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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Emotional Depth and Imaginary Heights: Fantasy and Sci-Fi Stories That Teach Us How to Love

      In any genre or medium, it is my heart-felt believe that the worth of a story is dependent upon how much that story can reveal about our own souls, and ultimately, how much it can reveal to us about the Nature of Love. Even in a roundabout way, or by exposing realities that fly in the face of that which should be, this is still the heart of the matter. Love is often falsely made synonymous with romance, but in reality there are many complex forms of love. All of these variations must be built upon and grow out of other virtues, and can be made manifest in many ways, from steadfast loyalty in friendship to courage in the battle for a just cause. True love always extends beyond any form of isolationism and reaches out to bring others in, thereby changing our world a little at a time.

    The following are just a handful of the fantasy and science fiction stories that teach about different types of love and have come to impact me as a person and leave me with a lasting sense of appreciation for the fusion of emotional depth and imaginary heights:  

     In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is the love of friendship that binds together the Fellowship in general and the hobbits in particular, as they traverse the very edge of doom. Frodo discovers the depths of devotion in Sam, who gives him the emotional strength to withstand the strain of his burden and pulls him up from the brink of despair. There are also the romances played out between Aragorn and Arwen and between Eowyn and Faramir, whose relationships are not mere emotional obsessions but are tested and purified by sacrifice and their submission to a good higher than their own personal happiness as the apocalyptic struggle rages around them. Finally, there is the love found in the mercy Frodo shows the twisted creature Gollum which, although it initially seems to be of no consequence, ultimately proves to be the salvation of all.  

     In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is laced with direct allegories of the Christian Faith, the focal point of the story is placed upon the sacrificial love of Aslan, the all-powerful Lion King, who willingly surrenders himself to the White Witch to redeem a traitorous human, and meets a bloody death upon the Stone Table. The fact that the Ancient Magic dictates love is stronger than death is the saving grace which enables resurrection and restoration for all. There is also the familial bond of the Pevensie siblings, and their determination to fulfill the ancient prophecy and do right by the inhabitants of Narnia, even when defeat and death seem certain. Lastly, there is the love shown by the Narnians themselves for the old stories that have enabled them to cling to hope in each passing generation and give them the strength to rise up in defiance of the Witch upon Aslan’s return.

     In Suzanne Collins’ Panem, the depravity and perversion of the dystopian setting brings out the best and worst sides of human nature, exposing the complex gray areas that pit survival against humanity and life against love. The heroine Katniss Everdeen embodies this internal conflict through the complexities of her own personality, combining toughness and skill with empathy and vulnerability. And yet in spite of the darkness, there are always sparks of hope. Indeed, she is known as “The Girl on Fire”, and ultimately inspires courage among her oppressed compatriots to rise up against the tyrannical Capital. Her sacrificial love for her sister Prim prompts her to take her place and volunteer to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games from which she knows she may never return, and her growing love for her fellow district tribute Peeta causes her to make a momentous decision at the end of the games which starts a chain reaction of world-shattering consequence. Katniss also shows compassion to Rue, a younger tribute who befriends in the arena, and she is in turn shown mercy by another tribute, Thresh.

     In the Star Wars Universe created by George Lucas, the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force challenges all the main characters to face their inner angels and demons. Luke Skywalker rediscovers his Jedi ancestry and determines to master the Force and overthrow the Imperial regime oppressing the galaxies. However, when he learns that his own father betrayed his identity as a Jedi and misused the Force to morph into the sinister Darth Vader, Luke realizes that only through sacrificial love will he be able to save both the universe and his father’s soul. The plot also emphasizes the all of the virtues bound up with friendship and fighting for a common cause. Han Solo in particular, although initially indifferent about the world around him, is changed by his bond with the other characters, especially Princess Leia, and rises to the challenge of becoming an unlikely hero.

     In the original series of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, we again see an emphasis placed upon the mutual devotion of the crew members to their respective duties and to one other. Captain Kirk epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of a humanistic leader, while at the same time demonstrating the hope for mankind to improve and develop. Dr. McCoy performs his role as medical officer of the crew with moral impetus, and acts as Kirk’s conscience and human connection. Perhaps one of the most complex characters in the series is Spock, the half human, half Vulcan science officer who ostensibly has no emotions. His repression of his own feelings makes it more clear to us why a balance between mind and heart is needed, and we cannot help but enjoy it when, in spite of himself, some of his inner feelings are briefly and unexpectedly revealed. The friendship of this dynamic trio is a hallmark of the productions and has assured their continued longevity.

Aslan and Edmund from "The Chronicles of Narnia"

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Cat of a Different Coat: Spirituality, Storytelling, and the Music of Karliene

Among my favorite YouTube independent artists is a Scotswoman named Karliene. An unabashedly enthusiastic pop culture fan-girl, most of her covers and compositions are inspired by geek fandoms such as Game of ThronesThe Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, among others. But there is something that makes her musical style different than typical fan-based recordings.

    There is real quality to be found in her works, and a real sense of the soul, creating a beautiful sense of grace touching culture. In whatever realm her music is supposed to be set, she weaves a web of timeless story-telling brought to life through emotionally-engrossing vocals and starkly surreal music. Through it all, she always manages to bring out the deeper meaning of her material with a burning sense of realism and purpose. Indeed I find that listening to her proves to be a spiritually enriching experience.

     Although I am not a major fan of Game of Thrones (mainly because of the inclusion of sensationalist horror-sex, a nauseating level of gore, and ambiguous moral themes and sense of plot direction), Karliene’s GoT-inspired music has a way of drawing out the best elements worthy of being remembered. 

     “Sansa’s Hymn”, for example, highlights a prayer for protection and peace recited by Sansa, eldest daughter of the House of Stark, who has lost most of her innocence and faith after her father, mother, brother, and sister-in-law are all murdered by the ruling House of Lannister. In the midst of all this brutal feuding, and in spite of the bitterness that is seeping into her soul, the words of the prayer reveal the heart she is forced to keep hidden as she plays the political game. 

     Even surrounded by battle and bloodshed on all sides, the words dare to express hope for a better future. Although the prayer is directed to a one of the Seven Faces of the Divine worshipped in Westeros, as a Catholic, I cannot help but see a strikingly Marian element to it: 

     “Gentle Mother, font of mercy/Save our sons from war we pray/Stay the swords and stay the arrows/Let them know a better day…” 

     She goes on to implore strength for all women to get through the darkness surrounding them, and that someday the feuding will end for good, when the people themselves know better than to continue it: 

     “Gentle mother, strength of women/Help our daughters through this fray/Soothe the wrath and tame the fury/Teach us all a kinder way…” 

     Karliene’s voice begins softly as she sings, and then swells with harmonies of heart-felt supplication and anguish that capture the mood to perfection. Indeed, if GoT has any lasting meaning, perhaps this song embodies it. 

     “The Rains of Castamere” is one of the most well-known songs in the series and in Karliene’s repertoire. It is a haunting lament for a noble house wiped out in the feuding, which also comes to be associated with the deaths of Caitlyn Stark and her son Rob at the gruesome massacre called “The Red Wedding.” The lyrics are extremely reminiscent of the historical inspiration for GoT found in The War of the Roses, when similar dynastic struggles brought medieval England to its knees. 

     In the style of a folk ballad, the lyrics give an overview of the dispute between two noble houses (both represented by different colored lions) with dialogue: 

     “‘And who are you,’ the proud lord said/‘That I must bow so low?’/‘Only a cat of a different coat/That’s all the truth I know/In a coat of gold, or a coat of red/The lion still has its claws/And mine are long and sharp, my lord/As long and sharp as yours…” 

     The second stanza is even more dark and haunting, as the once illustrious house, now emptied of inhabitants who have been mercilessly wiped out, falls into ruin (note: the word “rains” also is a synonym for “reigns”): 

     “And so he spoke, and so he spoke/That Lord of Castamere/But now the rains weep o’er his hall/With no one there to hear/The rains fall down, yes, the rains fall down/On Lord of Castamere/Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall/With not a soul to hear…” 

     In addition to being a grim ode to the casualties of feudal in-fighting that seems ripped straight out of a Shakespeare play, it also carries  with it an age-old moral that no man, no matter how powerful or wealthy or secure he may seem, is able to cheat death, the great leveler. The splendors of the world are doomed to crumble into dust. 

     The sound of rain and the mournful violin on this track is masterful, as is the reverb placed on Karliene’s vocals, making it sounds as if she is truly singing in a hall. In addition to this version, Karliene created a special track lamenting the Red Wedding, overlaying “The Rains of Castamere” with a powerful plea for an end to the killing called “Let It End.” The words repeat themselves with heartrending effect: 

     “Let it end/Bloodshed…” 
     Touching further on the spiritual side of Westeros, Karliene sings a lullaby about the seven gods of myth called “The Song of the Seven.” In the broad sweep, one might see the different figures not so much as multiple deities and the many facets of The Ground of Reality. They are often represented by the seven colors of the rainbow, and crystals used to separate the colors. Also, they can be seen to represent different members of the Stark family: 

     "The seven gods who made us all/Are listening if we should call...They see you, little children..."
          The song  goes on to list the roles of the gods as Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, and Smith, but appropriately leaves the last god, whose role is that of Stranger, anonymous. This is profound in that he is very much the unknown aspect of the seven-sided deity, called upon by outcasts and rejects of society.       

     Karliene sings with tenderness and also a touch of melancholy, for we know the child-like innocence expressed will soon be shattered by violence and war. And yet there is also a sense that, through it all, the powers that be are still guiding events. The harp track is quite otherworldly, and reminds of the Vulcan lyre. 

     Aside from the Stark family, another character Karliene highlights is Daenerys Targaryen in the song “Dragon Queen.” The music begins with a brief harp intro playing the TV theme for GoT and then breaking into her own individual theme. Her legacy as one who liberates slaves and “answers injustice with justice” is brought to the fore in the lyrics: 

     “She who walks in fire will strike down every master/break the chains around us…Oh, silver Queen! Blood of Dragons can be seen!” 

     Also, her claim to the throne of Westeros is strongly alluded to, as she marches with her army of loyal freemen towards the sea. Her association with dragons is one of the most overt fantasy elements in the series that tends more towards a crude historical fiction feel. These “pets” are symbolic of her own strength and fierceness, earning her the name “Mother of Dragons.” In many ways, she represents the archetype of royal savior returning from exile to liberate the oppressed and defend the weak, making her a character we can all feel cause to champion, in spite of her various faults. 

     Another cover Karliene recorded was the theme from The Hunger Games, “Safe and Sound. It is a song that manages to capture the depth of humanity found amidst the horror of tyranny and gladiatorial spectacle, speaking of Katniss Everdeen’s love of her sister Prim, whose place she took as tribute in the Games, and also for her fellow tribute Peeta, whom she nurses back to health when he is injured and refuses to kill at the Games’ end.

     Not only does it speak of the desire to keep one’s loved ones safe, but also, after watching the often tragic unfolding of the individual character stories, it has a similar effect to “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings, and can be seen as speaking of a higher eternal plane: 

     “Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound…”    

     The tune has a lullaby-like quality, and the simple piano accompaniment brings this out all the more. Furthermore, Karliene manages to bring an element of tenderness and melancholy to the piece, which I felt was lacking in the original version by Taylor Swift.

     Turning to The Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite Tolkien-esque tracks from Karliene is “Lament for Boromir.” Indeed, it was the first track that I ever heard her perform, and it completely won me over. 

     It is sung a capella with haunting harmonies, humming in chords, the songs of the bird, and reverb, perfectly fitting for Tolkien’s lengthy poem in the style of the Anglo-Saxon epics such as “Beowulf.” The singer asks the wind what news it has of Gondor’s favorite son, Boromir, and both his last stand in battle and his Viking-like funeral are recorded: 

     “Ask not of me where he doth dwell, so many bones there lie, on the white shores, on the dark shores, under a stormy sky…” 

     In addition to the richly evocative language, the thing that makes the song particularly powerful is the section of the story which it describes. Boromir had just tried to take the One Ring from Frodo shortly before his death. However, he redeems himself when he is killed trying to defend the hobbits Merry and Pippin from an orc attack. As he lies dying, Aragorn swears he will not allow Gondor, The White City, to fall, and finally rises to the challenge of being king. It is one of my top favorite scenes in the LotR film trilogy. 

     From The Hobbit, Karliene also managed to salvage a song I had long rolled my eyes at as a coffee house background tune unsuitable for Middle Earth: “I See Fire.” Somehow, for me at least, her vocals brought a whole new level of emotional intensity to the song. While I had previously felt that the lyrics had fallen rather flat (and still consider some of them to be the same!), the passionate resolve in her voice brings alive the declaration of loyalty to the end between Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends: 

     “If this is to end in fire, we will burn together/Watch the flames climb higher into the night…If we should die tonight, we will all die together/Raise a glass of wine for the last time…” 

     Here, I can’t help find an historical equivalent in British General James Wolfe singing “How Stand the Glass Around?” before the Battle of Quebec in 1759. What Karliene achieved was to bring this connection home to me and highlight the bond of brotherhood that binds the main characters together even as the dragon Smaug takes to the sky with all his fiery destruction. 

     Apart from major fandoms, Karliene also has good taste in extracting songs from stand-alone films/video games with Celtic/Medieval themes. For example, from the 2006 motion picture King Arthur (which I admittedly found to be a rather painful exercise to trying too hard to stuff mythology into an historical context, and butchering both) she recorded a cover for the sorrowful and spine-tingling “Song of the Exiles.” Again, she manages to reproduce it with gentility and power, accompanied by haunting harmonies and the pluck of harp strings.

     The lyrics speak of the profound longing all of us have to “go home”, in the emotional sense of finding a place of belonging, as exemplified by the Sardinian soldiers forced to fight for Rome in the wilds of the British Isles. It also comes to be associated with Arthur’s decision to stay in Britain and fight the Saxon invaders, for even though his head may be for Rome, his heart is firmly set in the homeland of his mother. 

     In a more universal sense, the song also brings Arthur’s words to the fore about finding a “home” wherever one is free. Beyond the temporal, there is also a spiritual dynamic of searching for a home beyond this world, where our deepest longings may finally be satisfied: 

     “Land that gave us birth and blessings/Land that calls us ever homeward/We will go home across the mountains…”

     Another one-off song track by Karliene is “Gently As She Goes”, taken from the soundtrack from the 3-D animated version of Beowulf. As one who appreciates the original epic poem, I can’t say that this action-crazed, sex-saturated, glorified creature-feature was anything less than a total turn-off for my sense of aesthetics. 

     Nevertheless, Karliene once again managed to pull out the best element of the film by choosing this song sung by the king’s wife to the warriors steeling themselves to battle Grendel in the Mead-Hall. It is soft and delicate as the falling snow, describing the outward and inward beauty of a fair maiden, accompanied by a harp, similar to the lyre she played in the scene, accompanied by the gentle rattle of a tambourine in the last verse. 

     All this is strikingly serene in comparison with the harsh Scandinavian landscape beyond the hall, and the knowledge that Grendel and his mother are preparing their attack. It also highlights Beowulf’s own growing attraction towards the queen: 

     “Lips ripe as the berries in June/Red’s the rose, red’s the rose/Skin pale as the light of the moon/Gently as she goes…Eyes blue as the sea and the sky/Water flows, water flows/Heart burning like fire in the night/Gently as she goes…”
     In a deeper sense, it shows that even the most hardened warriors are still capable of being touched by softness and beauty, just as is demonstrated in the legend of the Japanese Samurai who had his sword engraved with pastoral images of home. 

     There are many other songs of note, including “The Dragon-Born Comes” from Skyrim, “John Snow, “Dornishman’s Wife,” “Mountain Giants”, and “You Win or You Die” from GoT, “Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games, “The Last Goodbye” and “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit, “Edge of Night” from The Lord of the Rings, “Bound” and “The Woman of Balnain” from Outlander, not to mention her albums with historical/mythological themes, dealing with such famous female figures as Boudica, Guinevere, and Anne Boleyn. 

     But one thing remains a universal constant in her work: her stories-in-song manage to transcend time and space and make one truly feel the heart and soul of any setting. It is a strikingly human journey into the deeper meaning of popular fandoms, and it is one on which every geek in search of grace should embark.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Lord or Lady?: The Search for the Divine Gender

 In broad-ranging spiritual discussion circles, there tends to be a fair amount of conversation about the Divine “Life Force” which most of the world refers to as God. One of the main issues of contention is whether this “Force” has a gender, and if so, whether it is male or female. I am going to do my best to come at this complex quandary from a Catholic perspective in hopes of clarifying our position on gender in general.

     First off, it must be remembered that God is always far above and beyond human attempts to describe or categorize. Also, if there is a Divine Being outside of time and space from which all existence flows, this Being is most certainly spiritual in nature. So like angels, it is reasonable to conclude that God is indeed above and beyond gender.
Since human beings, both male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God, it would also be a logical conclusion that the good attributes found in both men and women are a part of the nature of God.

     From God comes both “the strength of man and beauty of woman,” as George MacDonald wrote, fusing the utility and asceticism that defines the world in which we live. I will go further to say that in God, who is singularly responsible for bringing forth the universe from the depths of nothingness, we see elements of both the life-giving seeding of man and the life-nourishing birthing of woman.
     In different cultures, the search for the Divine has led to a variety of expressions that emphasize strikingly different, although also occasionally similar, understandings of the ground of reality. In Judaism, the People of Israel received revelation from God in a distinctly male persona. For a patriarchal society such as their own, this made perfect sense to their understanding of the world.

     However, other peoples, such as the Druidic Celts, had a strongly held belief that spiritual wisdom was the kith and kin of female intuition. They also identified the land itself as female, which they believed was charged with a magical grandeur that was itself an extension of the Mother Goddess. Indeed, the earth was often called her body, and the rivers her blood. This inspired the Celtics to view underground springs and wells as sacred portals to the spirit world.

     Other variations of this belief in the divine feminine included the worship of the Mother Goddess Gaia from Greek mythology, who continues to have quite a following in New Age circles and is often depicted bearing the earth in her belly as a pregnant woman. Returning to Indo-European style Paganism, extending into modern Wicca, there is also a belief in the duality of the Divine, made manifest by “The Forest Lovers” or “The Lord and Lady of Nature”, according to the “Witches’ Rune.”

     All this cultural analysis aside, there are two key points which orthodox Christians must be ready to acknowledge and accept: first, that Jesus Christ is God, “I AM”, the Second Person in The Holy Trinity, who took on a human nature and an accompanying male gender; and secondly, that He repeatedly and specifically referred to God in the masculine as His Father, as epitomized in “The Lord’s Prayer.”

     However, I believe it is incorrect for men to feel any sense of superiority over women on this account. God is God, outside of our boxes, and if it had been according to Divine plan, the Messiah might have come among us as a female. Of course, it clearly was not within that plan, and I as a Christian woman am fully content with that. While I make no pretense to understand the mind of God, there are some very valid reasons I can think of off the top of my head for why this was not the case.

     Firstly, the Jewish patriarchal society would never have accepted it, and the Jews were the Chosen People from whom the Messiah would come forth. All the prophecies spoke of the coming of the Prince of Peace and the Son of David, reestablishing and continuing the royal legacy of their deposed kingship. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is deep theological significance in Christ coming as a man…or should I say the Man.

     The story of the Incarnation starts when The Holy Spirit overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary as the ultimate life-giving force, the Masculine embrace of the Feminine. In this sense, all our souls, that spiritual essence of ourselves, are to some extent feminine in that they are brought new life by the masculinity of the Christ, the New Adam. This is also brought to the fore in the masculine death on behalf of the feminine in Christ’s death to ransom humanity, acting as a lover pouring out his strength to defend his beloved. This is the crux of the chivalric ideal.

     But even with all this noted, it must also be remembered that Christ Himself made reference to attributes of God more strongly associated with feminine nurturing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

     Also, in Christian art, the symbol of the mother pelican piercing her breast to feed her young has commonly been associated with the sacrifice Jesus made by shedding His blood for humanity. After all, it has been said that a mother’s love is said to be strong enough to carry all the world…surely this also could include bringing that world into being and sacrificing oneself on its behalf?

    Returning to the subject of life-giving blood: do not women shed their blood to prepare for new life through their menstrual cycles? While it tends to be a subject less spoken about in western societies, many indigenous cultures celebrate the beginning of a girl’s cycle with various rituals and festivities. It is a sign that the Great Circle of Life shall continue forward into the future. Equally so, the shedding of Christ’s blood enabled us to be reborn and know life in abundance.

     Elaborating on the same point, there is a certain feminine element of the Eucharist, the bread and wine Catholics believe is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ during the consecration during mass. Mary is the one who fully gave her flesh and blood to Christ, since He had no human father.

     Beyond that, the act of God bestowing on us this flesh, this blood, this food for our nourishment found at the Eucharistic Table, can also be seen as a form of mothering. Indeed, some Bible verses make it sound strikingly similar to breast-feeding, particularly in the injunction, “This is My Body. Take and Eat.”

     Another very striking reference to breast-feeding and the spiritual life runs as follows: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:2)

     In another sacramental context, Catholic author Solange Hertz makes the point that genders view baptism in different ways. Men tend to view it as waters of cleansing, whereas women view it as birthing waters. Of course, the Bible confirms that it is indeed an act of re-birth: “Unless a man be born again of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1,5).    

     Even the Old Testament tends towards the feminine in describing the goodness of God: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).

     Also, there is a Jewish tradition of referring to Holy Wisdom in the feminine, just as the Celts did for Divine Inspiration: “She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, ‘Let all who are simple come to my house!’” (Proverbs 9:2-4)

     Perhaps the tension between masculine and feminine attributes is more based on our own rocky gender relations in our fallen society than it is on any substantial theological conflict. Men too often have abused the strength of their bodies and turned their protective instinct into aggression. The life-giving force is transformed into self-gratifying gluttony that can tyrannize and dehumanize the feminine. In this atmosphere, many spiritual seekers find the concept of a female divinity to be a safer and more fulfilling alternative to a male one.

      This preference may well be grounded in a distorted image of the nature of masculinity. Sometimes I feel that quite a few well-intentioned Christian men fall into this same trap when defining the nature of manhood. There are some stereotypes which are foisted onto us by our culture, and the masculinity is made synonymous with toughness projected through visible gestures such as guzzling down alcoholic beverages, inhaling tobacco smoke, or engaging in blood sports.  
     But perhaps the real proof of manhood is not so much a tough attitude, or a proclivity towards smoking or drinking, or a tolerance for violence, but rather is grounded in true strength. And the single strongest thing that exists is love. It is the purest form of that which God is, and it is necessary seed from which all other virtues grow, as well as the pinnacle of the mountain which we climb. To be loving in a world of hatred is the true test of our humanity. This loving power is something that comes from within and is not worn on the sleeve with arrogance or for show.

     All this brings to mind one of my favorite television heroes, Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. Soft-spoken, humble, and empathetic, he defies many of the stereotypes about proving one’s manhood through vulgar displays of high-handed arrogance and crude mannerisms. Nevertheless he proves to be the pinnacle of physical and mental strength. Not only is he skilled in the martial arts, which he uses for the defense of himself and others in need, but he is also able to bear the brunt of insults and prejudice with amazing resignation.

     His strength is most often revealed through gentility, enabling him to tread on rice paper without tearing it and among serpents without rousing them to attack. Also, out of respect for all life forms, he is a vegetarian, and to keep his mind clear, he drinks no alcohol. And yet in all these things, he comes off as profoundly masculine. Indeed, when asked what he is, he often simply responds, “I am a man.” While clearly set apart on many levels in both nature and comportment (e.g. Christ both ate meat and drank alcohol, according His time, place, and heritage), in the way of gentle strength, sacrificial resignation, and pure masculinity, Kwai Chang can be seen as an imperfect type of Christ, the Son of Man.

     In this light, it is much easier to embrace the masculine aspects of God. We see them for what they were meant to be, not bent by a warped, misogynistic, power-hungry perspective. Also, in the light of the gender identity of Christ, it is understandable why only men can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In addition to being about bodily constructs, gender shapes the essence of our identity and that which we were created to be. To act in persona Christi, it only makes sense that such an identity should be shared.

     This is not to say that women are somehow viewed as being on a lower plane in Church life. According to Catholic doctrine, the only person aside from Christ himself to be conceived free from the inheritance of Original Sin was a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. We acknowledge her title as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the most powerful and exalted member of our species aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ.

    When inferiority has been projected onto women in history, with the symbolic use of Eve’s apple and an excessively priggish attitude towards female sexuality (which, within the proper context of a life-long, sacramentally sealed commitment, is one of the great beauties of life), it has been largely the result of cultural norms and preconceptions, not any infallible declaration of the Church.

     While both men and women are called to live the fullness of the Christian life with both strength and love, perhaps we have our own unique ways of revealing it. We share so much, and yet there is still that priceless Ying and Yang factor which enables us to find equilibrium in each other’s company. That’s why it’s aptly said that behind every good man there is a good woman. As biological and emotional nurturers, women have an amazing transformative power. At the same time, good men bring out the best in women and honor their whole person with dignity and encouragement to be the best they can be. In all things, it can be truly said that the opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture.

        This brings us full circle in our search for the gender attributes of the Divine, a topic that proves to be highly controversial and even polarizing many religious circles. One such example of said polarization was when actor Leonard Nimoy (aka Star Trek’s Vulcan Science Officer Mr. Spock) mishandled an effort to promote the image of God in the feminine to a predominately Jewish audience by taking a picture shoot of naked female models, some of whom were holding or garbed in sacred Jewish ceremonial pieces. Although perhaps initially well-intended, the project quickly ran amuck.

     Predictably, the orthodox Jewish audience that had once felt a certain emotional kinship with him because of his own Judaism (albeit of a much more liberal “universalist” variant…indeed, he had previously made the controversial move of hijacking a rabbinic ceremonial blessing which became famous as the Vulcan salute!) promptly denounced the “heretical” display, which did seem pretty much on a par with girly calendar material, no matter what philosophical intro he may have included. Nevertheless, the whole project had some residual benefits for him…and he proceeded to make one of the models his second wife (which, of course, he must have decided was the logical course to take)!

     So yes, these topics can be severely mishandled and transformed into a sometimes sordid, sometimes farcical mess! This is especially the case when the subject at hand becomes less about gender and more about sexuality (ala Nimoy!). But this should not make us any more reticent to approach this important topic and treat it with the fairness it is due. Perhaps the question of “male or female” should best be answered “the best aspects of both, and way beyond either.” Interestingly, this balances the different aspects of human interaction with the divine rather well.

    For instance, in the Pagan understanding of the Divine feminine, she is meant to be pursued by a mystically male humanity, exemplified by the Celtic kings who were expected to mystically mate with the land, understood to be an extension of the Goddess.  On the other hand, in the Christian understanding of the Divine masculine, He is the one who seeks after and embraces humanity, as the Hound of Heaven and the Christological lover, bringing to the fore the Catholic mystics such as Catherine of Sienna who underwent a spiritual marriage to the Divine.

     Perhaps we, as humanity, both seek after and are sought after in turn, being purged by the Fire of the Holy Spirit (which could be seen as more masculine) and nurtured by the fruits of the Holy spirit (which could be seen as more feminine). Using a final Asian analogy, perhaps God is very like a Samurai’s sword, infused with both strength and beauty, and believed to contain the essence of the soul.

     But again, all these attempts at explaining the unexplainable are ultimately exercises in perception about a God who is beyond any labels humanity may be capable of devising. No neatly packaged box is able to take it all in. While revelation, tradition, and mysticism can all lend us glimpses of the Ultimate Reality, the full Truth must wait until we have reached a higher realm. In the end, perhaps it is the mystery of the Divine that is the most poignant reality. If it were not so, God would not be God.