It was a beautiful weekend. On Saturday morning we gathered at the Edge House in Cincinnati, and began our retreat with this address from Alice Connor
I joked with my students in describing this retreat that it was going to be about the sexy, sexy Bible. Was I kidding? For centuries, we’ve tried to figure out this poem. Some see it as a kind of performance art, reenacting a fertility rite to bring good fortune to crops. Others as an allegory—a one-to-one metaphor for God’s love for recalcitrant Israel. It’s read on Passover in many Jewish households because, in the words of my friend Rabbi Yitz, “Passover is the dating process of the just-born Jewish nation with G-d, culminating in the Marriage Ceremony under the canopy of Clouds at Mount Sinai.”
For many Christians, it’s been God dating the Church instead. Others see it as a celebration of physical and romantic love, God-given. Still others wonder why it’s in our Scriptures at all—God’s not mentioned once. Do we ever read it in church? Not much. And then only the least racy parts. Like, not the bits with dripping nard or channels or bellies and breasts and lips. That stuff is best kept far away from Sunday morning. Only, why? Are we embarrassed? We are certainly embarrassing as a Christian people to non-Christians who don’t understand why we’re so embarrassed about our bodies and what they do. The Song of Songs is, at least a little bit, all these things.
To see Alice’s full address, visit her blog here.
After some reflection and discussion time, we ate lunch and walked from the Edge House to the Cincinnati Zoo. We split up into pairs and spent the next three hours doing a series of spiritual exercises designed by Jane Gerdsen and Ellen O’Shaughnessy. Here they are:
Walking in the Footsteps of St. Francis – A Prayer Walk @ the Zoo
St. Francis made a practice of walking and praying among the people, noticing the presence of God in the streets and cities and among animals and in nature. We invite you to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis – by finding a prayer partner and using the following suggestions as an invitation to prayer as you explore the Cincinnati Zoo and gardens.
A Conversation to Begin
“Come Brother Wolf, let us talk in peace.”
Do you have a Spirit Animal or favorite animal? – Why is this animal so important to you? What does it reveal to you of God? (If that animal is at the zoo, you could begin your walk by visiting that animal together).
Look Around You
“Each one should confidently make known his need to the other, so that he might find what he needs and minister to him. And each one should love and care for his brother in all those things in which God will give him grace, as a mother loves and cares for her son.”
St. Francis cared for those who were suffering and on the margins. As you walk among the people, look for someone who is suffering (maybe a child who is crying, someone who seems angry or frustrated or tired, an employee of the zoo who seems overwhelmed). Pause and offer a prayer together with your prayer partner for that person and allow their suffering be a reminder of all who are suffering in the world around you. You could also pray together the prayer of St. Francis as you hold in your mind those who are suffering in our world.
“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world. And I fold them in prayer, and they draw from the heavens, light.”
Francis and his followers found the basis for their joy in the unconditional love of God for everyone. Find something that makes you laugh or brings you joy. Share that with your partner, take a picture of it, or make a note of it to remind you that God offers us joy in the midst of all things. Offer a prayer of gratitude.
It is said that Francis could communicate with animals and felt at one with all creation.
He said: “We are sister and brother to animals and plants, water and soil, earth and sky.”
Find an animal. Take time to observe the animal in silence for 5-10 minutes. Reflect on what strikes you about the animal, how it looks, sounds, smells, or behaves. What does this animal reveal about God to you? What does it have to teach us as a creature of God? What might God be inviting you to do through this creature?
Commune with Animals
“Francis said to his companions: ‘Wait for me here; I’m going to preach to my brothers and sisters the birds.’ Francis walked into the field and the multitude of winged creatures instead of flying away, remained on the ground, turned toward him as though they were expecting him. ‘You can neither spin nor sew, but God provides garments for both you and your little ones…Your Creator loves you dearly…’”
Open your heart to an animal of your choice, and allow your heart to listen to the animal. Set your intention to connect with the animal in a way that reminds you of the love of God for all creatures.
Take a Risk
“They say you are mad; did you know that? Mad. When you went off to war, they said you were fine—intelligent…. But now you are mad—because you sing with the birds, and—you look at flowers. I think you were mad before. Not now.” —Clare of Assisi to Francesco
Praying and listening for God in public place might seem odd to some people. Talk with your prayer partner about what this experience felt like.
What did you experience of God during this time? How might you live so that others would think you are mad?
The Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, harmony; Where there is error, truth; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
From there it was back to the Edge House for dinner, and then a return to the zoo for the evening program, led by the wonderful zoo staff. This included an introduction to Rose, a screaming hairless armadillo, and a walk through the zoo at night, communing with some very awake mountain lions and tigers.
Karl Stevens was left to finish the evening by bringing it all together, which he attempted to do with an exercise. Karl pointed out that for much of Christian history the only telos (ultimate object or aim) of sex was procreation, and this only in the context of marriage. Once people were married and had children, the church essentially had nothing to say about sex. Karl referred to Lisa Fullam’s article “Sex in 3-D: A Telos for a Virtue Ethics of Sexuality,” in which Fullam suggests a different telos for the Christian expression of sexuality. She suggests using the traditional cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage to judge whether one’s sexual relationships are ethical, and she adds that we should also consider whether our relationships honor the incarnate nature of God in humanity, whether they allow us a deep intimacy that will help us heal each other’s past wounds, and whether they lead us into greater self-understanding and self-honesty. After introducing these ideas, Karl handed out this worksheet, and we ended the night with a poetry reading.
In the morning, we woke and ate breakfast and went back into the zoo, to the Peace Garden, where we worshipped together. Alice Connor led the music, and the sermon was a group offering. It was truly a beautiful and powerful weekend.