Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bernini and ecstasy...

Shut up Simon Schama.

I mean that in the nicest way possible, BTW.  Ever since Freud, it appears that art historians (and sensualists) have been attributing an underlying eroticism to the works of Bernini - most famously the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila, the sculpture 'floating' above the altar in the Cornaro Chapel situated within the Discalced Carmelite church of Santa Maria Vittoria, Rome.  Other scholars have suggested - and taught - similar theories, going so far as to claim St. Teresa of Jesus is literally depicted as experiencing an orgasm.  Error.  I'm afraid these notions readily take hold in the collective imagination of our highly sexualized culture where even Bl. John Paul's Theology of the Body is misinterpreted for popular consumption and profit.  How unfortunate.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was perhaps something of a mystic himself.  It was the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius which formed and informed his spirituality, subsequently helping him grasp the works of the great mystics such as Teresa of Avila.  He was therefore able to translate and depict spiritual ecstasy in stone.  Just as successfully he demonstrated the holy death of Blessed Ludovica, as well as the martyrdom of St. Sebastian - neither of which can be confused as erotic experiences, yet both clearly depict the physical characteristics of mystical rapture.

Spiritual ecstasy is above and beyond physical orgasm - although as John of the Cross notes in his discussion of spiritual lust in beginners, impure movements can be experienced in the sensory part of the soul - but that is definitely not what St. Teresa experienced in the Transverberation.  (It is not my intention to discuss the doctrine of John of the Cross here, I simply want to acknowledge that our lower nature, our senses can  be affected by spiritual experience.  If the reader is interested, they can read what the Saint has to say in this regard in The Dark Night, Bk I, Chapter 4.) 

I'm convinced that to promote theories on Roman Catholic mystical experience, including referencing mysteries of the faith such as the Consumatum est of Christ Crucified, (not to mention the significance of the Paschal candle at Easter) in sexual terms is inappropriate and misguided - no matter how well intentioned the source.

"They neither marry or are given in marriage."  That is how Christ told us it will be in heaven.  The mystics - those who arrive at transforming union, experience the closest thing possible to the Beatific Vision on this earth: Mystical marriage can neither be imagined, much less comprehended, by the carnal mind.  "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."  - 1 Corinthians 2:14

Art: The Death of Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, Bernini, Altieri Chapel
St. Sebastian, Bernini


  1. Excellent Post Terry, I like it a lot!
    Good thoughts,

  2. Mercury:

    CCC 2349 quotes St. Ambrose as saying:

    "There are three forms of the virtue of chastity: the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows, and the third that of virgins. We do not praise any one of them to the exclusion of the others. . . . This is what makes for the richness of the discipline of the Church."

    He's a saint and he said this over 1600 years ago. There's the "doin' it", "done it", and "never did it" and we don't praise one to the exclusion of the others.

    I know this probably doesn't help. Even if you found out Pope Pius the Umptheenth said it's OK every other Thursday as long as you keep your eyes closed, you'd still be anxious.

    Prayers coming your way.

  3. I'm always sorry I post about such things - I'm not a good writer.

    Nevertheless, I believe there is a really screwed up undercurrent in some venues of contemporary mystical theology, which in my opinion veers off in the direction of ancient temple worship which celebrates sexual gratification - similar to the ancient pagan cults.

    Sounds exaggerated? Maybe. Although I think I speak from experience. Once a monk-priest counseled me to remain in an improper relationship, suggesting such things as 'revering Christ in my lover's limbs' and so on. His advice, IMO was a sort of misapplication of a maxim of St. Bernard which suggested one should have a carnal love for Christ.

    Though eroticism has taken on a new meaning in contemprary culture, it seems to me the erotic impulse remains always a sensual experience. Perhaps I haven't stated my theory very well, which is one of my faults, but I don't want to spend a great deal of time on this topic either.

    One also needs to remember that I know women who have been seduced by priests and spiritual guides who have sought to bring them to a better understanding of the spiritual life through a better understanding of JPII's theology of the body.

    As for Christian marriage - I know nothing about that stuff beyond what is discernable through common sense. As a chaste and celibate man, I know what is inadmissable in the pursuit of a devout life, which accounts for my sometimes saying, "I have more understanding than all who teach me, for I do your will." However, that too is presumption and vanity - and reason for my readers not to place much confidence in what I say.

    My constant admonition is to take your concerns to a good confessor and or a spiritual director - careful to look for one who is not too vain, trendy or ambitious.

    That is all from me folks. Don't forget - do not look for spiritual direction from bloggers. "Don't go to Strangers" as the Chaka kahn song goes.

  4. "...I know this probably doesn't help. Even if you found out Pope Pius the Umptheenth said it's OK every other Thursday as long as you keep your eyes closed, you'd still be anxious..."


    That's a good observation.


  5. Terry, just remember what St. Paul said about eloquence. Much of what people write about the erotic in loving God and being loved by Him I find is very much geared towards, well, towards the writing.

    Oh yeah, and it sells.

    Through such writings people are being conditioned into a "distaste" of the cross, of embracing it, of the humble (and homely) waiting at the abode of the Holy Family. Not only that, I think people are on the cusp of proclaiming a vested belief in the Cosmic Christ.

    What people are awed by can very well be a train wreck in slow motion.

    Readers of Terry's post might also be interested in this post, "Having Sex with Dogs in Heaven":

  6. I really like Bernini a lot, thanks for posting these pictures.
    The trouble with analogies is that there is a point at which they break down. If you take them past that point, you risk a reduction to the absurd. I think this is what happens; people see ways in which mystical union has some possible commonalities with, say, the marital embrace. But that is different than saying they are the same. I think you are right to point out the problems with following this line of reasoning too far.

    Mercury, I don't think that spousal love has nothing to teach us about God. Because it's part of living out a vocation; we are living out God's will for our life; and God is always present in that. I think trads are on really shaky ground to accuse any of the popes you mention of "sexual gnosticism".

  7. ck, thanks for the St. Ambrose quote. I appreciate his wisdom.
    I love a prayer for deceased loved ones which he wrote; it was in our parish bulletin for All Souls Day.

  8. "So Paul, married people who have erotic relationships and do not want to "get over it" are refusing to take up the cross?"

    I wasn't referring to the cross and the embracing of it as the absence of eros - or as getting over it, whatever that's supposed to mean.

    Nowhere did I say anything about trampling over sexual affection as some kind of taking up of one's cross.

    I don't appreciate words being put into my mouth.

    In fact I only referred to the cross secondarily in that the strange teachings of the Inquisitorial Eroticizers of the faith will cause people to find Christ's embracing of the cross (and our imitation thereof) to be that much harder to accept.

  9. Please disregard every moronic thing I say. I am sorry everyone.

    Paul, that goes double for you. I am sorry for putting words in your mouth.

  10. Please accept my own apology, Mercury. It's my pride.

    word verification: equal. No kidding.

  11. ck - thank you very much, too, by the way.

  12. Forgive my unsolicited input. I've been asked to do more and more public speaking lately and I nearly die of fear every time I speak, but I'll do anything to keep others from suffering the way I once did - the way it seems you suffer right now.

    My annual RCIA speech is a week from today. I nearly passed out last year. I would appreciate some prayers guys.

    The Diocese of Cleveland wants to know if I'll do talks at local colleges and high schools based on the "contraception" and "overpopulation" tabs on my blog. I want to do it so bad, but I think I might die.

  13. ck - I love your input.

    I will definitely pray for your new project. "Be not afraid!" :)


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