Sex and heaven appear to pertain to two distinct and irreconcilable realms. Yet Bruno Mars seems to remain unperturbed in mentioning both four times in his 300-word song ‘Locked out of Heaven’. To the scrupulous, the refrain “your sex takes me to paradise” might sound inappropriate if not downright offensive. Nevertheless I think the proposition shouldn’t be taken lightly and can indeed provide us with a deep theological reflection.
It may seem odd that a seminarian, planning to spend the rest of his life in chastity, continence and celibacy, to be speaking of sexuality. Yet I cannot help recalling in Mars’ lyrics, Simon Schama’s BBC series The Power of Art in which he gives the most erotic of descriptions of Bernini’s masterpiece The Ecstasy of St Teresa. The nun hovers weightlessly in mid-air; her habit flowing in vigor and motion.
The saint’s mouth and eyes are half open; her body leans effortlessly to the side. The angel joyfully starts to expose her breast which is about to be pierced by an arrow in his hand which is not yet directed at her breast but, as Schama bluntly puts it, “lower down the torso”. The whole composition is intended to convey a woman “at the height of sexual euphoria”. No wonder that a French art lover admiring the masterpiece exclaimed: “Well, if that is divine love, I know all about it”.
What I want to drive home is not that the 16th century Spanish mystic had sexual intercourse with a divine being during those unexplainably intimate ecstasies she repeatedly experienced. Rather I want to convey the notion that Bernini equates the most apparently unholy of actions with the most holy of ecstatic experiences.
He expresses the internal rumblings of a saint’s craving for spiritual intimacy with God through the expression of love he was familiar with. It is as if he preceded Bruno Mars in divinizing the sexual. For Bernini, as for Mars, divine experience inhabits both the spiritual and the physical realms; there is no divorce between the two.