Thursday, June 18, 2015

Asking for Rapture

In the Scalzi Church in Venice, there are two Baroque statues that caught my attention. Placed in chapels on opposite sides of the altar, I imagine they were installed as a pair.

The first is of St. Teresa of Ávila. Born five hundred years ago last March, she is known for a string of mystical experiences that she underwent and set down in writing. But as far as art is concerned, she is famous for one vision in particular: the moment when, in her words,
I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. … He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. … I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me.
There is only one other human experience we can compare this to—two, if you count listening to Tristan und Isolde. This encounter with heaven has nothing to do with the clever intellectual wanderings of the Barnes and Noble religion section. There’s no reflection, only terror. No careful reasoning, only pain and wonder. This is carnal love of heaven: more precisely, carnal love by heaven, since there’s no human agency involved.

Bernini, ~1650, The transverberation of Saint Teresa,
 Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria. 
The other statue is of St. Sebastian, who lived over a thousand years before Teresa. Condemned to death by the Roman Emperor for his Christian faith, Sebastian was tied to a post and shot with dozens of arrows. Who knows what went through the real Sebastian’s head on that day? But it’s obvious what goes on in the heads of the painted and sculpted Sebastians across Europe: we see a thirst for God that’s slaked slightly, and vastly exacerbated, with each new arrow.


(The focus on this episode by the way, seems to have been completely invented by painters: Sebastian actually survived being arrowed, and was later clubbed to death. Just as well, since real suffering is usually nowhere near as picturesque as spiritual suffering.)

Art historians, eager to save the downtrodden from the weight of history, have contended that Sebastian was a homosexual icon in Western art. He gave (so they say) Renaissance artists an opportunity to paint a bare-chested male in a heroic pose, and thus let them express their socially unacceptable desires. True enough. But this interpretation misses the deeper significance of Sebastian’s suffering, which I only understood when I saw his statue paired with Teresa’s.

Sebastian and Teresa were spiritual siblings. Both were seized by heaven in a violent, involuntary trance, brought on on both cases by painful arrows. They are the chief Christian examples of epileptic rapture. (Christ’s suffering does not fall into this category: his suffering on the cross made him believe that God had abandoned him, and it simply sucked.)

Sacred possession is, in fact, a common spiritual motif in world religion. It is common to male and female, slave and freeman, Christian and Pagan. The ancients had an instance of it in Ganymede, a Trojan youth who was snatched up by Zeus. It was also present in the ancient tales of the Maenads, the raving priestesses of Dionysus. And in the Hebrew Bible too:
And the spirit of God came upon [Saul] also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes, and he also prophesied before Samuel, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (I Sam. 19:23–4)
I’ve heard very often that the Ganymedean experience is fundamentally opposed to modern church-religion. This is true. But that’s almost always said with a reformist tone: we need to stop focusing on dry rituals, it’s said, and instead supply the passion that young people crave. Jay Michaelson, my intellectual nemesis, made this argument in an article about what Judaism has to learn from megachurches. And the Hasidim of the 18th century, afraid of scholastic malaise, inaugurated a massive romantic craze across Eastern Europe.

But attempting to invite divine possession, just like “searching for meaning,” usually becomes a grotesque charade. That’s because rapture is by definition involuntary. Daphne, though pursued by a god, pleaded to be turned into an unfeeling tree to be saved from him. Moses turned his face from the burning bush. Ecstasy, after all, happens when we don’t want it. And if we do want it, we’re setting ourselves up for pointless exhaustion and emotional striving. Unless a god is already frighteningly, unpleasantly close to us, we can’t summon one at will.

So even restoring the bloody, mysterious parts of the old cults—animal sacrifice, forest-dances, hieros gamos, etc.—would only come off as a smelly, pointless game. No: it’s up to the gods to instill awe, not to mortals to manufacture it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, God is in search of man.

You might say, as I once said, that there are certain conditions under which epileptic spiritual experiences are more likely. I still think it’s true; choosing to drink gin or to sing in a Corsican choir can bring on throbs of emotion that feel like they’re forced on you. But just as Harry chose Gryffindor because he was already a Gryffindor, we tend to go to church—and end up rattled and crying—only if we already have the spirit of God in us. When it comes to rapture, the gods choose their own.

Now, I’m not advocating for emotionless religion. I can think of few things worse. Unwilling terror, pain, and pleasure are still indispensable parts of any religion that’s worth anything. But we can’t have them. They belong to darkness, and we live in a brightly lit century. Nor would we necessarily want them back. But as historians, we should know what our ancestors felt, and as humans, we should understand that the spiritual spasms that shake us from time to time are echoes of a more sacred past.

I did some work a year ago on Christian medieval mystics, and as part of my research I had coffee with Bernard McGinn, one of the the foremost authorities on the topic. I asked him the question that strikes everyone who reads Catharine of Siena and Margery Kempe: “Why do these medievals put so much emphasis on visions?” He didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because they had them all the time. It sounds blunt, but people in the Middle Ages simply had more visions than us. It’s still common today, mostly in rural Africa and South America. But North Americans who live in cities just don’t hear voices or see angels.”

That’s all there is to say about our own relationship to Teresa and Sebastian. We can understand their inner fire—it’s written on their faces—but we can only rarely feel it ourselves. Now that the unwelcome sun is up, we rightfully judge it to be just a dream. 

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