The Saints and Sexual Desire

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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As different as virgin saints may be from Kapur's Elizabeth, they share a noble sexual self and a sacrifice of their desires. A clear difference is that women in the church have become saints from the low side of a social and theological hierarchy. For comparative purposes, I

will consider St Rose of Lima (1586-1617), a contemporary in time but worlds away from Elizabeth I. The story of St Rose is positioned, from the start, in terms of a lack of status and power, particularly in relation to men and the church but also in a socioeconomic context. Although she is from a Spanish family in Peru, her story is shaped, in large part, by her family's financial misfortunes. Rose's purported beauty holds promise of economic advantage, as she is likely to catch the eye of a distinguished suitor. Rose resists, and like most virgin saints of the period, her resolve to stand against marriage comes at an early age (5 years old for Rose) (Bynum 1987: 24-5). Sexual nobility for Rose comes through her unwavering purity. Elizabeth's noble character is entirely different in this regard, insofar as her sexual freedom signals an equality of self amid the contradictory trappings of sixteenth-century conventions. But for both Rose and Elizabeth, virginity is a route to power, and love is the burden.

The story of St Rose presents a host of unseemly burdens. An account of her life written in 1968, by Sister Mary Alphonsus OSSP, avoids most of the gruesome details, but it retains basic themes of earlier biographies (Alphonsus 1982).2 Rose's path to mystical union with God is agonizing. It is marked by physical and emotional pain mixed with, and usually indistinguishable from, the anguish of her intense passion for God. Rose's earthly trials seem to speak, paradoxically, of heavenly love. Her torments come, in part, through terrible visions. On one occasion, she descends to hell amid condemned souls, demons, "loathsome snakes," and "slimy lizards with distorted human faces." She is cursed and condemned by God, and plagued with confusion, "She had once loved God; she knew that. Why could she not love him now" (Alphonsus 1982: 214)?

St Rose is put to terrible tests of God's inexhaustible love, as the promises of God's ultimate embrace bring the ultimate dread. Her torture by demons is relieved, only momentarily, in visions and declarations of love by the infant Jesus. He wants to take Rose for his spouse. These visions of love are fleeting through to the end of her life when she dies with the heaving and thirsting of Christ on the cross. Like Christ, she is abandoned. Her moments of earthy joy are always ephemeral, and they serve to bring not only hope, but also more frustration and despair. Her apparent abandonment by God is a consistent theme of her life. Bereft of love, she desires it all the more. Rose plays the part of the jilted lover.

The relationship between Rose's sufferings and God's love are explained, by Mary Alphonsus, as a necessary purification. To raise her to the highest possible union of spiritual marriage, God must purify her (Alphonsus 1982: 213). For the same reason, Rose sets about to purify herself. Mary Alphonsus briefly lists examples of her penitential practices, such as frugality at table, austerity in relation to sleep, heavy chains around her waist and pins in her hair shirt. Far more self-mortification is catalogued in older accounts of Rose's life. Mary Alphonsus's restraint shows a bit of apprehension. She admits that Rose is immature, overzealous, and imprudent, and then she asks, "Why this desire? Does it not smack of sadism?" (Alphonsus 1982: 210). After an emphatic "No," Mary Alphonsus offers further explanation. First, Rose suffers "so that she might keep Christ company Then, it was because souls in need were always storming her heart. Finally, it would seem that it was in order to arm herself against the assaults of the flesh" (Alphonsus 1982: 210).3

This last concern, "the flesh," takes the lead in Mary Alphonsus's narrative. Rose struggles against pride and vanity as well, but these spiritual weaknesses are part of a greater struggle that takes place through, with, and upon her body. Rose's passion for union with Christ, witnessed by nuptial moments with the infant Jesus, is "extremely unerotic."4 Her yearning for God must be purified of sexual desire. Rose seems to be at war with herself. Every reader ought to wonder, what kind of God is this? What kind of dysfunctional love dominates Rose? What kind of sexual sickness? Ought not every attempt to justify her suffering fail?

Mary Alphonsus focuses on Rose's desire as both gift and torment, both problem and solution. She dwells upon Rose's beauty as a sign of her spiritual destiny and a basic source of her trials. The eyes of the world are set upon Rose, and she shrinks from the attention. She is an unwilling lightning rod of human desire. She is not only attractive but also irresistible in appearance and in manner. She will make a glorious spouse, of man or God. Man or God? The question goes to the heart of Rose's battles of the flesh. She is self-giving, humble, and tireless in her work to support her own family. She loves deeply. She nurses the sick and keeps company with the poor.

Rose's mother loves to highlight her daughter's beauty, dress her up and show her off. Rose desires to resist. Handsome suitors and admirers are around every corner, and even as Rose undertakes her physical austerities, men and women are drawn to her all the more. Her struggles of virginity come from without and within, from expectations of marriage to temptations of the flesh. When an esteemed lady, quite taken with Rose, compliments her fair and delicate hands, Rose runs to ruin them with lime. Mortification is a transformation of the flesh in the battle with appearances and with the ordinary appearance of things.

It might appear, at first glance, that Rose's struggles of the body present an all too common dualism of body and spirit. The body, it seems, must be disciplined so that the spirit might be set free, elevated, and redeemed. Such is not the case in the story of Rose. In Mary Alphonsus's narrative, as in earlier hagiography, Rose's body is redemptive insofar as her flesh is identified with the redemption of the suffering Christ. Rose's way toward death, as noted above, is described through a motif of unquenchable thirst brought on, simultaneously, by a deadly fever and a desire for union with God. The agony of her flesh is conceived, not as a rejection of the body, but as its purification and movement toward union with the representative body of Christ. The agony of Rose's desire accords with her desire to give her body over to God's love for the world. Lesser desires of her flesh are abandoned for greater ones. "Rose was made for God and lived for him. She loved him intensely. When she turned that love toward people, the flame flared whitehot" (Alphonsus 1982: viii).

Christ's fully human flesh appears to Rose in his helpless afflictions on the cross, suffering embodiment in the host, and as an infant under the care of his mother (Alphonsus 1982: 276, 290). Jesus asks for Rose's hand in marriage from his mother's arms. These visions are not incidental; they are key to the meaning of Rose's trials of the flesh. Rose does not endure the wrath of a divine judge, and she is not called to hate the body in order to unite with a spirit-savior. Rose's torment is not punishment or a turning away from human embodiment. She is called by a savior who needs maternal love and her protection. Rose scorns sexual desire and surface appearances of beauty inasmuch as they cloud and inhibit a broader and more profound embrace of the flesh. She plays the agonizing, jilted lover of God in order to participate in the divine agony of suffering rejection by the world (Alphonsus 1982: 280-1). "May all men adore thee, O thou the supreme Good! May all their love focus on thee, who dost love them so tenderly" (Alphonsus 1982: 280)! Unrequited love is at the heart of Rose's torment. Her physical and spiritual anguish is not suffered at the hand of God, but with God. She desires to share the agony of God's love, suffering with Christ at the hands of the world. She acts out the burning of God's own anguished passion.

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