This book is the story of a
life, or a partial life as all memoirs are. It is “the story of a
heart,” as my monk friend said upon reading it. And since life
emanates, in every sense, from the heart, his description is right on
It did not take much writing
practice for me to ascertain the central themes of this memoir. What
I’m drawn to, amid an array of memories, life stimuli, and experiences,
is the complex interplay of body and spirit, of the sensual and the
spiritual, the sexual and the spiritual. For another writer, the focal
point of a memoir might be vocational struggles, or authority figures,
or friendship. But I have been and always will be attuned to the
beautiful, delicate, difficult balancing act we perform as embodied,
sexual, spiritual creatures. We are not sexual creatures on one hand
and spiritual creatures on another, as if the Gnostic dichotomy of
spirit and body had proved true. We are one whole. Still, by and large,
most modern people continue to live as Gnostics.
To tell the story of how one
awakened to the goodness of being a sensual, sexual creature, and of
all the mistakes and confusion leading to that awareness, is a
challenge. I choose to tell the story not only because it is the truest
accounting I can offer of my life, but because I believe it’s important
we hear such stories. In my experience, they are hard to come by.
Every memoir is a redemption
story, and my story is about redeeming the body, however, not in the
old, pious way you might imagine. It is about dissolving the illusion
of dualism in my understanding and life and coming to a deep awareness
of the body’s goodness, of the goodness of our senses and our
sexuality, of the stunning beauty of how we are made. It comes out of
wonder at how all the factors and laws set in motion at the beginning
of time were set to bring us this life we know—the cornucopia of
sensual and emotional experiences and the consciousness that allows us
to apprehend them as wondrous.
Yet many individuals, both
religious and non-religious, cling to dualistic understandings of body
and spirit because of the unique power of our sexuality. Like all
things imbued with power, the body has the ability to devastate as well
as to bless. As human beings, we are faced everyday with the paradox
that all good things can be twisted and used to bring harm. But rarely
have we paid such a high price for this paradox, this fact of free
will, as in the realm of the body. Because of this paradox we have
allowed ourselves to shroud in shame what is arguably the most
awe-inspiring achievement in creation: the human body and its
experiences. Most of us assimilate this shame from a young age, and
this shame is, I believe, what keeps us from talking about sexuality
and the body freely and in a context of wonder. It keeps us trapped in
unhealthy ways of thinking about our sexuality and how it is interwoven
with all that we are; specifically, with our spirituality, with our
experience of and relationship to God.
Shame does two things. It
impedes honesty and it impedes humility—the two things most essential
to awareness and the deepening of our humanity. Shame causes us to hide
things from ourselves and others and to lie. It makes us want others to
hide things, because we are afraid of what we will see. Shame causes us
to be defensive and guarded in a way that keeps us prideful and causes
us to judge others. Both dishonesty and pride then perpetuate an
unhealthy attachment and relationship to our sexuality. Shame is not
the same as recognizing missteps and lapses in judgment. It is not the
same as doing something unhealthy and recognizing later that it was not
such a good idea (the “I saw that happening differently in my head”
experience). This kind of recognition and awareness is the antithesis
of shame, which keeps us blind and manufacturing excuses. Every time a
mistake is met with honesty and awareness, allowing us to see and
recognize who we are a little more clearly, we are enriched. We have
stepped closer to humility and love for ourselves and others. We are
becoming more fully human. Therefore, mistakes are among our greatest
teachers and our greatest gifts. Shame utterly robs us of these
lessons, of the great gift of acknowledging, in a grateful way, and
learning from, mistakes.
I would like to see this change. I have noticed it changing with regard to certain types of mistakes. In the United States, we are much more comfortable with acknowledging the powerful, healing lessons learned, say, by addiction or by awakening to our greed. As a society, we can celebrate with a person who has deepened in honesty and humility by learning from gluttony or by recognizing the consequences of addiction to money and work. This progress in embracing our mistakes as master teachers is something to celebrate. But when it comes to sexual missteps, we as a society are so blinded and bamboozled by our shame that we silence our most powerful teachers, the mistakes we make against and by way of the body, mistakes that are often made in a fog of unknowing, a whirlwind of love, longing, loneliness, and often fear.
In my experience, this is especially true within religious communities. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen this played out in various churches. A sexual misstep is reported; someone has to go. If both in the relationship are within the same congregation, it is not uncommon to name one party as the more egregious offender, and like a scapegoat, to send that person away. Out into the desert, often go honesty, humility, learning, and ultimately, our deepest humanity.
Shame is given the last word.
Shame, therefore, is self-perpetuating. Who wants to honestly and
humbly acknowledge sexual missteps and lessons if the price one has to
pay within society and within religious communities, is estrangement?
As I reflect back on dabblings in unfaithfulness, promiscuity, and sexual experimentation outside of love-commitment, I view these actions as mistakes. I also view them with a profound sense of gratitude. I would not be where I am now, in a much clearer, freer place, more fully appreciative of sexuality and its integral interconnections with spirit and sacredness, and more fully myself, if I had not had those experiences.
Because much of this book is written in the present-tense voice, I write about thoughts and feelings on sexuality and commitment that, while spoken in the present-tense, I no longer have. I tell of experiences and actions from the past that I have grown beyond. Yet any growth that came throughout my life came as a result of, not despite, those experiences. Thus, I am thankful. Shame has no place in the telling of a life story, in telling of the living and learning that make us human.
Our bumbling can only serve as a catalyst to growth, however, when we can break down the barriers that keep us from celebrating the lessons learned in a context of grace.
I can already hear the voices saying (and rightly so) BUT . . . . But what about the people harmed by sexual misconduct—sometimes the very vulnerable, such as children or women (or men) who are victimized? That is a legitimate and crucial concern. I don’t in any way minimize the wrongness of sexual violations within the context of role-generated or other power imbalances. I do also think that the types of violations we might call “sexual aggression” or abuse are bred in a context of shame and secrecy about our sexuality. A context in which sexuality is no longer shrouded by shame should lessen sexual aggression and misconduct, not enable or promote it.
A context for developing a healthy sexuality is one in which sexuality is surrounded by honesty and humility, and especially in the home, openly talked about in this spirit of learning and acknowledgement of sex’s goodness. This can breed a healthier atmosphere in which to mature as sexual creatures than our present atmosphere of tandem shame and far-fetched, often violent, fascination—the flip side of shame.
Others will find my title, Jesus Loves Women, daft: “Of course, Jesus loves women! Why even say it?” In a way, that is the point. Sure it should be obvious that Jesus loves women. But for many girls, the statement is anything but obvious. Instead we hear from earliest age that women are somehow inadequate or unfit, even dirty. Jesus loves women? For many females, this revelation comes later in life as a knock-us-off-our-boots surprise. For women from patriarchal religious traditions other than Christianity, an analogous statement might be “Mohammad loves women,” “Krishna loves women,” or “Yahweh loves women”—but it would ring with the same audacity in the ears of many female listeners from those traditions or to women with no religious tradition at all.
Others will find “inappropriateness” where this is none, or will think, for example, that my friendship with the old monk named Martin, whom readers are soon to meet, is somehow strange. Yet Martin is one of the most pure-hearted people I’ve known. Would that all people could know and be loved by such a soul. I suspect that reactions of this nature come in part from shame and at times from the short-sightedness of Anglo culture. Non-white cultures, Latino cultures among them, are often less squeamish about affection, warmth, and expressions of love within platonic relationships. Thank God for that. I recently visited Mexico. I have never been kissed so many times by so many people in the course of two weeks. It was heavenly. How refreshing to be among a people who, despite whatever their own cultural blind-spots may be, have formed a deep appreciation for the physical.
Finally, this book is a story of coming home, coming home to my self and to God as a fully awakened sensual, sexual person, fully alive in her body, and fully integrated as a spiritual/physical whole. The road I took to get home was circuitous and rocky and often engulfed in fog. But the learning along the journey brought me to clearness, to a position on sexuality I would characterize as “nuevo-traditional” and that I elucidate at the end of the book.
The story is not unlike the great parable of the Prodigal Son, which for all its sadness is truly a celebration story. The parable ends with a feast, and the obvious shadow character is the shame-addicted brother who cannot bring himself to join the party. The parable illustrates what the life of the spirit is all about. It is about confusion, and making mistakes, and learning—all of which are ensconced in divine love. “First there is the Fall,” as Julian of Norwich said, “then there is the recovery from the Fall. But both are the mercy of God.”
Both are the mercy of God. This
is the miracle of the spiritual life. Jesus Loves Women
is about finding my way home and discovering at the end of the journey
a grace, a love, bigger than the universe. It was there at the
beginning, in every misplaced step along the road; and it will always
be there. Always.
—Tricia Gates Brown
Copyright © 2011 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC