Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Italians Don’t Read the Kama Sutra: The Chasing Francis Series

When looking through a copy of the Kama Sutra in a bookstore; wear a hat, a pair of sunglasses and a raincoat. If a member of your church catches you, don’t say, “I wasn’t really interested in these pictures; I was just reading the text.”

They won’t believe you.

No one will!

In most bookstores, the books with the words “Kama Sutra” in the title have very little text, which no one reads.

The real Kama Sutra is not about casual sex. It is about the spirituality of lovemaking. It teaches a person to become mindful, purposeful and focused upon his or her lover. It instructs one how to transcend the ego by attending to another person. The word sutra means teaching or instruction. Hence, the Kama Sutra means, “Instructions on Love.”

The Indians gave it to us.

They also gave us wonderful cuisine.

Behind the Kama Sutra and Indian cuisine is a deliberate approach to life and religion. An Indian table is filled with delectable foods of many textures and spices. The colors of the foods and sauces range from the brilliant red dhal to the green mint and the white nan. It takes hours to prepare. The one who prepares it assumes it will also take many hours to eat the food.

When civilized people eat a great meal they stop to comment on the taste of the food. From there they continually meander into other subjects. But the food is always a safe place to which one may return if things get too tense or awkward; “but my, this chutney is unbelievable!”

I am told that Hindus have a Sutra for food.  If so, I haven’t seen it. Perhaps that’s because cooking naked is not a good idea, in any culture. (See what a wicked imagination I have? I am assuming that a Sutra on food would be like our Western versions of the Kama Sutra: filled with pictures of naked people in pre-traction poses. Sick! Sick!)

Whether or not there is a sutra on food, there is a common idea behind the Kama Sutra and Indian cuisine.  It is that real pleasure, in any area of life, requires one to pay attention, remain purposeful, and move beyond one’s self. It requires a healthy surrender to the surprises of relationship and life. To truly live we must take time, open our eyes, open our hearts, and express what we are experiencing.

Multitasking is disrespectful to all those things we are trying to do at once. It is also disrespectful to those we are doing those things with. When we work; we should work. When we play; we should play. When we eat; we should eat. When we make love; we should make love.

I learned about the Kama Sutra while studying about Hinduism. As I read it, I thought it a shame Christians didn’t have similar scripture about sex and food.

Then I saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As I watched it, a light went off in my head. I understood why Jesus began his ministry at a wedding and why a three-day wedding festival required wine. Common laborers had very few opportunities to enjoy, really enjoy food. The festival also kept the guests preoccupied so the new couple could have privacy for their own pleasure.

Making a family requires, among other things, a purposeful attention to joy. Maintaining a family requires the same.

This brings us to the difficult question about how to understand Italians.

In Chasing Francis, God sends an uptight, frustrated pastor to Italy. Well, of course! That’s what God would do.

In Italy the pastor cries, laughs, reads, and eats. He doesn’t fill his day timer with appointments every fifteen minutes. He doesn’t read corporate reports between appointments.

He doesn’t eat out of Styrofoam.

He doesn’t eat in his car.

He doesn’t drink a cup of coffee while walking, driving, or writing. He savors his coffee. He sighs. He eats his food and laughs. When he works; he works. When he eats; he eats.

In Italy, in other words, the pastor becomes a person.

He sits and takes some time to eat good food. He talks with people as he eats. Really talks. He punctuates his conversations about God and the meaning of life with “Oh gosh, this pasta!” and “mmmmmm, ohhh, how can eggplant possibly taste so good!”

Italians teach the pastor how to venerate his food. That, in turn, teaches Him how to find God.

Only people who understand the spirituality of food can comprehend what occurs at the Lord’s Table. The rest of us are doomed to keep running for the next big gulp of spiritual junk food, wondering why we have such indigestion and why “we can’t get no satisfaction.”

It was in Milan that Augustine heard the voice in his garden saying “tolle, lege;” (take, read.) The voice invited him to eat the bread of life with his eyes. It called him to savor, consume, and digest the scripture. Once Augustine started, he never stopped. After that he was continually hungry for the words of God. He was hungry to discuss with others how the word tasted.

True spirituality can’t be rushed. If you rush it, package it, take it on the run, or try to suppress the emotions or the intellectual questions it provokes, spiritual life will elude you. You will either give up or you will spend your life running to “the next big thing God is doing,” which will always be somewhere else than where you are.

If we learn to eat like Italians, we might learn to pray like Francis.

The Italians I know don’t read the Kama Sutra. That may be because their wives will kill them in a fit of passionate rage. However, most Italians don’t need the Kama Sutra anyway.

They have a table.

Like the confused pastor in Chasing Francis, Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi found God in Italy. That is not because Italy is holier than other places. It is because Italy cultivates a love for everyday life that real spirituality requires. Neither of these saints called people to overthrow the emperor or to yell at sinners. They just sat down, ate, strolled, and pondered. They savored the world because they knew it was deliberately constructed to reveal the presence of God at every turn.

God is everywhere. He is the source of all delight. We spend our lives seeking pleasure because we are seeking Him. But he is not far from any one of us because in Him we live, move and have our being.

So we don’t need the Kama Sutra. We just need to wake up and live.

An Italian taught me that.

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