I spent nearly eight weeks outlining a research paper that I was assigned for one of my classes. At the end of the outlining and research process, I was at last ready to begin writing the paper itself. I sat down to my laptop, impelled forward by my eager heart, ready to conquer the twenty pages that were awaiting me. Unfortunately, all of those pages that I had digested and transformed into a seemingly coherent progression of ideas wouldn’t seem to materialize into a coherent progression of words, sentences, and paragraphs. As I waited for the wisdom to “pour out” of me onto the Word doc, something seemed to be missing. Something was blocking the source from which my ingenious writing was supposed to blossom forth. What was I missing? What was in my way?
It was over the course of a grueling three weeks that I discovered how much the process of writing can be likened to the experiences of the conjugal act, spiritual ecstasy, and martyrdom, all at once. As much as these phenomena may seem unlikely bedfellows, I have the cloud of the witness of saints to back up my assertion. As I scrambled during the first few days to generate some type of flow, I was forced to return to the very “beginning” of the process of writing this paper. Although it seemed like I had no time for superfluous reflection and sentimentality, I realized that I wasn’t making any progress on my current track.
As I took that counterproductive step back in time, I was reminded of the events that inspired my thesis. I was reminded of how taken I was by those events, and by how much I wanted to delve deeper into them by examining them through scholarly work. The sense of mystery that pervaded my senses in that moment carried over into the planning of my paper, but somehow slipped my mind as it came to the moment to actually begin writing. How could I recover that original fascination and awe that I experienced in those moments so that they could be communicated in my paper? How could I remain “awake,” when the circumstances of my regular homework, my full-time job, and the dreadful late fall weather were dragging me down with exhaustion and frustration?
These questions soon became a cry out to the void that surrounded me, my books, and my laptop. The cry was directed toward friends, fellow students who were struggling with their papers, and eventually, to the mystery Himself in the form of prayer. As I faced this drama within the context of these relationships, it soon became clear to me that no one held to secret “key” to getting my paper moving in their hands. However, I did begin to discover that these people shared the desire to discover that key, both for themselves and for me, and that above all, these friends were overcome by their desire to see something beautiful in their work, even more so than their desire to “get it all done.”
I was moved by how their desire to discover dominated their drive to accomplish. I let this become part of my prayer as got back to work on my paper. The spark of fear that I wouldn’t find the time to finish the paper quickly worked its way to the forefront of my mind, but I prayed that this too would be overcome by the desire to encounter the presence of beauty in my work.
As I referred to my sources, I began to find little surprises interspersed throughout each text that I then incorporated into my paper. I lost track of the time as I moved from one surprise to another, taken by the sense of wonder, my heart penetrated by the presence of someone who kept pointing out to me flowers that could be planted into the garden of my essay. At one point, I had finished a five hour work session with the sensation of a glowing joy radiating throughout my body, enamored by the words that appeared on the pages in front of me. Was it the spirit of pride, the love of my own work, which overcame me in that moment? No! It was the fascination with the fact that that beautiful work had been manifested through me by the hands of someone else…by someone who looked at me with tenderness and affection.
I realized that this fruit could not have been born without having “died” first. Those moments of anxiety, searching, and slaving away over my sources were necessary for that beauty to be manifested. It is in this regard that one may liken the process of writing to the conjugal act, spiritual ecstasy, and martyrdom.
While mass media may emphasize more heavily the pleasurable aspects of sex, it is impossible to deny that pain and sacrifice are just as much a part of it. The French don’t call an orgasm la petite mort (small death) for nothing. The conjugal act implies a risk. Who is the person that is penetrating me…not merely in a physical regard, but existentially? The other’s being is a mystery to me. To allow the other’s “sphere” of existence, her subjectivity, which comes with her freedom and all of the unpredictability that’s implied by it (and is beyond my control), to penetrate my sphere of existence is a risk. How can I trust this other? That which is foreign to me at first appears as an enemy. This is the phenomenon that Pope Saint John Paul II refers to as “intersubjectivity.” For the two subjects to become one, to be united, there must first be a sacrifice. In order for there to be communion, I must “die to myself” and allow an other to penetrate me. That “death” opens that space for the other to enter into the sphere of my existence and plant his seeds, thus uniting the “I” and the “you.” This foreign enemy bears the seeds the will bear an overabundance of fruit, thus turning this “other” into my lover. Out of the seeds sown in our communion emerge both joy and fruit; in the context context of a fleshly union, the fruit is new life.
Before I experience the pleasure of the orgasm and receive the fruit of our union, I must first die to myself and open a space for the other to penetrate me. Similarly, before my writing overflows with beauty, I must sacrifice my time and energy for the sake of the paper, opening a space for the presence of the other to enter into the process and plant his “seeds,” and then must beg in prayer, and search in the faces of those friends who are accompanying me in this process, for the presence of the other to manifest coherence and beauty in my work. The more the process of writing is lived within the context of a relationship with this other, to more it becomes joyful and fruitful.
The phenomena of sacrifice and penetration, and the subsequent joy and fruit that result from them, also play a constitutive role in the lives of the martyrs and ecstatics. Saint Teresa of Avila is the first who may come to mind, especially as she is represented in Gianlorenzo Bernini’s (in)famous statue L’Estasi di Santa Teresa. Teresa, who lived in 16th century Spain in the heat of the counter-reformation, initiated a reform of the Carmelite order which sought to return to more austere ascetic practices that she deemed to be more authentic to the original spirit of the Carmelite charism. A doctor of the Church, her writing focuses primarily upon the theme of the soul’s unity with God, relying heavily upon the imagery of conjugal union as a metaphor to demystify this theme. In one of her writings, she employs the Song of Songs to clarify the ways in which the conjugal act reflects the process of achieving unity with God. In the beginning of the Song, we meet the beloved who cries in pain on her bed at night-she is missing her “sweetheart.” She knows that the fulfillment she desires is impossible without the presence of her lover, thus she experiences his absence as a painful “hole” in her being, a pervasive emptiness that expresses itself as this cry (3:1). But this cry is only the beginning of a journey-she sets out to find her sweetheart. She searches the streets, imploring the bystanders she encounters for any clues leading to where her lover may be hiding (3:2-3). After finally finding her lover, she revels in the joy and fruit that is born of their love (7:9-13).
Teresa recognizes how this same process reflects her own spiritual journey. In the 29th chapter of her autobiography, she recounts the experience of Divine ecstasy, which is preceded necessarily by physical pain and agony:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
The penetration by the angel and the ecstatic pleasure that followed are both geniously depicted in Bernini’s statue. As many have noted, the fact that she appears to be experiencing an orgasm is not a convenient mistake or a mark of implicit blasphemy. Rather, it is an authentic artistic rendering of Teresa’s spirituality. Much like an orgasm, the ecstasy of divine union must follow death to oneself and penetration by an other.
Similar imagery is present in artistic representations of the martyrs. One notable example is the third century martyr Sebastian who was killed at the hands of Diocletian. Most artists depict the first time his accusers attempted to execute him (which failed) by shooting him with arrows. Though he was clearly in pain (who wouldn’t with 10 arrows lodged interspersedly throughout his flesh?), artists have often represented his face as experiencing some form of pleasure or ecstasy. Some throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have named him patron of those with homosexual inclination due to the homoerotic mien with which he is depicted. His penetrated flesh and ecstatic facial expressions can indeed be said to embody the conjugal motifs of Christian mysticism. In the cases of both Teresa and Sebastian, it is necessary that they be penetrated by the arrows which plant the seeds that with time blossom into holiness.
Any act of labor, let alone essay writing, can be said to mirror the different facets of the conjugal act. What I discovered in writing this paper is that authentic writing, beautiful writing, is not born of pure intelligence or skill. Even the most prolific writer cannot produce work of such quality. Authentic beauty can only come from the hands of He who embodies beauty in its purest form. Thus I must always approach my work as a relationship, constantly begging someone else to enter into the process and bring it to its fullest potential. I must become like the beloved in the Song of Songs who cries out to her lover and awaits his return. Though this implies a sacrifice on my part, namely that I open myself to the penetration of a presence that transcends myself, I do so for the sake of my own fulfillment…because I want to see something exceptional emerge in my work. I want to see something greater than my own genius reflected in my writing. I look to the saints and the faces of my friends as my companions on this journey to communion with the Divine lover who carries the seeds of the fulfillment of my efforts.