Today’s Readings

Cursed be the soil for your sake, […] thorn and thistle shall it sprout for you and you shall eat the  plants of the field […] for dust you are and to dust you shall return. […] Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” – Genesis 3:17-22 (Robert Alter’s translation)

But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Romans 5:20

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” […] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Galatians 3:10,13

Pairing: George Bataille, Eroticism & Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (quoted extracts)

Content Warning: The word c-nt is used in this piece as taken from The Poetry of Georges Bataille. While we want to recognize that many who this word affects have reclaimed it, there are many who still have not, and find the word harmful. Please take care of yourself as you read this piece.

While exploring the work of Pope Gregory the Great (c.540-604), whose feast day is traditionally celebrated today, I discovered a peculiar parallel with one of my favorite radical (a)theologians, Georges Bataille.

This diagram maps out all the parts of life that Gregory was familiar with from his vast experience as precocious prefect of Rome, pioneering ascetic monk, and reluctant pope. I’ve adapted it from Carole Straw’s ground-breaking Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (1988, Berkeley: University of California Press) by emphasizing the three-dimensionality of the topology she suggests. Elements on the left are carnal, those on the right, spiritual.  Towards the bottom are pairs that are more inherently oppositional, whether concepts such as God and the Devil, or institutions such as Church and State. Elements towards the top are more intertwined in a common identity, such as the two natures of Christ-Man and Christ-God, two persons consubstantial, at least in the Chalcedonian definition. It’s not a matter of progressing from the carnal to the spiritual, but paying attention to the ways that pairs are related. Ultimately, instead of thinking linearly and two-dimensionally, we fold the elements on both axes by hinging them at Christ’s incarnation and through our celebration in the Eucharist, integrating flesh and spirit into one identity. The logic is not one of moving from profane to sacred, but from opposition to identity. Both the carnal and spiritual are part of life and as such, vital and not to be denigrated:

And typically, the life that grows ardently in love for God after sin is more pleasing than innocence that grows lazy in its security. […] For example, we love land that produces abundant fruit after we have extracted the thorns more than land that had no thorns but when cultivated yields a barren harvest. —Gregory the Great (trans. Demacopoulos, 2007), The Book of Pastoral Rule, Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, pp.178-9)

Oppositional logic has a role to play as Gregory says in the sinful pain of thorns that stimulates love for God. This might be the logic of the snake in Genesis: the soil is cursed for our sake, and as we just remembered on Ash Wednesday, we are dust and to dust we shall return, not a curse, but an oppositional part of the arc of salvation. This curse resonates for me with the curse of the law in passages from Romans and Galatians cited above. The pivot in the diagram is their integration in the logic of Christ being both Man and God, and how we eat his flesh and blood together in church;  this is what is crucial (and cruciform!)

Along these lines, Bataille describes on the one hand rule-abiding profane work rooted in the oppositional logic of law, versus a pivotal transcendent and rule-transgressing sacred intensity:

Man’s time is divided into profane time and sacred time, profane time being ordinary time, the time of work and of respect for the taboos, and sacred time being that of celebrations, that is in essence the time of transgressing the taboos. As far as eroticism goes, celebrations are often a time of sexual licence. As far as religion goes, it is particularly the time for sacrifice, for the transgression of the taboo on murder.
Transgression is complementary to the profane world, exceeding its limits but not destroying it. Human society is not only a world of work. Simultaneously – or successively – it is made up of the profane and the sacred, its two complementary forms. The profane world is the world of taboos. The sacred world depends on limited acts of transgression. It is the world of celebrations, sovereign rulers and God. –Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (trans. Dalwood) 1962, New York: Walker & Co, p.257, 67-8

I hear Bataille asking us to imagine sacredness and eroticism and transgression as the pivot and hinge of identity, God’s divinity together with sacrifice, murder, sexual license, sensually oiling Jesus’s hair with expensive unguents, eating the flesh of Christ, Thomas penetrating Christ’s wounds, turning your back on father and mother. On the other oppositional end lies the workaday, prosaic profane world of keeping on the right side of rules and taboos, not healing on the Sabbath, not touching the sick, bleeding woman because she’s impure, making a public display of fasting and praying.

Solitude

le pouce dans le con
le ciboire sur les seins nus
mon cul souille la nappe d l’autel
ma bouche implore ô christ
la charité de ton épine
Thumb in c*nt
Host-containing chalice on bare
breasts
My ass soils the altarcloth
My mouth implores O Christ
The charity of your thorn

(Bataille, 1971, Oeuvres complete IV, Paris: Gallimard, p.31)
(adapted from The Poetry of Georges Bataille (trans. Kendall), 2018,  New York: SUNY, p. 163)

At that Gregorian pivot of identity, where Christ and the Eucharist are, Bataille piles on extremes of both the carnal as well as spiritual, making the sacred about blood and flesh, penetration and intimacy, bringing our whole dirty selves to the altar, the pain of Christ’s crown of thorns as well as the thorns and thistles of Genesis, indeed the paradox of the love and charity of the thorn.

Reflection:

How do I divide my world into sacred and profane?”

How does it map to other pairs, like religious and secular; carnal and spiritual; Christian and pagan; sin and grace; joy and pain? What other logics might I use to relate the two — opposition/identity, law/freedom, work/play, rigidity/transgression?

  • Victor (he/him) has been a physician-scientist in London and done public health analytics in Singapore, just finished a master's in liturgy in Connecticut and is now in a hospital chaplaincy residency in the Bay Area. He is interested in the performance of theology without walls and sociological psychoanalysis.