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Linking flesh and spirit glorifies both


But the way she’s kneeling, with that look on her face! It’s -- it’s disgusting!” Margaret was clearly disturbed by Bernini’s marble version of St. Teresa. She’d brought it up herself, but now none of us could remember why, because the discussion had veered into a hot debate of sex and spirit that had run nearly an hour without exhausting itself. I was making things worse by maintaining that prayer and meditation were erotic in the highest sense of the word, because they brought us into intercourse, if you will (she wouldn’t) with all of creation, and culminated in a blissful sense of union, oneness, transcendence.

Margaret was so peeved she brought her art book the next time we met. “There. Look!” One by one, we dutifully peered at the young saint’s rapturous face. Yes, indeed, the angel was about to thrust the arrow of Christ’s love into her bared breast. Yes that did suggest many things to us.

No, we did not find them sacrilegious.

“God comes to us through the physical all the time,” one woman observed. “What else are the sacraments?”

My mind wandered to novelist Alice Walker’s orgasmic tribute to a tree, and I knew it would prove Margaret’s undoing. But seriously, wasn’t it time to loosen eros from the tight confines of heterosexual procreation? And hadn’t the church really been doing that all along, by valuing the sublimated creative energies of unsated lust?

A young sculptor joined us just then, and the interruption silenced me just in time. Margaret hailed him with delight and thrust (irresistible verb) the book at him. “Tell us what you see.”

He studied the image a long time, then began to speak about the tension in the folds of the garments, the potential hostility in the way the two bodies were positioned, the manifold interpretations of the emotion on Teresa’s face. “I don’t necessarily see anything sexual at all,” he said. Margaret nodded triumphantly. “I didn’t either,” she said.

I stared at her, head tilted like a puzzled terrier. Surely she --

The woman across from me caught my eye, and we both smiled slightly. Let it go. Margaret had found a comfortable vantage point from which to view Bernini.

As for me, I went home and read the mystics, relishing all those hymns to bliss and rapture as proof of my private thesis. Of course sex wasn’t the peak of all spiritual experience, but maybe it was the best metaphor we could find. And why not? Sex opens us to penetration; it renders us vulnerable and receptive. In that moment we are naked in all ways, desperate to be touched, eager to be united. A huge energy consummates itself in us and leaves us glowing, tender, new again.

Reasoning by analogy, I could only imagine how wonderful it would be if that energy were divine.

The following week, I read in this very publication an excellent summary of new research on the biology of prayer (NCR, April 20). The capacity for mystical experience was theorized as evolving from human sexuality, and sharing the same neural circuits.

I nodded with delight -- and then winced. For people of Margaret’s bent, this news flash was going to ruin Julian of Norwich forever. Linking mysticism to sexuality would seem like a corruption, a reduction of the spiritual to the physical that destroyed the whole point of transcendence.

For me, linking the two glorified both. Transcending wasn’t escaping, it was moving through something to reach a larger place beyond it. If our brain was wired to make that experience rapturously pleasurable, just as evolution had made procreation rapturously pleasurable, so much the better. We have more to perpetuate than the flesh.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001