Sex (part 1)
Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House
‘Your generation didn’t invent sex, you know,’ my grandmother would remark. She was, of course, absolutely correct. Sex has always been a problem. Sex often surfaces in the ministry of spiritual direction because sexuality and spirituality are linked in a profound way. The Christian mystical tradition has for centuries taken the erotic language of the Song of Songs as the means of describing the experience of union between the soul and God; St Bernard of Clairvaux in his sermons and commentary on the Song of Songs expounds on this reading with unbridled enthusiasm! Anyone who has seen Bernini’s sculpture of St Teresa in ecstasy in the Cornaro Chapel in Rome can see the deliberate reference to sexual ecstasy. St Teresa described the experience of ecstatic union as ‘a caressing love so sweet.’
Sexual union and intimacy were given in creation to foreshadow the total union of God with the individual soul. Sexual intimacy (when it is healthy and the product of a loving relationship) results in ecstasy – which is the abandonment of self. This self-giving for and with another is one way in which humanity can
enter into the mystery of the uncreated Divine Love – which is the source of all things. Because of this, pro-creativity and sexuality have always been linked in
Christian theology and ethics. Sexuality is a means of transcending self, not fulfilling self. The practice of sexuality and spirituality are ontologically
linked. Although I would not begin a conversation with a directee with the question ‘Shall we talk about sex now?’ I would hope that the context of spiritual direction is one in which sex might be freely discussed. It is not quite healthy for sex to be confined to the confessional!
Because of their connection, spiritual and sexual energy can become confused and feed of one another. Here I jump in where angels fear to tread. It is not unusual for the experience of Holy Communion to become confused with experiences of sexual fantasy. Most people who experience this, batter this disturbing confusion into the depths of the subconscious. It would help them to
know that they are not mad or bad. Their experience is rather a felt experience that reflects their capacity for union with God. I am not a psychologist but it would appear that the psyche searching for some means of understanding the experience of union with the Divine transposes that experience into a sexual register.
If this seems like psychobabble, consider the teaching of St Paul to married Christians in 1 Corinthians 7, which includes the advice ‘do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.’ The essential connection between celibacy and spirituality is one that has a foundation in the life of Jesus and St Paul among others. A long line of writers on prayer argue that sexual union can interfere with mystical union with the Divine. I would not agree with the statement by Martin Israel that ‘only a celibate can be a mystic,’ but I would agree that the pursuit of sexual experience can be a substitute for spiritual experience. Anyone who is called to a life of prayer has to make sure that their sex life is not exempt from the ofering of themselves. Many folk have come to grief because they think sex and spirituality do not mix. I am very sorry to say ‘they most certainly do!’