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Le petit mort

Painting by Nicolas Poussin 'Jupiter and Antiope' of woman lying down with man nearby whispering to an angel.

This post is an excerpt from Sex With God.

Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! (Revelation 1:17b-18a NIV)

Some years ago I was introduced to the phrase “le petit mort,” which means “the little death.” It’s been around for centuries, and has come to be associated with orgasm.

As Christians we struggle with the idea of our own mortality. We live within the tension of fear and anticipation. Death is both an ending and a beginning; alpha and omega reversed. We get understandably nervous about endings because what comes next can’t be known until it’s experienced. Death is the ultimate unknown, and we tend to associate pain with death, because the two so frequently coincide.

But we also anticipate a freeing of our souls, and a meeting with the divine. The potential of what comes after this life is glorious, and must be so much bigger and more lovely than the Bible describes with its streets of gold and endless singing angels. Not that those things are bad, but what will our beings be like when our energy sheds its current mass and is free to dance with the elements of the stars and particles of matter too fine to be measured?

Sexual climax has many similarities to the omega/alpha concept. At orgasm there is an intensity of focus so extreme that all other awareness disappears. In that moment we cease to be anything other than the experience itself. Our beings are consumed so that all our senses fall away and we have little or no control over what is happening.

At the same time our senses are intensely heightened, and our physicality is supercharged with electricity and force, as if our bodies have become something new, something made of explosive energy. Afterword (in healthy sex) we are filled with peace and oneness with our beloved, in a kind of bliss, reflecting our eventual union with the very creator of the universe.

No wonder orgasm is called le petit mort, with all its shattering conclusiveness and subsequent euphoria. It is the little death, and the essence of life.

In one creative thought a thousand forgotten nights of love revive,

filling it with sublimity and exaltation

And those who come together in the night

and are entwined in rocking delight

do an earnest work and gather sweetnesses,

gather depth and strength for the song of some coming poet,

who will arise to speak of ecstasies beyond telling.

Ranier Maria Rilke

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