Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mortal soul 2 -- The eros of the intellect

Within the Roman Catholic mystical tradition, to which I gave an earnest part of my young life, sex and spirituality are so intimately bound up together that it is sometimes difficult to know where one begins and the other leaves off. 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."

The language of religious mysticism in all faith traditions borrows generously 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. Huxley suggests that behind sexual and religious fervor, in both men and women, is a desire for escape from self and sublimation in the other. A longing for the other is no doubt deep in our genetic makeup. Sex is the driving engine of virtually all macroscopic life on Earth, irresistibly powerful in all species other than our own. Is it inconceivable that romantic and even mystical love have their origin in a biological imperative? Some men and women willingly forego sexual congress, and that sublimated yearning often emerges as a longing for union with a transcendent reality, a personal God perhaps. And so we have the language of the bride and the bridegroom, John of the Cross's beloved "whose gentle fingers clung about my neck," or Teresa of Avila's angel who plunged his dart into her heart: "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."

The catalog of merged sexuality and religious feeling is too extensive to need recounting. We are spiritual and we are sensual. We cherish stability and we long for adventure. We are preoccupied with self and we seek self-transcendence. These tensions are no doubt part of our biological natures, and from them has sprung some of the world's most sublime poetry and art, including, of course, the writings of many of the mystics collected in H. A. Reinhold's The Soul Afire.