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Sex in cahoots with the sacred


In the 1950s I went to high school seminary, where, like many of us, I got the full brunt of an education that almost totally separated body and spirit. I remember a class in which the instructor counseled us to refrain, as much as possible, from holding ourselves when we urinated, this being one more occasion for temptation.

In the residence hall, the locks on our rooms had rubber straps so the doors would not close entirely. The public examination of conscience before confession was heavily weighted in favor of transgressions against the sixth commandment.

The overarching message was: Don’t trust your body. Your sexuality is shameful. Females are deeply suspect. In the hot-air balloon of spiritual ascending, you need your genitalia like you need 500 pounds of lead.

Discerning that my calling was not to the priesthood, I went on to secular colleges. Dating and relationships became a large part of my life as a young man. The very first time I fell into serious infatuation was with a co-worker in a part-time college job. She had grown up in Montreal, spoke French, knew how to wear good scents, read Salinger and Camus, listened to Mose Allison and Miles Davis, and drove a British sports car.

One winter night at a party, made bold by some Chablis, we snuggled, touched, groped, kissed Ñ and I remember being completely ensorcelled, enchanted. My head swam with the smell and feel of her, the taste of wine on her breath, the warm texture and yield of her embrace.

In one fell swoop, we had entered territory I had been warned about in those high school sessions. I remember going home that evening feeling as though I were walking on air.

‘Secret purpost of the sly earth’

“Is not the secret purpose of this sly earth,” asked poet Ranier Maria Rilke, “in urging a pair of lovers, just to make everything leap in ecstasy with them?”

My first experience was so intoxicatingly heady, because like young ones from time immemorial, I had discovered something very deep and mysterious, fraught with possibilities and perils. I had fallen in love with the beauty and otherness of her, and also by extension with the rich panoply of delicious acts that constitute part of our living, with life’s sweetest, most elegant promises and potentialities.

Not only had I glimpsed great mysteries, some deep need of my soul was involved as well. For our sexuality is a prime location where we directly experience our interconnectedness. We all hunger for those connections, for intimacy, for enduring moments when soul touches soul.

Sexuality is all about the soul, as we are just beginning to rediscover.

Some timely questions: How did pregnant and poor teenage girls become a symbol for what is wrong with the country, rather than, say, overpaid CEOs, old-growth forests fallen to timber companies, greed or an obscenely excessive nuclear arsenal? Why do so many of us loathe our bodies? Why has loving touch (without lust) become so rare? Why do we almost never hear forthright, honest discussion about our sexuality the way most of us experience it, despite high rental rates for porn videos, constant titillation and bombardment with sexual imagery in advertising and endless talk-show sex conversations?

Sex is big business, a sure-fire way to rile up voters, but how often do we explore it in a contemplative way? Why is sexuality so problematic for all of us?

Recently in my city an alternative newspaper ran a feature article on an innovative program that had been introduced in the court system to deal with men arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Ongoing group sessions were part of the mandatory sentencing. In initial sessions, the men were extremely belligerent and resentful. Yet, at the completion of the eight sessions, nearly every one of them expressed a special gratitude for this opportunity, for the first time in their lives, to discuss their sexuality in an honest and open way. One man even signed up to repeat the course!

Sexuality, in our culture, is either sensationalized, over-hyped and exploited, or ignored. Mariah Britton, a New York minister, said, “It may require more intimacy to discuss sex than to actually have sex.”

Customarily we only talk about sex in jokes, in innuendos or stylized language. This enables us to avoid the painful feeling of shame that surrounds sexuality in our culture. Once when I was a grade-schooler I was walking through our living room and glimpsed my mother breast-feeding my infant sister. I still remember the shock and deep sense of puzzlement about how this most natural of acts fit in. My ears burned; my face was red. I scrupulously wondered if I needed to confess it the next Saturday afternoon. All of us have probably had similar experiences of this deep shame attached to sexuality. Writers and comedians have made a living recounting their ongoing struggles with sexual shame.

On the other end of the spectrum, we experience sexuality that is sensationalized, its mysteries trivialized and trashed. A trip to the nearest porn video rental emporium or strip bar supplies ample demonstrations of this side. Rental rates for such videos continue to climb through the roof. Sexual addiction is a huge problem in our society, made even worse by the diverse offerings of the Internet.

Is there another way Ñ some middle ground between deep shame and the most blatant exploitation? “If we reclaim sexuality and touch from the world of commercialism and exploitation, shame and denial,” writes Sarah van Gelder, “we may open the doorway to enchantment.” And to a sexuality that is sustainable, responsible and wise.

Sustainable sexuality

Let’s look at the two dominant views of sexuality in our world today. These can be labeled roughly as the liberal approach and the fundamentalist.

Liberals concentrate on the freedoms and rights of consenting adults (access to contraception, gay and lesbian rights, no-fault divorce, and so on). This is a reaction against previous, more oppressive, eras. No one can doubt that conditions are better now for women in general and for gays and lesbians than, say, in 1950.

At the same time, however, liberals created the conditions for the exploitation of sex in the media, advertising and elsewhere. The deep mystery that is our sexuality lies open for trivialization and worse. Moreover, as liberals focus on rights they often ignore how ethical and spiritual values relate to sexuality.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, brings these value questions to the forefront. Many people rightly reject sexuality without values and insist that our sexuality must be tied to a broader religious view and to more rigid ethical standards. What the religious right misses, however, is a feel for the nuances, complexity and diversity in our sexuality, riding roughshod over something that is infinitely subtle and rich. The right suspects that sex always collapses into sin without elaborate safeguards. Their ideal is a situation where all sexual expression is carefully governed in a patriarchal marriage.

Neither point of view is adequate to guide us as we cross into a new millennium, into an increasingly complex and changing world. What is needed is a way of viewing sexuality as integral to our individual life, to our spirituality and also vital to the well-being of our families and the wider community Ñ in other words, a “sustainable sexuality.”

Through the work of such pioneers as Thomas Moore, Sarah van Gelder, Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, Fr. Richard Rohr, Joan Timmerman, Sam Keen and many others, we are beginning to see that our sexuality is part and parcel of our humanity. It is our interconnectedness. It is about the enchantment that enriches and motivates our lives. It is about embracing the mystery of existence. It is also an opportunity for creativity, for acts of communion with others. We reach into another, and through that person into all of life.

Why is sexuality so precious? “Because it is the great enabler,” writes Diane Ackerman, “that allows us to commune with every aspect of being alive, with people and objects, landscapes and cities. One needs love to feel harmonious, to feel part of the rich landscape of one’s life.”

To say that sexuality is just an animal instinct, an obstacle to holiness, is to say that sexuality has nothing to do with our humanity. But in fact our sexuality is an integral part of our personal and interpersonal identities. From childhood it looms large in our lives, and we must deal with it one way or the other. Thomas Moore, in his best-selling book The Soul of Sex, writes:

“We have a habit of talking about sexuality as merely physical, yet nothing has more soul. Sex takes us into the world of intense passions, sensual touch, exciting fantasies, many levels of meaning and subtle emotions. It makes the imagination come alive with fantasy, reverie and memory. Even if the sex is loveless, empty or manipulative, still it has strong repercussions in the soul, and even bad sexual experiences leave lasting, haunting impressions.”

There is an ancient wisdom, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition, that maintains that sexuality is primarily spiritual, possibly the single greatest source of spiritual vitality in the human psyche. Sexuality is a mode of interaction with divinity.

The Old Testament’s Song of Songs describes the relationship between Yahweh and humans in the most gloriously sensual and erotic images and poetry. Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross used sexual intimacy as the effective analogy for understanding intimacy with God. St. Augustine referred to the cross of Christ as a marriage bed, intimating that our sexuality has infinite redemptive dimensions.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in his contemporary workshops on sacred sexuality, talks of holy lovemaking, a big part of the re-enchantment of life. “When you think about what your partner needs in his or her life,” he says, “and call down blessing with every gentle loving touch, God is not absent.”

In short, our sexuality is a rich source of religious experience, a great and holy mystery that brings beauty, meaning and divinity to our lives. Human love is a shape taken by the love of God.

In my late teens I hung out evenings in a local drive-in, often flirting with a waitress there. Doris was older than I was. I really liked her dry, sarcastic humor, the way her unruly russet hair presided over the rest of her.

One night I gave her a ride home; her car had been repossessed. Financially troubled, she was raising her younger sister. Her mother was drinking all the time. We talked, puffing on Marlboros, in the dark in front of her house. I tried to make her laugh, succeeded somehow, then she blurted out, “You’re sweet,” and impulsively kissed me good night. I tasted smoke, salty flowers and tears.

Later her unkempt hair and freckles came back much transformed, as the night crevice of a dream will do. “My sweet lamb, precious bubblehead,” she whispered in my ear. Senses crossed in the night; she looked like the taste of amaretto, this green-eyed, apricot angel. Her hair trailing across my shoulder, I was wiping away her tears. I woke up poleaxed, hollowed out, like one does when one has been visited by a daemon or goddess, but one made so human by the blue waitress uniform with “Doris” stenciled above the pocket. Her broken life and vulnerability mightily enhanced her allure.

Out of the closet

Yet there was more here than adolescent lust. A key question for my life was announced to me: Is our sexuality somehow in cahoots with the sacred?

I believe many of us have heard this same calling in one way or another. Theologian Dick Westley, in a Praying magazine interview, called on married Catholics to bring this religious dimension of sexuality out of the closet, to proclaim it, to talk about it, so that this rich source of religious experience can be available to the church as part of the sensum fidelis.

Theologian Rosemary Haughton writes:

“We have thought of sex as something which had to be sanctified, brought into the Christian life and made into a means of grace. ... We must stop thinking this way. We are not asked to sanctify sex or convert it to Christian use. What we have to do is discover the sanctity that is already there and find out what it tells us about the meaning of Christian living.”

One summer night, my wife and I slept outside on the porch. The moonlight fluttered its wan light on the cot. The humid July night air lay like a clammy flannel sheet against our skin. Fireflies drifted through the trees. Linda turned to me, wiggling her toes, muttering something over and over.

“Yummy, yummy,” she purred, responding to some dream visitation of her own. Some dam inside me gave way, and I was flooded with gut-wrenching love for her, so palpable I could feel it well up and overflow into tears. A checklist of my wife’s body, in fact, yields a surprising number of correlations with feelings that are familiar to me after over 10 years of marriage and are simply variations on the powerful themes of love and agape. The sight of her slender wrists always elicits the most poignant love for everything humanly fragile and mortal; the back of her knees, the downy hair of her neck bring out the most ferocious tenderness. Deeply do I love to watch her brown eyes glitter, flash and sparkle when she’s happy with her work.

Our yummy bodies are the real paradise where generosity begins, the true cradle of our love and care for others. Our bodies are surely the finest handiwork of that warm, moist salty God, that Creative One, about whom advocate for the poor Edwina Gateley speaks. The carbon atoms in our bodies we now know are distilled from stars. We’re not immaculate conceptions, but miraculous nonetheless.

My favorite gospel story tells of the woman bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her long, sensuous hair. It always knocks me out, reminding me of the intimate Christmas connection between sacredness and vulnerable flesh. Mortal flesh aches with beauty and thereby thrums with holiness. The Creator’s sly secret quietly purrs inside our cells. Bodies are thoroughly sacramental. “If the soul could have known God without the world,” said medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, “the world would never have been created.”

I suspect, too, along with many others, that the capacity to fully and comfortably inhabit our bodies is closely associated with our ability to experience connection with the body of the planet. The alienation from our bodies and from our sexuality has far-reaching consequences. To the extent that we are uncomfortable with those bodies and see them as enemies, to the same extent perhaps we plunder and rape the planet, which is both source of our existence and constant reminder of our mortality. Healing our sexuality is healing the world, for the deep shame about our bodies leads to ecological devastation.

Some key spiritual tasks for the next century: naming our reality as sexual people, reconnecting with the archetypal meaning of our eroticism, with this fecund source of energy for our spiritual lives. Because sexuality is such a powerful energy, it will always need to be protected by personal responsibility and institutional guidance. At the same time, it needs to be respected and acknowledged for what it is: a creative and mystical spiritual source.

Sexuality is integral to spiritual growth and depends upon it. Even within a celibate lifestyle, sexuality is a key force for moving forward in the spiritual life.

“Only a spiritual perspective,” says Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, “will enable humans to comprehend, appreciate and engage with the new sexual agenda in all its complex dimensions. Without such a spirituality, we cannot hope to internalize and integrate the challenge of the new sexuality for ourselves and for our world.”

Maybe our goal is not more sexual freedom nor more rigid sexual standards and mores so much as it is more people with great hearts and great capacities to love and care for others and for the earth. It is the goal of sustainable sexuality, the authentic end product of uniting the erotic with spirit. The real sexual revolution has yet to happen. It will involve the discovery of the deep sacredness of our bodies and our interactions with others.

Sex is most holy. Let the hosannas ring out!

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999