Spirituality and Sensuosity

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There are some moments in life that stay with you for ever. They reverberate and return unbidden, often years after but as fresh as at the outset. A modern term for this is ‘flashbacks’. Often they are associated with trauma – but not necessarily. For me one such moment took place many decades ago whilst idly browsing among library shelves – actually it was in a Benedictine monastery whilst on a pre-ordination retreat. You don’t get much less traumatic than that!

Perhaps it was the unusual title that caught my eye but I picked up a book by Charles Davis entitled Body as Spirit. From that moment, as I began to read, I was rooted to the ground. An hour later I was still reading, engrossed, and when I did walk out of the library the world seemed a different place.

For those who have never heard of Charles Davis he was  a brilliant theologian and lucid communicator, a doyen of the renewal movement which was sweeping through the Catholic Church in the 1960’s in the wake of Vatican Council II. Then came a thunderbolt: he left the church and got married. For some this was the ultimate apostasy which merely underlined the perils of questioning traditional orthodoxy. For others it was symptomatic of the problem at the heart the Church, and indeed any religious system: how does it relate to the world.

Perhaps this book was Davis’s answer. But it is also an answer that is in need of consideration today at a time of increasing religious ferment and dysfunctional fundamentalisms. In many different faiths adherents grapple with the scepticism of modernity, but also ordinary people are overwhelmed and shocked by the crass materialism and uninhibited greed that now seems to characterise our society. Is there nothing more to life than this?

Though Body as Spirit is a dense and tightly argued book for me the hinge of it was the second chapter: The Religious Refusal of the Body. Davis contrasts the puritan, who sees the body merely as a sensual obstacle to the moral and religious life, and the libertine, who sees the body as a mere instrument of pleasure, but – and here is the unexpected twist – both are denounced for having the same attitude to the body: “Both, in fact, reject bodiliness. Both fear and repudiate the spontaneous, sensuous eros of the body.”

The key to understanding this denunciation is the distinction Davis makes between sensuousness (which I call sensuosity) and sensuality: the former is when we participate in the spontaneous rhythms of the body and are open to the joys and delights of bodily experience and nature; in contrast, sensuality “is the submission of the body to the driving, straining consciousness of the mind alienated from its bodiliness”; it is what happens when the body is driven by the mind and used as an instrument, either for pleasure, ideological ends or ‘super’-natural attainment.

For Davis the dominant materialism of our culture has no love or appreciation of matter – no feel for its organic rhythms, its process of growth and decay – just as the religious consciousness fears the spontaneous rhythms and responses of the body, which are seen as obstacles to the spirit that must be supressed by a punitive ascetic discipline. Both subject the world and body to the calculating mind.

The alternative is the acceptance of bodiliness as the mediating principle and means of interacting with reality. It is the acceptance of feeling as a sacramental mode, of opening up to and relating with what is before us. Instead of reducing the world to mere physicality or trying to transcend it in favour of some spiritual ideal it is being in touch with the world through the poetic, imaginative and sensuous faculties. As Davis writes: “To rediscover bodiliness will be to rediscover our openness to reality.”

To some all this may have strong echoes of  T.H.Lawrence; linking spirituality with sensuosity will appear problematic. It might even be annoying that I am making up the word ‘sensuosity’ to steer beyond mere sensuality to something different – that the spirit reveals itself through the body and the world of the senses. This is a challenging navigation.

Nor is it without note that the most challenging, ‘problematic’ book of the Old Testament is the most sensuous. The Song of Songs! That a poem of such overwhelming erotic fantasy can be understood as such in such a sacred context has always been anathema to some. But there it is! A hymn of lyrical sensuosity, slap bang in the middle of the Good Book. Open a Bible at random in the centre and the odds are you will find an invitation to the Beloved, “Before the dawn wind rises, before the shadows flee…like a gazelle, a young stag on the mountains.”

The more common religious alternative is blocking genuine feelings and suspicion of ‘the blind stirring of love’ – as that acclaimed ‘spiritual’ work, The Cloud of Unknowing, would have it. As a consequence, Davis writes, “Much religion is neurotic inasmuch as it serves the devious purposes of a divided or enclosed self.” The neurotic personality avoids reality and protects itself by constructing an unreal world.

One of the most disturbing trends of those growing up in the world today is that they are not in fact growing up in the world at all but in a carefully contrived artificiality which now encompasses society as well as dogmatic communities. Welcome to the world of the religious fundamentalist and fanatic. But welcome also to the world of cyber-space and virtuality with which modernity increasingly beguiles us. Just as the religious, ideological world frustrates the natural spirit so does modern technocracy. Again, what may first appear as polarities have some remarkable affinities!

Interaction with the natural world is increasingly remote and mediated – either by technology or ideology, virtuality or commercialization. The Cloud of Unknowing of spiritual questors is complemented by the Cloud Knowhow of cyber space. Adam Lanza, emerging from his cellar to shoot over a score of children at his local school at Sandy Hook, or the jihadist emerging from the bowels of our cities to perpetrate atrocities, are like characters from Dostoyevsky’s ‘underground’: in fact the distinctive characteristic of his ‘underground man’ is that, isolated and introverted, he cannot ‘feel’; disgruntled and detached he epitomises the disembodied spirit.

The consequences of such a world were apparent to the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm as he reflected on our increasingly dysfunctional society in the wake of the Nazi cataclysm: “Freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture, such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or well-fed cog in the machine…if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be the love of life but love of death.”

And this is exactly where we are now, exemplified by the taunt of Islamists: “You love life, we love death.” Perhaps the insight of Charles Davis can help us to address this situation and guide us to a more genuinely human spirituality.

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