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Sex and mysticism.

In one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of being united to Christ the Lord in a holy kiss. (1) In a later sermon he explained: "When the beloved Soul shall have been perfected, the Bridegroom will make with her a spiritual marriage and they shall be two, not in one flesh, but in one spirit." (2) The sexuality of such mystical expressions is clear, but, as we shall see, such utterances are not reserved only to St. Bernard, nor are they peculiar to Christianity. In this essay I want to explore briefly the sexual imagery that appears in the writings of the great mystics of all major religions. I will also contrast this mystical quasi-sublimation of sexuality with the more explicit, albeit mystical, sexual practices of Hindu Tantra.

Regrettably, I will not deal here with the whole realm of sexual symbolism and practice in the Mystery Religions. The idea of "sacred marriage" (hieros gamos), which reappears in the Braumystik of the late Middle Ages, is worth attentive consideration, but limitations of space must be observed. Moreover, the treatment of many dimensions of my principal theme must of necessity be brief, even perfunctory, though I hope it will be sufficient to establish the major points of this essay.

Sex and Spirit

Christianity has a long and complicated history of attitudes toward sexuality--generally, toward the body in so far as it is a mere physical entity. St. Paul's distinction between the pneumatikoi and the sarkikoi and psychikoi presages a host of other ideas which eventually would view sexuality with suspicion. (3) His comment that he would rather marry than burn (4) placed marriage in a subordinate state because of sex. The downgrading of sex echoed Jesus's remark that it would be better to enter the Kingdom lame than be cast out whole. (5) This seemingly innocuous remark, and the comment in Matthew 19:12 about castration, led Origen, in the third century, to actually castrate himself, an act for which he was widely criticized, since it was generally believed that such statements were not to be taken literally but only figuratively.

In the first centuries of Christianity many pseudo-epigrapha advocated a strict sexual renunciation, and this message was often accepted with enthusiasm by at least a segment of the Church. The Acts of Thecla, for example, centers around Thecla's refusal of sexual congress, and the case is the same in the Acts of Thomas and the Acts of John. Even though self-styled orthodox Christianity, at least officially, sought to avoid extremes, there remain in it to this day a certain mistrust of sexuality and, in some instances, a sort of preference for the monastic and priestly chastity in contrast to the conjugal life of the ordinary Christian. For the same reason, the virginity of Mary before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, became an accepted doctrine after the second century CE: being the mother of God, she could not have been soiled by sex. On the other hand, in the midst of all the negative views of sex, and almost against them, sexual intercourse became a metaphor for the feminine soul's intimate union with her Spouse, Christ. The Church in general appeared as the Bride of Christ already in Paul, but the mystical imagery was developed in great detail by subsequent writers.

None of this was totally new. In ancient Mesopotamia there were sacred hymns that recounted the courtship and marriage of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, and Dumuzi, the Shepherd-King of Uruk. The beautiful hymns, explicitly sexual, were also the basis of a re-enactment of this sexual union by the King and the Priestess of Inanna in a rite of fertility ushering in the rainy season. (6)

Echoes of these poems appear in the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs, another explicitly sexual poem that has given rise to innumerable commentaries in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Marvin Pope claims that, "in proportion to its size, no book of the Bible has received so much attention and certainly none has had so many divergent interpretations imposed upon its every word." (7) In Christianity the tendency has been to interpret the poem in a mystical way as describing the search of the soul for God, her disappointment as she loses herself, and her triumphs as she reaches fulfillment. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote eighty-six sermons on the first two chapters of the Song, and he strove strenuously to inculcate an asexual interpretation of it. "Take heed," he exhorted in Sermon 61:2, "that you bring chaste ears to this discourse of love; and when you think of these two lovers, remember always that not a man and a woman are to be thought of, but the Word of God and a soul." (8)

A purely mystical view of the Song is developed also in the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, who, however, adds his own fantastic vision of it. The Spiritual Canticle, some of which the poet wrote while in jail in Toledo in 1576, purports to contain an "exposition of the stanzas which treat of the exercise of love between the Soul and Christ the Spouse." (9) Later on, in the Prologue, he explicitly acknowledges that the poem is about "love understood mystically." (10)

St. Teresa of Avila also employed the Song of Songs as a basic text for her own spiritual development. In 1566 she penned her own Meditaciones sobre los Cantares ("Meditations on the Canticle"). In it she endeavors to demonstrate that the sexual language is adequate for explaining the love between the soul and Christ, though she acknowledges that people who have not felt a passionate love for God would have difficulty with phrases such as the one with which the Song begins, "Let him kiss me with his mouth's kisses!" (11) "I am sure," she writes, "that these words, and similar ones in the Canticle, are said by love, which, if they do not experience, they cannot read the Canticle from day to day nor put it in practice; they may not even dare say the words, which in truth can instill fear because of their great majesty." (12)

In Islam, the same symbolism is employed by the mystics (the sufis), and sometimes this leads to accusations of heresy, not because of the sexual nature of the symbols, but because the intimacy of the union thus described appears to the orthodox guardians of the faith to compromise the unicity of God; after all, God the absolute cannot legitimately be said to unite with a human creature without His absoluteness being jeopardized.

'Attar narrates a fictional conversation in which Hasan Basri asked Rabi'a, the saintly woman of Basra, "Would you like to take a husband?" This would have been, I take it, his proposal for marriage.

She responded, "The marriage knot can only tie one who exists. Where is existence here? I am not my own--I am his and under his command. You must ask permission from him."

Amazed, Hasan said, "O Rabi'a, by what means did you attain this degree [of abnegation]?"

She answered, "By losing in him everything I had attained."

"How do you know him?" persisted Hasan.

"You know the how," Rabi'a replied; "we know the no-how." (13)

What Rabi'a is explaining in her own inimitable way is the total annihilation of the will for the sake of God, an experience that obviously characterized her mysticism as well as that of other contemporaries and immediate successors. The way of the soul to the divine identification is one of negation, as the ancient Upanishadic sages had already discovered; but this does not mean that this way is easy to follow or capable of lucid explanation.

Sarraj, in his Ritab al-Luma' (Book of Flashes), dwells at length on explanations of a famous utterance of al-Bistami similar to the one by Rabi'a. Referring to God, al-Bistami said:
 Once, he took me up, placed me before him, and said to me: "O
 Abu Yazid, my creation would love to seek you."
 I said: "Adorn me with your unity, clothe me with your
 subjectivity, and take me up to your oneness, until when your
 creation sees me they say, 'We have seen you,' and you will be
 that, and I will not be there." (14)

The fact that the commentaries are so prolix would indicate the difficulty of the concept. Sarraj explains:
 The traces have been effaced, the names have been cut off, the
 beholdings have vanished, and things have been swallowed up from
 view. Nothing can be found to exist, nothing is perceived as
 lacking, there is no name by which anything can be known. All
 that has disappeared along with the disappearing from it.

 This is what some Sufis (qawm) call passing away (fana). Then
 passing away vanishes from passing away and is lost in its
 passing away, and this is the perdition which was in nothing
 through it and through it in nothing. This is the reality of the
 nonexistence (faqd) of everything and the nonexistence of the
 self after that, and the nonexistence of nonexistence in
 nonexistence, and the becoming dust in obliteration, and the
 disappearance from disappearance. This is something that has no
 duration nor any ascertainable moment. (15)

Al-Bistami's statement brings to mind al-Hallaj's, "If you do not recognize him, recognize his trace. I am his trace. I am the real! (ana l-haqq)" (16)--an utterance that cost al-Hallaj his life. Less than four hundred years later, in 1310, Marguerite Porete would be burned at the stake in Paris for essentially the same claim; namely, that the truly spiritual soul "has no further need of the consolation of God or his gifts, should not be anxious about this and could not be anyway, for God is now its only object." (17) Marguerite was a Beguine, a member of a widespread group of lay women given to the spiritual life, often living together in a beguinage, (18) and often claiming independence from ecclesiastical authority. The origin of some of their ideas is to be found in the Languedoc, (19) the place where so much of Christian medieval spirituality was pollinated by Muslim mysticism.

Typical of this mysticism was the conception of the union of the soul and God in terms of the love between lover and beloved. In Europe, this mysticism became known as Braumystik (Bridal mysticism). Other influences, of course, were the Bible's Song of Songs and the mysticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, who was a Beguine for a long part of her life, a lay holy woman like Rabi'a, wrote in her The Flowing Light of the Godhead (ca. 1265) about her soul's ascent in love:
 The beloved goes in to the lover, into the secret hiding-place
 of the sinless Godhead.... And there, the soul being fashioned
 in the very nature of God, no hindrance can come between it and
 God. Then our Lord said: Stand, O Soul!

 Soul: What wilt Thou, Lord?
 The Lord: Thy self must go!
 Soul: But, Lord, what shall happen to me then?
 The Lord: Thou art by nature already mine!
 Nothing can come between me and thee!
 There is no angel so sublime
 As to be granted for one hour
 What is given thee for ever.
 Therefore must thou put from thee
 Fear and shame and all outward things.
 Only of that of which thou art sensible by nature.
 Shalt thou wish to be sensible in eternity.
 That shall be thy noble longing,
 Thine endless desire,
 And that in my infinite mercy
 I will evermore fulfill.
 Soul: Lord! Now am I a naked soul
 And thou a God most glorious!
 Our twofold intercourse is love eternal
 Which can never die.
 Now comes a blessed stillness
 Welcome to both. He gives himself to her
 And she to him.
 What shall now befall her, the soul knows:
 Therefore am I comforted.

 Where two lovers come secretly together
 They must often part without parting. (20)

The sexual symbolism is stark. Moreover, expressions like "Thou art by nature already mine!/Nothing can come between thee and me!" (Ir sint so sere genaturt in mich, das zwischent uch und mir nihtes nit mag sin) are typical, and remind one of Rabi'a's "I am not my own."

Similar sexual allusions may be heard in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat; for instance, in No. 32, where he sings,
 There was a Door to which I found no Key:
 There was a Veil past which I could not see:
 Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
 There seem'd--and then no more of Thee and Me.

Later, The Cloud of Unknowing, almost duplicating Rabi'a's words, speaks of God as "a jealous lover [who] ... allows no other partnership." (21) Hence the advice, "Permit nothing to work in your own understanding or in your will except God alone." (22) For such a union it is necessary that one's own knowing and feeling should be destroyed, as Rabi'a avers. For, when Hasan asked her how she had attained this knowledge, she replied, essentially, that it was the fruit of self-abnegation, (23) of her continuous watch over her heart. This is the way of "no-how" or "unknowing." (24)

What was it that rendered this mysticism suspect, both in Islam and in Christianity? Put simply, it is the denial of an adequate distinction between the creature and the Creator; it is the insinuation of a pantheism which seemed to go too far in identifying the mystic with God. At least, it seemed so to the theologians. But then, again, they knew only the how, as Rabi'a told Hasan, not the no-how, with the attendant ambiguity of striving for one's salvation in the uncertainty of the final outcome; (25) how to go nowhere without knowing the way. In his Diwan Hallaj wrote:
 Have you left me? No! You haven't quit my soul,
 whose joy you have become, and gladness.
 Separation bridged dissolves,
 To be abandoned leads to presence.
 In the mysterious depths of my thought
 You dwell, deeper than an image in my mind.
 By day you are, in truth, my friend;
 By night, my confidant. (26)

But God fled him in the morning. On March 26, 922, he was flogged, "crucified," decapitated, and burned for heresy in Baghdad. Razzaz, a witness, testified:
 I was there the day of Hallaj's execution: he was led out of the
 prison, bound and chained, but he was smiling, and I said to him:
 "O master, how does it happen that you are in this state?" [He
 said:] "From the coquettishness of His beauty; it so entices the
 elect to Union." (27)

When his left hand was cut off, he took some blood and began to trace some letters on his forehead (as is done with red paint at a wedding), saying: "'Ana 'Arus al-Hadra,' 'here I am, the Betrothed of the [Divine] Presence.'" (28) As his torso without hands and feet was raised on the gibbet before his decapitation, he said: "All that matters for the lover is to be alone with the One." (29) And that was that.

The death of al-Hallaj instilled fear even among subsequent generations of mystics. This is why Nasafi wrote, "I cannot write of true love in the manner that I should, for everything I said would be taken immediately as heresy. But I will say a few things about figurative love, so that basing your reflection on the latter you may envision the former." (30)

Finally, mystical approaches to sexuality along the lines we have been expanding here have also been developed in India. When we think of the Indian religious tradition, many of us are attracted to the Vedanta, partly because of its great difference from Western Christianity, partly because of its sublime understanding of transcendence, and partly because of the sophistication of its literature, principally the Upanishads and similar treatises, and the commentaries of the great scholars, Ramanuja and Shri Shankaracharya. In this view, the mystical experience is one of self-transcendence, of dissolution, and of total union with Brahman, the ground of all Being. But in Hinduism this is only one of the ways of salvation; there are others, and the Bhagavadgita actually commends another, the way of devotion to God (Krishna), or bhakti. Krishna counsels Arjuna to fix his attention upon the Lord Krishna, (31) for "the Lord abides in the heart of all things," and this is "the most secret wisdom." (32)

Those devoted to Krishna play out their devotion through meditation on the many stories about Krishna popular in India. Many of these stories, as contained, for instance, in the Tenth Canto of the Shrimad Bhagvatam of Vyasa, are sexual in nature, but they are to be interpreted, as the Song of Songs, in a purely mystical way. Many of these stories concern Krishna and the gopis, pretty, innocent shepherd girls in love with Krishna and each desirous of becoming his wife. For example, once the girls were bathing in the river early in the morning, as was their wont. They had left their clothes on the shore and plunged naked in the water when, lo and behold! Krishna strode in and gathered their garments announcing that he would not give them back to the girls unless they came out of the water one by one and stood naked before him so he could see each one's complete beauty. But, according to custom, a woman could not be seen naked except by her husband. Krishna's demand was a trick to fulfill the girls' wishes by becoming their husband. That this episode is to be taken in a mystical light is explained by Srila Prabhupada when he retells Krishna's words to his young wives: "'Anyone whose full consciousness is always absorbed in Me, even if in lust, is elevated,'" (33) for any desire in the service of the Lord cannot produce bad karma. These stories, therefore, and many similar ones, are to be read as symbolic examples of the love between Krishna and the pure devotee.


The term "sublimation" has acquired a certain pejorative connotation after its use in Freudian psychology. But Freud did not invent the term. The inventor was Nietzsche, who employed it as an explanation of the fusion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, of the emotional and the rational in us. Nietzsche saw Christianity as bent on the obliteration of the emotions, or at least on subduing them so that they would not trouble the spiritual life of the human soul. Nietzsche opposed this extirpation which he felt tended to create "tame" human beings. Instead, he proposed an actual strengthening of the passions and, at the same time, a parallel strengthening of the inner controls of reason. The result, he thought, would be passionate, strong human beings in complete control of themselves. In this model, the passions, including Eros, would be "sublimated" rather than subdued or extirpated altogether.

One could say that all these mysticisms sublimate sex in some fashion, understanding "sublimation" in a Nietzschean sense. I do not mean this as detraction but, rather, as explanation. For example, while many in the early Christian communities sought to control totally all forms of sexuality, these mystics found in sexuality a kind of metaphor of the soul's approach to and union with God. Instead of an asceticism of sheer renunciation that would ignore sexuality altogether, these mystics re-channeled their sexual passion into love of God and found in the secular expression of sexual love an allegorical paradigm of spiritual love.

There were other examples of this kind of mystical sublimation of sexuality. One thinks of Plato striving to show how Socrates sublimated his own homoeroticism. In the Symposium, he has Alcibiades complain publicly about Socrates's indifference toward him, and this just after Socrates had narrated in great detail Diotima's account of the ascent of mystical love. And in the Charmides, Socrates grants the extraordinary physical beauty of the young man but adds, "he will be deemed perfect if he has one slight addition ... if he has a noble soul." (34) This tradition endured. Centuries later the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, renowned teacher of Alexandria, had a reputation for exceeding beauty. One of her students fell in love with her, and to cure him of his infatuation, she devised a scheme. Plucking some rags stained with her menstrual blood, she pointed to them and said, "This is what you are in love with, young man, not what is beautiful in itself!" (35)

Most of the mystics were unmarried. They had renounced the physical pleasures of sex but retained its structure and form, transporting these to a spiritual plane so that what would have passed for description of sexual encounters in the secular world became now expressions of the mystical union between the soul and God. For the nuns, even those not graced with special gifts of the spirit, the sublimation extended to elaborate ceremonies marking their entry into the communal life of the monastery. As brides of Christ they went through rites resembling secular espousals, with veils, rings, vows, and even dowries (where warranted by the financial situation of the candidate). Monica Furlong, writing about the profession of Therese of Lisieux as a Carmelite nun, says:
 She consoled herself, in the long wait for profession, in preparing
 what she called her "wedding dress." Nuns making their professions
 did approach the altar in a white dress with a gauzy wedding-veil
 and a bridal wreath made of roses. Therese's dress would be made of
 white silk trimmed with swansdown, and her long fair hair would be
 curled for the occasion. (36)

On the day of her profession, Therese prayed to Jesus as her "divine Spouse," adding, "My Lover, I consecrate myself to you." (37)

The Braumystik produced extraordinary mystics, especially women such as Catherine of Siena, Gertrude the Great, the two Mechtildes, and, of course, Teresa of Avila herself. (38) In the Hindu tradition, mention should be made of Mirabai, the great poet and mystic from Rajasthan and Gujarat, whose love for Krishna (her "Dark Lord") sustained her through a life-time of peregrination and is enshrined in her exquisite poetry. A sample suffices:
 Come to my bedroom,
 I've scattered fresh buds on the couch,
 Perfumed my body.
 Birth after birth I am your servant,
 Sleep only with you.
 Mira's lord does not perish--
 One glimpse of the Dark One
 Is all she requests. (39)

Sex as Worship

When I first visited Varanasi (Benares) in the early 1960s, I engaged the services of a guide to take me around the city and the ghats. He was a graduate student of the University, well-spoken and knowledgeable. At some time during the day, and making sure no one heard him, he whispered in my ear, "Do you want to see dirty pictures?" I did not know what he was talking about. Anyway, I said, No, and thus passed over the chance to see what might have proved to be an extraordinary site.

My guide, I later surmised, was referring to paintings adorning houses where tantric rites were performed. Why the secrecy? For quite some time Indians had been careful not to reveal such paintings to the British for fear they would be misunderstood and labeled pornographic. Even a modern Indian author, writing originally at about the same time I was visiting Varanasi, would comment that "some of the Tantrika practices seem more than a little extraordinary and sometimes include elements of sexual perversion." (40) Of course, there would have been no need of secrecy if I had been visiting the temple at Khajuraho, with its hundreds of sculptures depicting men and women, holy men, gods and goddesses, in myriad forms of sexual intercourse. I should add that in the Buddhist tradition, which also contains explicit sexual iconography and statuary, an important reason for secrecy was the concern for the initiate, for it was felt that without an experienced guide, the practice of Tantra would endanger the devotee's soul. (41)

Theologically, Tantra is a complex system that includes elements of the Vedanta as well as of Goddess worship. It incorporates materials and views derived from the Goddess rites of the Neolithic, which make it a revival of the Pre-Indo-European religion. For Tantra, only Brahman is real, but this reality includes Brahman's power (shakti) which produces this universe we live in, which therefore is a manifestation or product (maya) of God's power. (42) Now, whatever our hankerings for the infinite, we have to live in this universe, in this product (maya) of God's power (shakti). Therefore, according to Tantra, we must learn to use this world in order to be saved. We must participate in it, for participation immerses us in the flow of Brahman's power, which is nothing other than Brahman itself.

Mythologically, Brahman is personified as the god Shiva, and his power as the goddess Shakti (though often she is given the ancient names of the Goddess, Devi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, Uma, and others). Eternally, Shiva and Shakti are one and undifferentiated, and they are pictured as ecstatically entwined in a perennial act of sexual intercourse. At some point, they become aware of their distinction, and in a playful move, Shakti performs a dance in which the universe is produced. In the words of Shri Ramakrishna,
 The Primordial Power is ever at play. She is creating, preserving,
 and destroying in play, as it were. This Power is called Kali. Kali
 is verily Brahman, and Brahman is verily Kali. It is one and the
 same Reality. When we think of It as inactive, that is to say, not
 engaged in the acts of creation, preservation, and destruction,
 then we call It Brahman. But when It engages in these activities,
 then we call it Kali or Shakti. The reality is one and the same;
 the difference is in name and form [namarupa]. (43)

Now, by engaging in an intimate rite of sexual intercourse, a man (shakta) and a woman (shakti) recreate the condition of Brahman before the separation happened. The fundamental oneness of Brahman is regained when the two human poles merge. (44) This is not ordinary sex, but sex as part of a spiritual practice (sadhana) in which the five usually forbidden things or actions--the drinking of wine, the eating of meat, fish, grain, and engaging in intercourse--are employed as sacraments. The objective is "to achieve illumination precisely by means of those very objects which the earlier sages sought to banish from their consciousness ... by means of nature, not by rejection of nature." (45)

There are three forms of tantric ritual depending on the disposition of the practitioners. (46) In any event, the sadhana is not something to be undertaken without preparation and guidance. We are dealing here with a yoga, a true spiritual discipline, and like all such activities, it requires training. Moreover, it demands in the practitioner an unusually strong spiritual attitude, especially in the practice of what many consider the essential Tantra, the vira bhava (the "heroic") sadhana. As Zimmer says, "it requires a hero (vira) to confront and assimilate, in perfect equanimity, the whole wonder of the World Creatrix--to make love, without hysterical reactions, to the Life-force, which is the shakti of his own entirety." (47)

Here we go beyond sublimation of sexual intercourse. While in this practice also there is need of imaginative concentration on the divine mysteries and/or their manifestations and symbols, sexual intercourse is actually engaged in as the primary and transcendental act of worship. Prayers and invocations, the repetition of mantras, and the visualization of the God and Goddess, Shiva and Shakti, accompany the ritual from beginning to end, but in fact, sexuality is not renounced or sublimated, but, rather, it is engaged in as the most mystical experience of union with God.


Throughout millennia, human sexual behavior has been a symbol of the unio mystica. Whether as metaphor for the union between the soul and God or of the union within God himself, as in the Kabbalah, the sexual encounter between men and women, the King and the Queen, has served as a necessary dimension of mystical meditation. In the Kabbalah, the union between God (m.) and his Shekhinah (f.) places the mystery of sex within God himself. It therefore "marks the sphere," as Scholem puts it, "which is the first to open itself to the meditation of the mystic, the entrance to the inwardness of God." (49) Consequently, every sexual union, especially in true marriage, is a symbolic realization of the union of God and his Shekhinah and shares therefore in the very mystery of God.

Western mysticism seems to have preferred the symbolic or sublimated expression of sexuality, while Hindu Tantra has developed a more unabashedly sexual approach, which nonetheless is as legitimately spiritual a mysticism as the former. (50) The Western preference is due, I think, to the fact that Western culture, especially Christian culture, has always harbored a certain bias against the physical aspects of the world, derived, probably, from ancient Persian dualism and its consideration of the material as the creation of a malevolent god. India did not come under the influence of such views. Even though chastity and modesty, especially in women, were always cherished, they were not compromised by the patently sexual images that were worshiped in the temples and the sexual stories of the various divinities. Moreover, there developed in India a certain penchant for aniconic (i.e., non-representational) symbols which allowed Hindus to envisage the divine itself embedded in the physical representations of it without being distracted by anthropomorphic and other resemblances. The worship of the linga, for example, scandalous to Westerners who saw it as the image of the phallus, was simply aniconic to Hindus who simply saw Shiva. Only Westerners see a linga and think "phallus"; Hindus see only Shiva. Similarly, only Westerners see a sadhaka and his shakti in the act of ritual sexual intercourse and think "sex"; Tantrics think only of the divine Shiva and Shakti. (51)

One may therefore conclude that the Tantric sexual experience is sacramental in the purest and most traditional meaning of the term: it is an outer symbol of an inner transformation. Outwardly, the matter of the sacrament remains unchanged. In the eucharist, for example, bread remains bread, and wine is still wine, but inwardly, the communicant's life is transformed--it is divinized. Similarly, in the Tantric ritual act of intercourse the organs are not changed. As Indra Sinha puts it, "the lingam in the yoni [vulva] is still a lingam in a yoni. But in the midnight darkness of the adept's mind, a light has blazed." (52)

Lest all this appear too bizarre, we should remind ourselves of the fact that Christians have generally considered marriage a sacrament. Theologians determined that the "matter" of the sacrament, the outward thing that is a sign of the inward grace, is the actual act of sexual intercourse, while the "form" distinguishing it from other sacraments is the vows exchanged between the contrahents. Therefore the sacrament of marriage is considered valid only when "ratified and consummated"; that is, when the words have been said and coitus has been done. The priest or minister is only an official witness for the Church. The real ministers are husband and wife, and the marital bed is the altar. The administration is the sexual act itself, which, physical and material though it certainly is, is considered nonetheless as a vehicle of spiritual grace.


1. Cant. iii, 5, in Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), p. 96.

2. Cant. lxi.i, in Butler, Western Mysticism, p. 111.

3. 1 Cor. 2:14, 3:1, 15:44; Rom. 8:5 ff.; Gal. 5:16-24. But see Tertullian, De Praescriptione, 7.

4. 1 Cor. 7:9.

5. Mark 9:43 ff.

6. Diane Wolkenstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).

7. Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1977), p. 89.

8. In Butler, Western Mysticism, p. 97.

9. "Title," in St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, transl. and ed. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1961), p. 39.

10. Ibid.

11. Song of Songs 1:1.

12. Meditaciones, Cap. 1, 12, in Santa Teresa de Jesus, Obras Completas (Madrid: Biblioteca de autores Cristianos, 1967), p. 337.

13. Michael A. Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 161-162, #21. This expression is reminiscent of the description of the Tao in Tao-Te Ching 1: "The Way [Tao] that can be walked is not the Way." It also calls to mind the words of Mephistopheles to Faust in Faust, II. 6223-6280.

14. Kitab al-Luma', Ch. 124; Sells, p. 215.

15. Kitab al-Luma', Ch. 126; Sells, p. 223.

16. TaSin al-Azal wa 1-Iltib~s (TaSin of Before-Time and Ambiguity), 23; Sells, p. 277.

17. The Mirror of Simple Souls, in Louis Bouyer, et al., A History of Christian Spirituality, Vol. II, The Spirituality of the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MI: The Seabury Press, 1968), p. 356.

18. The name Beguine is of uncertain origin, some claiming that it is a corruption of Albigensian, the term for some heretics, others suggesting it arose from beige, the color of their habits, which were made of raw, undyed wool. See Bouyer, II, p. 355, and Patricia Ranft, Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. xv, 71-74.

19. Bouyer, II, p. 270.

20. The Flowing Light of the Godhead, in Bouyer, II, p. 375-376.

21. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. James Walsh, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), Ch.2, p. 118.

22. Ibid., Ch. 43, p. 201.

23. Sells, p. 162, #22.

24. Sells, p. 163, #25.

25. Sells, p. 162, #24. See also Joseph Marechal, S.J., Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1964. Originally published in 1927), p. 258-259.

26. Ghibta wamaghibta [Muqatta'a 25], in Diwan, ed. Louis Massignon (Paris: Editions des Cahiers du Sud, 1955).

27. Louis Massignon, The Passion of al-Hallaj (4 vols.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), I, p. 586.

28. Massignon, I, p. 604.

29. Massignon, I, p. 613-614.

30. Aziz al-din Nasafi, Le Livre de l'Homme Parfait (Kitab al-Insan al-Kamil), edited by Marijan Mole (Paris and Tehran: Departement d'Iranologie de l'Institut Franco-Iranien, 1962), Seventh Treatise.

31. Gita 18:57.

32. Gita 18:61 and 63.

33. A. C. Baktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Krishna (London: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986), p. 197.

34. Charmides 154C-D.

35. Suidas, s.v. See Jeremy Reedy, transl., "The Life of Hypatia from the Suda," Alexandria 1 (1993), p. 58; Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 50.

36. Monica Furlong, Therese of Lisieux (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 89.

37. Santa Teresita del Nino Jesus, Historia de un alma, transl. P. Bruno de S. Jose, O. C. D. (Burgos: Tipografia de la Editorial "El Monte Carmelo," 1948), pp. 168 and 169.

38. In some cases the sublimations were psychologically powerful and led to psychosomatic manifestations, like the growing of fleshly wedding rings in the hands. See Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1952).

39. Andrew Schelling, transl., For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), p. 39.

40. Kshiti Mohan Sen, Hinduism (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 70.

41. John Blofeld, The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1970), pp. 70 ff. In this essay I am concerned exclusively with Hindu Tantra. For Buddhist Tantra, besides Blofeld, see Lama Yeshe, Introduction to Tantra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987) and The Tantric Path of Purification (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995); Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama), The World of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).

42. Maya is often translated as "illusion," but it comes from the root ma, to produce, to form, from which "magic" also derives. The illusion comes when we take this universe to be real in itself or by itself. See Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (New York: Meridian, 1956), p. 19 note.

43. The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna, transl. Swami Nikhilananda (New York, 1942), p. 135, in Zimmer, Philosophies of India, p. 564.

44. Agehananda Bharati, The Tantric Tradition (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 18-19. One may think of this process in Hegelian terms: Brahman in Itself is the undifferentiated unity; Shiva-Shakti represent the differentiated stage; the sexual rite at the human level recreates the synthesis as differentiated unity.

45. Zimmer, Philosophies of India, pp. 575 and 576.

46. Kalivilasa Tantra 6.

47. Zimmer, Philosophies of India, p. 580.

48. This is not the place for a detailed description of the sexual rites. The Western world has capitalized on the sexual aspect of this practice, but there are excellent scholarly discussions of it. See Aghananda Bharati, The Tantric Tradition, pp. 236 ff.; Omar V. Garrison, Tantra: The Yoga of Sex (New York: Causeway Books, 1964); Swami Sivananda Radha, Kundalini, Yoga for the West (Spokane, WA: Timeless Books, 1978); Philip Rawson, Tantra, The Indian Cult of Ecstasy (New York: Avon Books, 1973); Margo Anand, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989); Indra Sinha, Tantra, The Cult of Ecstasy (London: Hamlyn, 1993).

49. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 230.

50. There may have been exceptions. If one can trust Epiphanius's Panarion (and this is a very big "if"!), the Phibionites engaged in all manner of sexual practices, in some of which male semen was consumed sacramentally as "the Body of Christ" and female menstrual blood was drunk as "the Blood of Christ." See also the New Testament Letter of Jude.

51. Diana L. Eck, Darshan (Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1985), p. 32 ff.

52. Indra Sinha, "The Five-fold Sacrament," Parabola 20:4 (November 1995), p. 23.
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