Sacramental Sex

For centuries, the most prestigious text in the highest echelons of Christian spiritual formation was arguably the Song of Songs, a passionate poem of two lovers longing for each other. Utterly enthralled, each searches for language to describe and adore and adorn the beloved. Animals, plants, perfumes, spices—a dazzling range of creatures and senses are enlisted by both partners, all for the sake of singing of their love.

In reading Christian commentaries on the Song down through the ages, it can sometimes seem as though the church's smile begins to resemble a grimace. "Don't read too literally," some commentators seem to say. "This song isn't actually about sex or carnal appetite. That bag of myrrh lying between the woman's breasts—it isn't what it appears to be.  In fact, the Song is an allegory, a figurative portrait of the love between God and God's people, between Christ and his bride, the church."

But even the most consistently allegorical readers of the Song are doing something quite interesting: they are reading ancient erotic lyrics as an indispensable window into the deepest nature of reality, the innermost chamber, the truth about how things really are—and are meant to be—between God and humanity. Today's readers, then, do well to avoid falling into the "either figural or literal" trap, instead affirming both the Song's erotic, warm-blooded, fleshy celebration of sexual love and the ways in which these very things open up into an allegorical picture of a divine-human embrace.

In other words, the Song is a prime example of resources in Christian traditions for thinking about sex as sacramental—that is, as providing an experiential glimpse, taste and sense of God's love for us and our most fitting love for God. These forms of divine and human love are not disembodied, abstract or merely solemn, the Song seems to say. On the contrary, they are consummately embodied, particular, passionate and playful forms of love, full of hyperbole and longing and surprise, and therefore best evoked with the rhetoric of eros. At the same time, human eros itself is best described, finally and most fittingly, as a part of life that points toward God and in which God is present.

Our yearnings for each other, for physical and emotional intimacy, for the exhilaration of communion, for the tenderness of touch—all of these are real and valuable in their own right, as real and as valuable and as blessed as water and bread. At the same time, these are also yearnings for God and may be experienced as tangible tastes of God's yearning for us. In this sense, at its best, sex is sacramental.

- Elizabeth Myer Boulton and Matthew Myer Boulton, from "Sacramental Sex: Divine Love and Human Intimacy," The Christian Century, March 11, 2011.

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