I wouldn’t have read Thanks for Noticing – The Interpretation of Desire by the Reverend Doctor Vern Barnet were he not my friend from seminary. Vern was a bold visionary, too much for the staid faculty at our University of Chicago seminary, Meadville/Lombard. His three-volume D. Min. thesis on The Void may have perplexed and overwhelmed them. True to his brilliant mind and audacious quirks, he brings his encyclopedic knowledge of trans-cultural mytho-religious facts into his penchant to link the sacred and the sexual.
I’m impatient with poetry, especially sonnets. The odd phrasing and obscure words have to be dwelt upon slowly and repeatedly to tease out their gifts. Then the “Aha!” comes. Then the bemused smile fills the inner face via some pun or double-meaning. Then we share in his passion for passion – sexual and religious. For the reverend doctor, these two are not opposites; these play in union, each fulfilling the other.
For instance, in “Holy Words” he considers a friend’s caution to back off from the sexual side in his religious poems:
I want an honest, open world, so I / must keep the holy law to consecrate: my friends and every form of love I try, / each sacred chance, some fleshy, gay and straight.
From shame and shade these sonnets seek to pluck / such ancient holy words as “love” and “fuck,”
For Vern, a great sin is the expulsion of sex from spirituality. He goes round the world and back through time to gather wider, wilder humane advice. Some he puts in his sonnets (which he recommends we read aloud to pull out their rime, meter, and meaning) and some in the interesting facts he provides at the bottom of each page. For instance, he finds Father Matthew Fox quoting Richard Rohr, “Of all the world’s religions, Christianity has the biggest bias against the body. This is a disastrous theology. If I were Satan, and if I wanted to destroy Christianity, I would work overtime to tempt Christians to hate the flesh.” (Pg. 192)
In “The Cosmic Christ” Vern puts it in the positive:
The world entire is Christ, distressed, alone, / a way of painting all we see and know, / the damned, the saved enjoined with laugh and moan, / a metaphor chamfering loved and foe.
So I’ll be hurt to heal, be bound to free, / change ache to kiss and wrench eternity.
In a note at the bottom of a poem he writes: “God’s playful delight is to behold us, to know us as we are, beyond human moral criteria. Similarly, we we love without need, intention, agenda, compulsion, claim, judgment, or dependency, but simply love by noticing, by witnessing, by beholding, loving freely as God does, we become like God? (Pg. 101)
This reminds me of a poem he used to use in his liturgies: “We are God, and eternally we rejoice and moan; the freedom scares us, the responsibility is immense.” Vern has lived into his freedom and up to his responsibility, and I’ve noticed.
Do you like words and word-craft, far-flung theology, unusual facts and bold sex-positive affirmations? Do you like sonnets and Shakespeare? Can you read his gay stance into your preferred attraction? Then notice how opening his sonnets opens you. He’d like that.