If you think that sexuality recedes with spiritual growth, think again…

When Marjorie H. Smith entered a Pres­byterian seminary in her 40s, she anticipated opening herself to God. She didn’t anticipate studying in class and suddenly having her body surge with erotic feel­ings. ”I’d sit there dumbfounded, trying to read Sartre and thinking, ‘What is this?”‘ Smith says now, two decades later.

For Sandra Lommasson, 56, opening spiritually took a different form. “I had a sense of God coming to kiss me with an open mouth. I didn’t know what to do with that because I wanted God on my terms, and that felt terribly intimate.” Shouldn’t getting closer to what is holy take her away from her earthly body? Was she a sexual deviant? Hardly.

Both Smith and Lommasson, now spiritual directors with The Bread of Life Center in Davis, California, often find themselves helping people awaken to a little­discussed truth: Sexuality doesn’t recede with spiritual growth. To explain, Marjorie quotes her mentor, theo­logian Flora Wuellner: “As we abide more closely to God, who is the source of all creativity, the sexual feel­ings often intensify as we are made more whole.”

Sex and spirit – not the standard religious teachings remembered from childhood. Don’t! is what many of us were taught about sex. So I was surprised to encounter Lom­masson’s stirring presentation on the topic at a spiritual direc­tion workshop at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. Run by the Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Center sits on acres of beauti­fully manicured grounds dotted with ancient oak trees. One comes to the Catholic re­treat and teaching center to contemplate spirit apart from the roar of daily life. I assumed we’d check our bodies at the door; instead we were asked to accept them fully.

“Sexuality is the drive for love, unity, family,” Lom­masson told us. “Sexuality calls us to new forms of partnership and creativity, to bring life into the world. Our soul isn’t something we have – we are our souls. The soul is life, the principle of energy. And the only sin is to dry up.”

“Are you juicy?” she challenged us. And a nun backed her up.

“The Juice,” is how Sister Lorita Moffatt, on the Mercy Center staff, described sexual energy. “It’s the juice of life, a desire for union, communion, and it’s in plants, animals, and all of creation. Consider The Juice as The Holy Spirit inviting us into close relationship with God and with other human beings.”

On hearing this, I wondered what had happened to all those sexual restrictions that seemed based in religion when I grew up. Was the message now to completely abandon myself to my sexual feelings? No, there were some caveats. But they sounded constructive instead of restrictive. During her work­shop, Lommasson described sexuality – erotic energy – as a powerful sacred fire.


“What we do with our fire – sexuality – is our spiritual­ity,” Lommasson said. “Fire is needed for transformation, for warmth, for cooking our food, and it needs to be contained to do its work wisely and well. In our culture, the fire of sexuality is out of control. It is a wildfire that burns indiscriminately. We have to respect the sacredness of the fire.”

Taking Sin Out of Sex
“In its purest teaching, which wasn’t always evident, the church has always taught that sex is a sa­cred force, not a sin,” says Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, and author of The Holy Longing. Rolheiser acknowledges that for most of history this teaching hasn’t been the most popu­lar. “You have to make a distinction,” he said. “Like politics, there’s America at its best and America at any given moment –not at its best.”

“You go back to Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis and it says God saw all that he’d created and God found it good,” says Moffatt. “Humankind is made in the image and likeness of God, so in God we find sexuality. Our sexuality and spirituality are one.”

Moffatt shares a wonderful teaching from the Tal­mud, the compendium of Jewish law and commentary, that when people die they must go before God and account for all legitimate pleasures that they denied themselves in life.

Hearing this, I thought again of the image of sex as a sacred fire. Setting up a circle of stones around my fire would safeguard the comfort, heat, and light needed for myself and those with whom I shared it. But to take away all the stones of my fire circle and let the fire run rampant–to indulge in casual sex–would lead to unhappiness for my partners and myself. Despite all that our culture promises will come from casual sex, I’ve never found sexual “flings” to be that uplifting and I’ve often wondered about people who put a vacation affair as just another item on their itinerary, along with parasailing or snowboarding lessons. 

I also understood that I shouldn’t douse any flames that leap up within my fire circle, or I’d lie in a pretty passionless bed. I need to keep my embers stoked and ready to warm me when appropriate. Healthy, great sex came from taking care of that fire. But how to do that? And further, how could sex be both sacred and fun? 


Our culture divides sex and spirit, and that leads us to think that combining spirituality with sexuality will take away the passion, when exactly the opposite is true. “Our culture is disembodied and anti-sensual, but satu­rated with explicit sexual messages,” Lommasson says. “We are efficient, multitasking, but not sensual.”

Smith agrees: “We have compartmentalized lives – business life, church life, social life.” She laughs when asked about sacredness and sex. “People think that means you don’t get down. I thought that too for a long time, and didn’t want to get near spirituality. But it offers a full range of life, believe it or not. We’re not on our knees wearing blue robes, with angels from heaven and organ music – it’s anything but that. It’s the fullest, richest whole-bloodedness of life.” Smith concludes, “For me, the growth is to integrate and become a whole person.”

Hearing this, I felt whole. As a single adult woman out dating men, I’d felt torn by the messages about sex from friends, sitcoms, and popular magazines.

“Third date, the sex date!” said many of my single friends on hearing of my next rendezvous with a suitor. I felt anything but juicy at this scheduling of sex. It seemed to live apart from any connection I may, or may not, have had with the man in question. I struggled to find my own values for my sex life amidst these appar­ent contemporary social norms. And felt like an odd duck as a result.

Now I could see my sexuality as a lovely fire that could ignite in beautiful flames and cast light and warmth over me, as well as something that could destroy when carelessly tended. I felt connected with a worldview and values that promote and celebrate joy­ous sex while also respecting the souls of myself and my partners. Instead of feeling like a fuddy-duddy who can’t align with the Third Date Rule, I felt sane.

A Path toward Wholeness
Lommasson, Smith, and Moffatt are all spiritual directors who see individual clients (directees), and who also train others to be directors. In spiritual direction, God is the ever-present third party. The focus is on the individual’s relationship with God, and the cornerstone is discerning where and how God is working in one’s life. Spiritual directors are not trained sex therapists, yet if God is pure energy, then sexual energy is part of their discernment. In other words, spiritual directors can be surprisingly helpful with issues related to sexuality.

“My experience is that sex usually comes up at some point in direction, and if it doesn’t I wonder why,” says Moffatt.

Lommasson disagrees, noting that she was a director for quite some time without sexuality coming up. How­ever, she now suspects that was because she hadn’t yet faced and dealt with her own sexuality. And then came that open-mouthed kiss. “I had fallen in love with God, but it was pretty much of an idea because that was safer. Then my own spiritual life with God began waking up in ways that were intensely erotic and that scared me. It was about becoming a more full human being.”

Lommasson says that as she entered the waters of sexuality in her own spiritual direction, the floodgates opened within those she directed, too. They all seemed to spontaneously start talking about sexuality in their sessions with her. They sensed the new opening within her to receive their sexuality; before, she hadn’t had antennae to receive it. While feeling called by God to celibacy, Moffatt says she still grappled extensively with her sexual feelings and identity earlier in her life. Her doing so, and hav­ing arrived at peace, is what she thinks allows others to open up to her about their own sexuality.

“I think people sense that you’ve done your work in that area,” Sister Lorita says. “Once a young woman came to me and was talking about sexual relationships and then she said, ‘God, I can’t believe I’m talking about this with a nun!’ And I said, ‘Well, why not? I’m hu­man. My sexuality is a part of who I am.”‘ 

— © Spirituality & Health, March/April 2005, by Toni Weingarten