Updated: Jan 17, 2022
In a monastery in the mountains of Greece, a priest-monk, believed to have purified his heart so completely that the Holy Spirit speaks through him without hindrance, told me that if I gave up the erotic for a time, I would understand my vocation.
''The erotic makes life a dream for you,'' he said. ''You float down the river. You can either keep floating or you can turn the river back—like the Jordan.''
I let out a small scream and then got sulky. I had hounded him for advice, but giving up the erotic was not what I wanted to hear. ''What?'' he responded, smiling. ''I have not scolded you. I have only told you how to understand the treasure that you are.''
When I told my mother that, after years of studying religion but believing little, I had fallen in love with a sisterhood of Eastern Orthodox nuns and would be heading off to a convent to give up the erotic for a year, she replied with a kind note and a long, raucously hot poem she'd just composed, titled ''Ode to Cunt.''
I was not raised to turn my back on the erotic.
But even after my renunciation, I was still left with myself: weeks of steamy nights in my monastic cot. I dreamed of making love to slick lesbian fish from other dimensions, and rubbing myself against everything: chairs, banisters, icons, giant nuns.
Celibacy is basic. But chastity, virginity, purity—this is the direction of the monastery. This includes more than bare physical actions and inactions. It involves the activity of the mind, a turning away from fantasy toward the joy of the real.
At first there was only loss. I was well steeped in the goopy deliciousness of relations, the endless pet names: love-cakes, muffin-breath, angel-pants.
The nuns told me: Chastity means whole-mindedness and is a cure for fragmentation. It is a progression of freedom toward love without grasping. This is about the heart. And when your heart is pure, everything is pure.
One nun told a story about Maria, a woman beloved by the nuns, a woman who was meant to be their first abbess, but who died suddenly, very young: ''We were in the city, stuck in traffic, and it was blazing hot. I looked out the window and saw that beside us was a magazine stand filled with racks of pornography. Immediately I turned away. But then I noticed that Maria was staring toward the stand. The car didn't move for five minutes and the whole time she stared and stared. Then, finally, when we began to move on, she said, 'That poor man without even an umbrella.' She was speaking of the owner of the stand. This is the difference between asceticism and holiness. I saw only the pornography and she saw only the person—a man getting baked in the sun.''
I was told: When you are no longer sloppily merged and confused with things and bodies, you begin really to love. You can really help or love or serve or enjoy the people because you don't need anything from them. You don't need to hold that thing that is beautiful.
You progress through freedom to a new dimension where you start to make love again—but totally differently.
One day, as a nun thrust a letter into an envelope, the abbot observed with a smile, ''You have to make perfect sex with everything.'' When you are in the presence of such a person, it's as though you stand before a deep well of honey. Not like me: jam spread out over everything. Slowly it became clear that there is another kind of eros, an antidote to the sweet dreaminess of habit. I attempted to gather honey, to exchange one sweetness for another.
I was familiar only with what I had read of late medieval Western mystics, who relay visions of tasting, feeling, kissing God deeply. The Viennese nun Agnes Blannbekin, on taking the Eucharist, found she had received the circumcised foreskin of the baby Christ in her mouth and it tasted ever so sweet. The French nun Marguerite of Oingt saw herself as a withered tree, which suddenly flowered when flooded by a great river of water representing Christ. Written on the flowering branches of her self, she saw the names of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
But these Eastern Orthodox nuns shook their heads gently and told me: ''You don't want to see anything. You must narrow yourself to fit through the keyhole. Reject all images. Even if an angel comes, send it away. If it is a real angel, it will understand. Let only the prayer exist: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Don't imagine anything. Because what you will find through the keyhole, you can't imagine. It must be given to you.''
''The heart is a vast realm,'' one wild-haired monk with the bearing of a joyful outlaw, told me as he passed through the monastery. ''Enter it.''
And the elder reminded us, ''Love without martyrdom is like a kiss without love.''
Meanwhile, I continued to dream of rubbing myself against everything in the monastery. Until finally: A certain spaciousness. A traveler in a space without other bodies. A quiet that comes when there isn't a city in sight. And somewhere out there in the bright darkness, as yet unknown to me, is the fullness of eros.
There is a famous story of a Christian monk who gazed on a prostitute from a pagan temple who was riding her horse through a square. When his brother monks turned away in horror, he said to them, ''Does her beauty not astound you?'' And when they drew back, scandalized, he asked again, ''Does her beauty not astound you?''
"The Holy Spirit is everywhere present and filling all things. God's act of creation is erotic, fecund, says Saint Dionysius. An outpouring of love overflowing itself. This is not only about the soul's yearning for God, but God's eros for all of creation.
Does her beauty not astound you?
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Previously published in Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, edited by Ellen Sussman (Bloomsbury Publishing).