My life has been centered and guided by something so corny that I hate to tell you about it, in a way. But I love to talk about it, too. I fell in love. Go ahead and groan. In my twenties in Montana I felt I was in the grip of a Grand Passion. It couldn’t continue, but I thought religious leadership might be like that.
Since I’m using the word “passion,” I looked it up in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There are inter-related kinds of meaning: religious martyrdom (like Mel Gibson’s movie), disease or affliction, and sexual desire. What a trinity! Until Gibson reminded us, we didn’t think much about religious passion. The sense of passion as a disease seems to be dying out. But passion as sex almost overwhems us every time we key into the media. Always presented as a “good.”
Next I looked up the word in the New International Webster’s Student Dictionary of the English Language, a little paperback I keep by the computer. It defines passion thus:
1. Fervent devotion.
2. Ardent sexual feelings and desire. Love.
3. The object of such feelings.
4. A fit of intense anger, rage.
5. Any transport of excited feeling.
6. Archaic: Suffering, agony.
Pretty confusing. Looks like “passion” has become one of those slushy words used for too many things, which leads to muddled thinking even for people at seminary trying to confront such realities as sex and faith.
Seminary is for four years. Some seminarians had “affairs” while there -- lonesome, needy, pretty easy. But one expects to change. One is gone a whole summer for CPE in a hospital. One is gone for a whole year for internship in a totally different place. Then one leaves for the first church pulpit and doesn’t see anyone from seminary again until maybe the annual General Assembly. How practical is a relationship under such circumstances? It would have to be broken off in a few years at most. My rule has been not to embark on an intimacy unless the intention was to make it permanent. This rule wasn’t moral, it was self-protective. I can’t stand the pain. Sex without intimacy is unthinkable for me, but my cohort of younger people didn’t agree at all. They’re on the other side of the Sexual Revolution.
At CPE the supervisor said we were all too uptight about sex and a number of different CPE groups were gathered to watch Glide Methodist Foundation sex films. (That particular church was “farther out” than any Unitarian church of the time and place. The only church farther out was Jim Jones’.) They are simply movies of people fucking -- each with its own little theme -- some married, some not, one impossible tropical encounter which consisted of many acts of intercourse edited together so they seemed like one long event, and one showing a couple past retirement age -- augmented with a vibrator. (That was before Viagra.) There was no story or even dialogue. The supervisors were particularly interested in the reactions of one group which was mostly nuns. This was supposed to prepare us for marriage counselling. That’s not the hit I got off it.
In Portland, in the Seventies, I was thirty, newly divorced. I set out to do some exploring and joined a “peoples’ consciousness-raising group” where we boldly discussed everything. The group leaders were a conscientious, happily married, educated, young Jewish couple. Desperate for a job, the husband was selling tickets at a porn movie house. Feeling confident with him in the lobby, we saw “Behind the Green Door,” “Deep Throat,” and other porn classics. There was an erotic film festival at Portland State University where there were lesbian films but no S/M. In fact, the discussion was all against violence. (“Make peace, not war.”) One of the Glide Methodist films was shown. (The one with the young married couple who went around on motorcycles, then made love next to a swimming pool and dozed until the man threw the woman in the water without her expecting it. Feminists were VERY vehement about mixing this violence with love. The CPE supervisors had never brought up this political subject.) In all the years since, I’ve never found any of the stuff in those movies useful in marriage counseling.
At seminary a brochure came in the mail advertising a Masters and Johnson workshop. For a joke, the office mail sorter put it in my box, thinking that I was the least likely of anyone to be having sex. But I attended. It WAS useful. Even though the very tall lady next to me wearing all powder blue, including her elegant hat, acquired a dark-blue case of five o’clock shadow, she had excellent ideas.
I had read Kinsey, all the Masters and Johnson books, Freud, and Kraff-Ebing -- my father owned them and I read them too young. I would not have been too young if someone had talked to me intelligently about the material, but I wasn’t known to be reading it. Anyway, I don’t think he ever really assimilated all that stuff either.
No one at seminary talked about passion, intense emotion, overwhelming love. Not in regard to people, not in regard to issues, or even spirituality. When I first started seminary, we went to a Get Acquainted party at a faculty member’s house, and afterwards my classmates jumped all over me because I was too enthusiastic. They said I embarrassed them with my lack of cool. Didn’t I know that tipped off the faculty that I was WEAK? Excessive strong feeling seemed to cause a great deal of ambivalence in what one man exasperated with Unitarians called “God’s frozen people.” (Not his joke. It’s historical and related to the roots of the denomination in Boston.) It was hinted that I was “over-earnest.” I must find “balance.” I shouldn’t “care so much.” We were to be liberal, tolerant, and not interfere in other cultures. Sort of like “Star Trek.”
So here I am, retired, in this little village of 350 souls (Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness). It’s going to be deeply subzero tonight. I haven’t talked to anyone all day since I mailed some books this morning. I don’t have TV so I listen to public radio all day. I probably won’t have enough money to pay the heating bill this month. Yet I’ve never felt so confident, so in touch with a huge network of people, so appreciative of the mountains on the horizon, so eager to write.
It’s a Great Passion, the certainty that I’m part of everything -- the lecture that just ended, the symphony that’s just beginning, the cats making their pre-bedtime rumpus, the blizzard now sweeping down over the prairie. I was always here. When I die, I will still be here. My immortality comes through participation in everything and everything may transform but it will never end. The orgy around me is Schweitzer’s “life in the midst of life, life that wishes to live.”
Fervent devotion. Yes.
Ardent sexual feelings and desire. Love. Well -- does sublimation and memory count?
The object of such feelings. I’m not concerned with objects.
A fit of intense anger, rage. Does political stuff count? It’s not my passion and it’s not sexy, but it becomes increasingly outrageous.
Any transport of excited feeling. It’s opera day, the sun is streaming over the snow, it may be that my pickup radiator survived fifty-below after all.
Archaic: suffering, agony. I won’t take this seriously for myself, but I’m acutely aware of it in this and other communities.
Maybe I should go back to seminary, now that I’ve thought all this over in the twenty-near-thirty years since. They say education is wasted on the young. These days forty seems quite young. I won’t go back -- I’ll just order books. My Grand Passion is here now. Once a parishioner’s therapist told her to ask to be part of my secret life. A little shocked (WHAT secret life?) I told her okay. But she should bring her own book. We might not be on the same page.