(Note: I’ve wanted to write about this for a very long time and I have been discussing things like this with friends for some years, now. But, I’ve always been afraid to write about it. This entry is rated PG-13. You’ve been warned.)
Have you ever had one of those moments when time stands still? When heaven and earth seem to kiss each other? When beauty seemingly crushes you under its weight as your soul takes flight? Of course you have.
I have had them, too. As a classically-trained musician, it mostly happens around those blessedly few transcendent performances, where music takes you somewhere glorious and you’re afraid to come back. You’re more than content to build a log cabin right there on that stage and live in that resplendent moment for the rest of your life. As the last note fades in reverberation, you’re afraid to breathe, blink or move, lest you topple it.
I can count on one hand the times that has happened to me while I was performing, myself. But I can tell you about many more times it happened when I was listening to someone else. Like Jesseye Norman singing Richard Strauss’ “Beim Schlafengehen” from his four last songs; the final twenty minutes of Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony; the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; JS Bach’s “Ich Habe Genung”; and the list goes on.
People get into music for these kinds of experiences: it’s why we spend hours in rehearsal; it’s why we will drop some serious money and travel great distances to hear a world-famous mezzo-soprano or cellist; it’s why we become overly-opinionated fans of Opera, arguing whose performance of Puccini’s “Un Bel Di Vedremo” is the best (Maria Callas, by the way); it’s why we judge some performances with hyperbolic eloquence and others with marked disdain. And here you might think it’s all just because the music is pretty!
These kinds of transcendent experiences are extremely hard to describe. The best description I know comes from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Set in a harsh prison in the middle of the last century, the main character breaks into the warden’s office and plays a Mozart duet (from Le Nozze Di Figaro) over the loud speakers for all the prisoners to hear (You can watch the clip here). Then, Morgan Freeman’s character says:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
I’m 98 % sure that some of you have been reading this and yelling at your screen, “But, Andy, I hate Opera! I hate Classical Music! It has never been transcendent to me!” I understand this and I think more than just musicians pine for these kinds of experiences. Even though music and the written word are two of the most common ways for me, we each experience these things in different ways. I’m sure you can think of several moments in your life where you have felt this beauty.
I think for most of us, though, the only time we experience something like this is at orgasm. Now, before we go on, read this clearly, please: the orgasm is a gift from God. It is a beauty that makes your heart ache! It is a beauty that one longs for, as it is designed to be one of the most powerful unifying experiences that we will ever experience. It is a gateway into another life, as for centuries it has been described as la petite mort. It is a moment where one feels, for the “briefest moments” as free. It is a beautiful, transcendent experience, as God intended it to be.
Yet, in our Postmodern days of cynicism, irony and materialism (with a heavy dose of Freud, of course), orgasm has become the only acceptable way to talk about transcendence; it has become the last remaining “mystical” experience of our time. It remains the last mystery of our day.
The orgasm even has a mystery-cult, of sorts. Entire books have been written on how not only to obtain orgasm, but how it is your right to experience it. We have article after article in Cosmo for the younger devotees of orgasm about the “(insert random number) ways to please your man” and an entire branch of pharmacology is now dedicated to the “longer lasting” and the “fuller”. It is your right to experience orgasm and heaven help you if you are not, because there is something seriously wrong with you.
Just consider all of the spilled ink in the last one hundred years on the eroticism of the mystical encounter. No longer does the transcendent experience stand on its own, but it must be explained away by the sublimation for the desire for orgasm. “Those ole’ monks and nuns didn’t really mean to write all that love poetry to Jesus,” I’ve heard them say, “they were just writing for their gay lovers what they couldn’t say out loud.” These events are no longer about beauty, they are no longer about transcendence or theosis, but they are all about the need for orgasm.
If orgasm is the last functional “mystical” experience of our time — if it is the last remaining mystery — then, sex is the main lens through which we experience the rest of life. No longer “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (as Hopkins put it) but it is crammed with sex in our eyes. No longer is the mystery of life, Divine, but it is orgasm. So, functionally, orgasm has replaced the need for beauty. Orgasm has replaced transcendent experience. And, most frighteningly, orgasm has replaced theosis.
Orgasm has become the lens through which we judge everything else. And because of this, transcendent experiences are now considered a shadow (or type or sublimation) of the orgasm.
This, of course, is the exact opposite to the traditional understanding of such things. I think the Fathers and the Mystics would say that the “ecstasy” we experience at certain performances is merely a shadow (or a type) of the greater ecstasy of theosis. As wonderful as it is when engaged in a committed, loving relationship, I would add that orgasm is, too, just a mere shadow of theosis. These things, wonderful in their own right, are imperfect representations. Orgasm points to theosis, when the soul is united with God, nature and her fellow man — not the other way around!
I think our culture’s preoccupation with orgasm is actually just a shadowy expression of the desire for theosis. Every time someone goes to a bar or a club for a hook-up, they are really looking for theosis: they may not be able to put it in such words; they may ignore the fact that over long periods of this activity, their soul becomes almost vacuous and empty; and they may claim that their sexual encounters are purely physical. Yet, in spite of all of this, the root of all of this sexual licentiousness is a good and holy desire for union with God, but it has been perverted by sin. We’re all just looking for transcendence — we just look frequently in the wrong places.
These transcendent experiences (including orgasm) are beautiful, and make your heart ache because words will always fall short, because you know you cannot stay there. When it happens, it is as if a doorway stands open before you to a land to which you’ve never been, but is somehow intimately familiar. It is if you finally arrived at home, even though you’ve only lived your life as an orphan. Yet, you cannot cross into house, but you can stand and gape like a fool at the door. In these moments, for a fleeting glimpse, we experience the world as it truly is, both weighty with meaning, and yet light as the light which shines down from heaven. These kinds of transcendent experiences stand in the “now”, and lean towards the “ever shall be, world without end”.
Yet, it is theosis that completes this work.
It is theosis that brings us home.
It is theosis that brings us to the “Amen”.