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On the border of the profane

On the border of the profane

By Amber Belldene

My favorite book about being a priest is Bill Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Bill says nearly every human being practices priesthood one time or another, when he or she stands in a liminal space between the transcendent and our mundane, gritty reality, and helps others pass between. Doctors, teachers, athletes, parents, artists—they are all priests. But, a person with a priestly vocation is called to do this liminal ministry all the time.

There are bizarre and awkward moments of ordained priesthood—when the pita bread that shows up at the altar is onion flavored, or when kids ask a shocking question at youth group. I find these moments some of the holiest, because they break open our routines and let the Spirit in. Thanks to Bill Countryman, on those occasions I like to picture myself straddling the fault line between heaven and earth, the holy and the profane.

Profane really just means “not holy,” so it’s funny that it has come to be associated with four-letter words. The unconsecrated parts of our lives aren’t obscene, but we tend to see them standing in contrast to the holy parts. Ordained people know this well, because of how people react when a person encounters something unexpected, if profoundly normal, about us.

As a priest by day and a romance novelist by night, I occasionally write four letter words, and scenes of people enacting them. It titillates some folks to hear of this avocation, but I didn’t follow my muse to titillate. I followed her because she wouldn’t leave me alone—compelling me to consume, analyze and eventually pen romance novels. Artists talk about muses, but we Christians know the true source of inspiration is Divine. And the ever-provocative Spirit kept leading me to the border between holy and profane and asking me to look at it very closely, and play hopscotch back and forth ¬¬¬across it.

As the English-speaking world learned with Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not the only woman interested in fiction that explores gender, explicit sexuality, and above all else, love. If you don’t know what I am talking about, please find out. (Let me be clear, I’m not recommending you read this book, simply that you know about it.) We can dismiss it as mommy porn, or we can ask ourselves what people are finding in a book like that and what it tells us about people’s longings (especially its huge audience of primarily young and middle aged mothers—ahem, that’s one of our mission fields). Both romantic and sexual love are Biblical metaphors for God’s love of humanity, and I wholeheartedly believe the popular passion for romance is about our human longing for God. People want love, and we Episcopalians have something radical to say about it.

As a church, we are struggling to speak about who we are and what we have to offer that other denominations don’t. I grew up in a charismatic Episcopal parish, and since then have attended every type on the spectrum. What we have in common, from our liturgies of blessing and marriage to our Eucharistic theology, is that we embrace incarnation and we reject the notion that our bodies and desires are bad. That’s not some slippery slope where we begin to think anything goes. It’s the Gospel. God became one of us, and God made us for love, of both the human and the divine varieties.

What does profane evangelism look like? For me, it involves speaking about the spiritual and liminal aspects of things like love, sex, and romance novels. Writing genre fiction is my guerrilla theological formation. I hope my novels are invitations to a spiritual and mystical worldview that may have something to do with God. But to many (or most) readers, they probably just seem like one more variation on the vampire tale.

If we’re right that people are hungry for God, and just don’t know enough about our church to find us, perhaps we need to speak more about where and how God is in the profane parts of our lives. Because, the truth is, the liminal space between heaven and earth is just as likely to open up for us in the bedroom as it as around the altar, and we need to be less afraid to talk about that. Perhaps if we did, people might know they could bring their whole selves, longings and all, to the Episcopal Church, and find love.

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in December from Omnific Publishing.

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Amber Belldene

Alice - I adore everything about this story & am so glad you shared it with us. Thanks you!

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Alice Gaines

Amber,

Thank you so much for this article. Several years ago, I returned to the Episcopal church after an absence of 30 years. In the meantime, I'd become an author of some pretty steamy romance. I worried how the members of this new church I loved so much would feel about what I wrote.

I finally spoke up, and now my rector's wife reads my work. 🙂

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Amber Belldene

There's been a lively discussion about this piece over at my blog, by people who aren't registered here at the cafe. I took the liberty of copying and pasting them here:

Meryl Warren · Director of Alumni at FSU Film School via Facebook, Oct 16:

Your article helped clear up many questions I had. Not being a spiritual person I'd given no thought to a possible relationship between paranormal novels and God! You are amazing.

Celia Breslin on Facebook on October 16:

Great article, Amber. Your words on love are very moving.

Will Hocker on Facebook on October 16, 2012 at 6:27 am said:

“I wholeheartedly believe the popular passion for romance is about our human longing for God.” I love this piece, Amber. It reminds me that Mark Jordan, queer Roman Catholic ethicist says that our sexual desire is indeed ultimately a longing for the Divine. Here, let him speak for himself: “I am suggesting instead that our union with God in prayer is the fulfillment of our capacity for erotic pleasure. It is what our erotic capacity prepares us for, what it is given for. We use erotic imagery quite appropriately to describe forms of prayer because our ordinary experience of the erotic is on the way to the experience of union with God.” ~ Mark Jordan, “The Ethics of Sex”

Jen on October 16, 2012 at 5:43 pm said:

I love this conversation of combining of avocation and the calls that well up from within us. I also love that you are tapping into a cultural phenomenon of a desire to be fully romantic, embodied, sexual beings with this puritanical history that looks with scorn, while reading 50 shades under the cover of darkness.

Stephen Hassett on Facebook on October 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm said:

Most excellent. I’ve been circling the drain of my own DMin thesis and may have just settled on something that this article speaks to (as well as having heaps of merit that have nothing to do with my own ambitions). My idea is to apply the virtues of comparative theology to something that I think should be called comparative practice. That is, what can our various passions, interests, commitments, hobbies, activities, or anything else we *do* teach us about God? We’re so hung up on having good *ideas* about God — but why is that better than having good practices? Have you ever had a conversation with someone who had really good *ideas* about cooking? Wouldn’t you rather just eat what a good cook makes? And doesn’t the person who has played ping pong their entire life deserve more of our respect and admiration than the one who has merely theorized about ping pong? As below, so above. Making a connection between sex and the sacred (without resorting to the old canard of thoughtlessly swapping one for the other), is a way of helping us use what we know (that is, sex), to reflect on what we don’t know (that is, our religious traditions). In per capita terms, it must be the case that people have more direct experience with sex — even with orgasm! — than with mysticism, or transporting experiences of the divine, but somehow we keep separating the two, as though one were not qualified to comment on the other. The point, of course, is for what we know in earthly terms, bodily terms, to help us understand what we can only glimpse in heavenly terms. As you correctly and astutely point out, this is not some slippery slope into meaninglessness — this is the Gospel. The Word made flesh, dwelling among us. I applaud and am encouraged and heartened by your work. Thank you!

Paula Millhouse on October 17, 2012 at 6:06 am said:

Amber,

Your view of not separating myself from God by anything I do, think, write, practice is liberation for my spirit, and I appreciate that. Finding God with me where I exist on this plane makes me smile.

Your concept that He loves all of me helps me breathe better.

amber.belldene on October 17, 2012 at 6:29 am said:

@ Jen — Thanks so much for your comment! The cool thing about Fifty Shades was that people stopped reading it darkness and grandmas were spotted reading it in the airport. Frankly, I think that is about as big of a sexual revolution as women have had in our country. That grandma gave me the courage to write and talk about these things!

@ Steve — Dude, you sound exactly like someone trying to write a thesis! But Amen to what you said–it is our REAL experiences in life, of sex, and food, and all the earthly pleasures, that show us how good and loving God is.

@ Paula — this comment moved me very much this morning. I’m heartened to know you find this discussion meaningful and helpful. Even though it’s true that all of us sin and have room to grow, I think that when religion focuses on our sinfulness, we can get stuck. It’s just like trying to improve as writers and focusing on our strengths–when we are trying to become holier people, it works way better to focus on our innate goodness and try to make it bigger!

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Amber Belldene

Donald, thanks for these wise comments. That's a great connection with another one of Bill's fabulous books. And yes, isn't it amazing how scientific insights are helping us understand how mistaken mind/body dualism is?

As to your last question, I believe in archetypes enough to admit something Eucharistic about blood and wine had to be in the back of my mind when I conceived of Blood Vine. But mainly, I wanted to write about vampires and I knew a winery would be a good and familiar setting, as opposed to some exotic castle in Romania. Some vampire lore says that vampires must sleep in a coffin lined with the soil in which they were buried after they died. That idea intrigued me, and reminded me of what Linda Clader taught me about the Classical idea of nostalgia in a preaching class I once took with her. And that connection determined the entire premise of Blood Vine--that my Croatian vampires are dying because they are in exile from their homeland. I hope you do read my book and tell me what you think!

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Amber Belldene

Donald, thanks for these wise comments. That's a great connection with another one of Bill's fabulous books. And yes, isn't it amazing how scientific insights are helping us understand how mistaken mind/body dualism is?

As to your last question, I believe in archetypes enough to admit something Eucharistic about blood and wine had to be in the back of my mind when I conceived of Blood Vine. But mainly, I wanted to write about vampires and I knew a winery would be a good and familiar setting, as opposed to some exotic castle in Romania. Some vampire lore says that vampires must sleep in a coffin lined with the soil in which they were buried after they died. That idea intrigued me, and reminded me of what Linda Clader taught me about the Classical idea of nostalgia in a preaching class I once took with her. And that connection determined the entire premise of Blood Vine--that my Croatian vampires are dying because they are in exile from their homeland. I hope you do read my book and tell me what you think!

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