‘The act of sexual love should by its very nature be joyous, unconstrained, alive, leisurely, inventive and full of special delight, which the lovers have learned by experience to create for one another’.
This quote is from Cistercian monk and Roman Catholic priest, Thomas Merton.* Writing about ‘uninhibited erotic love between married persons’, he continues, ‘Properly understood, sexual union is an expression of deep personal love and a means to the deepening, perfecting, and sanctifying of that love’. He is saying that, when pure, sexual love can take on a quality that is sacred.
The link between sex and spirituality is strong. Think of sex in nature – procreation, fecundity, the diversity of plant and animal life. Here is a clue that the great life force, the relentless drive to creation, has a universal, spiritual quality. The sexual drive to reproduction in humans is called ‘libido’, a word which also translates as ‘life force’.
In this sense, the sex drive responsible for producing each of us connects us seamlessly with nature, with the whole universe, and with each other. From puberty, we too become participants in the great dance of creation. We experience sexual urges and attractions, and are capable of sexual behaviour – erotic behaviour. Each will have a stronger or weaker personal biological and psychological disposition affecting the degree to which we acknowledge and act upon this new capability.
In addition, by paying attention to people around us – parents, close family, others in our schools and communities, not least our peers – and through the powerful influence of the media – radio, television, films and the internet – we develop our sexual strategies, working towards becoming fully biologically and psychologically adult sexual beings.
There is a balance to be struck between indulgence and restraint; and this can be very complicated, particularly because – although auto-eroticism is common, entirely normal and healthy – sex involves intimate interactions with another person, with other people. The predicament often presents a minefield during adolescence, when it is easy to make mistakes and get hurt, or hurt others. The advice we receive may be contradictory: “Keep yourself pure for the one partner who is right for you”, for example, is offset by, “Have as many sexual partners as possible, then you will be better prepared to recognize the one who is your true life-partner”.
We are particularly influenced by those who introduce us to sex – ideally in a responsible way, through formal and informal education, but sometimes too by those who seek to exploit our sexuality for their own, selfish desires. This is a long way from the mutual eroticism that occurs within a stable and loving pair-bond, such as within a marriage.
Merton’s words might surprise us, because religious people are widely expected to advocate dealing with sexuality through a combination of abstinence and sublimation; that is by avoiding sexual behaviour and using the force or energy wisely in other ways to benefit other people. (This is like the difference between letting off nuclear explosions and controlling the nuclear process to provide a constant supply of energy in the form of electricity.) But this is not easy, and requires training. In recent times, in many cases, it seems to have gone badly wrong. Religious people have not only failed to control and divert their sexual urges healthily, but these have become perverted and led to extensive, traumatic corruption of the young and vulnerable.
In the Hindu ‘Kama Sutra’ and Tibetan Buddhist ‘Tantra’ traditions, spiritual development involving mastery of sexual energy, in the context of trusting and spiritually mature, male-female relationships, reveal the possibility of a fruitful merging of sex and spirituality.
In Western culture, however, we have too many hang-ups about sex to follow such a path. We tend to consider the main purpose of sex as pleasure, rather than either procreation or spiritual development. We seem to accept that: ‘anything goes, as long as it does not harm anyone’. We aim for fidelity in pair-bond relationships, but acknowledge this more as an ideal than a genuine goal. We are mostly aiming then to gratify ‘our’ needs, ‘our’ desires; which, of course, once satisfied, soon recur and we find we need to trouble our partner again, or be quick in finding another. This repetitious engagement can provide fun, but it can also be tiresome, even harmful and dangerous.