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.