In his Stromateis, Clement of Alexandria bestows some advice for husbands and wives (technically, only for husbands—he wasn’t interested in addressing wives) concerning their participation in “the conjugal act”:
“A man must marry exclusively for the sake of begetting children, Therefore, he must practice continence, so that he does not feel desire, not even for his wife.”1
Okay, so that’s kind of a mood-killer.
Clement’s advice here continues to permeate the Christian psyche in rather a pernicious way, particularly in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but its stain is present in Protestantism as well. As some have recently noted, The Roman Catechism recommends husbands and wives abstain from coitus prior to receiving the Eucharist, a directive even more emphatically made when applied to married priests and deacons. The subtext here—that sexual relations between man and wife are inherently animalistic and not at all proper for a spiritual being—has psychologically damaged untold generations of Christians. Indeed, does this attitude not internalize the alleged heresy with which Christians have charged Gnosticism?
Maybe the Gnostics didn’t get everything right (neither, it seems, did Clement), but they had the right idea when it comes to the coniunctio. According to Valentinus,
“A man, who is in this world and has not loved a woman, so as to become one with her, is not out of true Reality (the pleroma) and will not go to true Reality. But a man of this world who has had intercourse with a woman, will not enter Reality (the pleroma), because he copulated with her in concupiscence.”2
What should sexual relations be within the context of Christian marriage? An act that feels so good you have to feel bad about it? Or a way to enter into Reality, in every sense a sacramental act? I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods. What damage has been levied.
The elevation of celibacy as the higher calling in Catholic and Orthodox contexts is nothing but a powerplay enacted by monastic orders that later became custom. This reaches back into the early centuries of Christianity: When monks are the only ones who can read, they can interpret the Bible any way they want (and, sorry, Paul’s “be as I am” wasn’t written about celibacy as the higher order but with what he thought was the impending Parousia in mind). The “dudes only” ethos on Mount Athos—that extends even to male animals!—surely speaks to such a disorder. Not that eros is absent from the cloister. Writing from a Jewish perspective, Arthur Green observes that
“The Christian monastic community, perhaps drawn more passionately to sacred eros by their celibacy of the flesh, perhaps more naive or more flexible about spiritualized gender roles also because of their celibacy, were able to ignore the difficulties and see themselves as Christ’s beloved or bride, something the Jewish reader generally was unwilling or unable to do.”3
What a pathology incubator.
Platonism, then, did a number on Christianity, which imported the former’s disdain for the body and patent misogyny (as Paul Evdokimov notes, the Fathers even questioned whether women have souls4). We’ve been suffering from it ever since. Is it any wonder the defense of “Christian marriage” has been such an utter failure?
A marriage that opens an entrance into Reality is still possible in Christianity, and certainly happens. “Marriage as a sacrament, mystical marriage,” writes Nicolas Berdyaev, “is by its very meaning eternal and dissoluble. This is an absolute truth. But most marriages have no mystical meaning and have nothing to do with eternity. The Christian consciousness must recognize this.”5 This is a hard saying.
Perhaps we could learning something from the kabbalists in regards to marital relations and holiness. As Moshe Weinfeld writes,
“Intercourse between man and wife is recommended for Jews on the eve of Sabbath. Human intercourse—as it were—imitates the intercourse of the Holy One with the Shekhinah. The sacred marriage guarantees fecundity and fertility in the universe, whereas human intercourse brings offspring.”6
To such a notion, only one response is justified:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. (Cant 1:1)
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1 III,57,2. Quoted in Gilles Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic,” Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996): 327–52, at 335.
2 Iranaeus, Adversus haereses, I,6,4.
3 Arthur Green, “Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context,” AJS Review 26, no. 1 (April 2002): 1–52, at 25.
4 Paul Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World, 253.
5 Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington (New York: Harper Torchbooks/The Cloister Library, 1960), 234.
6 Moshe Weinfeld, “Feminine Features in the Imagery of God in Israel: The Sacred Marriage and the Sacred Tree,” Vetus Testamentum 46, no. 4 (1996): 515–29, at 517.