Why The Saints Speak of Sex

In his essay, “The Church Effeminate,” the late John W. Robbins (who linked all evils to effeminacy, all effeminacy to Rome, and Rome, in turn, to Satan) revives the tract-tradition that titillated Protestants with stories of de Sade style nunneries that would, given a foothold, inevitably crush the American public school system.

No such luck. Though we did try our best.

He recoils with horror that “in effeminate medieval Romanist devotions, Jesus is referred to as Mother. In the Eucharist Jesus nurses his children.” These he describes as “effeminate and sometimes pornographic,” and thus joins the great American pastime of debunking Catholic spirituality by pointing out its “hidden” sexuality.

The Savior by Quirizio di Giovanni da Murano -- Wikimedia

The Savior by Quirizio di Giovanni da Murano — Wikimedia

Really, it’s hardly hidden. There are erotic depictions of Jesus, Mary and the Saints. There are erotic poems in the Bible. There are profoundly sexual descriptions of the spiritual life. But before we dismiss the Church as a glorified fertility cult, let’s perform an academic exercise I like to call “Reasonably Assuming We are 19-times More Sexually Screwed-up Than Our Predecessors.” It’s modernity, after all, that indulges the habit of watching pixelated strangers scrupulously act out every bodily contortion the addict-brain can hanker for — perhaps we should doubt our indignation over, say, Mary painted as revealing Christ’s manhood before we doubt the purity of its painter.

Madonna and Child by Jan van Hemessen — Wikiart

The mere presence of “sexuality” hardly indicates a perversion. The child who, in the spirit of anatomical accuracy, adds a penis to his finger-painted portrait may cause us to blush as much as the pornographer who, in a spirit of monetized lust, adds one to everything else. I suppose it could be some secret, Satanic underbelly that had the Vatican okay an obelisk for their front yard — but it could equally be a lack of fear and worship towards the phallic image that freed them to use it with such decorative pizzazz. “Sexually explicit” images come from innocence as much as perversion. A rigid silence towards sexuality could just as well indicate a fearful preoccupation with sex as a purity of heart. Is our age the arbiter of which is which?

Where, I wonder, would the pure, sexually-discerning Christian draw the line? At St. Dominic having visions of being breastfed by the Virgin Mary? The Angel Gabriel’s explanation of supernatural gestation to Mary: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’”? Christ resurrecting out of a womb in Eastern iconography? The Song of Songs’ description of the Savior: “Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, / so is my lover among men. / In his shadow I delight to sit, / and his fruit is sweet to my taste”?

Back to the point: With his tacit assumption that the introduction of sexuality into spirituality maligns the latter, Robbins and the Christians of his ilk join unlikely hands with the Freudians and skeptical psychoanalysts who “debunk” spirituality by pointing out its “hidden” sexuality. In “The Cult of the Virgin Mary,” Michael Carroll — God bless his sparky scholarship — argued that religious apparitions are the manifestation of repressed sexual impulses:

“It is difficult, not to think of sexual sublimation when a female seer reports [a vision] in which Christ inserts a phallic-shaped object directly into her body, as when the Blessed Ossana reports that her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ, plunged a “long and terrible nail” directly into her heart, or when the Blessed Catherine of Raconigi reports that her Divine Spouse, also Jesus Christ, plunges his arm (a long and narrow part of his body) into her body so that he can grasp her heart and wash it.”

First, if the saints don’t envision Christ as pushing a paint-can through their chest or penetrating their hearts by the forceful application of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, surely we might see an anatomical practicality in their visions before we see a phallus. Anything visualized as entering the body has to be “long and narrow.”

Secondly, and more to the point, images of sexual penetration only “debunk” claims of spiritual penetration if sexual penetration is more primordial than spiritual penetration. But they aren’t: Sexual penetration is conceptually learned through an (usually awkward) education. Spiritual penetration, on the other hand, rarely requires a didactic explanation. The child confused by The Talk may very well understand being shot with a ray of love or an arrow from Heaven. The Freudian suspicion — and indeed, any suspicion that spirituality is really just hidden sexuality — has the awkward task of explaining how the difficult, shocking, and conceptually figured-out is supposed to be the “real ground” of what is already intuitively graspable.

It seems far more likely that the facts of sexual penetration are incarnate metaphors for the primordial reality of spiritual penetration — a reality we understand and grasp long before we understand the slightest thing about sex.

And to be completely honest, I’ll take sexual sublimation that ends in statues like this over a purity that ends in suburban churches any day of the week.

This, then, is the Catholic backwardness that answers the forward-thinking skepticism of the psychoanalysts and the horror of the puritans: Sex is a created good. It points to its Creator as a piece of art points towards its artist. There can be no fear that an authentic use of sexual imagery could pervert spirituality any more than a creative use of botanical imagery could do the same.

Jesus can “nurse” his children, not because of some perverse and titillating gender-bending indulged by Romanists — as Robbins assumes — but because nursing is already an image of that greater, more primordial nourishment of grace. Saints can use frankly sexual imagery to describe the spiritual life, not because of repressed desire — as Carroll claims — but because it is already a communion that images that greater, more primordial Divine Communion. God is not threatened by sexuality. He created it. It is not a degradation but an idolatry of sexuality that would section it off as portion of humanity too strong and too difficult to serve God without supplanting Him.

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