Jesus Is My Boyfriend, Jacobean Style
I love this poem. I love it so much I wish I could step back through history, find John Donne, and give him a jolly good time.
Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
I love his playful intellect, that double-edged sword. “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend.” But it doesn’t of course; it keeps us captive. I relate so well to his frustration. You find out you're reason's love slave and there's damn all you can do about it except hope the Hero takes you by force.
How often do you hear someone talk about the peace that surpasses understanding? When we have serious problems, everyone prays for that. But exactly how do you find that peace—or put it another way—how do you let God establish that peace in you? I’m here God, ready to feel that peace. Bring it on, Jesus. Is that it? Sort of. Maybe. Wait, I don’t feel peaceful—all hell’s breaking loose. Am I missing something? I said I was happy to accept peace. More than ready. Sigh.
What does that peace look like? Serene? Calm? Stoic? Eye of the hurricane? How do you feel peace when your mind is always churning, synthesizing, analyzing. I take comfort that Jesus himself doesn’t seem all that calm to me. You don’t knock over tables and sweat blood because you have a serene nature, although he’s so often depicted as spouting wisdom with this sappy beneficent look on his face.
How are we supposed to feel God’s presence? Is it warm and fuzzy? Is it in the grass, the trees, our children, other people, the rocks, my computer, everything—or is that too pantheistic? And what about the shadow we see out of the corner of our eye—gone so fast maybe it wasn’t there at all. Frustratingly unknowable. Tantalizingly unknowable. We are always pushing out and reaching beyond and our hands close on air. We can’t stop thinking. We toss and turn, feel hemmed in and stifled, but don’t know how get out. And, if we can’t do it because it’s supposed to be all God’s work, well, we can turn that against ourselves, too. Gee, is that God now? Is He doing something? Am I feeling free? Wait, am I imagining all this? What if I’m imagining all this?
I love those last two lines “I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” I wonder if Donne felt a bit daring writing that? Maybe it was a commonplace expression of religious piety at the time. Hah. Any commentary will be quick to point you to the bridegroom imagery in the Bible, which I think is a bit weird in itself. Oh, yeah, that’s right – it’s about “spiritual” union. When confronted with wedding bed imagery, Biblical literalists suddenly discover metaphor. Because, of course, God doesn’t have a body, except in Jesus. And don’t even THINK about going there. Jesus doesn’t have a penis, at least not one that’s supposed to be called into service at any time.
And yet, there are those naughty, naughty mystics with their suggestive imagery. Oh, how the mainline protestants distrust the mystics, who make union with God sound like a really great shag.
I think of the statue of St. Theresa in ecstasy, and St. John of the Cross’s delirious poetry:
Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.
I drank the turret's cool air
Spreading playfully his hair.
And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat.
Sweet! The love of God is like having your throat slit…after you fool around a bit in a turret!
If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God’s fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Well okey dokey, then! Knowing God as erotic seduction. There’s an explanation of miracles I can live with. Yep, I’m ready to give that a go.
And in Donne’s poem: “ravish” – which can mean “overcome by emotion” or… “rape.” Donne is asking God to rape him. How often do you ask God to rape you? Of course, if you ask, it isn’t really rape, is it? More like a “give it to me rough, sailor” kind of plea.
I often hear complaints about (or contempt for) Jesus Is My Boyfriend songs or Jesus Is My Boyfriend sentiments, mentality, and so forth. It's too me-focused, or bad theology, or too romantic, or too eroticized. It is pretty sappy and sounds like some sad consolation prize. You've signed that abstinence-only pledge, but you can still date Jesus. He's safe. I think the real problem is this: God isn’t the gentle purity-ring wearing boyfriend who’s going to nervously hold your hand and shyly ask permission for a kiss. You’d better be prepared for something a little more forceful.