[Renaissance philosopher Marsilio] Ficino spells out different varieties of spirituality, and he uses traditional astrology as his chief means of sorting them out. Within his astrological scheme, Venus plays an important role as the source of a particular kind of spirit, and he links her spirit to that of Jupiter and the Sun, calling these the Three Graces, a trio we could loosely identify as God, nature, and sex. He makes the interesting remark that for studious people in particular, while Jupiter and the Sun are of great value, they need Venus to keep from drying out.

I would apply Ficino's observation to our own situation as we try to establish a vital spiritual life in a secular age. We look around us and see a materialistic world. We conclude that the spiritual life must be something apart and completely different and unrelated. We slip into a dark, quiet church to get away from the noise and bustle of the city. We sit and meditate at a lonely spot remote from human commerce. We read books, attend lectures, and go to church to cultivate an otherworldly spirituality. Many people long for out-of-body experiences, a goal that would not be of much use to Venus.

Our spirituality can become dry as we look for it in teachers, gurus, and books and move away from the daily life of business, work, play, family, home, and nature. For us, it may seem absurd to look for spiritual rewards at the workplace, but for Ficino, every aspect of life has its own kind of spirituality. His high regard for Venus and her humanizing work in the soul suggests that sex, her main concern, also has an important part to play in the spiritual life.

We have seen that sex takes us to a special place of feeling and imagination that is at once ordinary and extraordinary, deep in the body and yet at the same time transcendent. This overlapping
area is sometimes called liminal, on the threshold, and religious experiences are sometimes described in contemporary religion studies for their liminality. These threshold experiences, described vividly in
the books of Carlos Castaneda, are moments of exceptional value to the soul and the spiritual life. In them, both time and space are rendered extraordinarily sensitive to spiritual influence.

Victor Turner, an influential anthropologist of religion, developed this notion of liminality as a way of gaining insight into ritual and other aspects of religion. For example, Turner describes rituals in certain communities where conventions, rules, and roles are temporarily disregarded. The liminal person, say someone undergoing a rite of passage, is betwixt and between, unusually open to influence and change. Therefore, as Turner says, liminality is "frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon." Alcohol and other drugs take us away to a liminal place, as do amusement rides, the theater, and movies.

In ancient literature, we find that experiences like these are particularly nurturing to the soul, implying that the soul's activity is primarily, if not always liminal. We might see sex as a liminal
ritual, giving us the opportunity to escape from what we usually call reality to a place that is neither ordinary nor completely extraordinary, where we are most ourselves and yet out of ourselves Drawing out the inherent spirituality in sex may involve surrendering to a full emotional as well as physical orgasm. It might mean being extraordinarily generous in lovemaking or allowing the sexual relationship to pour out into the rest of life in a spirit of love, pleasure, and intimacy. Negative attitudes toward sex can subtly interfere with liminality, because this special level of sensitivity requires a high degree of openness.

The quality of our sexual experiences may depend on the ability to find the elusive but available middle place that is fully physical and fully spiritual, given over to passion and yet meaningful and expressive. Our sex may be too mechanical or even excessively sweet. Good sex
requires that we leave ordinary reality behind by entering as deeply as possible into sensation, imagination, and passion.

In his unique study of Aphrodite, Paul Friedrich, influenced by Turner's work, describes Aphrodite or Venus explicitly as a liminal goddess. He points out that unlike the many Greek deities who keep their sexual distance from mortals, Aphrodite could be the lover of any god or mortal. He concludes, "By seducing mortals and providing a transcendent image of such seduction she mediates between the human and the divine in a way that gives man exceptional intimations of the immortality he can never attain."

Here we have another hint about the spiritual nature of sex --it can give us intimations of immortality. Sex takes us out of ourselves and stops time. The degree of intimacy involved is unimaginable when compared to our usual social etiquette, as sex takes relationship to a level not even approached in social interaction. It's no wonder that sex has been employed in religious ritual for millennia, since it provides an obvious, powerful metaphor for relationship with the divine.

Sex with a human lover points to and participates in a deeper kind of intimacy, a more than human connection to the ground of being. In the Renaissance Neoplatonic view ordinary life is the starting point in a journey to the highest possible levels of mysticism. This easily applies to sex, in which our liminal partner is a go-between whose openness to passion transforms him or her into an angel of sorts, a representative of the spiritual order. Through our partner we glimpse something that human creativity can't manufacture.

As we enter sex, the circle begins in deep sensuality, the deeper the better, and then opens up to the peculiar emptiness and self- forgetfulness of erotic passion. We lose ourselves in the oblivion
of sex and find our soul in the spiritual place that is accessible through openhearted passion. This is Venusian spirituality, a transcendence of self achieved through intense, pleasurable union. At the same time, as is usually the case in religion, mystical transport leads us back into deep involvement in life and community.

--Thomas Moore, The Soul of Sex