training had been carried out by Protestant ministers. I didn’t think there could be a vast number of people in the world who knew even more about Christian history, theology, etc., than I did—but I knew that for me, all that learning was just intellectual information.

That was one factor in what happened next. The other was Monsignor Clogher, perhaps the least likely vessel for the Holy Spirit that I have ever seen. I got the impression that he said this English Mass, in his thick Irish brogue, because Rome said he had to—but he didn’t have to like it.

At the end of the Mass, Monsignor was making announcements.

I was a mess. I had been crying almost uncontrollably during most of the Mass and did not have even a Kleenex with me.

Monsignor was encouraging the congregation to bring more family and friends to church.

I was thinking, “Can I do this? Could I come back to this church, with all I think I know about it? Is there room in the church for someone like me?”

Monsignor waved his arms at the empty pews, looked straight at me, and said, “There is room in the church for all who wish to come.”

The impact of his words was almost like a physical blow. That wording had little to do with what he was announcing. I could not doubt that those words had been addressed to me. I had never known or believed that a message could be delivered so forcefully and clearly, in plain sight, with no one else aware of what had happened.

As we walked out of the church, me with my nose running, Alta looked at me and said, “Kelly, you had better make your peace with the church.”

I nodded. “Yes, I think I must.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Of Clothespins and Humanity

Being that our newly rented most-of-a-house came with almost no utilities, we decided to rent only a clothes washer. Why pay Entergy to dry clothes and heat up the house, and then pay Entergy even more to run the window AC units to cool down the house? It’s 90 outside and sunlight is free. Hey, if you’re worried about dependence on foreign oil, degradation of our environment, etc., go for clotheslines.

So I bought 200 feet of clothesline for $6.70 and a package of 50 clothespins for $1.00 (plus tax). Then with nails, wooden fences, boards, and cinder blocks, I strung up clotheslines in the side yard. Picking up the package of clothespins, I thought, “$1.00 for 50. That’s 2 cents each.” I looked closely at the package. Made in China. Of course.

Of the 2 cents per clothespin, probably 1 cent went to China, and some tiny percentage of that penny went to those in the American-financed factory who manufactured the pins, probably uneducated girls from the countryside, who are paid 25 cents or a dollar or whatever number per day. Neither American “liberals” nor American “conservatives” understand the reality or the importance of their work.

Isn’t it terrible for them to be paid so little? No. The buying power of their pay enables them to survive, and there as here, the Chinese like to live with others, friends if not family, pool their resources, and have enough to even improve the quality of life.

Isn’t it terrible to send work to China that could be done here? No. If these clothespins were made here, I couldn’t have afforded them. Entergy would probably have been cheaper.

None of those considerations are relevant. In fact, they are ludicrous. What is the real issue?

Melinda insisted I read a book. I finally did. It is Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, the first married couple to share a Pulitzer Prize, for their reporting for the New York Times. It is meticulously researched. The title comes from something said by Mao Tse-tung (or ZeDong), of all people: “Women hold up half the sky.”

It is a profoundly disturbing book. Kristoff and WuDunn were ashamed when they realized that, in pursuing the hot stories, they had been ignoring probably the most important and appalling reality of our time: throughout the world, most women in most societies are denied education, medical care, and freedom, and can be kidnapped, enslaved, raped, beaten, and murdered with impunity. I too felt ashamed not to have known that, and I think any sane person would feel the same way.

Kristoff and WuDunn explain that, throughout the world, uneducated rural girls are regularly kidnapped or tricked into going to a distant city on the promise of a job. Instead, the trafficker sells the girl to a brothel owner, who enslaves her. She is raped, beaten, and threatened with death until her will to resist is broken. Usually she will die within a few years of AIDS. There are more sex slaves in brothels around the world right now than the total of all the black slaves that existed in America before our Civil War. The situation is worse, not better. One can reasonably think that American women have some nerve being concerned about their rights, equality, etc., when even the poorest women in America are better off than the vast majority of women in the rest of the world. (Well, except for the women enslaved in American brothels. That is a reality here also.)

You see, every young woman in an American factory in China has been rescued from that danger. The Chinese government knows that. It is doing more to combat sexual slavery than most other governments in the world. So, as I hung our laundry on the clotheslines, I reflected that every clothespin, or every so many clothespins, represented one more Chinese girl not sold into slavery, into a life that fits Hobbes’ description of being nasty, brutal, and short.

I also reflected on a related crime against humanity: the destruction of a person’s ability to enjoy sex. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations at its formation and inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, declares that having a satisfying sex life is a fundamental human right. The USA was a signatory to that. It should be an embarrassment that we do not enforce it.

Now, a fact, one rarely discussed in public, is that some people enjoy watching other people have sex. IF the people being watched are in fact freely consenting adults having fun, I do not think there is any ethical issue here. Further, if one understands a fundamental tenet of both Jewish and Christian theology, that the commandment in Genesis 1 to “go forth and multiply” proves that sex cannot in itself be sinful (the belief that sex is inherently sinful is certainly the most catastrophic heresy ever to infect Christianity—or any other faith, for that matter), then one cannot make out a prima facie case that there is any moral issue here either.

Given that argument, is it immoral to look at videos online of people having sex? If one were looking at freely consenting adults, perhaps not; depends on your own canon. If one is viewing films made by the folks in the San Fernando Valley who have their own annual version of the Academy awards, perhaps that would be the situation. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s not. Instead, one is looking at enslaved women being repeatedly gang-raped. That bothers my conscience. And every time one views such a film, one is to some degree encouraging the predators to find and enslave another young girl somewhere in the world.

There is a wonderful passage in the Didache, the first Christian liturgical manual, written toward the end of the first century, that I will use as a springboard: “There are two ways, the way of life and the way of death,” the way of clothespins and the way of pornography. Choose clothespins. Buy Chinese.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thirteen Suggestions for Parents

1. If you don’t want your son to lie, don’t punish him for telling the truth.

2. If you don’t want your daughter to be abused or exploited, praise her uniqueness and teach her to question authority.

3. If you want your son to be brave and prudent, teach him not to take unnecessary risks.

4. If you want your daughter to be loyal, always take her side and defend her.

5. If you want your son to be healthy, do nothing that damages your health.

6. If you want your daughter to know who to trust or not trust, don’t hang out with untrustworthy people, and never lie to her when she deduces what you are thinking or feeling.

7. If you want your son to be financially competent, teach him the difference between needs and wants.

8. If you want your son and your daughter to be happy adults, teach them that our sexuality is our greatest and most God-like gift, that it is also fragile, and that it is foolish to risk damaging our capacity to fully enjoy it.

9. If you want your son to be reverent, teach him to believe in a deity who is worth believing in, who is compassionate, not vengeful, who heals our illnesses and does not punish us for being ill.

10. If you want your daughter to be patriotic, teach her the facts about our country’s strengths—but also its weaknesses.

11. If you want your son to be just to all people, never treat him unfairly.

12. If you want your daughter to be temperate, be willing to compromise.

13. If you want your son and your daughter to have fortitude, choose what is right, not what is easy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Aphrodiphobia, the Sistine Heresy, and Ecstasy

"If Catholicism were really like what Greeley describes, there would be no need for the Craft."
Lady Epona (Julie O'R.)

I’m 69; I’m working on my autobiography. This essay will probably become part of it, though no doubt much rewritten. Here, following a particular thread, I include only the autobiographic details needed for the thread to make sense. There are many references to concepts, experiences, discoveries that I will not expand on here. I do not mean to tantalize; if what I set forth here intrigues you, please look forward to my life story. I’m thinking of titling it To Madness Near Akin (I read a lot of Plato during my doctoral program).

Given what I am discussing here, let me please emphasize that I am not speaking as a hostile non-Catholic. I was raised in the church and, after a commodius vicus of recirculation, was trained as a Roman Catholic theologian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, receiving my Ph.D. in theology from the Franciscan School of Theology exactly on my fortieth birthday. I then taught theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco and at Holy Family College for the next ten years.

In the 1950s the Roman Catholicism I was raised in seemed to be all about sex—or, more precisely, about not having sex. Jesus was a virgin, his mother was a virgin, all the apostles were virgins, and all the saints were young women who were martyred for refusing to have sex. We were taught to remain “pure in thought, word, and deed.” That is, even thinking about sex was a sin, to be expiated by, usually, saying ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys.

I don’t need to describe here all the details of what happened to me at age 14. What is relevant is that I hit upon a logical paradox in Catholic doctrine: by the official Nihil obstat; imprimitur teachings of the church, I was relieved from any obligation to believe in the truth of Catholic doctrine. The psychic energy thus released exploded into a mystic enlightenment experience of the sort described by William James. Afterward, I knew that I knew nothing—except that I was endowed with a moral imperative to investigate the truth of all things religious for myself. I have carried out that mandate ever since—at least when I had some free time.
However, being relieved from orthodoxy did not reverse the conditioning I had been subjected to. Almost all of the church’s teachings about sexuality now seemed like utter nonsense to me, but I was still an extremely inhibited “good Catholic boy” emotionally, and I was quite angry about that disability. Those inhibitions, combined with the high libido I had inherited from my father, combined with cyclic clinical depression, made my teen years quite difficult. As my oldest friend from high school, Alan Rein, once commented, “We were too busy being miserable to realize how much fun we were having.” I spent many years struggling to uncoil those tentacles of inhibition from around my neck, so that I could at least breathe normally.

At 14 I also discovered the myth of Aradia, which gave me a glimpse of a religion I could believe in. I was specifically fascinated by the idea that the ultimate divinity might be a female person, a Goddess. I have been exploring the implications of that idea ever since as well.

I soon began to speculate about what beliefs concerning sexuality might be healthier than what I had been taught. As a teenager, I thought that Christianity was based on the belief that sex itself is sinful. I know that a great many people do believe that. However, as I began to learn in the 1960s (first from Alan Watts), such a belief is just bad theology, opposed to what are historically the essential concepts and beliefs of Christianity. Let’s consider an easy example.

The first commandment that God gave to human beings, according to the first chapter of Genesis, was “Go forth and multiply.” In Jewish tradition, it is this commandment that requires Rabbis to be married. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, a “sin” is a failure (or, worse yet, a refusal) to fulfill, i.e., obey, one of God’s commandments. If we have been commanded to multiply, then we must have sex in order to fulfill that commandment; therefore sex in itself cannot be sinful. Instead, refusing to have sex is a refusal to fulfill that commandment and is therefore a sin. (We can skip all the casuistry about why celibacy is a virtue, right?). As the sociobiologists might point out, people who believe that God had commanded us NOT to multiply would strongly tend to die out—as has in fact happened to quite a few ascetic communities throughout history.

Wilhelm Reich and Aphrodiphobia

I first heard about Reich from my friend Gerard Kohbieter, whom I met at San Francisco State in 1959. Gerard was then in his forties. His family had escaped the Nazis by taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostock and then getting to the US. He was a professional magician, among other things, a devotee of Reich’s theories, and a thoroughly charming person. I remember an evening when, during a party, he and two other guys were juggling oranges in our kitchen. He told me that Reich was the only man whose writings had been burned by the U.S., the Nazis, and the Soviets.

It wasn’t until about 1963 that I got around to reading Reich and found him to be one of the dozen most important thinkers I've ever encountered and one of the three greatest psychologists of the last century. He provided the first confirmation that my beliefs about sexuality were not merely idiosyncratic. He titled one of his books with the first line of Blake’s quatrain,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time
Love! Sweet love! was thought a crime.

As I’ve sometimes said to my English classes, we are the children Blake was speaking to, and things haven’t got much better, have they?

Reich agreed with Freud's argument in Civilization and Its Discontents that the domestication of sexuality had made the creation of human culture possible. However, the restrictions on sex needed to enable culture to exist are far less stringent than those imposed by Puritanism. Objectively, orgasm is an intensely pleasurable physical phenomenon, but it causes no other physical changes in the organism. When it is over, nothing has been gained or lost or changed–except sometimes for pregnancy. Reich recognized that there is no objective reason why us human mammals should not indulge in sex very freely, casually, joyfully, valuing and safeguarding it, but always enjoying it, nor is there any reason why humans should instead hate, fear, and avoid sex, creating rules to make it almost impossible for anyone to have sex, let alone enjoy it.

Reich therefore deduced that the domestication of sexuality had evolved into a pandemic mental illness that infects almost all human cultures and that is as pathological as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or sociopathy. He labeled this illness the "Emotional Plague" (as his German term is usually translated). On it he blamed the worst social ills of Western and other societies, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust. He argued that any sort of negative attitude toward sex, any negative emotion or assumption about sex, is a symptom of the Emotional Plague, and that if after sex a person experiences guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, anger, etc., those negative emotions are caused not by sex itself, but by the negative programming that constitutes the Plague. His choice of Blake’s line displays his belief that a truly human society—peaceful, creative, happy, healthy—cannot be achieved until that Emotional Plague is overcome and extirpated from human societies.

I have long thought “Emotional Plague” to be too vague a name for this illness. It’s not just any old emotions that are the issue. Hence I recently devised "Aphrodiphobia,” which means specifically “fear of having sex," as an alternative name for it. My neologism also gives us “Aphrodiphobes” as a useful name for those who suffer from the illness and the corresponding adjectival form, “Aphrodiphobic.” (An aside to classicists: the name “Aphrodite” was related to "aphrodizein" a common Greek term for sexual intercourse.) We are immensely far from being able to combat this illness, of course, but being able to recognize it and name it is a first step toward that goal.

There are many symptoms of Aphrodiphobia: A woman is naturally capable of endless multiple orgasms. A woman who has few or none is suffering from Aphrodiphobia. A man is also capable of multiple orgasms, given a little recovery time between them, especially when young. A man can have an active sex life as long as he is alive. For a man to lose his libido completely in his mid-40s is a symptom of Aphrodiphobia.

In the Second World War, about 50 million people died. Although no one has attempted to keep accurate statistics, probably about that many women were raped. That too is a symptom of Aphrodiphobia. As William Blake said, ”War is Energy enslav’d.” That is, Blake has reached the same insight as Wilhelm Reich, that war is a sexual perversion, indeed, the ultimate sexual perversion.

Aphrodiphobia has waxed and waned from time to time and place to place. Very often Roman Catholics have suffered less from it than members of other faith communities. A bizarre detail of history is that, when Innocent III sent the Inquisitors into Provence to root out the Cathars, the Inquisitors quickly found that the surest way to identify the heretics was that the good Catholic girls would sleep with them, whereas the Cathar girls would not. (I learned this from H. C. Lea’s History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages.)

It was unfortunate and ironic that Reich apparently became manic about 1930, and his concepts and claims became more and more radical—which the Aphrodiphobes have used as an excuse to dismiss all his real work. He began to think of sexual energy, which he called Orgone Energy, as a fundamental force of nature, and he thought that if it could be collected and directed, it could cure many illnesses, including cancer. As a result, the Feds sent him to prison (where he died) as a cancer quack, and confiscated and burned his publications, even the earliest ones. (The copies Gerard showed me were legally contraband, much prized by collectors.) The Nazis, however, burned his books merely because he was Jewish.

In passing, let me note that his concept that sexual energy may be a fundamental reality may turn out to be correct. There are arguments to support that hypothesis in theology, psychology, and physics—but expanding on all that would take this essay too far afield.

Origins of the Sistine Heresy

When I was teaching church history at Holy Family College in the early 1980s, I finally read through the documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, and discovered that in 1964 the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned all the medieval theology that denigrated sexuality. The Council created the first written constitution that the Roman Catholic Church has ever had. In it, in the passage on marriage and sexuality, the Council threw out all the medieval insanity about sex and set forth a genuinely realistic and humane theology of sexuality. It proclaimed that sex within marriage has not one purpose but two. The first is the traditional and obvious one: to propagate children, on which the survival of the human race depends. But the second is that sexual intercourse itself is a sacrament, that is, the vehicle for the divine grace that enables a couple to maintain a happy marriage and therefore to have the motivation and commitment to do all the hard work of raising happy, healthy children. Yes, Virginia, Catholics finally capitulated to the obvious biological fact that God designed sex to be pleasurable in order to guarantee the survival of mammalian species, including us.

A non-Catholic might at this point ask, “Why was it important to make an official announcement about something so obvious?” But had it been obvious? Let me explain its significance by means of an incident my father related to me.

In 1964, five years retired from his career in military intelligence, my father went to his parish priest and said, “Father, I need to have permission to use artificial birth control. We’ve always used the rhythm method, but my wife’s cycle has become so unpredictable that won’t work anymore, and her ob-gyn says that another pregnancy could easily kill her.”

(At age 47 my mother still hadn’t hit menopause.)

The priest said what my father had nevertheless hoped he would not say: “The Church teaches that any birth control aside from the rhythm method is a serious sin. I cannot give you permission to commit a sin. I can forgive a sin, but I cannot permit one.”

“Father, I cannot risk my wife’s life.”

“I’m sorry, but in this situation the only moral choice is to abstain from sex completely.”

“Father, I have no gift for celibacy. I know I cannot do that. And I know my marriage and my life will fall apart if I cannot make love to my wife.”

“Mr. Kelly, I’m sorry. I do understand. I wish there were some alternative I could offer you. But you know as well as I that there is none, and I’d be lying if I said there were. Given what I’m hearing from Rome, maybe there will be one, maybe soon, but for now that is what our church teaches.”

So my father, after four decades of being a devout Catholic, found himself in a dilemma: he had to choose between the sin of using birth control and the sin of risking my mother’s life. He was also committing the sin of disbelieving the Church’s teaching on birth control. As a career Army officer, he had had to obey all legal orders or else resign his commission. As a Catholic, he believed that he had to accept all the Church’s teaching—and he could not. So he took the only remaining option: he walked away from the Church.

My father’s dilemma was typical for all too many Catholic men, and many marriages were destroyed by the misery of couples who could neither afford more children nor bring themselves to disobey Church teachings. The church had taught that having sex simply to enjoy it was a sin—and that teaching, which has no scriptural basis, was, I believe, a symptom of Aphrodiphobia. The new Constitution asserted that the enjoyment of sex is needed for the health of a marriage; that provided a theological basis for allowing use of birth control. But did that happen? No. Instead, the Catholic Church has endured a calamity, at least in the United States

To understand why, we need to backtrack, to the First Vatican Council, in 1870. At that time there had been a huge controversy, including many bigoted attacks against the Catholic Church, over its declaration that belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin was infallible doctrine. The council was concerned not with the doctrine—there was no controversy over it within the Catholic Church itself—but with defining and delimiting the concept of infallibility.

Many people then and now have considered belief in the Immaculate Conception to be tantamount to lunacy, almost always because they have not bothered to understand what the concept means; or to grasp that there were two immaculate conceptions in Catholic theology, that of Mary and that of Jesus; or sometimes even to understand the difference between the concepts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Virgin Birth. The former is in fact a rather inescapable corollary of free will theology, which has been central to both Jewish and Christian theology for about two millennia—but I’m not going to discuss all of that here.

In 1870, the Catholic bishops knew it was reasonable for people to question how any human being could be infallible. Hence the First Vatican Council promulgated a very precise definition of infallibility. It said that if the Pope, in unanimous agreement with the laity, the clergy, and the scholars, issued a proclamation defining a doctrine as essential to Christian faith, then by God’s grace that proclamation would be infallible, in the sense that it could not be so wrong that it would destroy the entire Christian community (although it might still destroy the Roman Catholic Church as an organization). Notice that the Pontiff can pronounce a doctrine to be infallible only if the vast majority of the Catholic people already believe it.

The Council also declared that believing absolutely everything the Pope says under any circumstances to be infallible is itself a heresy—they called it the Ultramontane heresy—which stands to reason. Since the Vatican is legally an independent nation-state (all that’s left of the Papal holdings in the Middle Ages), sometimes the Pontiff speaks as head of state rather than as head of the church—and in that situation is no more infallible than Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama. There are many church teachings that are administrative rules, not revealed doctrine—for example, the rules that women cannot be ordained, that priests must be celibate, that bishops must be appointed instead of elected (as they were for centuries), that the Pope must be elected by aged Cardinals rather than by an ecumenical council—and these have no theological claim to infallibility either.

The Vatican II Constitution for the Church is one of the most authoritative statements of Catholic faith ever issued, because it was promulgated by an ecumenical council, the highest authority in Catholic faith, with the consensus of every significant Catholic cleric and scholar in the world, including the Pope. It therefore met all of Vatican I's criteria for infallibility. Hence the Catholic people in general expected that at least some form of birth control would soon be allowed.

Instead, in 1968 Paul VI issued an encyclical on his own authority continuing the ban on birth control, and then claimed that his opinion was infallible! He thus, like many ordinary Catholics, committed the Ultramontane heresy. The result has been a catastrophe. At that point many American Catholics who thought like my father walked away from the Church also. Other Catholics, who believed that they did have the right to decide which teachings they should believe, decided (without ever using the term) that the Pope had become a heretic, have ever since ignored almost everything any Pope has said, have used birth control, among other issues, and continue to participate in the Eucharist every Sunday.

And in fact every Pope since Paul VI, in refusing to carry out the mandates of Vatican II, has been a heretic. I propose to call theirs the Sistine Heresy, in honor of Paul—since calling it the Pauline Heresy would be ambiguous. It has been church doctrine since about the thirteenth century that a Pope who ignores the decrees of an ecumenical council is in a state of heresy. More importantly, the Pope is a heretic simply because the people treat him like one. Instead of making a compassionate decision that would strengthen families, Paul made a decision that would continue to destroy families—and Catholic families simply refused to allow him to get away with that. The Constitution also proclaimed that the Church belongs to the people, not the clergy—and I think the people were thus exercising their ownership rights.

I have heard (probably from one of Andrew Greeley’s commentaries) that every year since 1968 the National Council of Catholic Bishops, which is the governing authority for the Catholic Church in America, has received a letter from Rome insisting that all the Church’s rules, including that on birth control, must be enforced. And every year the Council writes back, saying, “It is our considered professional opinion that if we were to attempt to enforce all the rules in question, the entire membership of the Roman Catholic Church in America would walk away. We do not believe this is the result you wish to achieve. Please advise.” This stalemate shows no signs of being resolved, and the policies of Benedict XVI appear to be rapidly worsening the crisis.

That issue aside, let me comment on another aspect of the Constitution’s teaching on sexuality. The passage on marriage argues that sex outside of marriage is wrong only because it can and often does damage the ability to form a total commitment to another person. The theology here does not assume that sex is sinful or evil or at all wrong in itself; it is merely a natural appetite. Rather, the argument is simply cautious: it is not prudent to risk spoiling something that can be infinitely precious. That is a rational argument, a far cry from medieval insanity. And why is such total commitment and fidelity important? It's not an abstract virtue, like duty, honor, country; those are necessary for the survival of society but rarely benefit an individual directly. The document argues (if one understands Catholic theological terminology) that the sexual ecstasy of a totally committed married couple is an order of magnitude beyond what anyone can experience in any other sort of relationship or context. Why?

Here I must offer my own interpretation of what happens; they just assert it, not explain it. A totally healthy and totally committed married couple can be totally open psychically to each other. They have no barriers, no secrets, no reservations. In the instant of mutual orgasm, their minds, souls, spirits, personalities, whatever you label it, merge into a single person. For that instant they break free from the illusion that we are separate individuals, and they feel the edge of the ecstasy of a full enlightenment. Afterward they know absolutely everything about each other, even more than before, though much of that knowledge cannot be stated verbally.

What sort of crackbrained metaphysical hogwash is all that?—you may ask. Actually, it’s part of Jesus’s own teaching. When asked about divorce (according to Matthew), he replied, “What did Moses teach? . . . That the two shall become one person. And what God has joined together no man can take apart.” I think he was describing psychological realities, not ecclesiastical rules.

No doubt you’re confused at this point, think I am misquoting, and so on. No, I’m interpreting the meaning, not the words. “The two shall become one flesh” is a Semitic idiom. It obviously did not mean that husband and wife would merge into one physical body. It meant that they would merge into one person, one personality. That merging experience is not a metaphor. It is real. I have experienced it. So have a great many other people. Few people talk about that, of course. Other people would think they were nuts, right? And if that’s what Jesus meant, how did he know about that?

Then Jesus goes on: if two people have merged like that, then they have been joined together by God, and it is impossible for them to be separated again. On the other hand, if they want to and can separate, then they had never been truly married in the first place. Either way, the concept of divorce is meaningless. Jesus was certainly not saying that whenever two people get legally married, God will always cooperate by validating it. That’s how bureaucrats think.

Just to rattle another cage, the Semitic idiom “body and blood” meant “entirely.”

Havoc has been wreaked
Whenever Semitic idioms
Were taken literally by Greeks.

In a full awakening, the barrier between the ordinary self and the Deep Mind vanishes: one feels one's immortality, one's eternal safety, and the ecstasy, an order of magnitude greater than that of the ecstatic couple, that is the continual state of the Deep Mind. And I am describing the foregoing from my personal experience.

Aquinas argued, if I understand him right, that the ecstasy of the Earth's guardian angel is again an order of magnitude greater than that of the Deep Mind. The next angel "up" from him feels ecstasy that is again an order of magnitude greater. and so on up the ladder toward, but never reaching, the infinite ecstasy of God. In the early 1980s I heard a young priest, Father Tom, deliver a sermon in the Oakland cathedral, with the full approval of Bishop John Cummins, saying that the mystery of sexuality goes to the heart of the Trinity, that human sexuality is one of the most fundamental gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that our sexuality even at its best is only an infinitesimal reflection of the sexual ecstasy that rages between the persons of the Trinity.

Of course, Catholics, and many other Christians, are hampered in grasping all this (among the other problems) by thinking of the Trinity as three MALE persons, and of Mary as the Perpetual Virgin. The concept of the Virgin Birth, and especially of the Perpetual Virginity (for which there is no scriptural basis), was also, I think, a symptom of Aphrodiphobia: Jesus could not have been free of sin if he had been conceived sexually, right? No, Jesus was free of sin because his will was free; sex had nothing to do with it.

The duotheism of the Wiccans, Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc., makes it easier to think of divinity as sexual. Let us ask some difficult questions.

Genesis says, "Let us make man in our image . . . Male and female he created them." If God's "image" is both male and female, then could the mystery of gender be an ultimate reality as well?

If, as the Mormons believe, God has a physical body and a real wife, then why not the Son as well?

If, as the Nicene Creed proclaimed, he was a "true man," i.e., "a man like us in all things except sin," then would he not as a Rabbi (his human calling) have been married?

If he had had children, would that have made him less of a Messiah?

Again it's the Aphrodiphobia, which defined sex as sin. All that was thrown out absolutely by Vatican II.

Perhaps you see where I'm going. Sexual intercourse is not only the sacrament that preserves the human race, but also the first step toward realizing our divinity, working out our salvation, and ascending into Heaven. Aphrodiphobia destroys that first step for almost the entire human race. That is the incredible spiritual calamity that we collectively are trapped in. If sexual ecstasy is our best path toward enlightenment and salvation, then it stands to reason that the forces of evil (if there are any aside from human weakness and illness) would want to destroy our ability to fully enjoy sex. Hence in hating sex, churches and The Church have served evil itself. Not comfortable to think about. But we must think.

Religion as Ecstasy

To recapitulate, the Vatican II Constitution of the Church argued that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong because it may easily damage the ability to form a total commitment to one’s spouse, and that strict monogamy is therefore the only moral form of marriage.

Am I agreeing to that? No, I’m not. It is a sensible argument. It is a prudent argument: sex is both precious and fragile; don’t risk damaging your capacity for enjoying sex. But it is still an argument intended to defend an obsolete morality, an argument that ignores the objective facts about human needs and behaviors, the most obvious being that strict monogamy itself damages the sexual capacity of persons who have no innate talent for being monogamous.

The exact location of the border between science and religion has long been disputed. One resolution of the problem is known as Gurdjieff’s Partition. (I suppose other philosophers may have offered similar proposals, but I learned it in reading about Gurdjieff.) It proposes that if a statement could be confirmed or refuted by any conceivable fact, whether that fact is already known or not, then the statement falls in the province of science, not religion. In contrast, a genuine religious doctrine must be inherently nondisprovable.

A person’s ability to maintain a long-term commitment can be measured, at least roughly. Research can establish whether there is a reliable correlation between sex before marriage and a reduction of that ability. Hence the Constitution’s assertion about sex outside marriage is not a theological argument at all: it is a scientific hypothesis, not a revealed doctrine. Current researchers have established that there is a monogamy gene—but only about 10 percent of the population has it, which certainly accords with statistics about marriage and divorce. The point I am reaching toward is that the sacramental merging of personalities can and does take place outside of monogamous marriage.

The year 1963 was the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties. It was the year of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the year when Bob Dylan invented electric folk rock, when Chet Helms took the format of Kesey’s Trips Festival and reinvented the rock dance. It was the year when Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service first performed together in public. It was the year of the Beatles. And it was the first year of a window that gave me and my friends a glimpse of paradise, a window that lasted less than two decades, because it was the Year of the Pill. For the first time people, especially young people, could enjoy sex freely with no fear of pregnancy—and we did. The STDs of that decade could all be cured by antibiotics, and we could live out our dreams of ecstasy, of plural marriage, of communal sex, of polyamory. Few of us would have used the word “sacrament,” but belief that sex could and should be sacramental was common ground for us, even more than radical politics was. In many ways, still chafing under the Catholic brainwashing that formed my conscience, I was more inhibited and Puritanical than almost anyone else in our network of hundreds of friends.

Our search for an adequate way of life is a good part of what led me and my friends to create the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn as a new Wiccan tradition. It was based on as much as we could find out in 1967 to 1969 about what Gardnerian practices really were. The details about its history, etc., are a story for another time.

It is known throughout the Craft, including its pre-Gardnerian forms, that a sexual initiation is traditional. It is never required, but for those who desire it, it is always an option. It is the most powerful and transformative type of initiation. It is also the characteristic of the Craft that most panics the Aphrodiphobes. They will, of course, insist that it must be immoral, exploitative, and so on. No, it’s not. Carried out by two people who are mature and secure enough, it can be an astonishing rite of passage, holy, sacramental, with the merging of personalities I have been describing.

Let me tell you about the woman I named Lilith, who has been my friend for forty years now. We were emailing each other a few years ago, discussing the year 1970. She has agreed to let me share part of her story.


I was steeped in the Catholic mystic tradition. Our good Irish nuns were forever telling us about the lives of the saints. For me the whole notion of kneeling on tubercular knees, going into ecstatic states, was "normal" fare: suffer enough to drive yourself out of your body beyond the physical and you attain a glimpse of God! So, when I got involved with the Craft, the Catholic mystic trad was a foundation for me. I had experienced "ecstatic" states throughout my childhood, and I wanted MORE of that.

My recollection of Brigid: OHMYGOSH! (said with full-on Valley-girl dialect!)

Judy came up to me that afternoon and said, "We're having a party here tonight and you're invited."

“OK, I live here, why wouldn't I be invited?”

“Well, it's a special kind of party. It's a Witch's Sabbat.”

(The words “Witch's Sabbat” turn slowly in my good Catholic girl's mind. I had spent my entire life until that point going to school, practicing piano, and doing homework! I was socially retarded! What IS it with Catholic education? Repression?)

“Of course I'll come!!”

I, of course, am way curious. . .thoughts of naked bodies, pagan sacrifice, strange incantations, . . . my mind went into overdrive! Imagine my surprise when I see this motley lot with kids and dogs and potluck and smiles and, jeeze, it all looked so normal! And here I am in my red velvet dress expecting some Hollywood B movie version Ah! the mind!

I remember standing in the circle and you asking if there was anyone present who wanted to be initiated. [This was our Order initiation. It mainly involved taking an oath and signing our membership list.] I just stood there rooted to the spot. I couldn't take my eyes off you. I was completely enthralled. And I was pushed form behind. You looked surprised and I looked in back of me to see who had pushed me. There was no one there. You asked me to pick a name, and the first thing that popped into my head was Zahran. You just shook your head No at me and said, "Your name is Lilith."

What was compelling for me was this: any religion that celebrated women, that included singing, dancing, and kissing, couldn't be all bad. It felt right. It felt like family to me. And I felt, for the first time in my life, that I belonged here. I always felt like an outsider or at best, at the edge of things. So I loved the ritual, but I think I loved you more. . . .

When I first opened up, in that period between The Frog House and Summer Solstice, I was out of control. Stuff would flood in, I could "see" everything, and functioning in any real sense was beyond me!

That ritual was so memorable for me. Through the woods from Glenna's house to this magical knoll under a full moon, naked! It was the first time I had taken my clothes off in front of anyone and it felt so right, so free. Coming back, I walked alone, seriously deep in thought. I could feel the ground beneath my feet shifting. I was conflicted about my life before, with Dennis, and this new possibility. I think on a soul-level I resonated deeply with this notion of the sacred feminine, and I connected to the reality that SHE comes in so many different forms, tall, short, beautiful, plain, and all so wonderful, and if they were all wonderful, there existed the possibility that maybe I was wonderful and beautiful too! . . .


I remember our Litha Sabbat in Lagunitas that summer . . . seeing you above me, transformed, enlightened, not a metaphor, because I rarely see auras, but I saw yours that night, rainbow hues rippling outward like a Van de Graff machine, "shining like shook foil," for you had dropped your psychic shields completely. I felt gifted and blessed that you could trust me so much that you became totally vulnerable, and I loved you. I hope you have always known that ecstasy was your true initiation . . . White Cord and Red Cord later were mere documentation.


Somehow, we got enmeshed, you and I, and you're right, I opened up to you, totally without conditions or reserve. Whatever happened in that moment happened only that one time and never again. It was, as they say, a defining moment. I suddenly had this self-realization. I also came to see the power of sexual energy and the possibility of transcendence, numinous. You opened the door of the timeless to me.

It is good to hear that for you something deep happened, and YES!! a true initiation into the mysteries of sexuality, divinity, the open door of possibility, all of that. I'm glad to hear from you that I stood truly naked, not just in body, but totally, radiant, whole and beautiful, that someone, you, saw that, that at least once in a life that could and did happen. I stopped looking for that quite a while back, not because I don't think it's ever possible again, but because it was just for that one moment, and that ignited the deeper search. So to say I am grateful is an understatement. How many times in our lives can we be told by someone that you changed the course of my life, and because of that I am better, greater, more possible in a world of limitless possibilities?


I'm glad to know I had such an overall positive effect on your life. I've often wondered about that, for you and others. Looking back, I can see that I could have been the "guru of a cult"--if I had been a psychopath or whatever, but I wasn't. I never gave the coven orders (can't you imagine them laughing in my face?) I had to persuade them that I was right, I didn't always succeed, and sometimes they showed me that I was wrong. So it should have been and was.

There were several evenings in those years when I realized I had made love to every woman in the circle, and I am grateful that most of the women who were my lovers are still, like you, my friends. A Catholic genius like Andrew Greeley would understand all that, but I doubt that very many ordinary Catholics (or other flavors of Christians) could. I often examined my conscience about whether I was merely another callous womanizer, but I don't think that was how women saw me. Z. Budapest, notorious as a separatist with a fine contempt for men in general, became my ally after my defense of women's rights at Caerdderwen guaranteed the Dianics their membership in the Covenant of the Goddess. I have heard that she told several people that I was not a "womanizer" at all, but the sort of lover that any sane woman would pray to have. Blew my mind, I tell you!


What a crazy time that was, but for whatever was going on in the interpersonal level with all the players, there was this thread of Wicca: the feminine, being a Priestess, feeling the current run through my body, feeling embodied by HER, being HER, bridging the gap between dimensions. This was the drug for me, the search for the deepest, for consciousness, for the Divine Connection of that Summer Solstice, that all too fleeting moment. I wasn't interested in the academic, the words of the ritual, where it came from. I was only after the energy that was invoked, pulled through, directed, what IT could do.

(The luxury of e-mail is that one is drawn to disclose more than what's comfortable.)

So!! Initiation on the deep level is VERY powerful. Perhaps that's why the Church is so repressive. That power unlocks the great secrets and mysteries of creation, opens the doors of the mind, and frees creativity, gnosis. We are/have God within. WE create and destroy. No longer are we victims nor do we have to remain on the sidelines of creation.

What were you thinking when you named me? No, I don't think you were "thinking," but rather it just came out of your mouth! And, like Lilith, I was banished from the garden (perhaps quite by luck!) but banished, nonetheless. Lilith, within me, survives. She is fierce, a warrior, compassionate, kind—surgical.

In a religion such as Wicca, where a woman's power is celebrated, nurtured, the levels of initiation serve to empower women, gradually, with care. That is, unless you've been "initiated" as I was. My perception was that the power coursed through me. The rest was more about tempering my spirit, maturing me to handle the power wisely.


Perhaps it is not obvious enough that Lilith’s initiation opened up the innate psychic abilities that I believe all humans have but are usually not aware of. Our coven had an extensive system for helping our members open up and train such abilities. The system had largely been devised by my wife Alta, working with her own extraordinary abilities, her broad background in psychology, and materials, both traditional and novel, we had received from other Witches. Lilith’s maturing comprised her mastering that system, going on to find even more advanced training, then developing her own system for such training. She has practiced as a clairvoyant reader and counselor for at least 30 years, and has acquired many of the “powers of the Witch” described in Leland’s Aradia. Many remarkable people passed through our coven; yet I have always thought that she was one of the greater success stories of our “grow your own witchcraft” experiment. Consider this anecdote she sent me:


In 1983, I took eight students of mine on a journey to Mexico. They had just completed a one-year seminar with me and the trip was their final. We camped on the beach in San Felipe. Every morning the old Mexican vendors would come by. The first day they tried to sell us stuff. The second day they just came and sat outside our RV until I came out with my coffee. They would smile, then come up to me, one by one, take their hats off, and take my hand. I understood, in the moment, that they wanted me to "bless" them for good luck, which I did every morning for ten mornings, and they would regale me with stories of how well they had done that day. It's clear to me that the "locals" sensed that we weren't the usual tourists, and these old men "recognized" me—interestingly, to the chagrin of a couple of my female students, who were in a power struggle with me. They struggled, I watched! For them, to see that strangers were paying respect to me was a breakthrough. Why are people so hardheaded? You just want to train them to develop their power and use it wisely.