Spiritual Attainment and Sexuality: Is Celibacy a Myth?
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Dr Joanna Kujawa, Spiritual Detective :).
Spiritual Attainment and Sexuality: Is Celibacy a Myth?
This blog comes as a reflection after a pair of interviews were conducted (one with Dr Jeff Kripal and the other with me) for the Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio Show.
Celibacy and spiritual attainment are often treated interchangeably with the assumption that one is naturally connected to the other. But is it?
I do agree that periodic temporary sexual abstinence, like fasting, can be very beneficial for most of us. However, we would not ask a person to fast their entire life. There are some individuals who can master lifelong abstinence (good luck to them) but, personally, I do not believe this makes them more saintly or necessarily better people.
A close friend of mine, a young woman, divorced her husband because although he was heterosexual and loved her, he had hardly any need for sexual intimacy. Some people simply have a low libido – does this make them saints?
It is a controversial topic because in its nature it relates to sexuality and spirituality. And, it has not been discussed in a mature and enlightened way in traditional religions which insist on portraying sexuality as demeaning and perverse.
Jeff Kripal in his Aeon Byte interview and through several of his books including Kali’s Child and Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions) plunges into the fascinating topic of spirituality, religion, mysticism and, yes, the sexuality of some of history’s most cherished religious figures.
As you can fathom, his books have created much debate, especially the first one, Kali’s Child. This work caused a stir in the Hindu community because Kripal’s research into the Bengali writings of the beloved Hindu saint Ramakrishna argues that the saint had homoerotic tendencies. On one occasion, writes Kripal, Ramakrishna sank into a mystical trance after looking at a young man. The book created so much controversy that it was even debated in the Indian Parliament. At the root of this controversy lied the assumption that high spiritual attainment can’t be experienced along with sexual desire.
This kind of response is not limited to India. Many Westerners have the same reaction to the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene, for example, enjoyed a loving and intimate sexual relationship.
Jean-Yves Leloup, a French scholar and ex-priest, argues that Jesus and Mary Magdalene modelled this new paradigm of an intimate and spiritual at the same time relationship for us. Unfortunately, that was quickly dismissed and covered up mostly by creating the fiction of Mary Magdalene’s unworthiness and supposedly her demeaning status.
Many comments on the topic can be summarised in the following way: ‘Why do we always have to reduce everything to sexuality?’
This could be a good question, except that I believe we can answer this question with another one: Why do we have such a low opinion of sexuality?
I think a partial and perfectly understandable answer to my question is that many people have experienced sexual abuse and/or have had terrible sexual experiences. Sexual abuse is the worst kind of abuse because it affects the most personal, intimate and intense part of both a person’s psyche and body. It is never excusable.
Another answer to this question is related, to the fear of female sexuality. I would argue that most of the traditional religions are organised around controlling of not only sexuality in general but female sexuality especially.
Since the beginning of organised religion, women and their sexuality have been considered the main danger to men’s spiritual evolution. For example, according to the legend of Saint Anthony (an early Christian saint) there is the old story about a naughty temptress bent on ‘ruining’ his sainthood.
One of my favourite takes on this topic is a famous book, Thais, by a self-proclaimed Gnostic author, Anatole France. In Thais a Saint Anthony-like hermit realises in the last moment of his life that he is going to hell while the beautiful prostitute whom he despised all his life is going to heaven. He is going to hell because he spent his life indulging in a sense of self-righteousness and judgement while the beautiful prostitute lived her life with love and grace, despite her circumstances.
Many other saints of all traditions struggled with the strange notion that repressed sexuality (manifested as celibacy) would bring them closer to God.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the fathers of the Christian Church, as well as many early Desert Fathers (early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD) spent years debating how many involuntary erections per year a man could have and yet still consider himself a saint. They arrived at number 3 – do not ask me how!
Saint Jerome went into an isolation only to discover that he could not stop thinking about naked ‘dancing girls’. Nuns, when in his company, were asked to cover themselves up in dirt so they would not create ‘sinful’ desires in him and thus prevent him from becoming a saint. And, yes, ladies and gentlemen, it was assumed that it was the nuns’ fault!
A great Indian philosopher and Brahmin, Abhinavagupta, secretly practised the Tantric Kula Ritual which involved having intercourse with beautiful strangers (with breasts ‘like the fruits of bimba trees and slim waists’).
So what is going on?
The power of sexuality, like all great powers, can have both good and bad uses. And the fear of this great power, especially within the spiritual realm, has not produced much positivity, to say the least. Just do a quick search on various religious groups, leaders and churches and you will find a sea of information on the sexual abuse and activity practised by groups and individuals beneath simultaneous claims of celibacy.
Jeff Kripal referred to his personal experience when, as a very young man, he decided to enter a Christian monastery only to learn that he was the only heterosexual man there. The monastery was a place of seclusion for spiritually-minded homosexual men who, as Kripal says in his interview with Miguel Conner, ‘practised their sexuality in a healthy and sublimated way’. The monks provided him with spiritual friendship, cured him of his anorexia and sent him back to the world.+
Although he did not make any judgment about the men’s sexuality, he was struck by the inconsistency between what was being preached by the religious institution (celibacy or sex only for the sake of procreation) and the actual practice within the monastery.
It is also interesting to remember that in the West, celibacy was not imposed on priests until the 12th century. And the main reason for not allowing them to marry was economical, not spiritual. The Church did not want the priesthood to become hereditary – moving from father to son – but rather that it be based on merit. In theory, this might have been a wise precaution but it was without any understanding of human nature and sexuality.
In my life, I have been lucky as I have almost always experienced sexuality in a spiritual and uplifting way. And, when, at a certain point, I did experience its darker and addictive side, it only taught me to respect its power.
That power could be used for our spiritual evolution.
We need more guidance, more awareness and less judgment coming from traditions that not only did not manage to uplift sexuality but, often did not walk their talk either. ..or acted just a bit mad.
So my question is: What do you think?
Sending you so much love,
As always I would love to connect with you via your comments and discuss this fascinating topic.
To hear the interview with Dr Jeff Kripal and myself on the Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio On Esoteric and Erotic (my part of the interview begins at 1hr 5 min), please click here: http://www.joannakujawa.com/talks-readings/
Dr Joanna Kujawa
Goddess News Spiritual Blog
Dr Joanna Kujawa