The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, by Caravaggio.

The mingling of the mystical and the erotic: The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, by Caravaggio.

In the grand liturgical cycle of the Catholic Church, we are now merely one week from Palm Sunday, and two weeks from Easter. In many ways these next two weeks are the richest part of the liturgical year. After all, Christianity is fundamentally about one thing: the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are now reaching a point where these most important parts of Jesus’ life are being played out in the Catholic liturgy.

Today’s reading at Mass is another famous passage: Jesus meets the woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned by an irate crowd. Traditionally this is thought to be Mary Magdalene, although no name is given in the Gospel account. Still, like last week’s story about the prodigal son, it is powerful. Here we have one of the more concrete situations concerning sexual sin that Jesus confronts. After confronting the crowd bent on stoning the woman, Jesus utters the famous words: “Let him who among you is without sin cast the first stone.” Of course they all drop their stones and walk away. He then shows incredible tolerance for the woman, and then tells her to sin no more.

It is easy to fall into the trap of sexual excess and pleasure seeking. God knows I have been there many a time. The difficult parts of this passage are the final words, “sin no more”. I often seek Christ’s forgiveness, his tolerance, but my draw towards sin is still great. Pleasure is a enticing trap to fall into. So the questions I have then are, what pleasures are sinful, and what are not? Is masturbation a sin? Is experiencing sexual pleasure with another person before marriage a sin? Is enjoying erotica a sin? Traditional Catholicism would say a resounding yes to all these things. But, as one old and wise priest used to say to me when I brought these and other issues up during confession, wondering what was really right and wrong: “What would Jesus say”. I suppose we can all agree that adultery is probably a pretty good bet for serious sin. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse is most likely never a good idea. But what about the other aspects of human sexuality, the maze of situations we find ourselves in, the strange and often conflicting struggles of the human heart and mind and body?

The above work by the great Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) captures well some of the ambiguities of Christian sexuality. Here Mary is in a mystical state, and yet the painting clearly has erotic overtones. This is not an uncommon characteristic of religious art, the mingling of the mystical and the erotic, and even in our spiritual life, the mystical and the erotic are often closely allied. After all, is not orgasm a type of mystical experience, especially when shared with someone in an act of love?

Once again it takes a simple but great work of art, rather than a theological treatise, to help us see the complexities and ambiguities of the spiritual and erotic realm. This is one of the reasons I love art so, and value it more highly when it comes to understanding both our world and the divine world than the finely woven threads of theological or philosophical thought and discourse.

Like sexual and erotic pleasure, art is a truly wonderful gift from God.