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Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
One of the most interesting lectures I ever heard—that changed my understanding of Catholicism and the concept of dogma—was by John Totten, S.M.—a professor and a wonderful and deeply spiritual man at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. When I was a Marianist scholastic, back in the early 1960s, Bro. Totten gave a talk to the Marianist students in which he explained the Marian doctrines in historic context.
This popular philosophy and theology professor explained to us the “real” meaning behind the modern doctrines of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption (the only two dogmas that have actually been declared under the rubric of papal infallibility), it seems, contained historico-political subtexts. They are really about the Church, and not so much about the woman who was the mother of Jesus.
The Immaculate Conception was declared by Pope Pius IX a doctrine of faith on December 8, 1854 in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.
The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine—so often confused by Catholic and non-Catholic alike with the Virgin Birth of Jesus—that, in anticipation of the sacred role she would play in the incarnation of Christ, Mary was exempted by God from the human heritage of original sin. From her conception, Mary was free of the stain of sin on her soul. Immaculate means pure, containing no flaw or error.
Pope Pius IX had come into office in 1846 a great supporter of the liberal cause in Italy. He was pious, progressive, intellectual, decent, friendly, and open to everybody. He supported the populist leader Garibaldi and populist movements to redefine the relations of power in society. But his liberal leanings did not resolve strife in Italy, especially between secular Italian Nationalists and the Church as ruler of the Papal States. In an act of terrorism, the Papal Minister of the Interior, Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated on the steps of Saint Peter’s on November 15, 1848 and the Pope became a virtual prisoner in the Quirnal Palace.
Betrayed by the very forces he’d supported, Pius, in disguise as a regular priest, fled to Sicily on November 24, 1848, where, with the Encyclical Ubi Primum (February 2, 1849), he polled Catholic Bishops about the wisdom of declaring the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. (as she is referred to in the shorthand of the Missal) and thereby, incidentally, exercising the power of papal infallibility.
To those in the know, according to this historical analysis, Pius IX’s declaration of the Immaculate Conception meant the Pope was saying that even though he’d made a strategic political mistake in siding with the populist liberals, the Church, symbolized by the B.V.M., had always been in soul free of flaw or error and remained so.
A major event of Pius IX's papacy was the First Vatican Council in Rome which set out to redefine the power in the Church itself, including this idea of papal infallibility. The Council was convened on December 8, 1869. (December 8th is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, for it was, in part, the declaration of the Marian dogma, under papal infallibility, fifteen years before, that occasioned the Council). It had only completed the first part of the task, defining the role of the papacy, and had failed to define the authority of the bishops in relation to the papacy (and to the exercise of infallibility), when it was abruptly forced to disband because of the invasion of the Papal States. The Kingdom of Italy, under Victor Emmanuel II, captured and annexed Rome on September 20, 1870. The Council was adjourned October 20th and never reconvened.
Pius IX died on February 7, 1878, aged 85, concluding the longest pontificate in papal history (32 years).
The Assumption of the Blessed Mother was declared by Pope Pius XII a doctrine of faith on November 1, 1950 in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.
The Assumption is the doctrine that at the end of her life (the Pope avoided the question of whether she had died), the mother of Jesus was taken body and soul into heaven so that she did not suffer the rending of soul and body and the corruption of the flesh that ordinarily accompany the end of life.
The doctrine has meaning beyond the historical, of course. C. G. Jung thought the Assumption celebrated the sanctity of the flesh and finally acknowledged the feminine principle in the Catholic God. But, at least according to my theology professor, its real significance is only understandable in its political context.
Pius XII came into office in 1939. He had to carefully balance the priorities and teachings of the Church with the political realities of his day which were, of course, the rise of German Nazism and Italian Fascism. Following World War II, with the defeat of the powers that had threatened him and to which he had made major concessions, Pius was forced to admit he’d made serious errors. At least some of the guilt for the Holocaust was saddled on him because of his silence and willingness to acquiesce to Fascism.
In 1950, specifically in commemoration of the defining of the Immaculate Conception (to make sure the connection with his predecessor was established), Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption of the B.V.M.. To those in the know, the Pope was saying that even though he’d made a strategic political mistake in signing Concordats with Hitler and Mussolini, the Church, again symbolized by the B.V.M. remained uncorrupted in its physical, institutionalized form--its "body"--from flaw or error and remained so.
Pius XII became seriously ill in late 1953 (which included a bout with uncontrollable hiccups that lasted some five weeks). He was a near invalid most of the last five years of his life. He died at the Papal Summer Residence, Castel Gondolfo, on 9 October 1958 of a heart attack brought on by exhaustion. Ironically the embalming of his own body was botched through an experimental process devised by an Italian doctor, Oreste Nuzzi, that was supposed to preserve the body indefinitely using the same oils and resins that had been used on the body of Jesus. In fact, perhaps because of heat in the hall where the Pope's body was laid in state, chemical reactions occurred in the embalming fluids; the Pope's body decomposed rapidly; the body had to be re-embalmed twice; the Swiss Guard stationed around the body became ill during the vigil; and viewing by the public had to be terminated because of the stench.
His funeral was said to be largest congregations of Romans to that date. Angelo Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) wrote in his diary on 11 October that probably no Roman emperor had enjoyed such a triumph, which he viewed as a reflection of the spiritual majesty and religious dignity of Pius XII.
Let me predict that the next Marian doctrine that will be declared will be Mary Mediatrix of All Graces; it will be declared by the current pope or his successor once the priest-pedophilia scandal has faded away. And the meaning will be that even though the Church had made mistakes about handling the molesters in the priesthood, the source of grace is the Church herself, not the individual priests or bishops, and therefore even pedophile priests could validly and licitly administer the sacraments. The doctrine will appear to be about the B.V.M., but it will really be about transferring problem priests from one assignment to another. And the Church will be exempting herself in metaphor from any flaw or error.
Curiously, the laity are seldom let in on these historico-political subtexts. They seem expected to just take everything on face value. When I was growing up it was routinely said that Catholics were required to believe in both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, though, as I observed above, many Catholics didn’t understand what these notions were. They just "believed" them.
The B.V.M. continues to be the most meaningful remnant of my Catholicism for me—though she is more the Magna Mater of Western European paganism—the Great Mother, source of all life—than the Palestinian housewife and mother. Certainly medieval Catholicism had Christianized the Magna Mater by merging her with that housewife and mother. The Mother of God to whom Chartres and Mont Saint-Michel were dedicated was not the historical woman.
Imagine! the Catholic doctrine is actually that Mary is the Mother of God. We know that means that Jesus was God and she was Jesus’s mother and so by syllogism "mother of God" ("Theotokos," according to the Council of Ephesus, 431) and that's really about the divinity of Jesus.
But the words themselves reveal the deeper meaning: the Magna Mater, Great Mother, precedes even God the Creator/Ruler of the Universe. She—the eternal Feminine—is the source of the whole cosmos (of which God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are parts).
Kip and I visited Ephesus years ago on an RSVP cruise of the Greek Islands. I remembering being struck by the contiguity of St John and the Blessed Mother’s home and the restored bazaar in historic Ephesus with the ridiculous but whimsical and slightly reverent insight, that perhaps John and Mary had a booth down there in the bazaar (near where the footprints are that the tour guides say are the first advertising billboards in history that lead to the main brothel).
I think Mary may have been selling crocheted potholders in the shape of ovals with the words "I am the Immaculate Conception" embroidered around the edge. What an archeological discovery one of those would be!
From a "gay perspective":
I'd like to add a couple of observations about the Catholic Marian doctrines from a gay perspective.
You know, Christianity comes out of a desert society where cleanliness and taboos were important for survival. Desert cultures are patriarchal. Nature was hostile; there was no food and water; you'd die out in the desert if you didn't follow the rules. (Hence the importance of hospitality which is the central issue of the myth of Sodom, not sex.) The story of Jesus is about a reformation in Judaism in which taboo and hygiene were replaced by compassion and love of neighbor as the saving virtues.
As Christianity spread into Europe and France, it began to blend with the "old religion" of the Goddess. France was fertile and green; European cultures were matriarchal. Nature was welcoming and fruitful; food literally grew on trees.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—while declared "dogma" in 1854, which was actually about the role of the Church in modern political society and the Pope's siding with Italian popularism, which then turned against him—can be understood as the purity and innocence of the feminine principle. The Immaculate Conception, remember, is the doctrine that the Blessed Mother Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. This is about Mary, not about Jesus; the Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth. This notion of Mary as being free of sin originates during the time of the Gothic cathedral building. Mary is the Christian incorporation of the Great Mother Goddess, and represents the innocence and purity of women.
In medieval Catholic thought, the "stain of original sin" was conveyed to a new conceived child by the pleasure of the male during orgasm (this was called concupience). What a sex-negative idea that was!
"Original sin" can be understood to mean male competitiveness and belligerence; that's what's wrong with human beings; we fight against each other instead of working together for the benefit of all. And that starts with alpha males fighting for access to females to assure dominance of their genes. Women (especially lesbians) and gay men are less competitive and more cooperative and service-oriented. This is a very broad generalization, of course, but it is pretty true in spite of exceptions.
Joseph Campbell observed that the real origins of "sinfulness" come from the earthly reality of the food chain, that life lives on life. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Humans kill other sentient beings in order to eat in order to live. The guilt primitive humans felt in hunting is the origin of "original sin." Among aboriginal peoples, we know now, elaborate rituals accompanied hunting to beg forgiveness of the animals killed and to thank and honor them for their sacrifice. Modern people don't do that. There are no such rituals in the Tyson Chicken plants (tho' kosher food is blessed and there are rules for how anaimal slaughter is performed precisely out of this sense of responsibility for killing to live).
— — —
The doctrine of of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary--which was declared in 1950 about the Pope's error in siding with the Fascists in WWII--can be understood as an acknowledgment of the rights and dignity of women. Carl Jung thought the Assumption represented the incorporation of the feminine into the Trinity. With our gay/queer perspective, we can understand the Assumption, which is the doctrine that Mary was taken bodily into heaven at her death, as a declaration of the holiness of the flesh. God and the Goddess aren't immaterial ghosts in the ethers; they have physical bodies and physical bodies are good. And our mystical intuition reminds us that those bodies are our bodies. "The Kingdom of God is within you," means "God" is us, the deep consciousness that is watching our experience and thereby "creating" the universe.
And, as gay/queer, we don't experience sex as competition for dominance of our genes. We can experience sex as "God's" pleasure in being embodied, and putting out gift waves of joy and good will for all sentient beings. Our sexual joys don't exonerate killing to live, but can help balance the sense of guilt for being incarnated in flesh.
This isn't what the Catholic Church and most Catholics think the Marian doctrines are about, but I offer these gay perspectives as a better way to understand and remythologize them. Both the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of the BVM into heaven are about the goodness of flesh and the joy and pleasure that come from being incarnated.
— — —
The Marian myth that does have to do with Jesus is the Virgin Birth, the doctrine that Jesus was born of Mary without having been impregnated by a human male through the invention of the Holy Ghost, who appeared in the form of a dove in reponse to Mary's "Fiat" to the Angel Gabriel's annunication to her that she would become the mother of the Christ. The Biblical origin of this idea is a line from the prophet Isaiah: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a child and shall call his name Immanuel ('God with us')" (Isaiah 7:14). In the mind of the prophet this had nothing to do with Jesus 700 years later. It was about current day politics in his time. (And the virgin in question did have a child by normal means and it was taken as a sign of Isaiah's prophetic powers.)
Scripture scholars now say the word "virgin" meant a woman who had not had a child, not a woman who had not had sex or whose hymen was still intact. Applied to Jesus, this comes out of the myth theme of "the miraculous birth of the hero." All around the world mythic heroes were born of virgins, i.e., outside the normal round of history and logic. Even Buddha is mythologized as born of a virgin; his mother dreamed of a white elephant at his conception and gave birth while standing, holding on to a branch of a cherry tree, as the infant passed directly through her side without going through the birth canal—obviously mytholgical.
And the point is that there was something wonderful about Jesus's birth. If the word meant a woman who was not a mother, then the Virgin Birth means Jesus was born beyond the rules of non-contradiction. Mary was both a mother and a non-mother. The idea of contradiction is a "male" thing, a rule in the mind. That Jesus was born without intervention of a male means he transcends all the warlike qualities of males. No men fought over a woman for him to be born. He came forth directly from the maternal womb of the Universe.
In patriarchal cultures, a woman who can't or doesn't have children is useless. The purpose of females is to give birth to males' offspring. Remember, they didn't understand how sex works at all. They thought males produced babies as seeds which the males implanted through sexual intercourse into females the way seeds are sown in soil. The females then grew the babies in their bodies and gave birth to them for the sake of the males' gene dominance. There was nothing special for Jews about virgins.
In matriarchal cultures, like old Europe during the time of the cathedral building and the fascination with the Blessed Mother as a Christian manifestation of Magna Mater, the Great Mother Goddess, virgins are important, not because they are non-sexual, but because they are fecund and beautiful and alluring and have potential to give birth and become mothers. Virgins represent the sacredness of human flesh.
And the secret message of the Virgin Birth is that "God" becomes incarnated in flesh in order to perceive "Him/Her" self from every possible perspective and to enjoy the wonders of being flesh--including sexual pleasure and erotic ecstasy.
The Virgin Birth isn't anti-sexual, it's a celebration of sexuality and fleshliness.
— — —
The ancients may not have understood this, like they didn't understand sex and chromosomes and DNA, but all fetuses start out as female. During gestation the Y chromosome in the males causes the structures that would become the female sex organs to change and become male. The ovaries and fallopian tubes move down and become the testes and inguinal canals, and labia and clitoris become the scrotum and penis. During early childhood the testicles descend through the inguinal canals into the scrotum.
We are all female at the beginning before the male principle descends. The Great Mother, "Theotokos," the Mother of God, is a Virgin, not because she is a sexual renunciate, but because males haven't "descended" yet. The Great Mother precedes the division into female and male. In that sense she is pure and innocent and free of sin—because she is free of males! And has not been defiled by male drive for dominance and control.
In the Arthurian Legends, the King of the Grail Castle, King Amfortas, is wounded in the thigh. That woundedness manifests as the "wasteland." A wound in the thigh means in the genitals. Perhaps we can amplify this myth to understand that wound as the weakness at the base of men's peritoneum where the inguinal canals pass through the musculature of the abdomen. That weakness can result in hernias when the bladder presses against that weak spot or the intestines actually push through and can become strangulated. So the Amfortas Wound in the Arthurian myths is the vulnerable spot where the male separates from the female.
In the story of Percival/Parsifal, when the young knight is granted the vision of the Grail Castle and meets King Amfortas, he remains silent because his mother had told him not to be impolite and ask too many questions. If he had asked instead: "What ails you, my Lord? Are you in pain?" --exhibiting compassion--he would have been invited in and given the Grail cup itself, i.e., the Beatific Vision. But because he does not, the Castle disappears and he has to start his quest over again.
Compassion would be the feminine, maternal instinct. Trying to be polite would be the male, manipulative trait.
The Virgin is sacred not because she is asexual, but because she is always compassionate and pure in her response to life. She never becomes "jaded" or used up. She is always innocent, undefiled, joyful and expectant.
We are "virgins" when we maintain our goodness and innocence, never becoming jaded about sex or dismissive of those we make love with. I propose that queer gay, LGBTQ+, people are called to be virgins by making love innocently and out of kindness.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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