Sex-Ecology and the Spiritual Pursuit: The Implications of Guilt and Pleasure in the Act of Loving the Earth
Linda Mary Montano Interviews Nicolás Dumit Estévez
Linda Mary Montano interviews Nicolás Dumit Estévez about " the shared religion of their youth, Roman Catholicism, and its interface with nature, the earth and current ecological concerns, issues and insights." Montano
Estévez grew up in a culturally diverse home rich in syncretic spiritual identities and beliefs; Montano was raised a strict Roman Catholic, was in a convent for two years and is presently a returned and practicing Catholic. They share struggles and successes in their spiritual practices that inform their lives and art. This interview is an attempt to open the door to further freedoms and birthrights.
Skype: ring, ring, ring.
LMM: Hi, Nicolas. Good to see you.
NDE: How are you, Linda
LMM: Good. Nicolas let's improvise and after I interview you on Skype, let's both feel free to add, subtract and totally re-create this interview so that we are both happy.
I will begin with a question that this topic raises for me when I think of kindness, the earth, guilt, fear and religion!
Does conservative religion leave room for the interpretation and treatment of the earth as living, co-breathing “sentience;” or does the paradigm of strict religious adherence to law, rules, and the sin-fear template get collaged over the earth so that subsequent treatment of her might echo a punitive-suffering model which is not conducive to nurturing the planet as loving mother? Perhaps environmental carelessness and abuse might be a more accepted modus operandi of a culture that does not address joy and pleasure as birthrights.
How did growing up in the Dominican Republic allow you to be guilt free? I know that your story will help me let go of my attachment to my very medieval, early, misinformed religious/personal story that was suffering-based.
NDE: I can’t say that I ever was or that I am completely guilt free, but as a child I had freedom in how I related to spirituality and nature. Of course then we did not talk much about the environment or ecology. These were the mid 70s and the general perception was that the planet could provide one with endless goods. People talked about the exploitation of natural resources as a positive endeavor. Tourist resorts in the Dominican Republic were just beginning to be built. Beach sites, for example, were a “virgin” territory ready to be pimped by the travel industry.
I was raised in a home where there was a coming together of different religions. My mother and father were, to some extent, practicing Roman Catholics. We would attend mass once in a blue moon, but we were also involved with Afro-Caribbean spiritualities, and with unorthodox acts that were deemed as brujería, or witchcraft. However, talking about Vodou in the Dominican Republic of the 70s was taboo. Broaching the subject exposed the classism and racism that Dominican society was so intent in burying deep into the ground. Vodou was seen as Black, which equaled poverty and intellectual backwardness. To this end, the eco-spiritual freedom I enjoyed as a child was inseparably tied to guilt, the guilt of being caught red-handed playing unconventionally with spirituality and nature. Yet, the mixing of Vodou with Catholicism was sometimes so imperceptible and so interweaved that it was difficult to draw a line demarcating the two. I must clarify that some of the rituals we performed might have been of European “pagan” origin. One of these rituals entailed the use of a broom, which propped in a corner with sea salt crystals on its top was meant to push unwanted guests to leave one’s home at once. But back to your original question, freedom for me translated into having the opportunity to work hand in hand with water, herbs, salt, and similar materials, to shape and reshape, with a great deal of autonomy, my socio-cultural-spiritual-emotional worlds.
The Caribbean is a place where heavy rain can make surreptitious appearances, or where it can pour and pour, and pour and pour, non-stop for days on end row. At times, at home, when we were dealing with persistent precipitations, and wanted the sun to come out, we would bring a stone from the outside and perform a peculiar action. It is important to note that, although, I learned this from my maternal grandmother, men as well as women participated in this performance. First of all, one would tie a stone with twine and then hang it from the ceiling. What this parasympathetic act did was to occlude St. Peter’s phallus, and hence force him to stop urinating on us. We were not concerned with acid rain but with copious golden showers! To me, actions like this speak of a fluid and fearless comingling of the earth and spirituality. The wet, the mucky, and bodily are not kept at bay, but are invited to come into the domestic temple embodied by one’s abode.
LMM: It sounds matriarchal and not disciplined by rules and regulations. You are so lucky that you had these animistic, surreal and shamanic phenomena in your environment as a child. But I am ALWAYS interested in the word guilt.
Tell me about guilt.
NDE: Guilt? I would say that the guilt informing my upbringing comes mainly from my own training in Catholicism as yours did. Guilt made itself evident, to name one example, in the passion-like images that emerged during Easter. An illustration is provided by the stories of trees, whose sapping transformed into bleeding. Can this image come any closer to the crucifixion? Can you imagine a forest of hemorrhaging crosses? Metaphors of such sacrificial sorrow are not far distant from the current condition being lived by vast parts of our planet, which could be said to resemble an ecological Calvary.
I presently understand guilt in connection to sin, and the sin I am getting at is one linked to the perpetration of oppression, whether racial, sexual, economic, or ecological. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez talks about social sin as lack of human solidarity.
LMM: Sin as lack of solidarity is much better than sin as personal failure! Not to digress, but I can see where Liberation theology might name poverty as a great sin of misplaced solidarity via non-equal wealth distribution! In the Church, the wealth of teachings, rituals and visibility is consistently male. I would love to hear more grandmother stories.
NDE: Sacramental associations with nature emerge for me from my grandmother’s former beliefs in how observing absolute silence on Good Friday put one in contact with a boundless source of Holy water. That is, on Good Friday, Dominican water was Holy water, if one did something special. In other words, remaining silent on this specific day allowed one to become a King Midas of some sort. However, instead of turning the world into gold, one’s silence and devotion imparted an imperceptible, but powerful change in water: one could drink glass after glass of Holy water, take a Holy shower, and rinse one’s soapy dishes with this sacramental liquid. The beauty of this act resided in its ability to dismantle religious hierarchy and priestly mediation, and in giving one the possibility to imagine the sacred outside of the perimeter of the Church. On the other hand, I do wonder what happened after this Holy Water reached one’s kidneys or bladder?
LMM: We are so ready for this culturally: grandmothers giving teachings! Women artists doing this permission-giving are the radical eco-sex-dyad radicals, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens. I'm sure their CARE can resurrect our hurting planet from its wounds.
NDE: Annie and Beth’s radicalness resides in the acts of kindness and love toward nature they are committed to performing as part of their life as well as their artistic practice. The Eco-Sex field they are so keenly developing makes ample room for participants to shift personal paradigms about their relationship to one’s planet, and hence to ourselves. In my case, joining their workshop in the U.K. turned my world upside down for very good reasons, and brought my heart and intellect closer to the ground. All of a sudden I found myself in the English countryside, together with a group of amazing Eco-Sexuals having non-genital, breath and energy orgasms with the moon, the stars, and the sky. Or discussing openly our erotic exchanges with the grass we sat or took naps on. Expanding this experience into a broader context can have the positive repercussion of helping dismantle human supremacism over other beings, including the earth, among many other damaging isms. Annie and Beth's activist, artistic and theoretical premise of the earth as our lover instead of our mother makes great sense, at the same time, it pushes one to reconsider outdated notions of motherhood. Mom is tired.
LMM: So is religion! Do you think religion is necessary? What can good-religion offer the world?
NDE: Religion means community to millions and millions of people. For this reason and because of its commitment to bringing about a just world, religious institutions should be at the forefront of activism. Likewise, they should be a locus fostering the production of forward-thinking political, social cultural and environmental paradigms. Although nowadays my personal focus is on spirituality, which I see as the essence of religion, I am open to the possibility of more religion, but of the most progressive nature.
LMM: We could learn from our theologically astute planetary neighbors, that's for sure. I'm drawn to Hinduism, Jainism, Native American and Buddhist theologies.
NDE: Linda, can you imagine a cathedral whose walls are stacked with progressive books from all major disciplines and areas of knowledge, where beings other than “humans” are allowed to roam freely beyond St. Francis’ day when animals are blessed? Can you imagine a church where communion takes the shape of a luscious mango or a handful of juicy blueberries? In this church priestesses, priests and people in the community read from a bible that does not have words, per se, but that is entirely made from leaves, roots, veins, wrinkles, feathers, skin, eggs, clouds, magma, rocks…, hence serving as a platform inviting one to embrace biophilia, one’s love for life.
LMM: Your voice would be most likely echoed by WOMENPRIESTS who now number over 145 in 2013. These brave females weather excommunication by the Catholic Church to follow the whisperings of the HOLY SPIRIT who directs them to equalized service and priesthood. What a great sacrifice and what bravery because excommunication is totally bone-shaking for anyone raised Catholic! These are women who are kicked out but still want to be there. Thankfully, WOMENPRIESTS are more interested in being bathed in love and natural sharing; your juicy berries comment most likely would resonate well with them! What is needed is a re-thinking, re-doing of the patriarchal model and misogynistic racism which holds mother earth captive. It's the men's fault, I say! What about men and ecology?
NDE: I agree with you. I very much welcome your proposition. It is time for dramatic socio-political-spiritual-economic-cultural changes in regard to the patriarchal systems that have ruled our planet as a whole. Personally, I am in the midst of confronting the patriarchal and colonial structures that informed my upbringing. I see this conversation as part of this healing process.
LMM: What is REALLY wrong with the world from your perspective?
NDE: Many of us want too much. All of these wants and greedy desires become overwhelming for our planet, because in the end their pursuit has serious ecological repercussions.
LMM: In the spirit of not wanting, let's end now with a prayer for the earth. You went to Union Theological Seminary, right? Aren’t you a priest?
NDE: I attended Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I have not pursued ordination.
And you are right Linda, I like the idea of keeping this conversation short because by talking about ecology on Skype we are consuming energy! We are actually burning coal as we talk.
LMM: And by using our computers to add, subtract, multiply and divide this interview, we are clogging the airwaves, no doubt.
NDE: Prayer: "Here we are, Linda and Nicolás, on Skype, talking about the earth, talking about this being we are part of, talking about this living and dying entity with whom we are called to commune on an on-going basis. And here we are on our computers, after our initial Skype meeting, editing this interview. We promise to love the earth and to treat it not only as mother, but also as lover. We are from earth and we will return to nurture it with our flesh and bones, the flesh and bones we received from her/it/him."
LMM: And because I am a want-to-be priest, I add St. Juliana Norwich's Prayer: "ALL IS WELL, ALL IS WELL. ALL MANNER OF THINGS ARE WELL."
Saugerties and the Bronx, New York, August 28, 2013, 3:00 PM
About Linda Mary Montano and Nicolás Dumit Estévez
In a career spanning over fifty years, performance artist Linda Mary Montano (b. 1942) has created works in a variety of forms that explore the possibility of eliminating the distinction between art and life by creating videos, books, objects from past performances, live performances, workshops/teaching and spiritually deep ways of bringing sacred truths to her own daily life and the lives of others.
Nicolás Dumit Estévez (b. 1967) treads an elusive path that manifests itself through experiences where the quotidian and art often overlap. During the last seven years, he has received mentorship from Linda Mary Montano a pioneer figure in the performance art field. Estévez holds degrees in art and theology. Born in Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros, Dominican Republic, he was recently baptized as a Bronxite, a citizen of the Bronx.