Bridal Mysticism

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (of Avila) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)

It has long been maintained that mystical ecstasy, also called Bridal Mysticism -achieving "Union with God, or the Beloved" is sublimated sexual desire. As a state of consciousness it can be said to be an altered state (as being in love is) which so called mystics (e.g. St Teresa de Avila) attained though prayer, music, fasting, physical penance and various other means. There is another school of thought that says that the language used, whether words or pictorial, is merely a metaphor for "spiritual" love. In my view the truth falls between the two theories, particularly if one looks at the difference between sex and eroticism; with sex, the aim is gratification, with eroticism the purpose is to maintain a continuum of desire. Quoting CS Lewis and Turner on the subject:

"Eros is that state which we call "being in love" Sexual experience can occur without Eros, without "being in love"..... Eros includes other things beside sexual activity......Within Eros it is rather about the Beloved. It becomes almost a mode of perception, entirely a mode of expression." (The four loves - C.S.Lewis)"

Freud and others, describe the pleasure of sex as the reduction of tension, in Eros, on the contrary, one does not wish to be released from the excitement, but to hang on to it. The aim of sex points towards gratification, whereas with Eros it is about desiring, forever reaching out, expanding.

D. Turner says that what makes the erotic model of love so appealing in the interpretation of the Song of Solomon is that, for example, in the monastic life, the partial withdrawal from the world, is situated "at a point of intersection between this world an the next, between time and eternity, ... between anticipation and fulfillment" Just like erotic love, like the moment of "being in love" (Eros and allegory: Medieval exegesis on the Song of Songs- D. Turner).

Therefore if the purpose of sex is the release of tension, in eroticism it is the exact opposite, the aim being to maintain a continuum of heightened sexual awareness and desire.

St. Teresa described the soul's intense desire for God in the language of erotic passion. In this, she belongs to a long tradition of mystical experience that is known as bridal mysticism:

c.1559-62: Teresa experiences, perhaps several times, her famous "transfixion" or "piercing" by a cherub with a golden, fiery-tipped spear. She records this in her Life as follows:
"I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision. . . . It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. . . .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. (Life, 29.16-17)"
The symbolism of bridal mysticism already existed in early Gnostic Christianity, where the Sacrament is likened to the Bridal Chamber, there the union takes place between the feminine soul and the masculine spirit, thus transcending mundane existence. Related symbolism is found as well in the writings of the early Christian mystic Origen and the Neoplatonic mystic Plotinus.
Early forms of bridal mysticism owe much influence to the myths of Eros and Psyche. The anonymous homily Exegesis of the Soul which describes the sacrament of the Bridal Chamber is indeed a gnostic interpretation of the Hellenistic myth. Greek themes and images were rediscovered in Italy and Europe during the Renaissance, and Bernini's illustrated symbolism is close to the tale of Eros and Psyche. Psyche (Gr.soul) starts out as a mortal, and she is elevated to the status of an immortal, by Zeus, only when Eros wants her as a bride. For St. Teresa, the experience of the spiritual wound culminates in spiritual marriage, union with the beloved, a complete union of God and the soul.
C.S. -The four loves
-Turner, D. -Eros and allegory: Medieval exegesis on the Song of Songs
-Walsh, William T. -Saint Teresa of Ávila (1943)
- http://aras.org/se_ecstasy.html


Antonionioni said...

Hi B - this is a great little article. I was not familiar with the phrase 'bridal mysticism' but now am enlightened. Also, I agree - how could I not? - with the obvious differential between sex and Eros. Eros keeps love alive, sex can actually be the antithesis of love, assuming by 'love' we don';t simply mean sex itself. It's interesting the link between religious fervour and Eros. It can be seen in modern churches just as in the ancient ones, where ecstatic experiences are sought and attained by the faithful. Great piece!

Twilight Traveler said...

Wonderful entry. And here's a question. What I'm wondering about is what you think of the implication for the relation between eros and masochism. What you describe is also found in the medieval courtly ideal: there you have the male in a voluntarily submissive role, and the woman idealized as an unattainable being of more than earthly perfection who can be contemplated and adored, but never touched. The male lover suffers terribly because his desire remains forever unsatisfied, but he is happy to make the sacrifice for his lady's sake. In fact, it is by means of that suffering that he is purified and lifted up to the higher spiritual state that she represents. But he'll never find satisfaction in this life.
What worries me (also in C.S. Lewis's analysis) is the ascetic and world-renouncing twist: pleasure/satisfaction is bad, suffering/renunciation is good (and if you follow the logic you end up saying that sex is bad, eros is good; the body is bad, the spirit is good; life is bad, death is good...).
You find the basic idea in Plato's Phaedrus (eros = the soul's desire for beauty, which will never be satisfied by anything less than the beauty of the perfect Ideas), but the masochistic twist (suffering and renunciation) seems a Christian addition.
So how far would you go in following that logic?

Wordcrafter said...

Hello TT, this is not a proper reply, -which I leave for another time, but only the first thought that comes to mind on reading your comment, it is Kiergaard: "If I were to wish for anything ..........etc.. but for the passionate sense of potential -- for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints; possibility never" Kierkegaard says.
The paradox here is that "desire satisfied" leaves you with no desire... But of course your question covers many other aspects, when I find time will reply more fully. By the way, at last started on the Life of Puppets... brilliant! though -at least at the start- a bit too dogmatic in parts.

Twilight Traveler said...

Hi Wordcrafter. I see your point, but can't help being a bit sorry about poor Kierkegaard, who (if I remember well) renounced marrying the woman he loved basically for the reason you point out.
You're very very right about the paradox though. In that regard, I think you'll be interested in reading The Heroic Frenzies by Giordano Bruno, one of the greatest masterpieces of mystical eroticism that Western culture has produced. It's available online in an English translation (not great, but good enough). Don't be put off by the incredible hyperbolic misogynism on the first page (so extreme that it's hard to take seriously). If you pass that barrier, you'll find that it's a work of dazzling genius grounded exactly the paradox to which you refer.

Wordcrafter said...

Thank you TT, replied more fully on your page.

Twilight Traveler said...

Hi Wordcrafter,
Happy to wake you up anytime :) You're doing the same for me. You can find the Bruno Heroic Frenzies online on http://www.esotericarchives.com/bruno/furori.htm
Be prepared! I myself couldn't make head or tail of it until I had read a commentary first, to get the general idea. But once you get what he's up to, it's pure genius.
Twilight Traveler
PS. A personal question. I just can't help wondering where on this globe you are living. You'll have gathered by now that I am in the Netherlands. Where are you?

Twilight Traveler said...

So you're in Switzerland Wordcrafter? If by any chance you pass through Amsterdam on your way back to the UK, please let me know. I have Potocki, and started reading it a long time ago, but never got very far. So I'll try again. Many people have told me I should read it, so perhaps it's time to get serious about it.

Princess Haiku said...

Fascinating. This little discussion also reminded me of the tradition of Courtly Love and the writings of Marie de France.