Jack’s Naughty Bits: Saint Theresa

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Many of you have seen Bernini’s famous sculpture of the ecstasy of St. Theresa, and — gazing upon her divinely enraptured face — even the most hedonistic and godless among you probably thought: “Hmm, maybe this Christian thing doesn’t look so bad after all . . . ” For while most of the Church Fathers denounced the pleasure of the flesh, it’s pretty clear that Theresa de Avila, saint though she was, seemed to know a thing or two about having a good time. Truth was, she had the best of both worlds, charting her Way of Perfection while nibbling a little cake on the side. Angel’s food, mind you, pure angel’s food.

She was not without precedent. Other female mystics in the Middle Ages, notably Marguerite Porete of Spain and England’s Margery Kempe, also experienced erotically-charged unions with the higher forces of heaven. (I’ve written about Kempe in a previous column.) Still, boys, before we get our hopes up, I have to add that this seems to be a uniquely feminine experience: as far as I know, there aren’t any accounts of medieval men getting down with the Lord or His celestial minions. In Greek mythology, of course, there were a lot of tales of higher-order beings coming down to shag the better-packaged members of humanity, but in Christianity, all the god-to-man nookie happened not in the holy writ, but in the hearts and minds of the Christians themselves. Which just goes to show a hidden component in the dynamics of sexual repression: the very force that is supposed to deny the libido becomes the object of its fantasy. Small surprise, perhaps; it’s normally the strictest governess who insinuates her way into erotic dreams, regardless of what our conscious minds might dictate. In St. Theresa’s case, however, the fantastic vision is so pleasant that it utterly conceals the self-repression or violence that subtends it. Would that everyone could find such compensatory mechanisms.


From The Life of Saint Teresa

Translated by J.M. Cohen

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form — a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely. Though I often see representations of angels, my visions of them are of the type which I first mentioned (imaginary). It pleased the Lord that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. They must be those who are called seraphim: they do not tell me their names but I am well aware that there is a great difference between certain angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain. In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it — indeed a great share. So sweet are the soliloquies of love which pass between the soul and God, that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience.

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Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.