Death, Orgasms, and Ecstasy: On Teresa of Avila

Death, Orgasms, and Ecstasy: On Teresa of Avila October 15, 2019

Pope Benedict XVI offers an interesting commentary on the path of motion of charity, or ​agape​, as metabasis​—“departure” from oneself.

“Love is the very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity—in which we are all separated from one another and ultimately impenetrable to one another—into an infinite otherness. ‘Love to the end’ is what brings about the seemingly impossible ​metabasis​: stepping outside the limits of one’s closed individuality, which is what ​agape​ is—breaking through into the divine. The ‘hour’ of Jesus is the hour of the great stepping beyond, the hour of transformation, and this metamorphosis of being is brought about through ​agape, I​ t is agape​ ‘to the end’—and here John anticipates the final word of the dying Jesus: ​telestai—​ ‘it is finished’ (19:30). This end (​telos)​ , this totality of self-giving, of remolding the whole of being—this is what it means to give oneself even unto death” (Jesus of Nazareth Part Two: Holy Week, pages 54-55).

The theme of departure, exiting, or coming out of oneself toward the Other appears elsewhere, often in reference to the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church. For example in the Song of Solomon, the bridegroom invites his bride to “come” with him “to Lebanon,” while the bride invites him to “come into [his] garden,” both indicating the outward motion from the self toward the other (4:8, 16). This imagery also appears in the Revelation to John, when Christ the “Lamb” prepares for his marriage to his bride, the Church [“The Lamb has come, and the bride has made herself ready” (19:7), “The Spirit and bride say ‘Come!’” (22:17)].

The theme of coming out of the self can be likened to martyrdom insofar as it involves the death of the egotistic self. One cannot experience true unity with Christ or others until they first exit their ego. This death to self is not the end of the story, or of the trajectory of motion—instead, it is the beginning. Take for example, once again, the image of Teresa of Avila’s ecstasy, which she describes in her autobiography as an experience mirroring the conjugal union between two spouses:

“​I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away; nor is the soul content with less than God. The pain is not bodily but spiritual, although the body doesn’t fail to share in some of it, and even a great deal. The loving exchange that takes place between the soul and God is so sweet that I beg Him in His goodness to give a taste of this love to anyone who thinks I am lying” (The Book of Her Life​, chapter 29, 13).

This experience inspired the controversial statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which depicts Teresa in what appears to be an orgiastic state. Teresa’s facial expression in the statue reflects the sensations of physical agony, death, erotic pleasure, and spiritual joy, which she alludes to in her description of the experience. This image vividly conveys the extent to which Teresa’s experience holds together the tension between bodily passion/desire and renunciation, and mortification of self and communion with Christ as divine Bridegroom.

The 1984 Spanish mini-series about her life takes seriously the erotic language Teresa uses to bring to life her account of her first ecstasy. The moaning and heavy breathing may make some raise an eyebrow, but if we take the Saint at her word, it’s highly realistic.

The very etymology of the word “ecstasy” provides some insight into the “hidden” implications of this event—it is derived from the Greek ἔκστασις: to come outside of oneself, or of one’s position. Bernini’s statue gives form to these hidden implications. Her facial expression, which simultaneously evokes a sense of great pain or of death and of sensual pleasure, harkens to the interrelatedness of love and death, which is poetically summarized in chapter 8 of the Song of Solomon: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave” (8:6).

Philosopher Jean-Luc Marion applies the ideas of love as coming out of the self and love embracing death to his analysis of conjugal relations between a man and woman. He notes that the moment of climax between lovers gives way to an “eschatological anticipation”—the lover’s gift of self to the other in the conjugal act requires that he holds on to nothing for himself:

“Loving demands that the first time already coincide with the last time.” The conjugal act implies a totalizing gift which extends into “the final instance…The dawn and the evening make one single twilight—the time to love does not last and is played out in an instant, a fragment, a single beat—only one heartbeat, the smallest gap…separates us from eternity. We love one another ​in articulo vitae​, or in other words​ in articulo mortis;​ death frightens the lover no more than the finish line terrorizes the runner…The time of the lovers…settles into the end—they leave together form the moment of departure and cannot part from one another” (The Erotic Phenomenon, pages 211-212).

The French wittily refer to the moment of climax as ​le petite morte​: the small death. In this way, even the conjugal relations of a married couple are drawn into the trajectory of love unto death that Christ invites his followers to participate in. This is echoed in the Byzantine tradition, the imagery of death and martyrdom appear throughout the liturgical rites for matrimony. Toward the end of the marriage ceremony, the celebrant leads the bride and groom around the sacramental table three times in what is known as the “Dance of Isaiah.” The hymn chanted alongside this dance makes reference to the crowns that were placed on the heads of the bride and groom earlier in the ceremony. These crowns represent the “rewards of the martyrs” for having “fought the good fight,” and thus are “giv[ing] glory to [God]” (​Service of the Crowning​).

This hymn recalls what this man and woman are called to do in their marriage: ultimately, to die to themselves, and become united to Christ through their spouse. In this sense, they are replicating the heroic act of the martyrs, who literally die for the sake of union with, and glorification of, Christ. Thus, perhaps in a less dramatic way, the married man and woman are giving witness to the trajectory of their marriage as ordered toward an Object external to itself.

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