A gay man’s intimacy with Christ is expressed in new art and writing by Richard Stott, a Methodist minister and art therapist in Sheffield, England.
Three large paintings that unite sexuality and spirituality emerged from Stott’s prayer life and meditations on the medieval Christian mystics, especially the poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” by Saint John of the Cross.
“They reach towards the experience of a deep and intimate engagement with Christ. They are not about sex per se but there is an erotic aspect to them. Sexual desire, our desire for the other, to be close to them and entwined with them is, to my mind, an echo of our desire for God and God’s desire for us. In the Christian tradition that is expressed in God coming close to us in the body of Christ,” Stott writes.
The triptych debuted in June at Hidden Perspectives, an arts festival for “bringing the Bible out of the closet” in Sheffield. Stott also posted reflections on each of the paintings at his blog, I Ask for Wonder: Exploring Art, Spirituality and Sacred Spaces in Sheffield and Beyond…. He agreed to share his work here at the Jesus in Love blog.
His first reflection is reprinted below in full, followed by summaries of his other two essays. Images have been cropped for a general audience. The paintings are oil and gold leaf on canvas, measuring approximately 24 by 31 inches.
Recently I have been stunned by a famous poem by St John of the Cross from his work ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. In the poem he writes of a spiritual encounter that is deep, beyond words and expresses it in the sensual language of physical intimacy:
Wind blew down from the tower,
Parting the locks of his hair.
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And all my senses were suspended.
I lost myself. Forgot myself.
I lay my face against the Beloved’s face.
Everything fell away and I left myself behind,
Abandoning my cares
Among the lilies, forgotten.
You can read a translation of the whole poem here.
When I read these words echoing down through the years from this 16th Century Spanish mystic I was cut to the heart as they resonate so strongly with my experience of Christ.
I need to take care here as I don’t want to universalise my experience, to imply that everyone should have the same kind of encounter. For some people the idea of relating to Christ at all is unhelpful. Furthermore, many people who do seek to engage with him may very well not do so in the same way as me and nor should they because we each need to work out our own way of engaging with the world and the transcendent. So take my reflections as what they are: the particular experience of a gay Christian using contemplative prayer to engage with Jesus.
One of the key ideas in Christianity, that the church often doesn’t realise the full implications of, is that Jesus had a body. This faith isn’t about some vague spiritual thing wafting around but is about material things and is expressed in a real human body (And whether the stories of Jesus are historically factual or not is irrelevant to me on this because the truth expressed in the myth* of the gospel stories is that the Christian faith is about a real body).
If Jesus had a body then he had blood, mucus, hormones and all kinds of dirty, messy and beautiful things that make us human. He had drives and desires and was a sexual being. When I first thought of this it seemed scandalous to me. I was in a little Catholic Church on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I looked up at the sculpture of Jesus on the cross, his beautiful body twisted and taut in pain or ecstasy and I felt desire for him, a desire for the body of Christ. I wanted to touch his body and be touched by him, to possess him and be possessed by him and in that mutual possession be transformed. I had unwittingly stumbled on and tentatively touched that deep and sensuous spiritual experience expressed by St John of the Cross.
Over the last few months I have been working on some very personal paintings that explore this experience of Jesus and I will offer reflections on each of them over the next few weeks. I share them with some trepidation as it feels like I’m exposing something of my soul but it seems to me that the artists journey is a continual breaking oneself open as we seek to express truths that lie beyond the reach of words.
The golden numinous in each of the paintings is reminiscent of orthodox Christian icons. Icons are not used as idols or objects of worship but are windows to look through so that we may glimpse the divine. I hope these paintings may, in a small way, be windows that open up our horizons and the possibilities of understanding ourselves and of the beautiful transcendent reality that I find embodied in the person of Jesus.
*myth is not a pejorative term but means a story that expresses a truth – often universal truths about human nature and experience
That concludes Stott’s first essay. Use the following links for his reflections on the other two paintings in his “Intimacy with Christ” triptych.
“You are in me and I am in you by Richard Stott explores how the risen Christ invited his friend Thomas to confirm the resurrection by touching his wounds. In another part of the Bible Christ promised “an intimate and passionate intertwining.” This embodied faith is also reflected in a prayer by Symeon the New Theologian.
“Lover and beloved moved in unison” by Richard Stott looks at sexual desire as “one of the tributaries of the soul that leads to the wider desire for God.” This yearning is expressed in the Eucharist, the poetry of John of the Cross, and the ecstasy of Teresa of Avila.
Queer Creation by Richard Stott
An Erotic Encounter with the Divine by Eric Hays-Strom (Jesus in Love)
Erotic Christ teacher speaks: We are the erotic body of Christ (Hunter Flournoy at Jesus in Love)
Erotic Christ / Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People (Patrick Cheng at Jesus in Love)
This post is part of the Queer Christ series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others. More queer Christ images are compiled in my book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.
Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
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