I spent some time living alongside a community of monks recently and as I’m attempting to write a kink based theology I did some reflecting and tried to view it through the BDSM lens….. with varying results
The most obvious place to start is with the obedience and submission of the monks. Obedience is one of the three core vows of the religious life along with chastity and poverty and is foundation of all monastic life. Monks vow to live in total obedience to the Church and God which is lived out locally through obedience to the superior or abbot of the monastery.
In fact it’s hard to find an aspect of the monks lives which is not an outworking of this obedience. They begin their lives as monks by making solemn life vows binding them to the monastic way of life of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Their lives are set out and controlled by a rule (the most famous example being the Rule of St. Benedict.) which stipulates everything from living arrangements and diet to work load and bed times. All this smacks of similarities with the contracts found in long term D/s relationships.
The rules are set out by the superior, who is often a priest and so referred to as Father. The superior organises the daily running of the monastery setting out the time table and setting the tasks for each of the monks to achieve. The strict rules and timetables help to infuse a greater sense of discipline around the monastery, the monks know where they should be and what they should be doing at all times. There is a strict form of prayer and worship which is enforced and there are two periods of work in a day when the Monks are expected to carry out their tasks. Without discipline the monastery would cease to function.
As with all religious institutions there is a heavy emphasis upon ritual here. Like a collaring ceremony the monks are given special symbols by the superior when they join the order. There are often their habits, a medallion or symbol of the order they are joining and a rope to use as a belt with three knots tied in it representing the three vows they have made. The rest of their lives are then set out following certain rituals, especially in the chapel, at prayer and at meal times. Honour is always paid to the superior through bowing and standing when he enters the room again as part of the overarching ritual of their lives. Ritual emerges from the very nature of their submissive obedience which then in turn enforces and strengthens their obedience further.
So if that is D and S covered what about B and M?
Well the monastic life is an organised and communal form of asceticism which is the practice of self inflicting severe discipline, suffering and hardship on yourself in pursuit of spiritual gain. Karmen Mackendrick has written an entire book on the use of pain and spiritual suffering as a form of pleasure arguing that those who inflict pain upon themselves are seeking to share in the suffering of Christ a sharing which brings them pleasure. Can the self denial and discipline of the monks be understood as a form of masochism? I used to be skeptical of this view worrying that it would be demeaning of those who suffered though I found that I was actually enjoying the self denial of my phone, food and alcohol, amongst other things, far more than I was suffering in it. Suffering and self denial is something that is seen as a positive and is taught to be enjoyed by the monks. If this is the case then surely it is possible to understand their lives as somewhat masochistic. Especially if we believe masochism as existing outside the realms of the sexual?
Speaking of sexual is it possible to even talk about the sexuality of a group of people who have taken strict vows to chastity?
Aside from the obvious links with chastity devices and orgasm denial I believe there is something not only sexual but inherently queer about the monastic system.
These groups of people are set up to become a new family for those who enter it. This new family made up of single a gender therefore disrupts the heteronormative understanding of the family unit as a reproductive system. The titles of Father/Brother, Mother/Sister enforce this family bond between people as well as symbolising their new found status as siblings in Christ. These communities are living manifestations of Jesus’s rejection of the traditional family unit in favour of a new family based on those who do God’s will in the synoptic Gospels.
The queerness of their relationships not only with each other but with Christ is highlighted within their prayer life. The monks I visited end their evening service with the line “behold the bridegroom comes, go forth to meet Him”. Here the bridegroom is a reference to Jesus who is specifically gendered as male with the reference to “Him”. This means that the monks are either calling themselves to enter into a same-sex marriage with the Bridegroom or they are identifying as the female gender in order to marry Christ. Either way there is a very deliberate queering of gender boundaries happening spiritually.
Logically it is possible to ask the question “do monks/nuns loose their gender when they take on the habit?” I think in some ways the answer is yes. In joining these communities they leave their previous identities, including their gender identity, and worldly sexual desires behind in an attempt to live as if they are in the Heavenly Kingdom where there is no longer male nor female. However there was still something inherently masculine about the community that I visited and one of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks about monastic communities is the segregation by gender.
As for loosing their sexuality I remember hearing an anecdote about a nun who used to say she maintained her sexuality by praying naked before God every morning and that she still believed her sexuality was an intrinsic part of who she was as a person made in the Image of God. The impulse to use their sexuality may be gone but their sexual identities always remain beneath their habits.
Far from the stuffy cobweb infused stereotypes of monks and nuns in popular culture, within religious communities dwells an inherent subversive sexuality that undermines and totally subverts the heteronormative sexual systems found outside the monastery walls.
 Karmen MacKendrick, Counterpleasures (New York: University Press, 1999)