The Erotic Dimension of Mystical Spirituality (or, Why Do Mystics Love the Song of Songs?)

The Erotic Dimension of Mystical Spirituality (or, Why Do Mystics Love the Song of Songs?) May 8, 2022

Almost from the beginning of the Christian era, mystics and saints and theologians and spiritual teachers have reflected on one of the most beautiful and poetic of the “wisdom writings” in the Bible to explore the mystery of the love of God and how that love seeks intimacy with us, God’s human creatures. I am referring to the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon or the Canticle of Canticles. It’s not so much a “book” as a poem or extended lyric; it’s short — only 8 chapters and barely over 100 verses long; my Catholic Prayer Bible has about 2000 pages, and the Song of Songs takes up less than nine of those. It’s one of only two books in the Bible that never directly mentions God at all. Instead, on the surface, it is a love poem — and a deeply sensual, subtly erotic love poem at that. So why, of all the spiritual and philosophical riches in scripture, would this be the book that the mystics and other God-seekers turn to, again and again?

The simple answer might make some people uncomfortable, but it needs to be said: we need to understand the fullness of human love — even including the passion and physical intimacy of romantic love — if we truly wish to explore the mysteries of God’s love. God’s love is bigger than all earthly love, like the entire spectrum of light extends beyond the rainbow of human vision. But if we want to appreciate the splendor and mystery of light, we ought to begin, at least, by embracing all the light that we mortals can comprehend, and then from there we can try to extend our understanding of light into the “hidden” regions of infrared and ultraviolet rays.

I say “hidden” because they remain hidden from our eyes, not because they are beyond the mind of God!

Truly, infrared and ultraviolet light are mystical in the arcane meaning of the word: such light is beyond our normal comprehension, and only become known to us by the special technologies that make them “visible” in a way. When I was a child, there was a time when blacklights were popular, at least among the hippies and flower children: a device which emits ultraviolet light, invisible to the naked human eye, but some items (like petroleum jelly, tonic water and oddly enough, urine) are fluorescent: that absorb ultraviolet light and then reflect a kind of “glowing” light that becomes visible to the human eye. I remember the friend of a cousin who sometime around 1969 invited me into his room, turned out the lights and turned on his blacklight. His room, filled with posters and art adorned with fluorescent colors, became a bluish fairyland. I was entranced. Then he turned on a strobe light and it got even weirder (in retrospect, I suppose my hippie friend enjoyed the pleasures of cannabis if not stronger psychedelics, but I was a good decade younger than him, only about 8 years old and innocent of such things).

So mystical love is like ultraviolet light — hidden from ordinary human perception but capable of leaving telltale signs when viewed in a certain way or using the right “technology.” For mystics, that technology is not a blacklight, but is contemplative silence. A wisdom poem like the Song of Songs overflows with “fluorescent love” that reveals its secrets when exposed to the attentive eye of silent contemplative adoration.

(A digression: one reason cannabis and other psychedelic substances are sometimes seen as agents of spiritual wisdom is because they, like contemplative silence, can reveal the “fluorescent” wisdom of divine love as well, but for our purposes we can simply focus on the gentler and therefore safer practice of attending to the depths of interior silence.)

Love’s Overwhelming Power

Love is powerful, and love expressed through the physical desire of sexuality and erotic yearning is no less dynamic a force. We know that sexuality can overwhelm us like a tsunami: it unleashes the capacity for all-consuming obsession, jealousy, ecstasy and anxiety, and can be as addictive as the most powerful of narcotics. Early seekers of the love of God began to regard human eroticism as a problem: a compelling distraction that could seduce a person away from the spiritual quest, trading their yearning for God away in return for the heady pleasures of physical intimacy. Unfortunately, this morphed into an unhealthy dualism: in which too many spiritual seekers regarded eros not merely as a distraction, but as a mistake; and when that combined with ideas circulating in the ancient world that the human body was inferior to the purity of the spirit, some drew the unfortunate conclusion that sexuality, even at its best, was sinful.

Thus you have Saint Augustine, a mystic himself who, prior to becoming a Christian kept a mistress, apparently oblivious to how this was unfair to the woman — then when he embraced the spiritual life, he could not separate out the injustice of his privileged mistreatment of his partner with an erroneous idea that sexuality itself was broken. He went on to argue that human sexuality was so stained that even married couples committed a venial (minor) sin when they made love! Unfortunately, Augustine (who was a spiritual genius in many other ways), became highly influential in the Christian west, so his unfounded and frankly toxic misunderstanding of sexuality became widely known — and accepted — in Christendom.

Monks and nuns adopted a celibate life, eschewing sexual and romantic love because they wished to give themselves wholly to God. In itself there is nothing wrong with this, and even today some people identify as asexual, simply uninterested in physical intimacy with another. But celibacy became interpreted through a dualistic lens that rejected sexuality not because it was potentially distracting, but because it was seen as inferior or even sinful. This misunderstanding has bedeviled Christianity ever since, and influenced even those outside the cloister. I weep for the countless Christian people whose ability to enjoy the pleasures of sexual love was compromised by the lie that sex is somehow contrary to God.

But the mystics, even though so many of them were themselves celibate, recognized (thanks to the Song of Songs, as viewed through the lens of their own contemplative experience) that physical love — the “red” light of the spectrum — matters just as much to the fullness of light as the “violet” of ethereal or spiritual love. Take away the red, and the rainbow is incomplete. Likewise, take away to rich and delicious joy of eros, and our capacity to understand the fullness of love likewise becomes diminished.

Clearly, God does not have a material body; even those of us who accept Christ as fully divine acknowledge that following the ascension Christ is only “met” in spiritual form. So we do not “make love” to God in a physical or sexual way. But human beings do make love with one another, unless they are asexual or celibate by choice or circumstance. When we make love, we learn something about that “red” spectrum of the mystery of love, which sheds light (pardon the pun) on the fullness of divine love—a love which transcends beyond the limits of what is “visible” to the human heart.

Erotic love alone cannot reveal to us the fullness of divine love, but neither can spiritual love alone. Frankly, we need the entire spectrum. This is why celibate mystics from Origen to Bernard of Clairvaux to Teresa of Ávila and many others continually returned to meditate upon the wisdom of the Song of Songs. What they themselves did not experience physically, they at least could (and did) meditate upon. They celebrated romantic and even erotic love because it helped them to more fully apprehend the abundance of divine love.

Those of us who are not celibate can also find insight into mystical love by celebrating the beauty, power, and life-affirming joy of healthy erotic love. We know how powerful eros is, and hopefully if we are in healthy relationships, we also understand that the fullness of love requires more than just the pleasures of physical intimacy. But just because romantic love requires more than just sex does not make sex inferior or incomplete or somehow wrong.

The Vitamins of Love

Sexuality is like a vitamin, an essential vitamin for healthy romantic love. It is not the only vitamin that a healthy marriage requires; in addition to vitamin “E” (eros), a sustainable human partnership requires vitamin “I” (intimacy), vitamin “A” (affection), vitamin “C” (caring and compassion), vitamin “F” (friendship), vitamin “V” (vulnerability), and vitamin “S” (self-sacrifice). Perhaps you can think of others.

So how does this relate to the mystical life? Mystics and mystical seekers do not have “sex” with God, but we do experience yearning for God in our hearts and even our bodies. We desire God, and we want to give ourselves fully to God. We want God to give us joy and even ecstasy. Are we capable of giving God pleasure? That may be up for debate, but if we could, we would. And we certainly want the pleasure of God to fill our hearts, souls and bodies.

All of this encompasses the “erotic” dimension of the spiritual life. Notice that it touches not so much on the physicality of erotic love (we do not use our genitals in our direct relationship with God), but it does very much touch on the inner experience of eros: there is desire, yearning, passion, pleasure, excitement, intensity, and ecstasy available in the mystical relationship between human and divine.

There is also, at least potentially, a kind of gendered engagement. Many mystics, even male mystics, envisioned themselves as “brides” of Christ, suggesting that the mystery of human gender can bring light into the mystery of intimacy with God. But that is another topic for another day!

Read the Song of Songs, and allow its frankly erotic and beautiful descriptions of earthly love between a passionate man and woman wash over you. Enjoy it, exult in it, find delicious pleasure and delight in it. And then take it into your prayer. What can human love, even at its most erotic and physical, teach us about God’s love for us, and our longing to respond to that divine love? It is a question that leads to a deep and vibrant area for spiritual exploration — a question you cannot answer easily or quickly. It may take a lifetime (and beyond). Take your time with it and enjoy the pleasures of the search!

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