Excerpt from “The Sacrament of Sexual Union”

The universal sacrament that corresponds to [the Catholic sacrament marriage] is the act of sexual union. The usual polite way to refer to this is “sex,” “having sex,” or “making love” but those terms are far too commonplace.  Thinking of it as copulation demeans this sacrament.  When two people sense a mutual attraction and touch hands for the first time, that is a tremendous moment. A hug can be electrifying, a kiss can transport you to another dimension, and sexual union between a loving couple is Divine. We leave this world through these intimate acts of trust and love and arrive at a place only poets can begin to describe. These are holy moments shared by two souls alone in the universe.

This of course is not a new thought. From the Kama Sutra, to tantric sex, to the many books and video recordings now available with titles like Sacred Sex, Sex and Spirit, The Art of Making Sex Sacred human beings have found the sacrament in the thrilling transports that take place in the arms of those we love most deeply. The sages of ancient India believed that in the embrace of someone we love we lose our sense of duality, we’re oblivious to everything else within or without. We are conscious only of oneness, the bliss of brahman (the All, the essence of reality). Even Christian saints have discovered the sensational intersection of the spiritual and the sexual dimensions of life as seen in the erotic descriptions and depictions of St. Teresa and Ludovica Albertoni.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are one-night stands, hookups, friends with benefits. We can mate as the mood strikes us, or even turn the whole thing into a game of conquest. When I was in college some of the guys began to keep count of the number of times they’d scored, making it a kind of competition. There is good reason to treat it this way. It’s fun. Elsewhere in the Catholic ritual it is described as “carnal delectation” and who would argue with that?

In a consensual sexual encounter the pleasures are evident. What’s wrong with a one-night stand? Or with promiscuity which might be viewed as nothing more than a thoroughgoing devotion to Dionysus, the god of sex, as a way to approach the sacred? Can we find the sacrament in a bacchanalia, or in a casual sleepover with a friend? There are many who would argue that you can, from the maenads romping through the groves of Attica to the 14th century Brethren of the Free Spirit who practiced sex before a naked Christ to the thousands of regulars at bars and clubs around the world hoping to get lucky for the night. But there is a danger in a blind worship of Dionysus. His territory is just one step removed from the lands of our four-legged forebears and the mindless votary risks crossing the frontier. We are animals, and we can mate like goats. We can make the beast with two backs, or do the nasty. In England something called “dogging”—public, voyeuristic sex in the open air, often with strangers—has a certain following and as its name suggests, it is not intended to be anything more than a way to satisfy our animal appetites. Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher who believed “if it’s natural, it’s good” may have invented this back in ancient Athens—in fact they called him “The Dog.” That’s one way to live your life.

But it is not the profound transcendence that comes from the love and generosity of a true “marriage,” a union of two souls committed to each other, trusting each other in our most vulnerable moments when we are emotionally and physically naked.  We are not merely animals. We can sense another dimension to life—the sacred dimension. If we want to find the sacrament we must seek it on the higher planes. The sexual urge is not an appetite like hunger, to be sated whenever we feel the urge. The carnal appetite involves another human being while the gastronomical is just your stomach and you. We should approach our partners with a sense of the sanctity of the moment, which until our technological prowess trumped nature, led ultimately to the first sacrament, birth.