This article is a general introduction to the idea of a 'spirituality of attraction'. The attraction between masculine and feminine is proposed as the core analogy for a spirituality of sexuality.
A Spirituality of Sexuality
What is meant by a 'spirituality of sexuality'?
I think it is fair to say that such a spirituality remains largely implicit in the lives of Christians. Due to the sensitivities involved it has not been easy to articulate and develop a widespread and well known spirituality of the sexual life. This lack of development has also been due to a mainly cautionary attitude to sex, and a focus on morality rather than spirituality.
Not only that, it is only in fairly recent times that the Church has given overt attention to the emotional dimension of married life as it pertains to men and women's hopes for romantic and sexual fulfilment. This parallels the general social and cultural development that has seen marriage come to be seen as something that should be more personally fulfilling in sexual-emotional terms.
However, the time has now come when more attention has to be given to these things, and the greater development of the sexual-emotional lives of married couples now demands the more explicit articulation of a spirituality of sexuality. If that does not happen then this higher aspiration for emotional fulfilment will become unbalanced. It would lead to a more superficial development of the sexual-emotional because it would lack a sufficient spiritual core.
Something to Talk About
In order to develop such a spirituality we need to be able to talk about it.
But what is the 'something' that we could talk about?
It could hardly be sexual intimacy as such. Although there are restricted contexts in which that could occur, I am speaking here of the broad general development of a literature and teaching on the spirituality of the sexual dimension of life.
What would be the subject matter? What would be the topics, the examples, the exercises? Bear in mind here that we are not only talking about married couples, but about single people as well. We are all sexual beings.
In what ways does sexuality shape who we are?
Are single people meant only to suppress it or ignore it, so that such a spirituality would not be relevant to them?
The first things that might come to mind are problems. Sexuality is an area where people commonly struggle to find balance and integration. There is frequently a need for healing and forgiveness, and we are more used to dealing spiritually with these aspects of sexuality. But what about the positive nature of sexual being?
The Journey or the Ending?
Do we think of sexuality primarily in terms of the attraction between man and woman, or in terms of the consummation in sexual intercourse.
Do we think in terms of the journey or the ending?
Since our lives are oriented ultimately towards intimate and eternal communion with the Holy Trinity, it might seem that consummation could serve as the prime analogy for a spirituality of sexuality. Sexual consummation would seem a perfect analogy.
The writings of the mystics seem to point to this. Their experience of ecstatic contemplation is often expressed in terms of 'mystical communion', and in terms of overwhelming passion and fiery love. There is the sense of having arrived at the destination, of abiding in perfect bliss.
And yet the mystics also lived most of their lives in a more ordinary state of consciousness. They also did not eschew the ordinary forms of the Church's spiritual and liturgical life. Most of their time was spent 'in between' those experiences of ecstatic bliss, just as married couples spend most of their lives 'in between' the times when they make love.
Not only that, there is a striking link between the mystics' passionate love and their suffering.
As well as the physical sufferings many experienced, there was the 'exquisite suffering' of longing to be reunited with the God they experienced in such an intense way in mystic contemplation. They all see such 'distance' as integral to their call to love their Beloved.
Attraction as the Core Analogy
Notwithstanding the ultimate priority of consummation, I would propose that we take attraction as the core analogy for a spirituality of sexuality. This is not to the exclusion of the analogy of consummation. Rather it is a proposal regarding what I would call the 'working' priority of attraction. I can see a number of reasons for taking this approach.
1. A Matter of Feeling
Since a spirituality of sexuality is for everyone, single as well as married, the analogy of consummation is less apt as a general analogy. It can still be used in the way it always has been, in a spiritualised sense that usually does not call to mind the sexual.
However, a spirituality is meant to 'work' for its intended purpose.
That is, a suitable form of spirituality is needed to integrate the relevant area of life into one's personal being as a whole. For example, a 'spirituality of nursing' would need to help nurses deal with the various feelings and experiences they have in living their vocation, in confronting the joys and sorrows of caring for others' bodily well being.
You need to turn your attention towards these feelings, not away from them, so as to learn how to integrate them. And this is done in a way that brings the Christian faith to bear on them, throwing light on these situations, making a deeper sense of them.
It is similar with a spirituality of sexuality. You need to turn towards the relevant feelings, not away from them. Yet this could be problematic if in the very act of turning towards them they cause sexual arousal. Dwelling on overtly sexual matters can have this effect, so the focus needs to be different.
We need to find a way that the relevant feelings can be engaged indirectly and yet still effectively for the purpose of integrating them.
I am using the word 'attraction' in this context to mean, not the kind of overtly sexual attraction that leads to arousal, but to an emotional appreciation of what is attractive about the masculine and feminine.
The notion of attraction can be elaborated in a way that provides ample materials for fruitful reflection within a spirituality of sexuality.
2. A Matter of Time
Attraction is also a suitable focus for married couples, since the times when they consummate their marriage constitute a comparatively small amount of time in their whole lives together.
Not only that, these times are ideally set within the context of an 'atmosphere of attraction' that they cultivate in their relationship.
It is not uncommon for couples not to do much of this. In that case a spirituality of attraction can be a catalyst that helps them see why it would be desirable. It would help reveal why such feelings are not something superficial but can be effective pointers to something deeper.
3. A Matter of Culture
The attraction between the sexes does not only make itself felt between individuals, but is a general phenomenon that affects men and women generally. Men are attracted to femininity and women to masculinity, and these can be manifested in different ways in a society, expressed in various cultural forms.
What do these feelings mean? What is the purpose of this broad attraction between the sexes?
Is it a mere 'epiphenomenon' of individual sexual attraction or does it serve its own distinct purpose?
Is it only a danger, or can it be the source of fostering unity in a community?
We might also wonder what purpose the sexual dimension of our being will serve in the New Creation. We already know it will not be for the purpose of procreation, but we might also conclude that it is not meant to atrophy. That is, it is meant to be transformed in some way, not discarded.
4. A Matter of Distance
The dynamics of attraction are not only about closeness, but in fact are more about distance. Ultimate closeness is better symbolised in consummation, but what about ultimate distance?
Attraction is more apt as a symbolisation of distance because it is about the movement towards the other, and the 'force' that impels one person towards another. Sexual attraction is a strong force that draws men and women towards each other. But the very need for this movement reveals that there is a distance to be overcome.
This distance is not meant to be negative. It is meant to be the distinction between persons. It is the boundary of each, so that becoming closer to someone does not mean losing one's own being. It is the principle of otherness. The dynamics of sexual attraction symbolise this very well. By accentuating the difference between masculine and feminine we increase the attraction.
These dynamics then become part of the elaboration of the subject matter for a spirituality of attraction.
5. The Priority of the Other
The dynamics of attraction also reveal that love involves giving priority to the other over oneself. This does not always strike us as obvious. Indeed, it can seem that the opposite is true. But this is part of the learning process that can occur by engaging in a spirituality of attraction.
It is fundamentally more enjoyable to seek the happiness of the other rather than one's own.
This is not primarily a moral principle. Yet because we so easily tend to want our own pleasure more than that of another the task of putting the other first feels like a chore. So we need the moral principle to clarify it for us.
But the principle is primarily ontological. Being itself is other-centred. This is what the Trinity means. So a spirituality of attraction has the potential to teach us how to be more like God.
We are familiar with the notion of 'delayed gratification', but self gratification is probably the one thing in which we don't procrastinate! But a spirituality of attraction can reveal more clearly how mutuality is meant to be at the heart of pleasure. Mutuality does not mean taking turns in enjoying ourselves. It means learning how to find greater pleasure in the happiness of the other than one's own.
I don't have to mount any arguments in favour of putting the other first as a Christian principle. Selflessness is universally recognised as a Good Thing. We need a spirituality of attraction to make this fully real in the sexual dimension of our lives.
That might all sound marvellous, while still seeming a bit short on details. In order to develop a spirituality of attraction we need first to elaborate a body of thought and practice regarding the attraction between the sexes. This is needed to provide the 'material' for such a spirituality to reflect upon.
If you were trying to develop a spirituality of nursing, you would first have to elaborate what the human reality of nursing involves. Then you would use those materials as the context for reflection, prayer and action.
Similarly, if you were trying to develop a spirituality of sexuality, you would first have to elaborate what the human reality of sexual attraction involves.
Then you would use those materials as the context for reflection, prayer and action.