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.