Sunday, August 1, 2010

Holy Lust

By Lisabet Sarai

Warning: this post may offend some people with strong, traditional religious beliefs.

He set up his curtain in an alcove of the chapel. I tiptoed into the sanctuary an hour after Matins, hoping to find him available. Cold winter light poured through the arched windows. I could see his feet behind the drapery; I knelt on the floor before him.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been forty days since my last confession.”

“I know your sins, Sister Ursula. You need not recite them.”

I was shocked. “Father...”

“Be silent, Sister. I will tell you your sins. You are proud and vain, knowing that you are gifted with beauty and intelligence beyond those of your sisters. You are rebellious against the discipline of the Order, wishing another, worldly life for yourself. Do I speak truly?”

I bowed my head in shame. “Yes, Father.”

“Furthermore, you have unclean thoughts and desires. Your young body burns with need. You dream of many hands, stroking and caressing your flesh.”

I never recalled my dreams, but as he spoke, I remembered, or imagined, the scenes he described. I felt dampness on my thighs beneath my habit. The ache there was a hundred times stronger than I had ever felt before.

“You feel that you have been abandoned here in the abbey, left to languish here, unnoticed and ultimately alone, for all your days. That is the worst, is it not?”

His perceptiveness astonished me. I had not consciously realized how much I missed the feeling of belonging that I had enjoyed when I was younger.

“Yes, Father. Can you forgive me, Father? Can you give me absolution and peace?”

“I can, but only after you have done penance. Meet me at sixth hour in the stables.”

“I will be there, Father. Thank you. Should I say any prayers?”

I could swear that he laughed to himself. “I will teach you to pray this afternoon.”

The air in the stables was cold, but ripe with animal and vegetable smells. Father Jerome was waiting for me. In his hand was a whip of braided leather. He ran his palm over its length as he watched me approach.

“Kneel before me, Sister Ursula.”

Puzzled but strangely pliant, I followed his instructions, my eyes cast down. The straw tickled my nostrils.

“Sister, the heart of sin is the feeling of separation from God. The remedy is total surrender to His will and a return to communion with Him. Do you understand?”

I nodded, though I hardly grasped what he was saying.

“No, you do not, not yet. But you will. Remove your habit.”

Once again, he shocked me. I looked up, into those azure eyes of his. “Surely, Father, this is not proper...”

“We are all born naked. The flesh is glorious, not shameful. Do as I say.”

He spoke with such authority that I could only believe and obey. Unknotting the cords around my waist, I pulled the bulky wool robe over my head, then folded it neatly and placed it beside me. Now I wore only my rough linen shift, my crucifix, and my wimple and veil. I shivered in the February chill. Yet at the same time my cheeks, my earlobes, my fingers and toes, all grew warm, pulsing with some inner heat. My breasts felt heavy; my tightening nipples scraped against the homespun fabric.

Father Jerome paced a circle around me. “How do you feel?” he asked me.

“Embarrassed,” I replied. “And strangely free.”

He nodded, apparently satisfied. “I will beat you now. Not as punishment for your sins, but to teach you to surrender. When you surrender, your sins will evaporate like dew in the morning sun.”

– From “Communion” by Lisabet Sarai

Sex frequently gets a bad rap from religion. In the Catholic tradition, lust or fornication is a “mortal sin”-- a deed so offensive to the Diety that it carries the threat of eternal damnation. In Islam, lust is considered so spiritually dangerous that women are required to cover themselves to avoid becoming objects of temptation and men are forbidden to be in the company of females who are not wives or family members. Judaism takes a more favorable view of sexual pleasure, but only when it is experienced within marriage and supports the continuation of the race.

Obviously the question of what is sinful could generate volumes of opinion, commentary and debate (and has). I'm more interested in the issue of sex as sin from my perspective of an erotic author. I'm quite sure that legions of fundamentalists in the U.S. wouldn't hesitate to label me as damned—evil, corrupt, disgusting, deserving of the worst punishment. I find this extremely non-intuitive since I feel that sex has brought me closer to the Divine—both sex in my writing and in my life.

As I've shared in other posts, I was what many people would consider extremely active, sexually, in my mid to late twenties. When I reread my journal from that period, it seems as though I was constantly involved in new adventures. I had several lovers concurrently (not literally at the same time, but interleaved) and was in love with them all. I could hardly walk down the street without striking up a new relationship. Flirtations quickly flowered into full-scale affairs. After years of being an ugly duckling, it appeared that I had quite suddenly become a pheromone-broadcasting swan.

One fascinating thing about that heady time, also confirmed by my diary, is that fact that I was simultaneously undergoing a kind of spiritual awakening. I'm not talking about a mystical sense of oneness with God...well, not exactly. But the ecstasy I felt in my lovers' arms, the soul-to-soul connection I experienced, seemed to confirm my relatively recent conclusion that there was some sort of Higher (or maybe Deeper) Power, some reality beyond the material. Serendipity, synchronicity, lucid dreams, mind melding—sex and love (which I couldn't really separate) were my gateway into a world of Spirit. My occasional anguished journal entries questioning the wisdom or even the sanity of my behavior were followed by confident, faith-filled conviction that this path of pleasure I was traveling was a spiritual path as much as a carnal one.

My best stories, I think, the ones that people remember, capture the sense of reverence I felt during those years. I'm drawn to D/s scenarios partly because the perfect, trusting release of one's self to the Master comes so tantalizingly close to being a religious experience. When S.F. Mayfair and I edited Sacred Exchange: Stories of Transcendence and Spirituality in Dominance and Submission, we were trying to express this shared vision of sex (and specifically sex that involves power exchange) as ecstatic, transformational, even mystical.

Spirituality doesn't necessarily sell. Sacred Exchange was a commercial flop, though it contains some of the finest literary erotica I've ever encountered. And a lot of my work—these days, in particular, when I'm writing a lot of romance—sidesteps the deeper questions that concerned me back then in favor of titillation and entertainment. This still hasn't altered my underlying belief that, far from being a sin, sex can be a mode of worship.

There have been Christian and Muslim mystics who understood this—who experienced their intense desire for union with the Divine in a sexual manner. And of course sexuality is prominent in the iconography of many non-Western religions. It seems to be mostly the monotheistic religions that arose in what is now the Middle East that loudly condemn sex as sinful.

I have a theory about this. Lust has power. It can be so extreme, so overwhelming, that it distracts from the contemplation and consciousness of God. To live a spiritual life, to walk a spiritual path, means keeping one's focus on the immaterial world of the Eternal Mind. The pleasures of the flesh can blind one to the reality of Spirit. This is the justification for religious celibacy, and I think it makes some sense.

But the monotheistic religions seem to demonize sex out of a kind of jealousy. “Thou shalt have no other God but Me,” it says in the Old Testament. Sex is viewed as sin because it's a sort of competition for people's attention—and a pretty potent one at that.

I admire people who embrace celibacy as a spiritual discipline. However, this is not the only way to approach the Divine. I'm quite certain of this. Purity in lust, total surrender, can work equally well for some people. I have a suspicion that I'm one of them.


  1. What an outstanding post!

    I think your theory about contention between religion and sexuality is very plausible.

    So much of western religions are about the social above the spiritual. Rather than focusing on unification of the spiritual and physical selves, they put them at odds.

    Your excerpt is a wonderful exploration of the unification of these in a strict Christian setting. Surrender as the true release of sins?


  2. Is there any chance of the anthology being re-released as an e-book someday?

  3. Hello, Craig,

    Thank you for your insightful comment. In fact even Jesus said that the body was a temple. But then modern religion seems to have disregarded a great deal of what he said.


  4. Hello, Justin,

    I don't know--do you think that it would sell?

    Also I would feel a bit uncomfortable re-releasing it without offering some additional compensation to the authors. But I'm sure that I couldn't even contact some of them. And even if I could, with ebooks you don't get advances, which is how anthology contributors are usually paid.


  5. Hi Lisabet,

    To your statement: In fact even Jesus said that the body was a temple. But then modern religion seems to have disregarded a great deal of what he said.

    I say, "hear, hear."

  6. Interesting post, Lisabet! I look forward to seeing what the rest of the Grippers think about this topic. Oh, lordie, I better save a half hour to read Garce's! *G* (Kidding, Garce, but I know you'll have something to say on the subject!)

    One of the quotes I chose as a favorite at Goodreads says, "To hear many religious people talk, one would think God created the torso, head, legs and arms, but the devil slapped on the genitals."
    — Don Schrader

    I thought that was great.

    Have a great week!

    ~ Jenna

  7. Lisabet - This should prove to be an interesting week. Your post starts us off with a bang, and a whimper.

  8. - actually from Jean Roberta:

    Great post, Lisabet, though (& I hope this spoiler won't upset anyone), the ultimate surrender at the end of your story, "Communion," is drastic! Also historically accurate, unfortunately. Sacred Exchange is a great anthology that deserves a wider audience. As a reviewer, I haven't found any other collection of stories that blend the carnal with the spiritual in the same way.
    If you could bring it back into circulation, you could post a request in various places for the contributors to contact you and/or the other editor, Seneca Mayfair.
    I still have a fascinating interview that you & Seneca did with me (or vice versa - I asked questions, you both answered them) soon after the book came out. I could repost it somewhere & post links to it.

  9. Hi Lisabet:
    I agree with you on the combination of religion and sex and the power they entail together. I've been fascinated by the roles of both. I'd love to read the anthology. (Just don't tell my Catholic family, lol.)

    A most interesting post.

  10. Hi Lisabet!

    You can tell by the response you've definitely touched on something. I was interested in Carnal Exchange also as an ebook. I'd kind of forgotten about it, but now that the subject has come up I may try to get a copy used. You know I'm thinking about these things these days.

    Sexuality and spirituality seem to be the one thing that has a common link in all major religions. I find it significant that the exoteric religions of the world have always treated it with suspicion and even taboos, while the esoteric religions - as depicted in your Hindu sculpture above - have sought to increase and harness sexual tension as a springboard to mystical experience. Its like the fuel in some inner steam boiler to be stoked to a heat and then put to use for transcendent experience.


  11. Lisabet,

    As Jenna and Kathleen have already observed: this week should be interesting.

    It's a shame religions have such a downer on sex. Here in the UK church attendances are at an all time low. Imagine how popular a Sunday morning service could be? ;-)



  12. Great post, Lisabet, and very timely, at least for me. Like a Sacred Desire was just released by Circlet Press, and I have a story in it.

    I'm not a religious person, but I can say that there have been times, in the throes of passion, during sex, that I've felt close to the divine. Those are probably the ONLY times I have. Certainly not in the middle of a religious service.

    I'm sure this topic will bring out a few crazies. If nothing else, it will be entertaining to see what they have to say.

  13. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. And no rants, either!

    Jenna - great quote! Maybe I'll borrow it!

    Jean - Thank you for your kind words about Sacred Exchange. I've been thinking about maybe resurrecting it (no pun intended) and offering it to Alessia as a Coming Together book. If anyone has an idea for an appropriate charity, let me know. I'd like to support a group that fosters openness about sex including fetish sex.

    Jannine - Greetings and welcome to the Grip. I think there's a wealth of emotion in Catholicism that is perhaps missing in more recent Christian offshoots. I wrote "Communion" after visiting the medieval abbey of Thoronet, in Provence. I had such a strong sense, in those empty stone vaults, of the devotion experienced by the monks (not nuns, actually) who had lived their lives there.

    Garce - Trust you to come up with the exact distinction I was looking for - exoteric versus esoteric. I'm looking forward to your take on the topic!

    Ash - Yes, maybe we need to put the passion back into religion!

    Diane - I'm really looking forward to that anthology. Maybe you could send me a review copy?

    Thanks again to everyone for sharing their thoughts.

  14. LOVE this topic. Part of it is rebellion against my Roman Catholic upbringing. Part of it is pure enjoyment of the shock value. It's SUCH a ripe field for erotica.

    I've had a "blasphemy" volume of Coming Together (On the Altar) in the planning stages for years. The only hiccup has been deciding the charity. I was searching for a legal defense fund for those sexually abused by someone of the cloth.

    You know, of course, that I'll gladly publish any of your work through Coming Together! If you want to do a Presents volume, I'll happily edit it.

    Great post. Have a fun week!

  15. One thing to keep in mind in looking at Western religions that are descended from the tribes of Israel is that their neighbors, the Canaanites, practiced temple prostitution in the worship of Astarte. So if the priests of Yahweh didn't want to lose followers, they kinda had to condemn sexuality as sinful...

  16. In doing research for my novels,”Tabu” and ”Living in the State of Dreams” I learned quite a bit about the history of religion, public nudity and sex. From Janet Jackson to Betty Page,and from Lady Godiva to Eve in the Garden of Eden, history offers an interesting insight into the origins of the societal taboos about nudity and sex. In “Tabu”, a novel which reveals the innermost sexual desires of a 1950s era surburban housewife, our heroine lives in a world where a woman’s sexual desires are strictly taboo. “Living in the State of Dreams” looks at society’s prohibitions and phobias regarding public nudity. In “LISD” as part of a federally funded study, a young woman must live her life for six weeks without wearing any clothes. She goes to school, to the mall, out on a date, and even to church, all while totally naked. In writing about her experience at church I came across some very interesting perspectives about the Biblical origins of prohibitions covering nudity and sex.

    In Genesis, Adam and Eve are pure, innocent, and blissfully naked in the Garden of Eden. According to this Biblical scripture, Satan in the guise of the serpent induces Eve to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Once she does, she knows she is naked, and also knows guilt and shame. She has Adam eat from the fruit, and he also comes to know these ugly and negative emotions. According to Genesis, God’s original plan was for Adam and Eve to enjoy each other in a blissful state of natural nudity. But it was Satan who destroyed all this and introduced mankind to the negative emotions of shame and guilt. If one believes in Christianity and the teachings of the Bible, then one must realize from the story of Genesis that to perceive nudity and sex as shameful, is to fall into Satan’s evil trap. Sex and nudity should be celebrated, not villified. The ugly and negative emotions inflicted by the prudish and puritanical elements of our society, which cause people to feel guilty about their sexuality are actually the tools of the devil. So, to resist Satan and follow God’s true plan for mankind’s happiness enjoy sex as a free and open celebration as frequently as possible.

  17. Very provocative essay, Lisabet, and wow, would I like to read the rest of that story!

    Sex is viewed as sin because it's a sort of competition for people's attention—and a pretty potent one at that.

    I've always felt that way, too, that religions are "jealous" of the power of eros and thus seek to control it and "pervert" it to their own purposes. And I've also felt closest to the divine--in a way that Protestants should understand at least in terms of their theology--in physical communion with a lover.

    I do look forward to this week's essays!

  18. I love this post, Lisabet, and relate so much to the majority of it. (I have found the degree to which I have related to some of the perspectives you've shared here almost uncanny sometimes.)

    Also, I found that excerpt quite compelling—and hot!

    And Garce, I love this line in your comment:
    "Its like the fuel in some inner steam boiler to be stoked to a heat and then put to use for transcendent experience."

    Thanks for this post, Lisabet. Oh, and as far as your mention of charities, perhaps you would be interested in the Woodhull Freedom Foundation?


  19. It's a shame religions have such a downer on sex. Here in the UK church attendances are at an all time low. Imagine how popular a Sunday morning service could be?

    I can see the signs in front of the local Catholic churches now; Sunday morning orgies at 7:00 9:00 and 10:30. Bring a friend.


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