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While on a recent business trip, I was very pleased to find a copy of a book by I had not read before. I found it in the UN bookshop in Vienna. It is:

"Eleven Minutes"

by Paulo Coelho

(HarperCollins, London, 2003).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even though in some ways it turned out to be "a mixed bag."


Mixed, in that I found some very nice nuggets of "stuff" relating to Courtly Love in its pages, and that part I relished and read slowly, and little pieces of it I read several times to make sure I got it all.

Then there was some other stuff that left me a bit cold. This is true of every book I read, although in this case it took me a long time before I got to a part I did not feel the need to savor.

Did Coelho discuss Courtly Love? No, he spoke of sex and its varieties, which includes 'sacred sex,' which is the primary subject of the book. In my view, that's close enough.

There are a number of books by Paulo Coelho that I have really liked. I have read six out of the eight books listed under the "Also by Paulo Coelho" title-list in this book.

My favorite, because of its tasty mixture of spirituality and romance, and because it haunted and inspired me during my own romantic/spiritual adventure in the Pyrenees in 2001, is "By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept." At the time I was reading that book about a love/soul affair in the Pyrenees, I was searching after a woman who lived in the Pyrenees and who was haunting me to complete that journey and retell her tale.

The woman haunting me, a Beatrice, had been dead seven hundred years. But I felt her presence and that of her boyfriend as well. To my chagrin, I found myself to have a suspicious amount of character defects in common with that boyfriend. That is not counting the character trait of us both loving Beatrice, of course.

That adventure story is, of course, available on this website in the yearbook for 2002.

Let's get to the Coelho book.


This new (2003) book by Paulo Coelho is also a tasty mix of spirituality and romance. What I found most intriguing in it, however, is its mention of themes I believe to be at the very core of Courtly Love. Courtly Love as I interpret it, of course.

How do I interpret Courtly Love? Click here, or here, to find out.

But before I get to those very good parts, here is an aside:

At one point Coelho has the heroine, Maria, enter into and really enjoy some masochism. At that point I began to write down some notes to support a protest letter to Paulo: this runs counter to some of his other pronouncements on the unity between sexuality and spirituality, in my opinion.

But my note turned out to be unnecessary: Coelho comes to Maria's rescue in the next chapter. In that chapter when Maria attempts to tell her personal (rather than professional -she is a lady of the night) love interest, Ralf, how wonderful her experience was. He in turn speaks of it as a downward spiral into despair, that the fantasy world where pain is the key to pleasure has limits, and will fail to fulfill its original promise. It is a trap. Good for Paulo, good for Ralf, and since she listens to Ralf, good for Maria.

Back to the nuggets of insight I liked, that relate directly to the power of Courtly Love in my estimation. What I most wanted to tease from the book were Maria's experience- and hope-based insights on the nature of desire, passion, love, and sex. To me, what she is describing in some of her observations is the very heart of medieval Courtly Love (a.k.a. The Religion of Love).

Maria and Ralf, a promising new love interest in her life (pages 132-135) have spent time in intimate conversation. Her new love interest observes: "Although we didn't take our clothes off . . . or even touch you, we've made love." He then suggests he come to see her tomorrow. Maria replies: . . . "Wait a week. I've learned that waiting is the most difficult bit, and I want to get used to the feeling, knowing that you're with me, even when you're not by my side."

As she walked away back to her house, the magic generated during their evening was with her, adding new color and texture to her world. Then it faded and she caught a cab the rest of the way home. That night she wrote in her diary:

Profound desire, true desire is the desire to be close to someone. From that point onwards, things change, the man and the woman come into play, but what happens before - the attraction that brought them together - is impossible to explain. It is untouched desire in its purest state.

When desire is still in this pure state, the man and the woman fall in love with life, they live each moment reverently, consciously, always ready to celebrate the next blessing.

When people feel like this, they are not in a hurry, they do not precipitate events with unthinking actions. They know that the inevitable will happen, that what is real always finds a way of revealing itself. When the moment comes, they do not hesitate, they do not miss an opportunity, they do not let slip a single magic moment, because they respect the importance of each second.

When next she meets with this love interest in his home she and he concoct a game where they sit across from each other and experience desire. She believed that (page 164) "desire was an entirely free sensation, loose in the air, vibrating, filling life with the will to have something -- and that was enough, that will carried all before it, moved mountains, made her wet."

As they sat in silence and in close proximity she slowly stripped off her top garments, and wondered if he would now touch her or . . . "if he was sensitive enough simply to feel sexual pleasure in desire itself." He proved his sensitivity and she describes entering into . . . "a kind of trance-like state, in which only the object of desire exists, and nothing else is important."

On the next page (165) she tells that this experiment came to an end when they . . . "had reached their limit, exhausted their imagination, experienced together an eternity of good moments. They needed to stop, because if they took one more step, the magic would be undone by reality."

As they part (page 166), despite her best intentions she lets slip that she loves him, and he responds in kind. Then she goes home and sleeps, and the next morning records in her diary (page 167):

Last night, when Ralf Hart looked at me, he opened a door, as if he were a thief; but when he left, he took nothing from me, on the contrary, he left behind him the scent of roses - he wasn't a thief, he was a bridegroom visiting me.

Every human being experiences his or her own desire; it is part of our personal treasure and, although, as an emotion, it can drive people away, generally speaking, it brings those who are important to us closer. It is an emotion chosen by my soul, and it is so intense that it can infect everything and everyone around me.

Each day I choose the truth by which I try to live. I try to be practical, efficient, professional [she is a high-class prostitute]. But I would like to be able always to choose desire as my companion. Not out of obligation, not to lessen my loneliness, but because it is good. Yes, very good.

On page 175 Maria makes a statement in her diary about a few lessons learned from her encounters with men in her work, and the bottom line crosses into page 176 and I will cherry-pick her words to present the bottom line for the Courtly Love context I am interested in:

. . . If you love another person, you don't depend on the sex act in order to feel good. Two people who live together and love each other need to . . . realise that making love is more than just an encounter, it is a genital 'embrace'.

Everything is important. If you live your life intensely, you experience pleasure all the time and don't feel the need for sex. When you have sex, it's out of a sense of abundance, because the glass of wine is so full that it overflows naturally, because it is inevitable, because you are responding to the call of life, because at that moment, and only at that moment, you have allowed yourself to lose control.

When I saw the words "lose control" I had an inkling this was going to be expanded on. Sure enough, in the context of a sadomasochistic encounter with a client Maria actually loses control. She surrenders totally to the man playing the role of master, and has a wondrously orgasmic experience at his hands [first ever with a man!] while he seemingly received no physical sexual pleasure. On page 186 he explains that it was OK: "The master is here to drive the slave on. The pleasure of the slave is the joy of the master." She observes that the experience made her feel satisfied, energized, "full of light," while he seemed "drained" and "opaque" to her.

She leaves not sure about whether or not she wants to come back. After she leaves, the book indicates that the master actor believes she has done well in her response to humiliation and light applications of pain, and he is clearly looking forward to the next phase wherein she is the dominatrix and will have to punish him without mercy. If she passes that test, he is willing to allow himself to fall in love with her (page 191).

Without any awareness of what is coming next, Maria at home reflects on her experience of total surrender, an experience she had never had before or even approached before, in her diary (page 191-192). She liked it and decides she wants more:

When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself.

When I experienced humiliation and total submission, I was free. I don't know if I'm ill, if it was all a dream, or is it only happens once. I know that I can perfectly well live without it, but I would like to do it again, to repeat the experience, to go still further.

She goes on to mention the novelty of an orgasm at the hands of a man, a client, and observes concerning it: I felt - is this possible? - closer to God. She ends her diary entry with: The art of sex is the art of controlled abandon.

It was at this point that I began to go back to take notes on what I had read, it was an unexpected turn of events and out of character for Coelho. However, it was also somewhat out of character for Courtly Love.

Well, except for the true words spoken by the 'master' to this point about people seeking to suffer to call attention to their own sacrifices to earn absolution from gods and praise from humans.

There are some strong hints regarding the role of suffering in Courtly Love: Love is strongly associated with suffering (as Maria has often observed previous to this point) because it so often fails.

In Courtly Love the tension set up by the inaccessibility of the love object opens doors to both intense spiritual power and intense suffering. But this is the suffering precisely described in the above observation by Maria, it is the denial of the natural punctuation of love by sex necessary to keep the tension high and that props the other door open.

She says it better in her diary entry of page 135, cited above, the entry about true desire and how it illuminates the whole world and moderates the very experience of time for those who find themselves in that state.

That is the state I have been in several times when I felt I was intensely "in new love" with a person. It is the state I have experienced when in the throes of a religious state of illumination. It is the state I have also reached when in my post-religious years I began to realize that my essence lived in that state all the time, and hence I could experience it almost at will when I let myself sink into a state spiritual inner awareness.

A state of love and bliss is entered into through these three pathways wherein for me the first sign is awareness of an unearthly depth and brilliance to all colors in the world. Then the experiences of simply being alive in the world becomes enhanced through entering into a deeper mode of perception.

Finally, time slows remarkably. Remarkably because when one simply is having a "good time," time flies! When one simply experiences boredom, time crawls. But when one is in this state of open joy, time becomes a palpable river in which one floats. It seems to stop around you, while you can see on the periphery of your perception that it really continues to flow as it always has for the rest of the world!

I believe Courtly Love purposely confounded the spiritual doorway and the "love" doorway because the latter is within easier reach and is a convenient platform from which to access the former. I find it very profound. Maria made similar observation of the way that physical love-attraction can flow one into spiritual states of love-being on page 118 when she wrote in her diary:

. . . the aim of every human being is to understand the meaning of total love. Love is not to be found in someone else, but in ourselves; we simply awaken it. But in order to do that, we need the other person. The universe only makes sense when we have someone to share our feelings with.

Critics of Courtly Love rightly claim, human nature being what it was and is, that it really became a glorification of adultery, which is what it often led to. Of course love was not an expected part of the political-economic alliances of upper-class marriages, so, so what? But the point is that the leap from physically based love feelings into the spiritual experience of knowing one can tap love inside oneself and live in a constant state of love is not easily made. What one has started physically, physically demands satisfaction.

Maria said the art of pleasurable sex was a controlled abandon. I would say the art of being in a state of love is similarly a channeled surrender to a deeper part of one's nature, a part that has been celebrated by mystics as being the root that connects our core selves to our source: Love, which is God.

Maria met her new love interest when she was in a rather desperate inner state (loneliness while encountering multiple men every night). Her fellow workers were friendly but they were also rivals, not persons she could be emotionally intimate with. The closest she came to having a real friend was a local librarian whom she saw occasionally and with whom she had to be careful to not let it out what her profession was.

She was very isolated, emotionally. This created a need in her soul, and that need spawned a response in classical Jungian 'synchronicity' manner (page 140-141) and led to her seemingly chance meeting with her new love interest, Ralf:

. . . I realise that I didn't go into that café by chance; really important meetings are planned by the souls long before the bodies see each other.

Generally speaking, these meetings occur when we reach a limit, when we need to die and be reborn emotionally. These meetings are waiting for us, but more often than not, we avoid them happening. If we are desperate, though, if we have nothing to lose, or if we are full of enthusiasm for life, then the unknown reveals itself, and our universe changes direction.

Note there are, again, dual paths into this state of synchronicity with the souls of others, who will turn to us as if our souls know each others' needs!

How does the book end? How should I know. I have not finished it yet. [Of course now I have, but when I wrote this I hadn't yet.]  I just had to stop at this point and savor these insights! If I would race to the climax of this encounter with this book, the magic might quickly be overtaken by reality and dulled back into the background of life's routine. By savoring it page by page and reminiscing about how this or that does or does not fit with my own experience, I keep the magic alive.

Reading this book, like sex, is made an exquisite experience through the practice of "controlled abandon," see? Racing to the finish is natural, purposely stopping the race is torture. Perhaps pain does heighten pleasure after all? Hmmm. Let me prolong the torture some more and try to go to sleep without reading another word and see if that brings me pleasure!

OK, it is now several hours later and I have slept some, again. Interesting, speaking of synchronicity, just yesterday I exchanged some emails with my brother about temple prostitution in ancient times. Coelho, in the pages I read before falling asleep again for a while, mentions this! Believe it or not, here is part of what he has Ralf say on page 206:

The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote of Babylonia: "They have a strange custom here, by which every woman born in Sumeria is obliged, at least once in her lifetime, to go to the temple of the Goddess Ishtar and give her body to a stranger, as a symbol of hospitality and for a symbolic price."

Ralf goes on to say this practice was very widespread and millennia old at the time of Herodotus, when it was already just a localized thing. Religion was changing to a more patriarchal heaven where there was no room for a Goddess and where, therefore, there was no point in re-creating the creative acts of the Gods on earth through these types of symbolic giftings. Coelho is wrong about this not being a patriarchal practice, however. It is women, not men, who have to serve.  And it is men who are so served.

There is a tender story from that time about a girl who is not very attractive and is spending a long time to fulfill her duties before she can go home. She is simply not selected. She is really in a state of despair over her worthlessness to the Goddess when an old priest takes pity on her and helps her feel better about herself again, allowing her to go home with head held high: she served the Goddess well.

This is not in Coelho's book, and I give a reference for it somewhere else on my website, but I haven't a clue where. When the King and a chosen Priestess annually perform this ritual it is in imitation of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage between the God and the Goddess. And if SHE is well pleased, she pronounces blessings upon the land, its plants, animals, and people.

Hence Abraham's Sara being three times requested at the courts of kings whose lands were suffering famines. The story was changed later to accommodate the new religious tradition that overcame the older one, but it is telling that as such a priestess she could not get pregnant, it disqualified her, but she could have offspring through a surrogate, a slave-girl for her husband to use. And now you know the rest of the story! (If you are an Old Testament fan that is.)

More later, perhaps much later.

A second instance of serendipity was that while reading this book I went to dinner with some co-workers and one was a very dedicated Catholic.

I told him at one point there were several things I found hard to deal with in Catholic history. One was the way they treated heretics, unbelievers, the other was their thoroughgoing dualism that divided body and spirit, male and female, etc.

He said he felt the same way on both issues, and acknowledged that the Church made some egregious mistakes in the past where unbelief was concerned.

On the other issue he lamented the Neo Platonism of the early Church Fathers that introduced Greek notions of the evil of the flesh into Catholicism, and he really appreciated several of the Church's leaders who saw that philosophy for what it was and proposed taking the Church back to the more Jewish ideals taught prior to the embracing of Platonic philosophy.

He said this is why he loved the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas in particular. I was totally amazed at this. I never knew there was anything particularly worthwhile in the writings of Aquinas, and when I got home I found, to my continued surprise, that a book I had been reading cites Aquinas on this very issue.

I had read much of this book but skipped over the section on Aquinas because I didn't think it would interest me. That section is part of a chapter called "Sacred Sexuality," and the book is "One River, Many Wells" by Matthew Fox (Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), a book I reviewed in a different context with a different focus (see the first item under the 2004 yearbook).

And so at the end of this piece I find myself surrounded by six library books and several others that I just purchased, to feed a new page on 'sacred (and other types of) sexuality' that will be posted when it is done.  When? In a few months, I suspect.

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