Now that I have your attention…
On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love in all its forms. Most of all, we celebrate romantic love… good old-fashioned lust. Many of us who were raised in religious homes were taught that lust — even, perhaps, most sex — is sinful. Yet the truth is more nearly the opposite: good sex can be a spiritual experience! When lovemaking is consensual and mutual, with partners seeking to pleasure the other(s) as well as taking their own pleasure, without hurting anyone else, sex, in its own way, touches the divine.
Many religious traditions affirm the goodness of sex; my church of origin was not one of them. I was taught that sex was only acceptable when done in a heterosexual marriage relationship and when open to making babies. This rule came with a laundry list of which sex acts were approved, and which were forbidden. Nothing was said about consent (it was assumed), or about mutual pleasuring (if he finishes and falls asleep before she comes, so what?) or about a responsibility not to transmit disease (monogamy, and premarital abstinence, also assumed). In short, I learned nothing from church about the critical ways in which sex builds up, and sustains the lovers’ relationship. The teaching was often summed up as “Sex is dirty; save it for the one you love.” We would joke about the “church-approved birth control pill. It’s an aspirin (a girl doesn’t swallow it; she holds it between her knees). Not very encouraging.
In religious terms, sex can be a spiritual experience! When lovemaking is mutual, each person losing themselves in the moment, the partners experience union that is physical, emotional and psychic. The boundaries between their separate selves dissolve. This “unitive” experience is the same thing that religious mystics seek to experience with their God. Lovemaking is also a practice of mindfulness, in that it requires living in the moment. It’s no wonder, then, that the Jewish tradition encourages couples to have sex on the Sabbath, as a way of renewing themselves and each other.
I’ll close by telling you a secret about the Bible. It has to do with the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”). It is a collection of love poetry in which 1) nothing in the text specifies that the lovers are married and 2) when read with a little imagination, the book is R-rated. You might consider reading it out loud with someone you love.
So, have a great Valentine’s Day! Play carefully… and have a religious experience or two.
The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk is pastor of Metropolitan Community Church Sacred Journey in Hendersonville, N.C. She and her wife just celebrated their 26th first-date anniversary.