“God wants me to have an erotic relationship with this napkin!”
Hannah was not catching on as I waved the white cloth in the air like a flag.
I continued, “The napkin! The napkin! It’s all in the napkin!” I shook it across the table towards her, as if to force out of it some invisible fairy dust that would give light to my insanity.
Jenni laughed beside her, pulled by my antics from her conversation down the table. She asked, “Are you talking about the erotic life of a napkin?”
I stood up triumphantly. “Yes!”
A friend once shared with me a Dante professor’s insight. Living in the world, he said, is like playing hide and seek with God. God waits around the corner of everything, hoping to be discovered. But one must seek in order to find. Seeking a new life after college, I traveled I-90 towards my grad program in law and Catholic Studies. Approaching St. Paul, I caught sight of a behemoth church towering over the Minnesota State Capitol. And seeing the colossal Cathedral atop Cathedral Hill, I forgot to breathe. A sharp inhalation, and the world stopped.
Plato would call this the erotic, that rush of transcendence in the face of beauty, the thing that takes your breath away and inspires you… Inspires you to do or be or create something. In The Symposium, Socrates says that all people are pregnant with beauty, and we long to give birth to the beautiful. But we must give birth through another, through one who is worthy, through another we consider beautiful and who thus inspires us and draws us out of ourselves.
For example, when we find a friend with whom we can share an idea, one of those ephemeral works of co-creation, we open ourselves in the discussion. Through that beautiful friend we can give birth to the idea and, in discussion, we nurture the idea and bring it to maturity. Beauty moves the erotic man and, by handing himself over to that movement, man can bring forth life.
Is this what Francis of Assisi means when he calls poverty “my mother, my bride, and my lady”? And then Bonaventure, when he calls Francis “the true lover of poverty”? When Bonaventure says that “the lowly and seemingly sterile simplicity” of Francis had “brought to birth seven sons,” the first seven brothers of his religious order? Bonaventure writes that “through the merits of the Mother of Mercy, Francis conceived and brought to birth the spirit of the truth of the Gospel.” And Francis himself writes in a letter to Brother Leo, “I speak to you, my son, as a mother.”
To many, Francis roamed forests as the crazed but humble man of Assisi. To Plato, he might have been the erotic man, drawn to tears by each instance of creation, kissing strangers, wedding himself to Lady Poverty, and mothering the young men who came to follow him, giving birth to a new life in them. For Francis, every sight shed loveliness, and every interaction bred life. He intercoursed with all things, nurtured all things, and drew all things into a maternal care that breathed life into the world.
The Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras calls the relationship of infant and mother an erotic relationship, “because it is a relationship constitutive of life.” A mother gives over her body to her child, and in feeding him, she brings forth her child’s life. And in speaking to her child, in gifting him language and not only the nourishment of milk, but of cares and affection and his first words, she brings forth life in him. She allows him to enter into “the world of people, the world of language and of symbols, of existential identity and names.”
Is this my call, as the unmarried man, as the gay man, as the Christian? To give birth? And not just by means of my sexual drive, but by means of the rush of the romantic? By Beauty lying in wait for me to see her, and then inspiring something in me?
By means of Sunday brunch?
When you push the swinging door, a blend of pepper, cayenne, and garlic hits you in the face like baby powder bursting out of its squeezed bottle. We tease Anne for her overuse of seasoning. She prepares brunch, and the kitchen rises about ten degrees warmer than the adjoining rooms. Her high cheeks and forehead glisten as she bounces from counter to counter, where she leaves behind bits of chopped onions, hollandaise, and spilled spices. She’s pulled her hair back, and her almond eyes open wide as she races against the clock.
I laugh into the spiced room, hoping to calm her a bit as I make my usual route to the sink and start moving dishes under a soapy sponge. Katie starts the coffee, while Dan arranges his seasonal spread of fruit. Downstairs, Tim slides bacon into our second oven.
In the last year, Sunday brunch has become the norm at our house of seven. And its preparations have become a part of our bodies moving as one body, so smoothly does it come together in an unspoken coordination. We fulfill our duties in concerted muscle memory. And then the guests arrive, having made their way over gradually from 10am Mass at the Cathedral.
Catholics tend to praise marriage as the supreme union. Ryan Anderson calls marriage “a uniquely comprehensive union. It involves a union of hearts and minds; but also–and distinctively–a bodily union made possible by sexual complementarity. As the act by which spouses make marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is inherently extended and enriched by family life and calls for similarly all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.”
I fail to see Sunday brunch as anything but a “comprehensive union,” a union of hearts and minds and body. Marriage, after all, is not the summit of communion, but a passing image of the heavenly feast. Marriage is a powerful image in its own right, but no less at the table does new life pour forth from our bodies.
In the household, a community takes shape. People enter in and receive language unique to this community. In communion, we exchange and are given in exchange names and identity and life. Permanence enters in The Little Prince’s observation that you are responsible forever for what you have tamed. Somehow, we have tamed one another. We nourish one another in a shared meal, in conversation, in prayer. Life enters our bodies and pours forth from them.
Mass in the Cathedral. Jacob’s booming voice. Jenna’s laughter. A thought. A word. A poached egg. A napkin. The day before us. I feel so in love. Time to write.