May 15, 2009

Sex as 14th-century spiritual experience discussed

Constance Furey, associate professor of theology at Indiana University, focused on the role of sexual mystical texts in the history of European Christianity during a talk Thursday in Swift Hall.

Modern Americans have an “extremely limited notion of sexuality,” Furey said. "Mysticism can challenge those [notions].”

Her paper focused on several figures throughout Christian history whose writings were or are considered controversial in their sexual nature.

One such figure is Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century mystic who described a vision she had of an angel repeatedly driving a golden arrow through her heart. Her description is inescapably suggestive, Furey said. For Teresa, sexual experiences were a way to escape loneliness and connect with God, Furey said, an example of how individuals can undergo spiritual experiences through sexual intercourse or sexual perspectives.

Saint Teresa was by no means alone—Furey went on to describe similar writings of other women and sexualized religious practices in 18th-century Moravia, a region in the modern
 Czech Republic.

While Furey said that this period of sexual mysticim had a fairly clear beginning and ending, lasting from roughly the 14th century to the 19th century, she emphasized that Teresa's experience was not a dominant one at the time.

“These are weird people,” Furey said.

 “These writings have mostly been used to impugn women,” Furey continued, saying that sexual mystics like Saint Teresa have been disregarded in academia, written off as “hysterical, crazy women.” These ideas, she said, deserve to be revisited and could be a fruitful area for research.