The Sacred Taboo

Is it, then, possible to celebrate the union of Heaven and Earth in a religion which has consistently held that sexual love is disgusting? Not only disgusting, but profoundly sinful except between married couples for the sole purpose of reproduction.

One must be careful of jumping to superficial conclusions in trying to understand Christian attitudes to sex. For there is a sense in which Christianity is the religion about sex, and in which sex plays a more important role even than in Priapism or Tantric Yoga. In any Christian milieu the subject of sex is extremely touchy; it is what embarrasses most easily, what is surrounded with the most rigid rules of conduct, and what arouses the most unintelligent emotions. This indicates not only a deep preoccupation with sex, but also the direction in which we must look for basic understanding of Christianity as a whole and the mystery that lies at its heart.

On the surface, almost all forms of Christianity seem to be militantly prudish, even though, in quite recent times, there has arisen the practice of damning sexuality with faint praise. I was not merely joking when I said that, today, the churches function mainly as societies for regulating familial ties and sexual mores. There is a practical test. One has simply to ask: For what principal reason are people excommunicated, and priests or ministers defrocked? For pride, vainglory and hypocrisy? For envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness? For gluttony or sloth? For ownership of slums or of shares in shady loan companies? For coldness of heart or a cruel tongue? Not on your life. You can live openly in such sins and hold a bishopric.

But once it is discovered that you have an irregular marriage, that you consort with a mistress or lover, that you take pleasure in unconventional modes of intercourse, or, worse, that you are actively homosexual, you are in real trouble. You must stop it at once or get out. The only other sin that seriously bothers the Church is open heresy, and then only in the more conservative denominations. This overwhelming preoccupation with the sins of sex is reflected in popular speech, where "immorality" almost always means sexual immorality, and "living in sin" means irregular cohabitation.

There have been times, and there still are places, where the Church simply winks at sacerdotal concubinage and canon lawyers arrange easy annulments of marriage. But such attitudes usually go hand in hand with a general atmosphere of skepticism and cynicism, when the ecclesiastical authorities have lost interest in religion and are simply going through the motions. Generally speaking, where and whenever the Church takes itself seriously, there are no such concessions, and the zealous priest has beside him this manual of moral theology, arranged according to the Ten Commandments, wherein the discussion of "Thou shalt not commit adultery" occupies at least two thirds of the volume.

Many theologians recognize that this is a serious distortion of Christian ethics, pointing out that Jesus was lenient and compassionate toward those who had "sinned in the flesh," as contrasted with his rage against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor. They also try to make a case for the idea that sex within the bonds of Holy Matrimony is a sacred and beautiful thing because it is no longer "depersonalized," no longer "cheapened" by being a pleasure taken with any congenial partner, but ennobled in becoming the seal of a life-long and total commitment to a single person.

For some reason these (quite modern) attempts to say a good word for erotic love sound curiously throttled and lacking in conviction. The reason is, of course, that they are plain humbug. A Christian may write poetry about mountains and quiet forests and all the "beauties of nature" as expressions of the beauty of nature's Lord. He may adorn the church and the altar with images of flowers and birds, fishes and stars. But what if the Christian poet should have something to say about the revelation of divine glory in the image of a naked girl, upon her marriage bed, squirming with bliss in the arms of her man? Imagine the screens and niches of St. Peter's adorned with Baroque equivalents of the tantric sculptures that embellish Hindu temples! Or what if the "young married" group should meet at the First Presbyterian on Wednesday evenings for the sacrament of "prayer through sex"?

Such expressions of piety are totally inconceivable within the present temper of Christendom. God may be seen and worshiped in nature just so long as sex is left out of it. Thus it is perfectly acceptable to sing:

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

Yet what if the choir were to burst into an anthem as follows?

How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's
daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels,
the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not
liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set
about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like young roes that are twins.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory;
thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim:
thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple. . . .
how fair and how pleasant are thou, O love, for
This is thy stature is like to a palm tree,
and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
I said, "I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof:
now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine,
and the smell of thy nose like apples;
And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my
beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are alseep to speak."

I know of no denomination of the Church in which this song would be formally inadmissible, seeing that it is taken from the Holy Scriptures themselves (Song of Songs 7:1-9, AV.), and the explanatory gloss in my copy of the Bible says of this section, "The Church professeth her faith in Christ," though I think it should read, "Christ professeth his love for the Church." Nevertheless, who would be so rash as to take up the precedent?

But the very fact that sexual love and overt sexual imagery is the principal Christian taboo points directly to what must be, in fact, the mysterium tremendum, the inner and esoteric core of the religion. For whatever is taboo is not just something forbidden as an evil. Christianity forbids murder, but stands in no awe of it, and there has never been any censorship of the depiction and description of murder. Strictly speaking, a taboo is something to be avoided because it is mighty and holy, something to be handled with reverence because it is wonderful and dangerous like fire. Sex is not to be described for the same reason that the Name of God, YHVH, is not to be uttered, and not to be depicted for the same reason that no graven image of God may be made. This is not to say that sexual intercourse is itself the heart of the matter. It is rather that this act of generation and love and self-abandonment is the supreme symbol of God, and may, under certain conditions, be a direct way of realizing the mystical union.

Yet how could this be true if the characteristic reaction of pious people to sexuality is not so much awe as disgust? Furthermore, even those great mystics who are supposed to represent whatever there may be of an esoteric aspect to Christianity seem, on the whole, to share this distaste. An obvious exception must be made of those few and extremely bold female mystics who suggest that the real reward for their virginity is to be intercourse with Jesus himself - for example, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was the champion of the cult of the Sacred Heart. It is, however, quite obvious that sexual disgust is usually an emotion misnamed, for it is by no means the same disgust that one feels for sewage or rotting corpses. As psychopathologists have long known, sexual disgust is a "negative fascination." It is the sensation of lust as perceived by those who will not recognize it as such, and who interpret it as loathing because of the convulsive sensations common to both orgasm and nausea. Such misidentification carried out, as it were, behind the back of one's own mind makes it possible to enjoy the things of the Devil while taking the side of the Lord, and those who make much of their distaste for sex lose few opportunities for exercising it. footnote: At least one reason why the religio-sexual orgy (as distinct from a mere rutting rout) is almost wholly impracticable in our culture is that it is virtually impossible to exclude people whose emotional wires are so crossed that they cannot distinguish between the sexy and the dirty. For example, the "dirty-old-man" type who leers and giggles about sex because it fascinates and arouses guilt at the same time.

The question has often been raised as to whether Christianity (and in particular Catholicism) has an esoteric aspect, since it seems almost incredible that the highly intelligent and cultured individuals whom one finds at the top of the Roman hierarchy can swallow the plain superstitions of the Catechism. Outsiders often wonder, therefore, whether such high ecclesiastics are just cynical purveyors of the "opiate of the people," following the philosophy of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor to placate their conscience, or whether they are initiates to a higher interpretation of the crude dogmatic forms. It has even been suggested that the visible and official Pope in Rome is a Black or Shadow Pope who takes his orders from a White Pope completely unknown to the public, and that the latter presides over an Inner Church with a secret discipline and doctrine.

Such notions are doubtless romances of the same kind a H. P. Blavatsky's theosophical fantasy of an organized fraternity og high initiates in the spiritual and occult sciences, distributed throughout the world, and subtly inspiring and directing every form of positive growth in religion and science. The much less melodramatic truth is probably that within the Roman hierarchy there are a few individuals whose private opinions about religion would accord approximately with the idea I have been suggesting all along. However, there would be no sort of organized fellowship between these individuals, and still less would they constitute an official elite in the hierarchy itself. Otherwise, the crudities of the Catechism are acceptable to highly intelligent clergy and laymen because they can be rationalized by extremely sophisticated theological arguments. The trouble is the just the same sort of argumentation can be used to rationalize any proposition whatsoever. One might write - and someone may well have written - a defense of the proposition that insects are the highest manifestation of the divine principle, and that the destiny of man is to evolve into an insect of to be subject to insects, and set it forward in the style of Mgr. Ronald Knox or Fr. M. C. d'Arcy. How else do well-educated people swallow the fantasies of Mormonism or of Swedenborg?

Speculations as to the nature of an esoteric Catholicism, which might claim Meister Eckhart or John Scotus Erigena as its spokesmen, are usually constructed along the lines of Gnosticism, with its heavy emphasis upon the gulf between the spiritual and the material, upon the sole reality of the former, and upon disciplines which lead to release from material existence. This is the rationale whereby, say, the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ's Body can be understood spiritually rather than physically, and it was from such a standpoint that Origen rationalized the mythology of the Old Testament. It was his frank opinion that, taken literally, much of the Old Testament was simply "puerile." But Gnosticism is, by and large, far more other-worldly than official Catholicism, and will have no truck whatsoever with the marriage of spirit and flesh.

Christianity does not, like Hinduism or Buddhism, have an "orthodox" esotericism - a body of traditional doctrine and discipline handed down from master to student, but not disclosed to the general multitude of devotees. There is, perhaps, something approaching this in the art and in the manuals of "spiritual direction." Pious clergy and laity often seek out a particularly holy monk or priests as their "spiritual director," and the wisdom and experience of these directors is set forward in such works as Poulain's Graces of Interior Prayer, St. Teresa's Interior Castle, or that marvelous anthology of Eastern Orthodox Spirituality, the Philokalia. But these works do not suggest any radical transformation of the sense of dogma. They go along with the usual theological rationalizations and, indeed, often manifest some anxiety lest the aspirant to high states of prayer should lose faith in the literal sense of the Catechism, since the latter is somehow supposed to keep him well grounded - especially in intellectual humility.

No, we must look for the "inner sense" of Christianity in quite other directions. The esoteric aspect of Christianity lies in what must be called, paradoxically, its "unconscious intent," or, perhaps less paradoxically, its "unconscious direction." We can assume an unconscious intent if we make the experiment of looking at Christianity within the context of Hinduism, and thus regard the predicament of being a Christian as a very adventurous role being "played" by the Godhead. Insofar as the Godhead is "lost" in his role, the intent in playing it is forgotten and unconscious. We can assume an unconscious direction if we ask, "What will be the actual results of following the Christian way consistently?" I have been trying to show that the Christian way - the challenge of Christ - is a double-blind in that it commands the deliberate enactment of spontaneous behavior, such as love and humility. When this commandment is presented to people who believe that they are separate and independent egos, the rigorous attempt to obey it will result in a paralysis which reveals the ego to be a fiction, and leads on to a new sense of identity. This has, in fact, been the experience of innumerable devout Christians, though the cultural context in which they have lived, together with the Church's official censorship, has forced them to express the new sense of identity in terms consistent with official theology. Thus the Catholic mystic attempting to describe his union with a God who is the transcendent and omnipotent King of kings, literally knowing and controlling all things, has to split hairs most skillfully.

What, then, is the unconscious intent or direction of the Christian attitude to sex? Perhaps this question may well be introduced by a personal reminiscence - of a boy's initiation into the English Church at no lesser shrine than Canterbury - a reminiscence that could be repeated in its essentials by millions of initiates into all brands of Christianity except, perhaps, the most liberal forms of Protestantism.

In very many denominations of the Church the rite of Confirmation corresponds to the puberty and initiation-into-manhood ceremonies of other cultures, since it normally occurs at about the age of fourteen. When it is customary to baptize babies (out of the neurotic fear that unbaptized children will go to a gloomy limbo if they die), Baptism ceases to be the initiatory rite, save in potentiality. This potentiality is made actual in the sacrament of Chrism or Confirmation, wherein the individual makes his own conscious and responsible profession of being a Christian. He is then received into active membership of the Church and admitted to the Holy Communion, and this new status is traditionally conferred by a bishop, who anoints the candidate with holy oil and lays hands upon his head.

Confirmation is therefore preceded by some weeks of instruction concerning the doctrines and disciplines of the Church, and in my own experience this was largely taken up with Bible stories and, above all, Church history, for the religion of the British is in some ways a sort of pious archeology. There is a sense of continuity with a glorious and hallowed past almost unknown in the New World, of companionship with St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Alban, St. Wilfrid, Edward the Confessor, the Venerable Bede, St. Anselm, St. Thomas à Becket, Edward the Black Prince, Richard Coeur de Lion, and St. Charles the Martyr - a heraldic litany of ringing names whom one comes to regard as one's elder brothers. And the monuments of this past still stand in almost every town and village: cathedrals, abbeys, priories, parish churches and oratories in the enchanted stone of Romanesque (Norman) and Gothic masons. Initiation into the Church is, therefore, a coming into membership with all these sacred names and monuments represented; and in the background of the English Church there is always the faintly glowing glamour of King Arthur and his Knights, of the mysteries of Chivalry, and of the High Quest of the Holy Grail. In Glastonbury, Wells, Exeter and Tintern it is an almost tangible presence.

Even as a child one would have expected that, beyond this historical pageantry, the core of one's initiatory instructions would have been the revelation of some deep mystery about the nature of God, for, sure enough, every boy to be confirmed was taken apart for a very serious private talk with the school chaplain. Emotionally and dramatically, this was obviously the climax of one's preparation, the moment in which the real secret meaning of the initiation was to be revealed. Naturally, no one kept the secret, and it was well known in advance that the VERY SERIOUS TALK was a grave warning against the evils of masturbation - an act which some of us at that age did not even know how to perform! In addition, then, to some uncertainty as to what we were being warned against, its dire results were defined so vaguely as to give infinite range to the imagination. Thus it was rumored among us that the boys who "abused" themselves might shortly contract syphilis, gonorrhea, epilepsy, creeping paralysis, bubonic plague, or the Great Siberian Itch. Boys who thus "played with themselves" were always recognizable by the bags under their eyes, pimples on the chin, and boils on the crotch, and it was expected that their brains would eventually rot and come dripping through their noses.

The timing and the serious atmosphere of the talk left no doubt as to what was really the most important thing in the Christian religion. Since no one was likely to get married for at least ten years, the high and heroic task of Christian life was to take the utmost pains (including cold showers) to avoid paying attention to the little devil between one's legs. One's soul was clean and pure for the Holy Communion, and one was a true and dedicated Knight of the Grail, if one had kept oneself clean - i.e., not masturbated. As simple as that.

Having once been boys themselves, our ecclesiastical and academic superiors were perfectly well aware of the chief and unacknowledged rule of all educational institutions for adolescents. The rule is that one proves and asserts manhood not so much by consistent defiance of authority as by certain acts of ritual defiance to which one is "dared" by one's peers. There is a conspiracy to protect all such acts by silence, and anyone who breaks the silence and reports the offense to the authorities is a sneak, tattle-tale, goody-goody, spoilsport, and, by any name, definitely not one of the boys. What, then, is more perfectly suited for a ritual assertion of manhood than masturbation? It is against the rules. It is the male generative act. It is immense fun. And if you half believe the authorities, you can have the most wonderful spasms of guilt and penitence after you have done it.

Since all this was well known to the authorities, why did they go on connecting Confirmation with talks against sex? Of course, in the front of their minds they didn't think about it - and how easy it is to forget one's own chidlhood! They knew only that this was what their elders and betters had done for them as boys, and that it was their duty to carry on the tradition. But what could have been in the back of their minds?

Let us suppose an entirely different approach. What if the whole matter of sex had been handed over to the school physician, that he had prescribed masturbation once a week as a general health measure, and had explained the entire mechanisms of sex with the aid of plastic models? What if boys and girls were taught to perform intercourse in class, just as they learn dancing? What if such classes were compulsory, and if it were the rule to change partners each time to facilitate adaptability in sexual adjustment? What if such a program in sexual adjustment? What if such a program in sexual hygiene were held in a nudist camp, so that all the details of male and female bodies were as familiar as hands and feet? Naturally, this would be the highway to clean, healthy, honest, open, free, guiltless, and perfectly boring sexuality.

It has always been known that "forbidden fruit is sweetest," though the idea that the pleasure of sex is in proportion to its supposed sinfulness is rather too simple to explain the problem. This is indeed part of the picture, and it has often been noted that the repression of sex in Christian cultures has fostered the feeling that nothing in the world is more to be desired than venery. Nowhere else has it struck people to advertise beer, cigarettes, soda water, air travel and undertaking services with the aid of naked or half-naked girls. Nowhere else would the doctrines of Freud have seemed peculiarly significant. As Keyserling once observed, he Christian West has thought up refinements of lascivious dress without parallel, and has learned how to protect the private parts of women with a complexity of corsets, girdles and garter belts with their marvelous block-and-tackle arrangements for securing silk stockings, frilly panties and petticoats, bloomers, tights, and chemises - all of which become thereby sexual fetishes. The more modest, the more immodest. Repression works on the principle that the tighter the channel, the stronger the jet.

All this is obvious enough. Far more important, however, is the fact that the whole conflict between prudery and license is a game of "let not your left hand know what your right hand doeth." In this respect it is an analogue and an aspect of the cosmic game of hide-and-seek in which the Godhead forgets itself to seek itself. For when God created the world what he really said was not, "Let there be light!" but, "You must draw the line somewhere." This was the dividing of the light from the darkness, the upper waters from the nether waters, and the heavens from the earth. It is also the creation of identity, the line of boundary between this and that, yours and mine, the ins and the outs, the good guys and the bad guys, the fair and the foul. At a more complex level, it is the question of where we draw the line in class distinctions, in etiquette and manners, in color of skin, in girth and body, in length of skirts, in area of nudity, and, above all, in degree of intimacy.

How far will we go with each other? First names? Holding hands? Kissing? Tongue kissing? Where do we draw the line as to how far your body may be familiar with my body? And under what conditions? A hundred dollars a night? Just friends? Going steady? Marriage and babies? Swear to be true to me for always? You must draw the line somewhere. As the seducer plays to lift the lady's skirt higher and higher, so the progressive liberal tries to extend the areas of sexual freedom, to push the line of taboo back and back - and sometimes it seems as if he wanted to get rid of the line altogether. Contrariwise, the reactionary conservative, the square, stuffed-shift, bluenose, and hidebound traditionalist want, to lower down to the ground like a nun's habit, and to restrict the area of intimacy to the utmost. Between husband and wife only. For reproduction only. And only in the fact-to-face position with the lady beneath, as befits her sex. No divorce allowed. (Seriously, that is the rule of Catholic moral theology.)

Certainly the progressive liberal must not be allowed to have his way entirely. If no lines are drawn there is no creation, no form - only a mass of featureless goo. And, secretly, the liberal does not want there to be no line. No one in more unhappy when the opposition collapses and there are no more squares to be shocked. Equally, the reactionary must not have his way entirely, for he will end up by calling on all of us to be virgins. But, like the liberal, the reactionary does not really want this to happen, because he, too, feels quite at a loss when there is nothing to be shocked about and there are no more sinners to condemn. He has to invent new degrees and minutiae of sin, just as the profligate has to resort to bizarre forms of erotic stimulation.

We do not want a stalemate, a fixed balance between the two sides, for the line of creation is a living line which constantly pulsates and throbs, since all being is plus/minus, up/down, and come/go. Each side must therefore be perpetually winning a little and losing a little, bearing in mind that to win even a little it may be necessary to try to win all. This is approximately how clear forms are produced: the form of a hard surface is a restrained agitation of atoms, just as a fast electric fan seems to merge its blades into a disc. A clear tone is an evenly vibrating tube or string, for there is only a line of sound (represented in notation by the stave line) if there is a steady vibration. The line must be alive. A constant give-and-take between the areas or volumes on either side of it. A steel beam is strong because of the intense rapidity with which it goes in and out of existence.

The world of forms so produced is a maya - a trick or illusion in the positive, Hindu sense of these words - because the mutual opposition of sides whereby the line is drawn must seem to be serious. The continuance of life is an energy evoked by the notion that death would be a disaster. I can play chess with myself to the degree that, when I am playing the white side, I can pretend that I am not the same person who plays the black. And so plays the universe.

Thus the squares and prudes firmly believe that they are quite a different kind of people from the profligates and sensualists, having quite other values and motivations. Contrariwise, the profligates see themselves totally opposed to the prudes - as warm, generous, easy-going and human-hearted, in contract to that thin-lipped, cold-blooded, anal retentive attitude. To the degree, then, that these two become conscious only of their differences, forgetting altogether that there is some sort of tacit conspiracy between them, the dividing line begins to be dangerously unstable, swinging so violently from pro to con that the form which it has outlined starts to disintegrate. On the other hand, if the prudes and the profligates begin to be excessively open-minded and tolerant of each other, the dividing line begins to be dangerously unstable, swinging so violently from pro to con that the form which it has outlined starts to disintegrate. On the other hand, if the prudes and the profligates begin to be excessively open-minded and tolerant of each other, the dividing line becomes flaccid and mushy. In terms of sexual mores, this would be the puritanism of the nudist colony: nice, clean, healthy physical relationships. No black lace underwear nor frilly nighties. Just a sensible diet of corned beef and cold, boiled potatoes.

A fruitful interplay or contest of opposites always depends on a tacit understanding between the two sides. That which we all recognize but do not mention, publish, or make official, because to do so would be spoiling the sport and giving away the show. Under our clothes we are all naked, but there is no need to insist on it unless it has been altogether forgotten.

In writing this book, I am to some extent letting the cat out of the bag by publishing things which should be communicated in secret. But the show will be saved because it is the simplest thing for officialdom (i.e., the Church and the Academy) to shrug the whole thing off as scholarly, beatnik, disreputable, and pseudo-Buddhistic. Nevertheless, those who shrug it off in the classroom will read it in the bathroom.

The truly esoteric is not, therefore, guarded and "top secret" information. The esoteric is the tacit. It is what we know in common but do not admit in common, and what we communicate with winks rather than words. At a deeper level, it is also what we know but dare not acknowledge even to ourselves. It must not be admitted that the forces on either side of the line are actually working together; that they need and support each other; that their apparent conflict and independent operation is in face a single movement seen from opposite points of view. Yet though it must not be explicitly admitted, it must be implicitly understood, just as the differentiation of the spokes at the rim of a wheel is supported by their union in the hub.

It is thus that the Church's intensely negative fascination with sexuality acts as the context and stimulus for a prolific erotic life. It provokes it in the "opposition," in those who rebel deliberately and even more in those who resist temptation to the point where they are at last compelled to give in. It provokes it as much in professing churchmen as in their agnostic and atheistic neighbors, giving Christians a sexual ambivalence which is something far more subtle than mere hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is simply using a mask of righteousness to conceal shameless ill-doing. But sexual ambivalence is an admixture of lust and guilt to the mutual stimulation of both, and it issues in the style of eroticism that we call prurient. For churchly chastity is the obverse of which the inseparable reverse is eroticism with black chiffon panties - salacious, lascivious, lewd and libidinous. The erotic equivalent of a Nightmare Sundae with chocolate fudge, butterscotch, whipped cream, chopped walnuts, marshmallow, and maraschino cherries.

Truly, it is a rather formidable achievement, though as one becomes wiser and more discriminating one looks for the erotic equivalent of a finely grilled trout with chablis.

Here, as in other respects, the Christian situation is an extremity, for just as the Christian soul is the Godhead playing most convincingly that it is not God, so in the sexual sphere there is almost complete repression (in prude and profligate alike) of the sense that asceticism and eroticism are mutually fructifying. Hence the extreme shock and horror when it is found out that some particularly holy and respected prelate has been leading a "double life." It seems to reduce him to a pious fraud, but it usually escapes both the tormented cleric and his outraged flock that fraud is something quite different from ambivalence. Fraud may be used to conceal ambivalence when the existence of the latter has been clearly recognized. But our cleric has not been wearing the cloth to conceal his lascivious proclivities; he really believes in all the he preaches, but finds that it is overwhelmingly impossible to practice because the legs of one of his secretaries just refuse to be wiped out of consciousness. Actually they are quite ordinary legs, but they are (a) possibly attainable and (b) forbidden by God. Therefore Helen of Troy was not more shapely, and by such magic a passably pretty girl is transformed into a goddess.

If there was any fraud, both cleric and his flock have defrauded themselves in the sense of falling for the maya that sexual desire and ascetic continence are separate and opposed forces. As well expect pruning the trees to dry up the fruit. But they fall for the trick which our over-reliance on conscious attention plays upon us: that the figure moves independently of the background and the organism of the environment. It is difficult indeed for us to see and feel the two sides moving together as aspects of a single process. We have seen that the false identity of myself as something quite other than the world (environment) may be dispelled if one attempts to act upon it consistently, how, when faced with the challenge of "Thou shalt love," the Christian ego is reduced to absurdity. The same kind of absurdity should be apparent in the fact that prurient eroticism increases with the restriction of prudery (and anyone who doubts it should acquaint himself with Victorian pornography).

What happens when we see through the trick? Of course, if you have a penchant for that style of eroticism, you keep quiet and ride the situation for all it's worth. But it will never again be quite so lurid, for the guilt connected with sex vanishes just as soon as you understand the secret connection between lust and chastity. In its unconscious "let-not-your-left-hand-know" form, the Christian sex-game gets out of hand to the point where the price for luscious eroticism is not only a posture of prudery but a vast amount of mere misery and of warped lives. The game is just too far-out. But it should be obvious that if Christianity really means what it says about the union of the Word and the Flesh, the resolution of the problem must be the divinization of sexuality - foreshadowed (one is tempted to say "parodied") in the idea of Holy Matrimony, and in the idea of the Mystical Marriage between Christ and the Church.

Freud, who was basically a puritan, interpreted religious symbolism as an unconscious manifestation of libido, which is, as the choice of word suggests, dirty sex. "Freud," wrote Philip Rieff, "comes to the tacit understanding that sex really is nasty, an ignoble slavery to nature." Theologians have countered with the thought that living for sexual satisfaction as the highest good is a result of repressed religion, that erotic delight is a poor substitute for the ineffable joy of the knowledge of God. Sexual pleasure, they say, is like salt water, quenching thirst only to inflame it the more. In the end it comes to nothing, for man is made so that only the vision of God can satisfy him.

But the propper response would be to turn the tables of Freud: to admit with delight that the church spire is, indeed, a rampant penis; that vescial windows are vaginas; that the font is the womb - divini fontis utero, as the Missal says; that the Church's attitude of slef-surrender of the Lord is feminine delight in being ravished; that "Thy will, not mine, O Lord" is "and yes I said yes I will Yes!"

Consider what self-immolation and submission to the divine must be if it is not that. Instead of the melting warmth of sexual surrender, there is the shivering child under the lash - the loving lash - for "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth," saying "This hurts me more than it's going to hurt you." Surrender of the will is then what happens when the child's spirit is broken. . . . "Stop pouting! Take that look off your face! Don't be a slobbering cry-baby!"

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise

With all the rebellion whipped out of it, the whimpering brat kisses the hand that flogs - but far, far inside rages implacably at this indignity and affront to nature. Wasn't it Madame Acarie, that celebrated holy woman of seventeenth-century Paris, who used to make her daughter kneel down and say the "Our Father" while bending over to be thrashed?

It is easy for us to forget the compassionate concern with which the tortures of the Inquisition were administered. Isn't one justified in going to any length to protect someone from those everlasting fires beside which the stake is nothing? After all, the doctors of those times took hell-fire as seriously as they now take cancer. They lay awake at night shuttering at the post-mortem horrors in store for the unrepentant heretic.

footnote: An idea for some dramatist: a play about the Holy Inquisition in modern dress, with the inquisitors in white coats discussing heresy in the jargon of psychiatry. The torture (called "therapy") is the straight-jacket, lobotomy and electro-shock treatment.

But of course it cannot be consciously admitted that the writhings of a "witch" at the stake, of a heretic on the rack, or of a child under the lash are a vicarious orgasm. The alternative to open and loving sexuality is secret and brutal sexuality. So long as we cannot see love on the screen, we must see violence.

There is no way of being non-sexual. The Church reeks of sexuality because it is the one thing intentionally and obviously absent, the one thing definitely concealed, and thus the one thing really important. Nothing draws attention to the sexuality of a statue more effectively than the improbable growth of a fig leaf from the midst of the pubic hair. The religions of the world either worship sex or repress it; both attitudes proclaim its centrality. To understand the mysteries, always look for what is veiled.

However, the divinization of sex is obviously something very much more than the philosophy that the best thing in life is sexual intercourse, considered as a physiological action. Our difficulty with sexuality is that we regard it as something "merely" physical, the isolated interplay of two organs, culminating in a pleasurable sensation of convulsive detumescence. We have defined, classified and contextualized the sexual relationship in such a way that all our associations are confused. We see it as a somewhat grotesque, undignified, more-animal-than-human spasm, which doesn't fit at all well with our image of ourselves as ladies and gentlemen, yet which is nonetheless ungovernably attractive. But all this grotesquerie is "in the mind," in the system of symbolic, artificial and stylized postures which we have been taught to associate with dignity and decency. The constant reiteration of the attitude of "Ugh!" toward sexual matters by parents, teachers, elders and betters, build this reaction into the nervous system, so that it is taken for natural and normal feeling. By such negative hypnosis even honey can be made to taste of rotten eggs.

Our attitudes toward that most blatantly sexual organ, the flower, are just the opposite. Flowers call to mind a world of innocence and light, transparency and joy. They may adorn the altar, be held as exemplars of faith ("Consider the lilies"), be symbols of the Holy Virgin ("I Am the Rose of Sharon"), who is said, moreover, to cultivate a rose garden in Paradise, and even be the image of the transfigured cosmos in that day when it shall reflect the full glory of its Maker

Thus, in the semblance of a snow-white rose,
There was displayed to me the saintly throng
That Christ, with his own blood, had made his bride.
(Paradiso, 31)

Yet the flower is the lust of the plant, opening itself with the allure of scent and color as if to say, "and yes I said yes I will Yes!"

If man is supposed to be made in the image of God, it should follow that human generation has its archetypal pattern in the divine act of creation. The Hindus portray this quite openly in images of Shiva or Krishna with his shakti or feminine aspect, embracing him with her legs around his lions. The shakti is, of course, the maya - the world-illusion and the cosmic play to which the Lord has abandoned himself, and together the masculine and feminine aspects signify the eternal oscillation of in/out, lost/found, and yes/no. And this oscillation is also the vac, the primal sound of word, AUM, whereby all things are brought into manifestation, and thus the equivalent of the Word in Christianity with its two aspects, Logos, reason, and Sophia, wisdom.

If we can see through the bewitchment of the lust/guilt, prudery/prurience sex-game, it becomes obvious that the sexual intercourse of human beings should evoke the same kind of "cosmic wonder" that we feel for the stars, for mountains, and for all the timeless marvels of nature, myth and art. Here we step out of the costumes which designate our temporal roles to become Adam and Eve, Shiva and Parvati, and - why not? - Logos and Sophia, Christ and his Church. The pattern and posture of our bodily union is, after all, essentially the same as the helix form of the spiral nebulae; and, if you really look, human flesh is no less full of light and transparency than petals and shells and alabaster, for "the joints of thy thigh are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman."

Yet how can sex be thus divinized when our bodies grow old, dry and impotent, when some of us are compelled to be gross, scraggy, or deformed, and when the flesh is ever prone to disease? This is, of course, the most ancient of all complaints about the delights of love. But it goes hand in hand with the identification of the Self with the separate body, so that, when the prime of life has passed, I must say farewell forever to these embraces. The lament about the transiency of fleshly beauty is a half-truth, for the other side of the matter is that love and beauty are always and always returning - every situation of love being the reincarnation of the Primal Pair, somewhat as a particular sonata may be played again and again upon thousands of instruments. We forget that the Self, the identity, is in the pattern, not in the delusive "body" that bears it, and that this is equally true of the very thing that we call the body. For all that we recognize as constant and consistent in any physical body is a repeated pattern of behavior, recurring exactly like the logarithmic spiral in every chambered nautilus. Any permanent material that could bear the imprint of these patterns, so as to be the medium in which they are wrought, has never been discovered. Indeed, if there were some ground or primal substance in and of which all these patterns are formed, it would correspond far more closely to our ideas of God than to our ideas of matter.

All peoples feel a certain sadness with the passing of youth into age - the autumnal mood which the Japanese call aware, the mood of the sigh. To the extent, however, that we imagine our very self to be this body alone, once and for all, aging can bring on a furious resentment of physical existence. It is for this reason, then, that the peculiarly isolated situation of the Christian ego gives us an attitude to the physical body that veers between resentful disillusion and frantic attempts to "gather rosebuds while ya may." But as the awareness of oneself goes in and in and in to the Heart behind the heart, it is ever more clear that the core of the Self is held in common between oneself and all others, and that without need for conscious memory to bridge the intervals, our fruits in season, each one, like the sun through a lens, a focus of the One-and-Only.

To know this is, in terms of the hide-and-seek-game, to ahve found "home", the "our eternal home" of the Christians, and the liberation or moksha of the Hindus. Neither should be taken literally, as, on the one hand, an everlasting church service after death, or, on the other, permanent disappearance from the world of form and manifestation. For the "death" which must be undergone to behold the vision of God is the death of a false identity, and the withdrawal from the world which is required for liberation is the withdrawal from the game that this particular person, so-and-so, is my one and only self. For the rest, the vast and splendidly electrical fantasy of the universe may go on and on, the same old story repeated with inexhaustible genius for variety - color, music, intricacy of pattern, beauty and terror, love and tragedy, ducks on the dawn water, gulls sailing the gale, horned flames of the fire, and the wonder-jewel of the witnessing eye, all woven out of the endless possibilities of yes-and-no.

- Alan Watts

this is the first time Chapter VII of:

has been transcribed onto the internet, for your google-searching
and copy/pasting convenience. So, human race: You're welcome. :)



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