Naked Mysteries

Thoughts from Sunfire

Giotto: Baptism of Christ

Giotto: Baptism of Christ

My father was an ordained methodist minister, but he resigned from active ministry when I was about two years old to follow a career of lecturing and writing. Still, we had many Bibles and other religious books in our apartment. I remember that one of them contained a black and white reproduction of Giotto's baptism of Jesus, from the Scrovegni Chapelin Padua - part of a series of pictures of the life of Jesus. As far as I can remember, this was the first time I ever saw a picture of a man naked - all be it with his legs discretely crossed to hide his penis.

Ritual bathing had been a part of Judaism long before the time of Christ, and Jerusalem had pools for ritual bathing before entering the Temple for other sacred rites. The ritual became known as tevilah and the indoor pool where it is performed is a mikveh. In early Jewish teaching there is an injunction that, in establishing a new Jewish community, a mikveh should be built before building a synagogue.

Mosaic from the Baptistry of Neon

Mosaic from the Baptistry of Neon

But John the Baptist, like Jesus, was at odds with the established Jewish leaders, who maintained their power by capitulating with their Roman conquerors. John brought his faith to the people by baptizing in the River Jordan and other natural streams and lakes. In Orthodox Jewish communities today, participants in the tevilah - which, unlike baptism, may be repeated many times - are always naked. When you combine this with the writings of early church fathers who said that those being baptized should be naked, this is compelling evidence that Jesus was naked, as he is shown in Giotto's fresco as well as in mosaics from early times

Two of them in Ravenna, Italy, are significant because they are centered in the domed ceilings of two baptistries - chapels constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries specifically for the rite of baptism. Imagine entering a baptistry, removing all your clothing including rings and other jewelry so that water would touch every inch of your skin, entering the baptismal pool, being lowered into the water by a priest, instructed to open your eyes, and coming up out of the water to see, high above you, the image of your Saviour, naked in his baptism.

Mosaic from the Arian Baptistry

Mosaic from the Arian Baptistry

Nakedness in sacred settings is not confined to Judaism and Christianity. Murals from a mystery school in Pompeii show nudity in a ritual, the exact nature of which, lacking other historic sources, we can only imagine. Native American practices, including the hanbleceya (vision quest) and the inipi (sweat lodge) are often done naked. In India, prior to the conquest by the Victorian British, many holy men spent their entire adult lives naked. The British required them to put on loincloths, but with the independence of India, the custom of loincloths seems to be fading away. "Ardh Kumbh: The Greatest Religious Festival on Earth," is a short documentary, one of a number of documentaries that show how men in a festival, most of whom have abandoned loincloths.

If I had been born on the North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean, where the natives have no clothes and no contact with outsiders, clothing might be just as abhorrent to me as nakedness is to many right-wing westerners. I don't think it's possible for me to come to much meaningful understanding of distant cultures. What I do feel is not only possible but necessary is to understand the role nakedness plays in the processes of transformation that I and many others in our extended community have experienced either here at Easton Mountain or in our spiritual journeys before coming to Easton Mountain. Nakedness has been a part of my spiritual explorations, but I'm still reflecting on its role - reflecting on the mystery that it has for me. If you have insights that could further my understanding in this area, I invite you to join me in meditations, conversations, and perhaps rituals that will help us grow spiritually.

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Sunfire is one of the hosts of Sun Clad: A Naturist Gathering for Men Who Love Men (August 21-25). During this retreat, he will facilitate a three-workshop series called "Naked Mysteries," Part I will be in inquiry into nudity in video and live performance - using video projection and discussion. Part II will be an inquiry into nudity in sacred praxis (rituals, yoga, meditation, etc.).  It will be centered around discussion , perhaps in a heart-circle format. Part III will be an inquiry into nudity in self expression leading to growth and will involve some creative work in a medium of the participants choice (writing, movement, drawing, etc.). Participants may choose which parts they want to attend. Each part will be a unit by itself with no requirement to attend all three parts.

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Our thanks to Wikimedia Commons for making the images used in this blog post available under a GNU Free Documentation License.

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