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History of Love II: Religion and Eros

"Love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even in its most fleshly." Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Mystical spirituality has never been absent a powerful component of eros. I was a reader a few years ago for a delightful doctoral dissertation accepted in 2009 by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, entitled “Eros and Mysticism: Are Mystical States of Consciousness Evolutionary Byproducts of Sexual Response.,” by Roland Karo. I’m still hoping he eventually publishes this with a reputable press, as it deserves a very wide hearing. I first met Roland at a conference of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology in Iasi, Romania in 2006, to which he drove overland from Estonia, being forced to skirt the Ukraine for political reasons, no small achievement. Dr. Karo would later chair a conference for this group in Estonia in 2012, and is now membership secretary.

He introduces his thesis with a case report by Vera von der Heydt, a noblewoman and a Jungian analyst: “A young Roman Catholic woman of about twenty-two years – to the horror of her family – was suddenly refusing to go to holy Communion, and refused to give a reason. After she had spoken to a priest she came to see me. After a while she admitted to me that she could not go to Communion because every time the Host touched her tongue she had an orgasm. This was for her utterly blasphemous, wicked and terrifying; because she regarded her body and its needs as wicked and terrifying whatever the cause.

There are obvious cases like Teresa of Avila’s burning desire for ecstatic union, a pretty literal understanding of being a “Bride of Christ.” The poetry of her contemporary, St. John of the Cross, though actually directed to God, is marvelous erotic love poetry I once used to delight a lover from Barcelona. From San Juan de la Cruz’ O Living Flame of Love:

“O living flame of love

how tenderly you wound

my soul in her profoundest core!

You are no longer shy.

Do it now, I ask you:

break the membrane of our sweet union.

O soothing cautery!

O wound that is a joy!

O gentle hand! O delicate touch

tasting of eternity

repaying every debt

Killing, you turn my death to life.


How lovingly and soft