by Jeffrey J. Kripal

[Christian churches] seem cunningly designed to condemn same-sex desire and to elicit it, to persecute it and to instruct it. I sometimes call this the paradox of the "Beloved Disciple": "Come recline beside me and put your head on my chest, but do not dare conceive of what we do as erotic." Perhaps it is more clearly seen as the paradox of the Catholic Jesus, the paradox created by an officially homophobic religion in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man.

Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom

Love's a guillotine
where a man
Must lose his head
or else
he is not shriven
in the Church of Love.
"Well," you say,
"I'd like to love—but
can't I keep my head?"
Keep it then—
But I fear you're not
destined for much success.

Ahwad al-Din, poet and friend of Ibn 'Arabi, quoted by Jim Wafer in "Passion and Vision: The Symbolism of Male Love in Islamic Mystical Literature"

Opposition is true friendship.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


There was something I just didn't understand. I had been led to believe by the celibate structure and transcendent monotheism of my own religious tradition that profound and transforming religious experiences come primarily to those who renounce the active expression of sexuality. Jesus had spoken primarily of those who willingly become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," that is, (symbolically?) castrated males. Paul was even more clear that the state of virginity was the most appropriate mode of being for this, our eschato-logical age. The influence of Neoplatonism on early Christian thought only served to emphasize this Jewish ascetic-eschatological strand with its dualistic emphasis on the body (soma) as a tomb (sema) to be delivered from. Consequently, much, if by no means all, of the history of Christian spirituality can be read as an amplification of this most basic of mystical teachings, namely, that the kingdom comes when the sexual doesn't. This anyway was clearly the message I received, through any number of explicit and implicit liturgical, scriptural, institutional, and iconographic channels, from the Catholicism of my youth.

Why then, I kept asking myself, did the timing of my preliminary mystical experiences (about which I will have more to say below) and dream-visions coincide precisely with the active expression of a long dormant, long repressed sexuality? My own life experience, it seems, stood in direct contrast to my tradition. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Moreover, I asked again, why couldn't I, as hard as I might try, imagine myself into the male erotic-mystical models of Christianity? Teresa of Avila? I could understand her vision of a flaming angel plunging a fiery arrow "deep within" her until she moaned in an intense pain that was also unspeakably pleasurable. Being a woman, I thought, posed no problems for Teresa's religious imagination; her gender "fit" into the tradition and its image of the female soul as bride being penetrated by a masculine divine. But Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross? What could I make of Bernard's psycho-theological descriptions of being kissed or penetrated by Christ the bridegroom?1 Or what could I make of John's poetic glossing of the "delightful wound" of his poem, Llama de amor viva? "[W]hen the soul is transpierced with that dart, the flame gushes forth, vehemently and with a sudden ascent, like the fire in a furnace or an oven when someone uses a poker or bellows, to stir and excite it. And being wounded by this fiery dart, the soul feels the wound with unsurpassable delight. . . . The fire issuing from the substance and power of that living point . . . is felt to be subtly diffused through all the spiritual and substantial veins of the soul in the measure of the soul's power and strength."2 This was a symbolic language, highly reminiscent of the phenomenology of orgasm, that made little sense to me; here, after all, was a man being entered. It was all very confusing to me. Only later would I see that the male bridal mystics had formed the tradition, however consciously, around an essentially homoerotic structure, a point similar to those advanced by scholars such as John Boswell and Mark Jordan and which I have developed in my own way above in chapter 1.3

But again, what else could such mystics have done? In a monotheistic tradition in which God is male, any relationship with the divine that is cast in sex-ualized language or experienced sexually must, by definition, be homoerotical-ly structured for males. It is as if society "captures" heterosexuality for biological reproduction and the maintenance of public social structures and will allow only the homosexual or the bisexual, really anything but heterosexuality, to "escape" into the liminal realms of mystical experience, ecstatic excess, and liturgical leisure. All sorts of alternative sexualities are at once symbolically nurtured and officially denied in the fantastically rich symbolic traditions of Catholicism: both males and females (not to mention the church) "marry" Christ, nuns are routinely given transsexually masculine names, priests wear what are essentially liturgical dresses, men and women live in celibate same-sex communities, the virtually naked body of a divine man (the crucifix) is artistically and ritually privileged, this same male body is consumed in the central rite of the Eucharist, and religious devotion is continually cast in what can only be described as a highly eroticized adoration of a divine, physically perfect male. To "love Jesus" or feel "the love of Christ," then, are often emotionally loaded, overdetermined sexual-spiritual experiences within Catholic piety, and the symbolic, vocational, liturgical, and mystical resources are rich and generous for virtually any sexual orientation, except male heterosexuality.4 Consequently, the heterosexual Catholic male, as heterosexual, as male, as Catholic, and as mystically inclined, is in a very real dilemma. Whether he knows it or not, whether he admits it or not, he is an existential, almost ontological stranger to his own tradition. As much as he might want to, he does not fit.

Howard Eilberg-Schwartz has convincingly demonstrated a similar thesis in the case of Judaism: there too God is male, Israel is imagined as his bride, and any male representative of that bride (and in such a patriarchal tradition, it is inevitably the male who represents the collective) becomes cast in an implicit homosexual role vis-à-vis the divine: "The primary relationships in Israelite imagination were between a male God and individual male Israelites, such as Moses, the patriarchs, and the prophets. . . . Men were encouraged to imagine themselves as married to and hence in a loving relationship with God. A homo-erotic dilemma was thus generated, inadvertently and to some degree unconsciously, by the super-imposition of heterosexual images on the relationship between human and divine males."5 But this can be a problem only for men who are heterosexually inclined and who want to give their love to real historical women, for "being a husband to a wife is in tension with being a wife of God."6 Granted, such a symbolism is particularly rich for male mystics who are homosexually inclined or who feel drawn to a homoerotic spirituality, but the same structure tends to generate only anxiety and confusion for those who are not, Eilberg-Schwartz argues; hence the well-known injunctions against seeing God's body, particularly his front side (that is, his phallus), in the biblical texts. The homoerotic gaze focused on God's phallus is simply too much for a tradition that must generate a homoerotic symbolic structure and deny that structure at the same time.

*   *   *   *   *

I came to a remarkably similar conclusion in the seminary. It was as if "being called" (the literal meaning of a "vocation") to the priesthood was more or less synonymous with "being gay." No one, of course, put it that way, and most Catholic leaders would certainly passionately deny this, but this is precisely the effect the church's celibate all-male institutional structure and condemnation of homosexuality have on its ranks.7

Consider the following thought experiment. What are the options of a young, pious, homosexually oriented Catholic male who wishes to remain faithful to the church's present teachings? He can live in a secular society as a repressed homosexual man (for any active expression of his sexuality would only result in damning guilt and public, and most likely familial, condemnation), or he can join one of the church's innumerable same-sex communities and be richly rewarded—religiously, socially, and, usually more humbly, financially—for sublimating his homosexuality into religious expression and activity. Individuals, of course, will choose individually, but it is not difficult to guess what might happen statistically over large populations of Catholic gay males. Often, of course, the human realities are not statistically anonymous but personally tragic. Consider my friend William, whom I met in the seminary. He was gay, very gay, and he was Catholic, very Catholic, and he couldn't possibly put the two together. His solution? Remove the contradiction, that is, himself. He was in a coma for eight days after swallowing an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Luckily, he awoke. Sanely, he left the seminary and, I gather, the official church to live out his sexuality in integrity elsewhere.

And what are the options of a pious, heterosexual, Catholic male who likewise wishes to follow the church's teachings? Unlike his gay counterpart, there are no dramatic obstacles to the active, social expression of his sexuality, at least within the bounds of a marriage; hence, he is more likely to choose a sexually active lifestyle. Moreover, and just as important, he is likely not nearly as skilled as his gay brother in hiding and repressing his sexual orientation; after all, he doesn't have to. Not surprisingly, then, celibacy makes little sense to him.

When we put these two "imagined" scenarios together, the demographic conclusion is unavoidable: the seminaries, and consequently the ranks of the priesthood, fill up with a largely gay population. The irony is clear enough, if morally unacceptable: a profoundly homophobic institution creates, by the very facts of its condemnation of homosexuality and its insistence on celibacy, a rich, if deeply ambiguous, homoerotic culture.

*   *   *   *   *

It was not that I found the homoerotic culture of the seminary or even the church morally objectionable. It was not that I objected either to homosexuality itself or to a sublimated homoerotic spirituality. Quite the contrary. I have seldom witnessed such profound and loving human relationships as I witnessed in the seminary, and I have only gratitude and a feeling of deep nostalgia for the individuals I came to know and love there. Sublimation is a powerful matrix: of spirituality, piety, and human community, when it works. What hurt, and what still hurts, was the awareness, dimly felt in my thoughts but clearly seen in my dreams, that the church's homoerotic structure excluded my very being from its most intimate forms of community. I could not possibly fit. I was a religious exile by virtue of my heterosexuality. And what is worse, almost no one can admit this in public. I am thus exiled by a denied truth, a stranger by virtue of an unacknowledged secret at the heart of my own indigenous mystical tradition.8

*   *   *   *   *

I knew nothing of John Boswell, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, Mark Jordan, or Ellis Hanson at the time (and indeed only Boswell had published his work by the early 1980s), and even had I known of these ideas, I am not sure that they would have helped; I was, after all, looking for a heteroerotic mysticism, not a historical thesis about a homoerotic tradition. What was a source of immense mystical power and even therapeutic resolution for someone like Louis Massignon, whose sexual orientation fitted this theological gendering, could only be a problem of ontological dimensions for someone like me. Consequently, I eventually turned to Hinduism because I found in its beautiful mythologies, striking iconographies, and mystical doctrines a fantastically rich source of mystical eroticisms of all kinds, including and especially heteroerotic systems. The Hindu goddess traditions, unlike my own failed Catholic bridal mysticism, could be explicitly heterosexual and deeply mystical at the same time. In the mirror of these same traditions, moreover, I could see even more clearly the homoerotic lines of my Catholicism: where was the goddess here? In essence, Hinduism saved me by giving me back who I was, by assuring me that being heterosexual and aspiring to a sexually expressed mystical life were not mutually exclusive options. I was struck in particular by the Hindu Tantra, as I saw it as the mirror opposite of Christian bridal mysticism. Here, after all, was a tradition that saw the human aspirant as masculine and the divine as feminine. Here, I believed, was a tradition in which I could find an erotic mysticism that made sense, that is, one in which males had erotic encounters with females and not other males. Here, finally and most important, was a tradition that had developed an entire spectrum of monistic and nondual ontologies that, at least in theory, promised to make some sense of the intimate connection between sexual and mystical experience I had seen so darkly in my dreams. Such nondualisms, I hoped, devoid of the usual theistic assumptions about God's transcendence, did not have to "split" the body and soul apart in a dualistic fashion. The sacralization of sexuality seemed to be a genuine possibility here.

Thus, I began my studies of the Hindu Tantra after being somewhat frustrated with the consistently homoerotic structures that I found working in my own mystical traditions; finding myself heterosexually oriented, I had had enough of male mystics becoming women to marry a male Christ. Sadly, I was thus something of a misfit in my own mystical tradition. Consequently, I turned to the study of Tantra because I imagined it to be a tradition structured around heterosexual rituals, divinities, and experiences. And what did I find? I found Ramakrishna, another male mystic "becoming a woman" in order to engage male divinities (and other human beings) in erotic and quasi-erotic encounters. In short, I was back to the very homoeroticism I thought I had left behind. I discovered, moreover, that the heterosexual symbols and rituals that first attracted my attention Ramakrishna himself rejected. And why not? Much as I had perceived Catholic bridal mysticism, Ramakrishna found such symbols to be structured around a sexual orientation that he did not share, in his case a heterosexual one; Ramakrishna and I, in other words, were in a very similar structural dilemma, if for opposite reasons—I understood him precisely because I was both like and unlike him. My search for a heteroerotic mysticism thus ended in a rather spectacular, and deeply ironic, failure.

But was such a fruitful failure really so surprising? The heterosexual Tantric mystic, after all, is consistently described as a "hero" (vira), his sexual encounters with the goddess are understood to be fraught with great risk, and Tantra itself is copiously described as something dangerous and terrifying—strange terms indeed for a heterosexuality that many men experience as a source of pleasure, beauty, and well-being. It is as if the male Tantrika must fight for this heterosexuality against great odds. Such a hunch is confirmed when we remember that Tantric goddesses, Kali foremost among them, often appear in mystical traditions dominated by the emotional-devotional states of the infant or child, the oft-stated goal of mystically merging with the mother, and a bewildering symbolic complex of motherliness, sexuality, grace, and violence. It is in such a context, I think, that we can best place, understand, and appreciate the striking prominence of transvestism and decapitation as symbolic castration (lots of male horned animals lose their heads in the goddess traditions) in her cultus. "The rapture of recognizing (and being recognized by) the mother's affirming presence together with the ambivalent anguish in response to her individuality-destroying embrace are the complementary affects evoked and condensed in the worship of Kali,"9 Sudhir Kakar writes, following what can only be described as a very strong, if always controversial, scholarly consensus.

The Tantrika's heroism, in other words, lies in his courageous refusal to renounce his adult heterosexuality before the mother and her individuality-denying, if sexually blissful and loving, presence. Even here, then, a mystical heterosexuality cannot be assumed; it must be fought for and won from a kind of maternal annihilation. We must also keep in mind that these heteroerotic traditions are considered to be radically heterodox, esoteric traditions that go directly against the more public, orthodox concerns of the culture. Once again, it is a mystical heterosexuality that does not fit the religious norm; hence its heroic, essentially heretical status.

This same pattern of a heterodox heterosexuality and an orthodox homo-eroticism is also seen in the case of Bengali Vaishnavism, where the ultimate goal is to share in the bliss of Krishna's love play with Radha in Vrindavana. The key question, however, is how. In the orthodox, or Gaudiya, tradition, the male devotee can never take on the persona of the male god Krishna, for this would render him guilty of the "pride of being male" (puruhsabhimana); he can participate in Krishna's eternal lila, or "play," with Radha only through a feminine identification, that is, by becoming a sakhi, or female attendant, of Radha. Hence the popular folk saying in Bengal that "except for Arjuna and Krishna, everyone has nipples"; that is to say, we are all women in relation to the divine. In the heterodox Sahajiya tradition, on the other hand, the male devotee can take on the nature of Krishna; that is, he can assert his own male heterosexuality within his mystical sadhana or practice with a human woman now understood to be Radha.10 Interestingly, it is precisely this practiced heterosexual masculinity that renders him both Sahajiya and heretical. As with the Christian materials, it is what we today would call sexual orientation that determines both orthodoxy and heresy, and, once again, it is heterosexuality that is heretical.

*   *   *   *   *

1 November 1999. I remember distinctly a dream I had in the seminary. I was in the water and sexually aroused. On one side was a beautiful woman, on the other Christ. It was clear to me in the dream that I had to choose between them. The choice, then, was both between a celibate religious or a secular sexual life and a homoerotic or a heteroerotic orientation. Interestingly, the dream set the choice up in a way that allied or analogized the religious and the homoerotic— the dream knew. In any case, the choice, if it ever was one, was made for me, as it were, for it was the woman, not Christ, who ultimately attracted my libidinal energies—this was the direction of my desire, toward the feminine and hence away from Christ(ianity). The dream knew perfectly well then what I have since come to know only gradually and through and with considerable pain and mourning—that Catholicism is homoerotically structured, and that I, as an active heterosexual male, do not and cannot fit into its present symbolic and institutional system.

*   *   *   *   *

9 June 2000 (University of Notre Dame). I am surrounded here by Madonnas, on the sidewalks, on the buildings, on the golden dome overlooking this beautiful campus. I was standing in front of the administration building yesterday. On top of it stands a remarkable golden Virgin Mary perched on a golden dome that sparkles in the sun. Exactly opposite her, down on the ground, stands an androgynous-looking, longhaired Jesus and his Sacred Heart, his hands uplifted, a Latin verse etched below him: "Venite ad me omnes" [All come to me]. (On a humorous note, the less pious students note the upraised hands and the statue's position before the perched Virgin to dub this statue the "Don't Jump Ma! Jesus." "Touchdown Jesus," his arms raised, like a referee's signaling a touchdown, to bless the world, graces the library and overlooks the football stadium. "First-Down Moses," his index finger raised high, stands before another entrance to the library. And "Christ Teaching (Ballet)" wears a dainty nightgown-looking garment on the other side of campus.) I looked up at the Virgin and turned around to look again at the Jesus wanting to embrace me, and I thought to myself: "This is just perfect-I'm caught again between a sexless Virgin and a homoerotic Jesus. That pretty much sums up my experience of Catholicism."

And yet, that's not quite fair. An adolescent Catholicism may have almost killed me, but a more mature one possessed certain "openings" through which I could pass to be healed (a Freudian monk) and to explore other religious worlds (my seminary classes in the history of religions and the Vatican II document Nostra aetate). And even the Virgin herself, if I can speak for a moment about her as if she possessed a subjectivity apart from ours, was hardly oppressive. Indeed, although the Virgin Mary operated in ways almost entirely pathological in my adolescent mind (as an illicit object of my unconscious incestuous desires), "she" gracefully transformed herself into a Greek maiden to heal me and eventually (as we will see after chapter 3) into a Hindu goddess to unite with me as a lover. It is very difficult for me to be bitter about all of this. It is very easy for me to feel mournful and nostalgic.

20 June 2000. My struggle with Catholicism has never been simply a matter of belief. It has always been a matter of (sexual) being, a profound crisis or conflict between two orders of being: my heterosexual existence and the tradition's homoerotic structure.

3 March 1986 (Chicago). Deep in the night, two brief but powerful raptures. I'm not sure if they were "real," that is, if they affected my psychophysical organism, or if they were pure dream projections. In any case, they happened. There was a sense of pleasure, an energy; by a sheer movement of the will, the power was directed toward a rapture in which my body was flooded with a pleasure sensation and my mind was propelled into a light that was dark. No one taught me the mechanics of the "flight"—I instinctively knew what to do. A certain degree of fear was involved. The dream state was very deep. The experience reminded me of the other incident in which by a sheer movement of thought I found my consciousness leaving my body in a half-sleep—then fear brought me immediately back. Last night, a certain raptus was effected, despite the fear. The flight, however, was within. It was as if desire, directed inward, "broke through" some level of my psyche and body and, projected onto inner space, created a sort of inner radiance.


1. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermones super cantica canticorum, sermons 2-4; for a good translation, see Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, vol. 1, trans. Kilian Walsh, O.C.S.O. (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1981).

2.  Saint John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.,: ICS Publications, 1979).

3. John Boswell, Christiantiy, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980): Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality and Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

4. My own experience of these patterns has been made more conscious, and dramatically confirmed, by reading Jordan's Silence of Sodom.

5. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God's Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 99.

6. Ibid., 195.

7. My argument here is purely anecdotal, that is, autobiographical, but my conclusions are more than supported by a remarkable literature of historical, sociological, and psychological studies on homosexuality and the priesthood. For a summary of these, see Jordan, The Silence of Sodom. For two major historical treatments and an overwhelming fund of ancient and medieval support for this ancient thesis, see Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality; and Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

8.  Since I wrote these lines, the situation has changed considerably, catalyzed largely by the appearance of Donald B. Cozzen's remarkable book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, published by an enlightened Benedictine press (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000). Cozzens, president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland, writes honestly and "from the inside" about the significance of homosexuality among Catholic seminaries, draws on historical scholarship to suggest that this has likely always been the case (even as he contextualizes the present crisis in a post-Vatican II American Catholicism that has seen twenty thousand [no doubt mostly heterosexual] priests leave the ministry to marry), worries out loud about the effects a largely gay seminary culture might have on heterosexual men interested in the priesthood, and calls for more open discussion about whether the Catholic priesthood has become a "gay profession." His closing lines of chapter 7 appear prophetic to me: "The priesthood's crisis of soul, and by extension, the Church's crisis of soul, is in part a crisis of orientation. Sooner or later the issue will be faced more forthrightly than it has in the closing decades of the twentieth-century. The longer the delay, the greater the harm to the priesthood and to the Church." (110). "A crisis of orientation"—that is precisely what the present work is all about, extended well beyond the present vocational crisis into the theological and mystical depths of the tradition.

9. Sudhar Kakar, The Inner World (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978), 173.

10. Shashibhushan Dasgupta, Obscure Religious Cults (1946; 3d ed., Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1976), 126, 130.

Excerpted from Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism by Jeffrey J. Kripal. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2001. All rights reserved.

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Source: CrossCurrents, Fall 2004, Vol. 54,  No 3.