The Mystics' Secret to Bliss
I can’t remember the first time it happened in prayer. But I remember the first conversation I tried to have about it.
“My prayer has been… I mean, it’s been wonderful.” My eyes sparkled, but I struggled to find the words. “It’s like… it’s spousal. It’s like my heart blooms open, to a place deeper than I knew existed—and God pours himself out there. Sometimes it leaves me breathless!”
I shifted slightly in my chair and glanced at the floor. I had never shared anything quite so intimate. My next words came out more softly than the last: “What do I do with that?”
My spiritual director smiled and stared. "Well, you know Saint so-and-so said..." she began to recite. It would have been about the same had she patted me on the arm and said “that’s nice, dear.” After a beat, I realized that’s all she knew to say.
I gave an internal sigh. If I knew anything, my experience was anything but “nice.”
Over the years, I came to learn that this kind of profound experience in prayer was not uncommon. Mystics from nearly every religion speak of the divine as “beloved” or “lover.”
Sexuality and Spirituality are a lot closer than many of us might think.
Don’t believe me? Check out Teresa of Avila’s poetry:
When He touches me I clutch the sky’s sheets, the way other lovers do the earth’s weave of clay. Any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction, don’t let any prude tell you otherwise.
Or John of the Cross:
O sweet cautery, O delightful wound! O gentle hand! O delicate touch That tastes of eternal life… How gently and lovingly You wake my heart… And by Your sweet breathing, How tenderly You swell my heart with love!
The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved, ‘You are the sky my spirit circles in, The love inside love, the resurrection place… Are these words or tears? Is weeping speech? What shall I do, my love?’
So he speaks, and everyone around Begins to cry with him, laughing crazily, Moaning in the spreading union Of lover and beloved.
This is the true religion.
And just check out this statue of John of the Cross in ecstasy:
It was no secret to the mystics! Eros, that creative, life-giving energy that fuels our sexuality is the same energy within the divine. Actually, it’s the reverse: God is the wild and beautiful dance between eros(desire, longing, creative energy) and agape(self-giving, fruitful love). When we make love, we participate in that dance.
And so we do when we pray.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking, I’ve never prayed like that! And desire and sex—what do those have to do with spirituality?
Listen up, young Padawan, for there are a few lessons about divine intimacy that they may not have taught you in Sunday school.
Orgasm is like Prayer
Lovemaking requires vulnerability. At the very least, it requires you to bare a private part of you, physically. At the very best, it asks you to bare your most intimate parts-- emotionally and spiritually.
Prayer is simply another word for "relationship with the divine." It, too, requires vulnerability in order to be intimate. You can have a surface-level relationship with Infinite Love just as you can with your spouse. You can hide, perform your perceived duties, and live separate lives while still calling yourself "spiritual" or "holy" or "Christian" (or "married"!). Or-- you can be in a rich, satisfying, jovial relationship with the divine. It is as real and nuanced as your relationship with your spouse.
Consider the amount of trust it takes to be truly naked with someone. It might be easy to take off your clothes; but how easy is it to bare your heart? To share your fears? To be seen in all your flaws and imperfections—and be loved there? It’s like your husband kissing that flabby spot you’re secretly ashamed of, or your wife revering that hairy mole you find revolting. But she loves it because it is a part of YOU.
That’s the kind of tenderness God shows us. He caresses our pride. He reveres our epic failures that spark shame in us. While we beat ourselves up (“How could I be so stupid and selfish?? How could I hurt the friend who loves me so well?”), the divine pours mercy in that spot. He soothes the shame, washing it out with the waters of tenderness. He doesn’t pour out wrath: we’re the ones who do that.
I once was talking to a friend of mine who was having a hard time in her prayer life. I also knew that it had taken years after getting married for her to experience an orgasm. (Which is not a rare experience for women.) I asked, “What made the difference when you were finally able to come?” She pondered for a moment. “You know,” she replied softly, “it was when I finally allowed myself to surrender. I had to let go of all my fears and rigidity. You really have to relax and let go in order for climax to happen.”
If we come with our rigidity and our misled beliefs (“Sex is bad! I mean, not bad, but NEVER do it unless you’re married. Be AFRAID! STD’s, people! Emotional heartache! Eternal damnation! Monsters and rabies and hurricanes!”)—how difficult it is to be intimate! Why would anyone be willingly naked and vulnerable when surrounded by that kind of fear?
What kind of rigidity and fear do you bring to prayer? “Am I doing this right? She looks so much holier when she prays.” “I must squash all of my anger and sadness: we're supposed to be joyful and grateful.” “I won’t ask God for anything big—I don’t want to inconvenience him.” “God expects me to sacrifice. It’s part of the cross.”
Do you believe God is mercy and compassion? Or do you believe he is primarily Judge and condemnation? Does he look down his nose at your shortcomings, or does he look in your eyes with tenderness?
The answer to this question will make a radical difference in your prayer life.
Intimacy requires trust. And if you do not trust your lover to be loving, your defense mechanisms will automatically guard your heart. And guarded means you don’t come. Physically or spiritually.
Prayer is Like Orgasm
The way mystics pray is very different from how we are taught to pray in Sunday school. They may have started in similar places: saying the Our Father, reading Scripture, praising or thanking God. However, those things are just the conversation starters. In the spousal analogy, we’re not even in the bedroom yet.
It's not that any of these practices are bad. They are just step one. Imagine you were a sheltered Victorian flower who had never been told the birds and the bees before getting married. You thought that marriage meant the woman tended the home and the man provided income. Intimacy was the quick kiss you saw your parents exchange on occasion. They discussed family matters behind closed doors. That’s what marriage was to you, so you intended to follow suit.
If this were you, and sex existed, wouldn’t you want someone to tell you??
“Psst. Hey, kid. Did you know you could experience bliss by doing this thing with another person?”
I’m afraid in prayer, all we know is the “Victorian marriage.” Traditional roles (God= provider, Judge, Father; I am a sinner, speck, insignificant); conversation is generally limited to family matters; intimacy might include some basic acknowledgement of love.
WHAT IF THERE IS A PROFOUND INTIMACY NO ONE EVER TOLD YOU ABOUT?
WHAT IF A BLISS EVEN DEEPER THAN ORGASM EXISTS?
Prayer as Desire
In my book Spiritual Wanderlust, I talk about desire as the path to divine union. The commonality between sexuality and spirituality is this.
The erotic is not just sex toys and pornography. The erotic is this fierce, beautiful, positive energy that fuels everything that is good in the world. It fuels not only lovemaking, but all our actions:
You get the idea. There are deeper longings under our every action. It’s what makes the world go round.
Yet when we sink down to the common root of all of these, we run into a desire so deep we do not have a name for it. It’s a longing for something so vast it seems it cannot be found in this universe. It's like that bittersweet ache you feel when you see the Milky Way spilled across the sky. It's wonderful, but you long for more of it. Maybe you feel it when reuniting with family members who live far away. You're so happy you could burst-- but it's tinged with a longing to have them with you all the time. You want something much wider than a weekend reunion, or a brief glimpse of the night sky. John of the Cross, one of my favorite mystics, calls it a longing for the I Know Not What. You might call it a longing for happiness or fulfillment. But it is so much more.
This longing has the shape of the Infinite.
That is one of the simplest ways to divine union: sitting in your longing. Open up that space to the divine and ask him to fill you, much like a husband fills his wife. We are all feminine before the divine. Spread wide your cavern, your longing, and he will hasten to fill you with himself. How could he resist such beauty?
If the genital analogy doesn’t work for you, leave it. But for millennia, it is the best analogy mystics have come up with to explain the delicious ecstasy found in the heights of prayer.
Please note: these “heights of prayer” are not the property of the chosen few. No more than climax is reserved for a few! (Thank God!) In the physical realm, it may take a little practice to get both people to climax. For some, the gift comes easily. For others, it might depend on the day’s activities, your mood, or whether your lover touches you just right.
In prayer, it is our job to show up. Leave time to chat with your divine Lover on the couch, or in the bedroom. Make time to connect. This might show up in a traditional way—reading Scripture, meditating, reading a book, journaling—or it might be a little more nontraditional, like sipping coffee in the morning, going fishing, riding horseback, painting, dancing, or any other way in which you feel connected to God. The ways we connect are as varied as we are—perhaps as varied as what warms us up sexually.
The point of it all is connection—nay, union. For an orgasm to reach the heights, it must include a deep connection between two people. A union of body and heart. There are plenty of times when it’s not perfect bliss—but you will certainly remember the times when it got close!
Prayer is similar. No human—mystics included—experiences bliss every time they pray. But when we make space for divine encounter, for being with our lover, sharing our day, our struggles, or even some mutual silence—we are making space for intimacy. The divine longs to be one with you. In fact, he already is! But when he allows us some felt sense of that union… no words can describe the exhilarating, wordless, ----!
Now it's Your Turn
I imagine this idea is a bit mind-blowing for some people. “Prayer like orgasm? Disgraceful!” But this only suggests your idea of sexuality or spirituality might be a bit rigid. Who is your God? What is the deepest calling of the human person?
To be “sexed,” male and female, is to be separated. “Sex” comes from the verb, secare, which means to separate. The whole point of sex—and of prayer—is to restore union.
We are made for union.
Do you feel it in your bones?