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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, January 24, 2010

WHAT DOES SEX HAVE TO DO WITH IT?: A Consideration of Human Sexuality and the Spiritual Life

this is the song of mehitabel
of mehitabel the alley cat
as i wrote you before boss
mehitabel is a believer
in the pythagorean
theory of the transmigration
of the soul and she claims
that formerly her spirit
was incarnated in the body
of cleopatra
that was a long time ago
and one must not be
surprised if mehitabel
has forgotten some of her
more regal manners

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
wotthehell wotthehell
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic
and i m toujours gai toujours gai

i know that i am bound
for a journey down the sound
in the midst of a refuse mound
but wotthehell wotthehell
oh i should worry and fret
death and i will coquette
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came by
with a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai
the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
wotthehell wotthehell
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai

boss sometimes i think
that our friend mehitabel
is a trifle too gay

— The Song of Mehitabel, Don Marquis

I’ve mentioned this before, how I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. Among the more interesting things about the Baptists and the source of their denominational name is the concept of adult baptism. They felt a person had to have one’s own intimate experience of salvation before undergoing the ritual, which was full body emersion. Which, for us, involved a large bathtub built into the platform where the preacher preached, and when not in use discretely hidden by a curtain. So, for Baptists only adults could be baptized.

The catch to this is that “adult” for baptism was about eleven or twelve in our community. Not, frankly, what I consider an age of discernment. In fact I recall being strongly encouraged if not outright coerced by various adults around me, to be saved, as we called the experience they wanted a person to have. As the eldest child, I knew my responsibility. However, when I finally declared to the relief of many, and the date was set for the ceremony - my greatest anxiety had to do with rocket ships. You see my friends and I had discovered you could take shingles, cut them sort of into an aerodynamic wing, and then using an inner tube (for those unfamiliar with the concept, an elastic rubber tube that once was used inside automobile tires) with the ends nailed to two large planks, creating a giant slingshot, you could plunk those shingle rockets into the air and nearly out of sight.

The catch was the way we obtained those shingles was to steal them from local construction sites. And according to the doctrines of our branch of the church one could not, physically could not, sin once baptized. For those who care about such things, the doctrine is called perfectionism. I’ve since looked it up and it must have come to us through the Methodists, although we gave it a punch up in new and especially unhealthy ways.

So, this was a major theological crisis, perhaps my first, although not, I admit, over the ensuing years, my last. My friends and I dealt with this spiritual conundrum by stealing as many shingles as we could hide right up to the day of the baptism, safe in the knowledge that even if we couldn’t sin after baptism, we had a lifetime supply of shingles waiting. I suspect if I’d been a Catholic this would have marked my future out as a Jesuit.

Anyway, I thought I was home free. What followed was a year or two with only minor moral infractions, a couple of small lies, being mean to my brother, that sort of thing, none of which seemed particularly important to me. And then puberty happened, and sexuality entered my life. That’s when I was introduced to the finer points of guilt and shame. Not to mention a serious concern about the fires of hell.

Now this really isn’t about what’s wrong with various spiritual traditions. As a matter of course people don’t tend to do sex well, and their religions, our religions all tend to be caught up in that not doing well. By my observation, pretty much period. I’m not completely sure why. But I suspect it has to do with how sex reveals we’re in fact animals, like all other animals. And for some, for most that’s a problem.

And this is important: we religious liberals get off no hook here. People who make jokes about Unitarian Universalists sometimes observe we’d rather talk about sex than money. We don’t like to talk about money, that’s true. I’ve been involved in too many annual operational stewardship drives to think otherwise. But actually, for most us, we’d rather not talk about money or sex. If you ignore it, maybe it will go away. Of course, neither ever goes away. The question is what do we do about it? It’s true about our relationship with money, and it’s true about how we deal with sex and sexuality.

Let me tell you a story. It’s another from that great treasure trove of world spirituality, ancient China. Like many of the best stories its origins are lost in the mists of time. I’ve found a version of it in the Japanese koan collection Entangled Wings, which dates from the eighteenth century. But it’s vastly older than that. It’s one of those stories that has been kicking around in various forms for ages and ages.

I actually stumbled upon it in one of the very first books on Zen I would read. And I mean that literally, the first, second or third. I’m no longer sure exactly, but right there at the beginning of my serious spiritual quest. I was probably seventeen years old. Maybe I was a bit younger, but right in that ballpark, when as I recall I was nearly drowning in a sea of hormones. Perhaps you’ve seen the book as it’s been around a while: Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki’s little anthology of spiritual stories, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It may not be too much to say of this little story I found in that book that it reoriented my life. That important.

Here’s my version. Once upon a time, somewhere far away and a long time ago there was a woman. She’d worked hard all her life and while she had wanted to devote time to the spiritual quest, in her youth a marriage had been arranged, a good one as it turned out, and, well, one thing led to another. By the time of our story begins she was a widow with an infant, but also a fairly successful merchant. She found herself pretty comfortable during pretty hard times, and even with a child had some disposable income. Let me tell you, a rare thing in those days.

She decided to invest some of it in the spiritual work by supporting others in their practice. It would be a memorial to her late husband, another person who while moderately successful in this world, also cared about the spiritual life. She built a small but comfortable hut on her property and then invited a monk famous for his meditative prowess to take up residence as a hermit. She also provided food and drink and when he was ill arranged for a physician to visit. Otherwise she left him to his spiritual disciplines, which mainly consisted of silent meditation, sitting and witnessing the rising and falling of heart and mind. A good discipline, no doubt. One I personally endorse. And, actually, it was one that she had learned, and even tried to do herself, at least as much as time allowed.

Speaking of time, the days and weeks turned into years. And at some point she began to wonder about her investment. She was, after all, a woman of business. She decided the best way to check the matter out was to ask her daughter, now in her full flowering of adolescence, who had been charged for several years with bringing food and drink to the monk - to this time, after setting down the tray with his breakfast, to put her arms around the monk and to whisper into his ear, “How does this feel?”

Let me stop for a moment. Up to that point, the only stories about sex and religion I could recall were from the Bible, and they all, like the stories of David and Bathsheba or the woman taken in adultery, tended to turn out badly. So, I was pretty sure this would, too. Also, there are ways sending her daughter off to tempt someone offends our contemporary sensibilities. And in some versions of the story, the older ones, the girl is quite young. Trying to mute that complexity, I’ve told versions of the story with different characters of different ages doing the hugging. But this is in the spirit of the original version; a bit raw, a bit rough. We’re talking about sex, and maybe the uncomfortable part of this needs to be part of the telling. Sex, you may have noticed, has shadows. And they extend all over the place.

Back to the story. The daughter being a dutiful child, let’s say, sixteen or so, agreed. She took the tray walked down the path to the hut, set the tray on a small table outside the hut she’d put many, many trays on many, many times before. Then she walked over to the doorway of the hut where the monk was sitting in his traditional cross-legged posture, meditating. She knelt beside him, threw her arms around him, and whispered into his ear, “How does this feel?”

He had been gazing at the ground a few feet in front of himself. Now slightly startled he raised his head, oh maybe an inch or two, looked into the middle distance, and replied, “An old tree on a cold cliff;/Midwinter – no warmth.” The young woman returned to her mother and reported all.

Me, I thought, as I read this, so, the goal of the spiritual life being described in this ancient Chinese story was pretty much like the ones of my childhood. If you love God, cut off desire. Become, as one later writer would say, a “eunuch for Christ.” But, actually then the story took off in another direction.

Hearing her daughter’s report the woman was incensed. She muttered, “Sixteen years I supported that old fraud!” grabbed a broom, stormed down to the hut, beat the monk near senseless before driving him off. She then ordered the hut burned to the ground.

Me, I read this, and was flabbergasted. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t how it’s supposed to go. Now, in Zen practice when the story is told, then the teacher will then ask the student “Why did the old woman burn down the hut?” This is a question that presents something about reality and invites us, you and me, to respond intimately. That’s why this is a spiritual story.

Okay, now, remember, I first read this story when I was maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen. No more. My idea of sex and religion up to that time was that if you want to be a spiritual person, sex has to go. Even my brief flirtation with a form of Hindu spirituality agreed with that assumption. Sex is bad. Sex is something dirty; at best something like going to the bathroom, necessary. But nothing you talk about in polite company.

Now don’t get me wrong. At that time spirituality was something deeply important to me. I craved meaning. I craved knowing God or reality, that being or state or whatever it was supposed to be that religions promised. And, in the same instance, I burned with desire. I felt my sexuality and I burned hot. My heart was divided between two great longings. And the chasm between these two things was a tear in my heart.

Then, here, in this little story, suddenly I was being confronted with a whole different question, working from a completely different set of assumptions. Here, it was pretty obvious, an ancient spiritual story was telling me that someone who didn’t burn with desire was failing as a spiritual being. Some years later I would find a poetic comment on this story by the renowned Zen master Ikkyu Sojun.

The old woman’s kindness was like lending a ladder to a thief; Thus, to the pure monk she gave a girl as wife. Tonight, if a beautiful woman were to entwine with me, A withered willow would put forth fresh spring growth.

In some translations that withered willow’s sprouting is even more, how do I say this, graphic. Clearly, clearly, here was, not was, is a naturalistic spirituality calling us to be fully engaged with who we are, not as we should be, but as we are. There is a “should,” I would add. We are called to growth and depth and the miracles of change. Absolutely we need to understand constraint, we need to know time and place. But, you cannot start any of that without knowing who you are. Any should has to follow what is. And we all know how important is, is.

The American Zen master Robert Aitken says you can’t practice Zen in the closet. I don’t exactly agree. But whether one is in the closet or not, the light must be on. We need to know ourselves. We cannot practice liberal religion, a spirituality of presence, without bringing our whole selves into the great matter. That which is part of us and which we deny, will, inevitably return to haunt us, a hungry ghost of our night longing.

So, what might a more complete spirituality, one that denies no part of us, look like in practice? For one thing it is about knowing the animal of us, and not being ashamed of it. Perhaps that’s why I think Mehitabel the cat such a wonderful exemplar of the deeper meanings to be found in this story.

If you don’t recall, Mehitabel’s song is recounted by Archie the cockroach and told to the newspaperman Don Marquis by jumping from key to key on an old upright typewriter. So, there are no capitals or punctuations in Archie’s recounting of things. Now how the cockroach managed the return on the typewriter, I don’t know. It’s one of those mysteries. Anyway, the story, Mehitabel’s story is ours, yours and mine, just as much as is the story of the old woman, her daughter and the dead to life monk. Mehitable sings of another way, perhaps our way.

She dreams of past lives, but lives in this one. Her motto is “tojours gai,” which she translates roughly as “wotthehell.” Let me hold her up as a model of our western Tao, our Western way. Throwing heart wide and living full, “i once was an innocent kit/wotthehell wotthehell/with a ribbon my neck to fit/and bells tied onto it/o wotthehell wotthehell/but a maltese cat came by/with a come hither look in his eye/and a song that soared to the sky/and wotthehell wotthehell/and i followed adown the street/the pad of his rhythmical feet/o permit me again to repeat/wotthehell wotthehell.”

I’m not calling us to a libertine life. But I am calling us to living full. Throwing her being into life, following that Maltese cat, Mehitabel began a path of full living. She frames the whole thing. “i know that i am bound/for a journey down the sound/in the midst of a refuse mound/but wotthehell wotthehell/oh i should worry and fret/death and i will coquette/there s a dance in the old dame yet/toujours gai toujours gai.”

On our way, I am suggesting, we need to bring it all together. As we ride down the sound on that garbage barge, toward some unknown fate, the terrible and the beautiful are all brought together. Or can be. And as we bring mind and heart together, as we bring body and heart together, a dance does emerge, something beautiful to behold.

A life worth living.

Nothing less.

Toujours gai.

Toujours gai…