The Descent of the Dove

Printer-friendly version

Descent of the Dove coverWe begin with an excerpt from the book The Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams (1939). The book is a short, very unique, history of Christianity. In this segment William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 10-14 he notes that the very earliest Christians seem to have had powers on a scale that their successors did not, and mentions in particular that they had a method of uniting the sexes with "heavenly daring."

At that time, indeed, the church seems to have moved in a cloud of wonders, as if the exact pattern of the Glory was for awhile discerned. It was not only her more formal and central Rites - Baptism and the Eucharist - which were maintained and spread and sacramentally pledged to converts. As if the Ascent of Messias had opened heaven, as if the Descent of the Paraclete had brought heaven out, the languages and habits of heaven seemed for a few years, a few decades, to hover within the Church after a manner hardly realized since except occasionally and individually. There were miracles of healing and even miracles of destruction. In that first full vision and realization, powers exchanged themselves between believers. As in other great experiences, the primal sense of this experience renewed energies more than mortal. At that time the Spirit in the Church sent "through every power a double power Beyond their functions and their offices." And this power was recognized and accepted. "After the Eucharist, certain inspired persons began to preach and to make manifest before the assembly the presence of the spirit which animated them. The prophets, the ecstatics, the speakers in tongues, the interpreters, the supernatural healers, absorbed at this time the attention of the faithful. There was, as it were, a Liturgy of the Holy Ghost after the Liturgy of Christ, a true liturgy with a Real Presence and communion. The inspiration could be felt - it sent a thrill through the organs of certain privileged persons, but the whole assembly was moved, edified, and even more or less ravished, by it and transported into the Divine sphere of the Paraclete."

These things were gradually to fade. There was among them another method, also to fade, and yet of high interest and perhaps still of concern, dangerous but dangerous with a kind of heavenly daring. There grew up, it seems, in that young and ardent body, an effort towards a particular spiritual experiment of, say, the polarization of the senses [sexes]. Our knowledge of it is very small, and is indeed confined to a famous passage of St. Paul, to a letter of St. Cyprian's, and to one or two disapproving Canons of various Councils. The method was probably not confined to the Church; it is likely to have existed in other Mysteries. The great necromancer Simon Magus carried with him on his wanderings a companion who may have been for that purpose, and there were attributed to her high titles.

Thou art Helen of Tyre
And hast been Helen of Troy, and hast been Rahab,
The Queen of Sheba, and Semiramis,
And Sara of seven husbands, and Jezebel,
And other women of the like allurements,
And now thou art Minerva, the first Æon,
The Mother of Angels.

But Simonis said to have preached that he had himself appeared "among the Jews as the Son, but in Samaria as the Father, and among other nations as the Holy Ghost." Christians less ambitious, attempted the experiment both within the doctrine and within the morality of the Church. This is clear from that passage in St. Paul which shows that in some instances the experiment broke down owing to the sexual element between the man and the woman becoming too pronounced. The Apostle is asked whether, in such cases, marriage is permissible, and he answers that though, all things considered (and he meant precisely all things considered), it would be better if they could have continued with the great work, because marriage means the introduction of all sorts of pleasant--but less urgent--temporal affairs, still there is nothing wrong with it, nothing against the Faith and the New Life. If sex is becoming an inconvenience, let them deal with it in the 'Simplest and happiest way; it is better to marry than to burn.'

Descent of the Dove crop circlesIt seems that there was, in the first full rush of the Church, an attempt, encouraged by the Apostles, to "sublimate" [sexual desire]. But the experimenters probably did not call it that. The energy of the effort was in and towards the Crucified and Glorified Redeemer, towards a work of exchange and substitution, a union on earth and in heaven with that Love which was now understood to be capable of loving and of being loved. In some cases it failed. But we know nothing--most unfortunately--of the cases in which it did not fail, and that there were such cases seems clear from St. Paul's quite simple acceptance of the idea. By the time of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, the ecclesiastical authorities were much more doubtful. The women--subintroductae as they were called--apparently slept with their companions without intercourse; Cyprian does not exactly disbelieve them, but he discourages the practice. And the Synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Niceea (325) forbade it altogether. The great experiment had to be abandoned because of "scandal."

Tolstoy put the crude objection in The Kreutzer Sonata, and Cyprian more or less agreed. "But then, excuse me, why do they go to bed together?" Both wise men were justified as against a great deal of sentimental lust and sensual hypocrisy. But even Cyprian and Tolstoy did not understand all the methods of the Blessed Spirit in Christendom. The prohibition was natural. Yet it seems a pity that the Church, which realized once that she was founded on a Scandal, not only to the world but to the soul, should be so nervously alive to scandals. It was one of the earliest triumphs of "the weaker brethren," those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate and attractive flowers in Christendom. It is the loss, so early, of a tradition whose departure left the Church rather over-aware of sex, when it might have been creating a polarity with which sex is only partly coincident. The use of sex, in this experiment, might have been to pass below itself and release the dark gods of D. H. Lawrence directly into the kingdom of Messias. It failed, and it must be added that St. Paul's foresight was justified. The Church abandoned that method in favour of the marriage method, which he had deprecated, and eventually lost any really active tradition of marriage itself as a way of the soul. This we have still to recover; it is, no doubt, practised in a million homes, but it can hardly be said to have been diagrammatized or taught by the authorities. Monogamy and meekness have been taught instead.

Yet in some sense this experiment in polarization corresponded to the first knowledge of the Church; the grand experience of, and faith in, an otherness and a union, a life from others or from another. The lovers of that period--or some of them--realized the impact of Love, and desired to act and grow from it. It was the beginning, and they conceived it so. The point of its discovery was the point to be at once practised and transformed. Christianity is, always, the redemption of a point, of one particular point. "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation." In this sense there is nothing but now; there is no duration. We have nothing to do with duration, and yet (being mortal) we have to do with nothing but duration; between those contrasts also all the history and doctrine of Christendom lies.

For more on the Agapetae, see our article. Also of interest, is the following excerpt from the blog of a religion professor at the University of South Carolina:

... Tantric disciplines, in which kama or physical appetite is placed in the service of liberation, need not be a Hindu or Buddhist monopoly. Deliberately to detach himself from the passions that would physically unite him to a woman, while yet in her presence, affords a man the opportunity to become spiritually united to What she embodies, the Divine Infinitude—and vice versa ...

Entire blog entry