Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not wanting it to end

Early in his book The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley writes: "Sex mingles easily with religion, and their blending has one of those slightly repulsive and yet exquisite and poignant flavors, which startle the palate like a revelation -- of what? That, precisely, is the question?"

Precisely the question, indeed. Huxley's book is a study of the so-called demonic possession of nuns in the Ursuline convent at Loudun, France, in the early 17th century. It seems the prioress of the convent, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, became obsessed with the local Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier, a man of seductive demeanor and well-deserved reputation as a satyr. Sister Jeanne's obsession was communicated to the other sisters, and all began to accuse Grandier of being the satanic agent of their possession. He was cruelly tortured and burned at the stake, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

The language of religious mysticism in all faith traditions borrows from the language of sex. In Christian tradition, the soul is the "bride" of Christ and asks for nothing more than to be "ravished," "annihilated," and "assimilated" into the beloved. Perhaps the most vivid portrayal of the identity of religious and sexual rapture is Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Click to enlarge.)

Huxley suggests that behind both sexual and religious fervor in both men and women is a desire for self-transcendence, for escape from the prison of self. This escape can take one "up" or "down," in Huxley's terms, to the sublime or to the depraved. In the case of the Loudun affair, and other witchcraft hysterias -- male and female -- of the late Middle Ages, sex and religion became mutually reinforcing in a downward spiral.

The geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has identified a gene for self-transcendence, what he calls "the God gene." It remains to be seen to what extent sexual passion and religious ardor spring from the same biochemistry, and to what extent the two drives are organically alike or different in the male and female. It would be interesting to compare brain scans of subjects experiencing sexual excitement and religious fervor. Genes may be, after all, the biological equivalent of Original Sin, whereby (in Huxley's words), "every potential impurity is already, even in the most innocent, more that half actualized."

What biochemical firestorm inflamed the passions of Saint Theresa of Avila when she famously wrote of her vision: "He was not tall but short, and very beautiful, and his face was so aflame that he seemed to be one of those superior angels who look like they are completely on fire...In his hands I saw a large golden spear, and on its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times, so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails...The sweetness of this intense pain is so extreme, there is no wanting it to end, and the soul isn't satisfied with anything less than God."

(Ken Russell's absurdly over-the-top The Devils, 1971, with Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne and Oliver Reed as Grandier, is based on Huxley's book.)