“And therefore while so many think it the only valour to command and master others, study thou the Dominion of thy self, and quiet thine own Commotions. … They who are merely carried on by the Wheel of such Inclinations, without the Hand and Guidance of Sovereign Reason, are but the Automatous part of mankind, rather lived than living, or at least underliving themselves.”
–Thomas Browne, Christian Morals (1716)
I wish I would have published this a few days ago, on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, because one of the most potent images of the spirit and flesh combined is focused around a vision she experienced. When a graduate class I was in was once presented with an image of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s imposing sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a fellow student of mine snickeringly remarked that Teresa “looks like she’s having an orgasm,” with the requisite leering about the room (the student, not the room… was leering… never mind).
After all, it’s common knowledge that cenobites are incapable of orgasm and the flesh and spirit never mingle, correct?
Before you censure me for building a straw man argument, 1 I’ll remind you that it is a common assumption that being a sexual creature and a Christian are essentially incompatible.2 Want proof? Just search “Christian erotic,” or, God forbid, “Christian pornography” in Google and see what you come up with (don’t do it now while you’re reading the article). Before you hit Christian screeds, you’ll find snarky bloggers and such reminding the Internets public once again that Christianity and sex just don’t mix.3
First, I think it’s important to understand that healthy sexuality isn’t sinful if it’s truly good. I mention this specifically because there seems to be an odd complex in most Western cultures that identifies “the naughty” (which once meant “wicked”) with the pleasing and healthful (i.e., sex). If I flip open to the murky back pages of my local alternative weekly, I find clubs whose names are designed to be mockeries of ecclesiastical terms for impurity and failure, like “Iniquity,” “Vice” and the like. If what we’re enjoying there is so good, why not call it good instead of bywords for evil?
Conversely, true sinfulness is really neither sexy nor desirable if we see our moral failings for what they are. If Christians at any point call that which is good a sin, then we have a definite semantics problem that must be corrected–sin in and of itself is at its core baleful ignorance, twisted goodness, and imprisonment in one’s self. If indeed sin is darkness, then, like its namesake shadow, it has no real substance of its own. Unfortunately, this can oftentimes apply to how people deal with each other sexually or with their own pleasure privately, thus necessitating the need for our term “lust.”
However, any Christian, no matter how pious, should be at a loss to explain away the naturally sensual qualities of those good things God gives us. Asceticism is only a means to the end of enjoying God more fully, not the Christian’s ultimate mission in life.
Though some more charismatic types may disagree with me, I also believe that simple moderation and balance are form one of the key planks of the Christian life. The Greeks knew this, the Romans knew this, the Buddha knew this, surely Lao Tzu knew this… like the Golden Rule, this seems like a principle basic to our common morality.
I also agree with the fine folks over here that Christ’s famous injunction against lust was not directed against admirers of the female form, but those who were scouting out an opportunity to homewreck, or worse. If admiration increases our faith in our Creator without trampling on any other virtues, I find it difficult to see the sin in rejoicing in our God-given sexual attributes (including the imagination). I know this seems quite vague, but that is the nature of trying to moralize on such a deep and wide aspect of our existence that is so frequently frowned upon or minimized.
So there’s my QED. For the Christian, life matters, and is thus to be lived circumspectly. And, despite what our culture may bellow around us, sex matters as one of the most powerful aspects of human experience. The crux of the problem for most secular erotic literature is its treatment of human sexuality as something random and inconsequential, yet incredibly powerful. It can change the protagonists’ lives entirely, and yet we’re asked to believe that our fleeting hope for two of them to stay together is a mere vestige of an antiquated belief system. In any case, if we believe our pains and pleasures have both been hallowed by Christ, then much of the rest of it falls into place.
If you’ll notice, Bernini’s work is part of an altarpiece. Some may cry Catholic syncretism or pagan resurgence or some nonsense, but I see a little bit of God-made humanity showing its redemptive colors. We are sexual beings who must relate to both humanity and a loving God, not misbegotten creatures of either primordial filth or mawkish sexlessness.
Edited on: 25.02.10.
Before I go, one last word of prudence:
“. . . The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw.”
–G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)