We often speak about the thin line separating love and hate. Indeed, these two completely opposite emotions sometimes seem to merge into one, so that we speak of the love-hate relationship, separating the words, not by a line, but a mere hyphen.
Recently I have been wondering about something: is there a similar thin line separating two experiences that could not be further apart on the human experiential spectrum: a mystical union with God, at one end, and the pure eroticism of sex on the other?
What had first provoked these thoughts was my happening to read a description by St Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish nun, and one of the Church’s most renown mystics, of her special communication with God. She described her intense joy when she saw, in a vision, an angel sent by God, using imagery that is startlingly, vividly sexual. The angel came in beautiful bodily form. He approached her with a spear tipped with fire, which he ‘thrust’ repeatedly into her body, ‘penetrating’ her so completely that when he drew out his spear, she was ‘all on fire’ and started ‘moaning’. She described the experience as being both exquisitely ‘sweet’ and ‘painful’ at the same time.
There are well-known paintings of St Teresa in her ecstasy, which show her languid, swooning body in a state of complete orgasmic surrender, her face with a trance-like expression.
Thinking of St Teresa’s revelation, I could not help recollecting something that a friend had confided in me years ago. She was a devotee of the famous Indian mystic and guru Sai Baba credited with amazing supernatural powers, and often spoke about how she would communicate with him in the privacy and silence of her room. What had struck me as rather odd was the almost sensual quality of her description: she spoke about how close she felt to him, how comforting was his touch, how, sometimes, when she lay asleep, she could almost feel him beside her, his very breath upon her face.
Then recently I attended a performance by the well-known singer Lea Salonga who mesmerised everyone in the audience with the songs she belted out, one after another, as she stood on stage. There was one song, from the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, that suddenly made me think of this permeable boundary between divine and erotic love. It was the number ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, about Mary Magdalene’s tormented thoughts and feelings regarding Jesus. The lyric seems to me astonishingly suggestive: Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute but now Jesus’ faithful follower, sings about ‘other men’ in her life, before she met Jesus; about how, despite being the Messiah, he is basically ‘just a man’, how he ‘scares her’, how she wants to ‘scream and shout’, that is, throw the typical tantrums of the frustrated woman. She ends the song on a note of love, longing and despair: ‘I love him so.’
And Lea sang the song with all the intensity of passion she could muster, closing her eyes, lifting her face, heaving her bosom. You could sense the frisson rippling through the women in the audience.
Could the line between divine love and erotic love be the thinnest of all?
A continuing flow of little, readable pieces that will constitute what I feel is an important 'legacy of values' to leave behind. Read more about Vignettes...