Restory: Remarks on the launch of The Erotic Contemplative by Marcus O’Donnell

The Erotic Contemplative by Michael Bernard Kelly was launched in Melbourne this past weekend at the Harehole in Fitzroy. Marcus O’Donnell spoke. Below are his remarks and observations.

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Queering kingdom politics

Remarks at the launch of Michael Kelly’s The Erotic Contemplative 5/12/2021

Marcus O’Donnell

It’s a great pleasure for me to be here today to honour Michael, to celebrate his life and to celebrate the publication of The Erotic Contemplative in its third incarnation

In the Zen tradition they talk about “transmission” it is when a disciple has absorbed the tradition and made it their own and a teacher can say to them – your mind and my mind are one mind, you too have earned the right to teach others. It occurs in a public ritual that recognises the new teacher. But in reality, it is not a single moment, it is a continuous practice that is forever networking seekers together in a tradition which is always drawing on its history and always becoming new.

There are many Zen traditions. Chan took early Indian Buddhist teachings and transformed them into a new Chinese tradition. The Japanese then took Chan and transformed it into Japanese Zen. Zen teachers then travelled all over the world and today we see indigenous Zen traditions with their own rituals and insights in many countries including Australia. My own Zen teacher Roshi Susan Murphy will often move from reflecting on an ancient Chan story to insights she has learned from Aboriginal Elders and then to her own unique experience as an Australian woman who was shaped by 70s feminism.

Christianity, and certainly Catholicism, has a more fractious relationship to the development of independent traditions within its history and tends to excise rather than celebrate the formation of new voices in its network.

So, it takes remarkable courage to dare to speak from a truly independent place in the Catholic tradition like Michael did in 1994 when he recorded The Erotic Contemplative lectures. He claimed his own authority to speak, no one had given him that authority. Given Michael’s history as an activist with Rainbow Sash it is tempting to read this as a work of dissent, his electronic nailing of his thesis to a cyber church door. But this is not a work of dissent. This is an insider’s view of the tradition which is also richly overlaid with Michael’s lived experience as a gay man. Michael speaks as someone totally inside this tradition but someone free enough to make it his own.

And so I think there is also something of the Zen Master in Michael as well as the Christian mystic.

As most of you probably know these lectures were recorded in 1994 and distributed from 1995 as video tapes by Dr Joseph Kramer in his Sex Wisdom Series. They more recently had a second outing as YouTube videos and now they have a third outing in book form. So, in welcoming this new edition of The Erotic Contemplative I want to begin by taking you back to 1994 when in September that year Michael sat down in California to record these lectures.

What was the moment that Michael was speaking to when he recorded these lectures? What was it like to be lesbian, gay, trans, queer in 1994?

It was the year that we celebrated Stonewall 25, so it was a significant moment in LGBTI history. In Australia it was 16 years after the first Mardi Gras, we were midway through the Keating labour government who, right at the time Michael was sitting down to record these lectures in California, were just about to introduce a bill to expunge Tasmania’s Sodomy Laws – the last remaining sodomy laws in Australia. They were forced to do this because the United Nations Human Rights Committee had ruled we were in contravention of the International Treaty of Human Rights. This was due to the long fight by Nick Tonnen and his then partner Rodney Croome, who had fought for this all the way to the UN. In Melbourne, a month before Michael recorded these lectures, we saw the infamous Tasty raid where 460 queer party goers were strip searched by very over-zealous police searching for drugs, something even then-Premier Jeff Kennett agreed was “disturbing and extreme”.

So even though we were well into the era of gay liberation things were still fragile.

AIDS was still killing gay men even though drugs were beginning to emerge as a treatment.  In fact deaths from AIDS continued to increase, in 1995 HIV became the leading killer not just of gay men but of all Americans between 25-44.

HIV was very much in my mind at that time. I tested positive in 1993 and in 1994 I had what I call my first mid-life crisis and took myself off to art school and at the end of that year I was lucky enough to participate in Don’t Leave Me This Way at the National Gallery in Canberra the first large AIDS Exhibition at any national gallery anywhere in the world. It was curated by Ted Gott who is now part of the NGV team who early next year will bring us another pathbreaking show: Queer which will include 400 artworks from antiquity to the present day.

Radical queer politics was still a force ACTUP was still a vibrant movement. In New York Rudi Guiliani had just become Mayor and they put him on notice from day one and their protests followed him throughout his Mayorality. And it was the second year of the Clinton presidency – and he had just backed down on his election promise to end discrimination of lesbians and gays in the military, giving birth to the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell compromise. Something that took 17 years to undo. It was the year that Nelson Mandela becomes president of a new South Africa and their post-apartheid constitution explicitly recognises sexual orientation in their bill of rights which outlawed discrimination.

It was also a time of rich gay and lesbian storytelling, that included mainstream successes and joyous experiments.

In 1993 Tony Kushner receives the Pulitzer prize for the first part of his extraordinary Angels In America and Jeanette Winterson releases her wonderful Written on the Body. Derek Jarman also released his final film, the totally unique Blue: 79 minutes of a quivering Blue Screen and a multilayered soundtrack in which Jarman meditates on colour, sight, sex, religion and death. Jarman dies from HIV in early 1994.

In Australia 1994 was the year when there was a sudden flurry of mainstream gay themed films with the release of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Sum of Us. In New Zealand Peter Jackson gave us Heavenly Creatures. In the US we saw Rose Troche’s Go Fish the first of the lesbian “Indies”. Alan Hollinghurst’s novel Folding Star is shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories attempts a historical survey of gay writing. And emerging queer literature is large enough to include a mainstream writer like Hollinghurst as well as mavericks like Robert Gluck who in the same year publishes one of my all time favourites his fantasia on 14th century English mystic Margery Kempe where he overlays a retelling of Margery’s story with his own experience of an impossible love affair.

It is also the time when the movement for civil partnerships and same sex marriage was building momentum, Norway had formalised registered partnerships in 1993 and the Supreme Court of Hawaii rules in Baehr v. Lewin that a same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional unless the state can present a “compelling state interest” to prove otherwise. This begins the raft of Defence of Marriage acts in US state and federal legislatures that would mark US LGBTI politics for over a decade. In 1994 Sweden joins Norway in recognising registered partnerships. But it would be another six years before the Netherlands would become the first state in the world to recognise same sex marriage.

So here again we see that arc towards liberation but the fragility of the moment.

The early 90s also saw the emergence of what is now called queer theory which was an attempt to go beyond assimilationist models of “gay” or “lesbian” to a radical celebration of difference. And Judith Butler introduced us to the idea of gender as performance, sexuality as performance, a performance that is highly ritualised and regulated but one that can at any point be destabilised, questioned, reperformed.

Fear of a Queer Planet, a seminal collection of academic essays published in 1993, sought to synthesise some of these new threads in emerging queer theory. Michael Warner writes in his introduction to that volume:

What do queers want? This volume takes for granted that the answer is not just sex…queer politics may have implications for any area of social life. Following Marx’s definition of critical theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age,” we might think of queer theory as the project of elaborating, in ways that cannot be predicted in advance, this question: What do queers want?

‘For most part, left traditions of social and political theory have been unwilling to ask the question. They have posited and naturalised a heterosexual society. For left social theorists this book suggests how queer experience and politics might be taken as starting points rather than as footnotes. At the same time, this book urges lesbian and gay intellectuals to find new engagement with various traditions of social theory. (vii)’

We could almost take this as an introduction to The Erotic Contemplative if we replaced left traditions with church and social theorists with theologians.

For most part, the church and mystical tradition have been unwilling to ask the question. They have posited and naturalised a heterosexual church. For theologians this book suggests how queer experience and politics might be taken as starting points rather than as footnotes. At the same time, this book urges lesbian and gay intellectuals to find new engagement with various traditions of theology.

So, while I think that The Erotic Contemplative is in one sense quite a unique work that is still in many ways unmatched in what it does. I also want to place it in its time where many people from many different traditions were trying to restory queer sexuality – placing queer experience alongside other traditions, adding to, enlivening and challenging those traditions.

Rethinking what it means to be married.

Rethinking what it means to be gendered.

Rethinking what it means to live or to die with HIV.

Performing lesbian, gay, queer in a new way.

The first part of Kushner’s Angels in America ends with the Angel crashing through the roof and proclaiming, “The Great Work has begun,” and at the end of part two Prior assures us that The Great Work needs to continue and that it will continue.

And I think there was a real sense at this time that something was changing, that there was Great Work that needed to be done, and that we had to be part of that change. It’s what Christians call building the kingdom, and kingdom politics are complex: it’s what gave us Martin Luther King; but it’s also what gave us Jerry Falwell.

Michael talks about this sense of the here-but-not-here great kingdom in his lecture on liberation. He recalls sitting in Berkeley with some friends from Nicaragua who had been deeply involved in the liberation struggle in that country….

‘I said to my friend Elena, ‘You know, it’s not going to happen. It’s really not going to happen. We’ve been struggling for the kingdom of justice and peace for 2000 years, in one community after another after another. And now we’re struggling in Nicaragua. And we’re struggling in the United States, and we’re struggling in Tasmania, and we’re struggling in all these countries around the world for gay liberation. In some true sense, it’s not going to happen. And if it happens in this community, it’ll be fragile, and it may well fall apart. And if it doesn’t, there will be other communities where we still have to struggle. Our whole lives go into this. In Nicaragua, they say, maybe our struggle will bear fruit in 200 years’ time, in our great grandchildren’s time. We hope it does, we can only give our lives for the struggle’. So I said to her, ‘in a sense it’s not going to happen. And in another sense, it’s already happened. Because look at people like you (this beautiful incredible woman sitting across from me), look at people like Raphael who’s a leader in the older peace community in Nicaragua, look at women like Ersacillia from way out in the sticks in the desert parts of Nicaragua who lives and struggles and reflects and prays and works with her community. These are the people in whom already the kingdom is alive.’ (142)

I think this is the central challenge that Michael gives us in these lectures. He is asking: where is this fight for justice alive in us? He asks us to address our “moment of truth,” and tells us that our actual historical lives and our spiritual lives, our outer and inner lives are not sperate as these expressions may indicate.

Michael meditates on key themes of liberation, exile, uncertainty, darkness, the instinct toward the unnameable mystery, the instinct towards community and shared belief, the necessity of resistance, the struggle for justice, the need for openness and receptivity, the fire that all this causes in our bodies, the will to love, desire, and to be consumed in the eyes of the other.

And in all this he speaks as a gay man, he speaks as a Christian and he speaks as a human being vividly alive in the crazy world of 1994 that was calling out for new stories, new ways of being, new modes of performance.

He invokes key figures, Moses and exodus, Jesus and liberation, John of the Cross and the dark night. Finally, in his concluding lecture, he takes through a beautiful and expansive meditation on what has always been one of my favourite Gospel stories, where two disciples meet Jesus on the day of the resurrection as they head out of town toward a city called Emmaus, he comes along and walks with them but they don’t recognise him (Luke 24:13-35).

As these two men walk along, Luke tells us, they were talking together about “all that had happened” and then as Jesus appears, and starts to walk besides them, he joins in their talk and, Luke says, he starts to open their eyes …. You’re talking about these things, but you don’t understand them …. If you want to understand these events you have to look at their meaning in the context of history…. And Jesus starts to talk them through the tradition, but not as a set of ancient stories, as living history inflected with all that had just happened.

So, in the end, I think the challenge of The Erotic Contemplative is not to just to remember the events of 1994 but to look at “all that has happened” right now …. The pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the continuing struggle of queer people in many parts of the world, particularly the struggle of trans people to be recognised for who they are …. What is happening now and how can we understand this as emerging from a past and travelling into a future? How can we feel this in our bodies and commit to do something about it?

I’ll end with a quote from Michael:

‘The spiritual life is not a cocoon where we can just be safe from any danger. Quite the opposite. The spiritual life is the risk of all that we are, of our whole life itself. And very often in living the spiritual life, we feel that our very life is on the line. And it truly is. It’s also a place of hope, a hope that is, in some ways, unable to be grasped or even expressed. But it’s hope that keeps us alive, keeps us going through the night.’ (138)

In The Erotic Contemplative Michael points to the hard work of kingdom politics and marshals a wonderful restorying of the queer spiritual journey that almost twenty years later still continues to offer us hope.

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Marcus O’Donnell is a Melbourne writer artist and academic. He is currently Professor of Higher Education at Navitas, Australia. He got to know Michael when he commissioned a number of essays as editor of OutRage and Sydney Star Observer. They discovered a shared history as gay Catholics who had been drawn deeply to the monastic tradition. It began a long friendship and a long conversation about spirituality, sexuality and politics. These remarks continue that conversation.

Read more of Marcus O’Donnell’s writing published by Clouds of Magellan Press:

This Public Feeling (Bent Street 4.1 ‘Love from a Distance’)

Derek Jarman’s Queer Resilience (Bent Street 4.2 ‘Kiss MY Apocalypse’)

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