Wednesday, May 25, 2011

En route from Ulster Park, New York, to Aroostook County, Maine

Bride and groom

Spending time at weddings always leads to reading Song of Solomon, the Bible’s only out-and-out paean to sexual desire. “Many rivers cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned,” says Solomon (8:7). It’s a shocking book, right there in the middle of the Old Testament, on the order of Plato’s Phaedrus that celebrates the joys of erotic love.

My missionary-kid friends and I used to sneak into the bathroom to read the “dirty” verses. “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of they garments is like the smell of Lebanon… thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins….” (7:2-3 KJV). We’d blush and giggle, the way I imagine ordinary kids do when they discover an errant Playboy.

It’s hard to imagine the purpose of the writer isn’t to arouse. The church still doesn't know what to do with Song of Solomon, a clearly pornographic poem stuck in the middle of their canon. “It’s about Christ’s love for the church,” say evangelical pastors, trying to explain away the difficult passages. Is it? Because it seems to be pretty clear what it’s about—an extramarital affair, carried on by a royal gentleman mysteriously similar to King Solomon.

There are consistent parallels among all of the world’s great religions, and one of them is a celebration of sexual connection. I don’t disagree with the evangelical pastors, really—the poem does seem to be an extended metaphor. A love story, yes, but also an explication of how desire can help us touch the face of God.

The sensual Sanskrit stories from the Hindu holy scriptures do the same thing. Some of them are tied into the philosophy of tantra. Tantric yoga is a way for the masculine element to connect with the feminine element, a habit that can be cultivated inside of one’s own yoga practice. All us contain within ourselves both masculine and feminine elements and an asana practice (moving through physical postures) can be a way to achieve connection between those two sides of yourself. Traditionally, though, Tantric Hinduism prescribed sexual activity as a form of worship.

The Kama Sutra is the most famous Hindu “love manual,” but really functions much more as a Fourteenth Century Esquire. Seriously. It teaches men how to compare their penis sizes. My friends at Wheaton found a more progressive version when they took an elective in World Religions and read the selections from the Vedas. “The whole thing is about sex!” they exclaimed, under their breath, handing me their text late at night. Sure enough, it was. The union of the divine feminine and the divine masculine, Shiva and his bride Shakti, explored in depth. Illustrated, to our great embarrassment and fascination, by detailed murals on the walls of Indian temples. “Can that really be done?” we asked ourselves, peering closer. (The answer is no. It can’t.)
“…its fingers by the forthflashing rays of his nails seemed to run up hastily, to grow long and laugh, and the hand seemed to raise five other fingers in the five senses, that, in desire to touch her, had just made their entry full of love. Then contending feelings took possession of Kadambari as if they had gathered together in curiosity…” --Bana, Kadambari

Sounds a lot like Song of Solomon, doesn’t it?

In Hindu spirituality, the body is divided up into seven chakras, one of which is a spiritual center focused around the genitalia. The mystical Jewish tradition of kabbalah also identifies spiritual centers, in places virtually identical to the chakras. The Jewish mystics also celebrate sex as a way to approach God. I can't claim to know much about the most sacred part of that tradition, but coupling, in some literature, is claimed as a form of holiness.

Even Islam has its own mystical sexual tradition in Sufism. As difficult as it is to believe, there are feminist Muslims, and it’s good to remember that not all Muslim traditions are connected to vindictive and bloody misogyny. Instead, with exquisite lyricism, mystical poets describe divine love in the language they would use for a mistress—
“She is a pearl hidden in a shell of hair as black as jet,
A pearl for which Thought dives and remains unceasingly in the deeps
of that ocean.
He who looks upon her deems her to be a gazelle of the sand-hills,
because of her shapely neck and the loveliness of her gestures."

“It has been said that the Sufis invented this figurative style as a mask for mysteries... apart from any such motives, the Sufis adopt the symbolic style because there is no other possible way of interpreting mystical experience.” That’s according to The Mystics of Islam, by Reynold Nicholson in 1914. Wait a minute. Did he just say that there’s no other way to talk about mysticism than by using sexual metaphor? I think so.

My conclusion? I’m not saying much other than pointing out an odd consistency. Maybe there’s more to sex than meets the eye. There’s certainly more to it than our culture’s ghettoized understanding would have us believe. Shall we believe solely that sex is the grubby province of porn overlords in eastern European sex dens, of city strip clubs, and of darkest imagination?

No. Throughout our global spiritual history, our mystics have proclaimed sex to be something more, something beautiful. Something greater. If only we can begin to believe.


Red Sonia said...

I am too embarrassed to comment, except to say, that this is great! In one of the groups I am in, all the women seem to be dying to talk about sex, but then no one can bring themselves to actually say anything. We attempted Fear of Flying, but no one could either read or talk about it. When we change the word "sex" to "coloring" we do the giggle thing, but can't get to actual words. I am not sure how to bridge that gap to a more free understanding or illumination of the kind of passionate love you are talking about. Thanks for giving language to sex as religious and beautiful and good, while including the language of erotica as integral! (still can't say things well, because it is so hard for me to write about - maybe it is better left for my fiction, so I can pretend my words are coming from someone else? )

Melissa said...

Wow, thanks so much for the comment, Sonia. I have a great difficulty writing on the topic, too, which is why I procrastinated posting for almost a week. You say it better than I do, I think--"sex as religious and beautiful and good." Exactly.