When I opened my email inbox yesterday morning, several people had sent me a link to The New York Times article “Prince’s Holy Lust” with comments like: “Thought you’d find this interesting” and “What’s your take on this?” and “Seems Prince was on to something.”
As a typical teenager of the 80s, I followed some of Prince’s music (I remember a Prince pin I had on my jean jacket, next to Adam Ant and The Clash), but I never knew he was a rather fervent Jehovah’s Witness until reading stories in the press about his untimely death last week. The New York Times piece mentioned above observes that in Prince’s music we find “the erotic intertwined with the divine,” then observes that the “Judeo-Christian ethic seems to demand that sexuality and spirituality be walled off from each other.”
This is a tired, old mantra. And I wish to God above it would stop.
I get it, though. I get why so many people think this.
Tragically, for most people raised in Christian homes, the erotic realm is taboo. Nobody talks about it. And when was the last time you heard a sermon in which the priest was trying to help his congregation integrate spirituality and sexuality? Artists like Prince then come along to fill in the void. “Sex to him was part of a spiritual life,” observes The New York Times. “The God he worshiped wants us to have passionate and meaningful sex.”
[tweetthis]Jesus isn’t condemning the erotic. He’s calling us to the redemption…the restoration of the divine plan for eros.[/tweetthis]
So does the God I worship. Although, we shouldn’t call it “holy lust.” That’s where the conflict lies between the Church and the secular world. Lust is a distortion of erotic desire. “If you even look lustfully … you’ve already committed adultery in the heart,” says Jesus.
But Jesus isn’t condemning the erotic. He’s calling us to the redemption of the erotic, to the restoration of the divine plan for eros. When erotic desire is integrated with an authentic spirituality, it becomes the path of authentic love and joy – it becomes, in fact, a path to union with God. But when erotic desire is indulged for its own sake, it becomes nothing but a self-serving lust that cuts us off from real love, from real connection with other persons, and from the God who is love.
As Pope Francis writes in The Joy of Love, “It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy…. In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of ‘use and discard.’ The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing.” That’s the essence of lust: it’s the consumer attitude of use and discard. And it’s wreaking havoc all around us (and within us). Francis exclaims: “Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?” (153).
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis observes that “although there have been exaggerations and deviant forms of asceticism in Christianity,” the Church’s official teaching never rejected “eros as such, but rather declared war on [this] warped and destructive form of it” (147). “All the same,” insists Francis, “the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves” (157).
And here’s the key point that people so rarely understand: lust does not define the erotic realm; it is not the only way to experience sexual desire. By opening to the grace of redemption, a “person can certainly channel his passions in a beautiful and healthy way, increasingly pointing them towards altruism and an integrated self-fulfillment,” insists Francis. “This does not mean renouncing moments of intense enjoyment, but rather integrating them with [the truth of love]” (148).
In the measure that a person experiences this redemption of desire, we have then not “holy lust” but the restoration of a “holy eros” – an eros that, as Pope Benedict proclaimed, does indeed “rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine” (God Is Love 5). In as much as “the artist formerly alive as Prince” may have been striving in his own limited and confused way for this ecstasy that rises to God, he was, to be sure, on to something.
Image compiled from (1) Prince photo Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 photo/Flickr user Scott Penner) and (2)