Painting the Absolute: An Exploration of Sexual Identity in Alejandro Morales’s Story "Prickles" and the Christian Tradition
Several years ago, I attended an artist talk in a church-turned-“multidisciplinary-arts-venue” in Leeds, United Kingdom. As part of the series called “Faith in Art,” the befitting minister-turned-painter Richard Stott prefaced his exhibition on censorship by sharing personal testimony. Like the sizeable blurred pixels that covered his explicit painted scenes, he had for decades censored an integral part of his identity: his queerness. As a Methodist minister and married father, the tension caused by his seemingly incongruous identities found release when he embarked on a solo pilgrimage in Spain. In his talk, Ric recalled a moment when he wandered into an empty Catholic church just off the trail. Inside, he beheld a detailed crucifix, only to find himself aroused at Jesus’s abdominal muscles. Where once there would be immense shame, this time he felt God calling the occurrence good. When he returned from the trip, Ric rid of his vestments and signed up for art therapy, where his secondary vocation took root. Recalling this time in his life, Ric told attendees that so much can happen if one brings sexual energy into his or her faith. He bemoaned the fact that in censoring “Christ’s cock,” the Church effectively wants Jesus to be less human. Censorship “obscures the absolute,” he said; but “getting more genuine with Christ will always lead you to a better place, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not the real Jesus.”
When I read Alejandro Morales’s collection of fiction entitled Little Nation and Other Stories, Stott’s words rang in my ears. Adam Spires, who translated the award-winning work from Spanish into English, gave the following warning in his prefatory essay: “Even those accustomed to the author’s customary shock therapy will agree that some of the images projected in these stories reach new heights (or perhaps depths) in their offensive nature.” Many of these images are housed in the collection’s penultimate story, "Prickles," which follows its titular character as his artistic career develops at a rate similar to that of his numerous and unexplainable bodily tumors. The climax of said career is reached only when Prickles himself reaches climax, which occurs not with his unrequited human love interest but with his own painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe: a masochistic process that evolves into his renowned signature style. Through this story, Morales’ work—perhaps inadvertently—falls in with a long line of mystics who seek to (re)integrate sexuality into Christianity: a ubiquitous facet of identity so historically cleaved from faith that audacious testimony and shock-therapy art may be the only way to reclaim it.
Framed as an account relayed by a mother to her son in modern-day Los Angeles, "Prickles" begins with a teenage mother whose partner is the increasingly absent and abusive older man with whom she gives birth to her only child: David. The given name of this boy protagonist, however, is soon forgotten by characters and readers alike, as he—and the narrator, for that matter—adopts the cruel nickname given to him by a childhood bully: “Prickles,” which refers to the tumors that had begun budding all over his tiny body. Although they severely limit his personal and social life, Prickles’ deformities only further his prodigious artistic career, which originates in helping his mother pay their bills by selling hand-made quilts and eventually turns into exhibitions of international acclaim. The narrator describes David’s early struggles with sexuality in one heart-wrenching scene:
David confessed to his mother that he felt a strong attraction to some of the girls at school. But because of his illness he knew that he would not be able to come near them, never love, touch or kiss a pretty girl.
“I’m a sick monster!” he cried, collapsing at his mother’s feet. “Why am I even alive?”
Desperate to ease her son’s pain, she hugged him, kissed him and begged his forgiveness. And from that moment, she dedicated her life to David.
As an adult, Prickles’ struggles only intensify:
He yearned for her, He dreamed of holding her, of caressing her skin, of sleeping wrapped in her body. To take her in his arms for just the briefest moment would have given him some reprieve from his burning desire, but this would never come to pass.
Resigned to the fact that there were no treatments to improve his physical or spiritual condition, Prickles suffers alone. One night, after accidentally witnessing the object of his love and desire have sex with another man, Prickles starts splitting open his tumors one by one as a rivulet of blood pools on his studio's floor. He then begins a one-sided conversation with the subject that had become his muse: the Virgin of Guadalupe. The scene that follows is assuredly the one Spires most sought to warn readers about:
David threw the paintings to the floor, then grabbed the oil paints, every color within reach, threw them all on the canvases where the Virgin held her gaze. Naked and covered in blood, he squatted down and sat on the Virgin and began to rub his blood into the painting. He turned over onto his stomach and began shoving his penis against Her. In the ooze of the canvas, he felt that She reciprocated, soothing every tumor on his body. David poured more paints onto the sacred images and, burning with passion, he thrust himself against Her repeatedly until the Virgin squeezed all the energy out of his body. His orgasm was so satisfying and complete that it left him shuddering until he finally came to rest in a deep sleep.
In the morning, Prickles is pleasantly stunned to find the abstract piece he had inadvertently created with this new technique, and it becomes something of a signature style.
The next night, Prickles mounts a new painting while laying his worries and insecurities atop his “Divine Beloved”; he feels blessed by the Virgin, and he hears her voice in his head say: “Love me with your heart, your body and your soul, devour me with your flesh and blood, become one with me.” Prickles’ orgasm “culminated in a spiritual communion with the Virgin, who smiled back at him compassionately.”
To those acquainted with the Christian Scriptures—as Morales, a lifelong Catholic, is—the words the Virgin “spoke” to Prickles likely sound familiar. They harken back to Jesus’ words in Mark 12:30—a verse so commonplace that it has become something of an idiom. In the NIV, it reads: “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The fictional Virgin uses noticeably more holistic language in her command: heart, body, soul—flesh and blood.
In a very real sense, patriarchy has held the pen that writes Christianity: both forming its edicts and recording its history. In her book God, Sexuality, and the Self, theologian and philosopher Sarah Coakley delves into this truth while proposing that feminist contemplative theology can help “resolve” the “disjunction.” Coakley’s initial aim involves “recasting ‘systematic theology,” for “it cannot credibly go one without urgent attention to matters of desire.” Rather, she defines theology as “an ascetical exercise—one that demands bodily practice and transformation, both individual and social.”
Harvard art historian Jeffrey F. Hamburger champions a similar cause: He writes that at least in the medieval period, there was “nothing inherently transgressive about the use of erotic imagery as a way of expressing ardent spiritual desire. Sanctified by the Song of Songs, somatic, sensual imagery was taken for granted, in male as in female monasticism.” This might be evidenced best by the work of Mechthild of Magdeburg: Christian medieval mystic who recorded many visions. In one such vision, she wrote:
Lord, now I am a naked soul
And you in yourself All-Glorious God.
Our mutual intercourse
Is eternal life without end.
Though less literal than Prickles and his encounters with the Divine Beloved, Mechthild, too, viewed her relationship with God as inclusive of her sexuality. A more modern mystic, philosopher Simone Weil, wrote:
To reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colors composed of material substances. We haven’t anything else with which to love.
Curiously, Morales’ story combines Weil’s declaration with its analogy. Prickles’ bodily fluids become literally mixed with his paints—they're smeared together by his body’s movements to produce a symbol-laden work of art: a holy “offering.” The first time he enacts this method marks a swift and multifaceted character change. For one thing, as far as the reader is aware, Prickles’ faith had previously been nonexistent, save for his newfound fascination with painting the Virgin of Guadalupe. The narrator, however, tells us “he would never fully understand the source of his inspiration.”
From the outset, Prickles’ faith is intricately tied to his art-making. But it wasn’t until he integrated his sexuality that said faith became personal, embodied, and robust. By communion with the “woman who loves all of God’s creatures” who “fed both his carnal and spiritual libido,” Prickles’ loneliness is dissipated and his desire quenched; his sexuality finally flowers, and he becomes whole. This moment also ignites vocational passion: In addition to inspiring a new series of paintings—one that would be the subject of numerous articles, attract buyers from around the world, and garner the MacArthur Fellowship, America’s most prestigious award—it inspires Prickles to found a workshop for apprentice artists, with whom he establishes long-term relationships. Moreover, his physical release mirrors the way he releases the longing to be accepted by society. This act is most certainly one of liberation.
Spires is right: The story is grotesque. His final comment on the work, however, voices the effectiveness of Morales’ shock therapy: “Prickles, like Endriago and Frankenstein before him, personifies marginalization, re-awakening the reader to society’s obsession with purity and the violent lengths to which it will go to cleans itself of so-called abnormalities.” According to Coakley, such obsession with purity is one of the unfortunate byproducts of time-honored patriarchal structures. Like women, men that don’t conform to traditional masculinity suffer subordination. And there has been next to no place in the Christian arena for the expression of the sexual desire of either. This leaves marginalized believers with a severed sense of self—a spirituality divorced from sexuality: one of the most basic human functions and needs. Moreover, it waters down Christianity’s arguably most glorious event: God made incarnate.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Church sought to clarify their definition on hypostasis, which is the theological term for Jesus’ dual nature as both fully human and fully divine. In what became known as the Chalcedonian Creed, there is a section devoted to this clarification, which actually made the natures more distinct than it had previously been thought of:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
In the millennia since these words were penned, Christians have scrubbed away Jesus’ humanity, an injury that society so often replicates with subordinated individuals such as those in the queer community (like Ric), women (like Mechthild of Magdeburg and Simone Weil), and those with physical or mental deformities and disabilities (like Morales’ Prickles). Thankfully, artists and contemplatives from all three groups have offered works of art that shock the majority into paying attention, reminding them that their humanity—including their sexual desire—is made in the image of God, and God calls it good. Ignoring this aspect of one’s identity is nothing short of censoring the absolute.
 Left Bank Leeds, accessed June 11, 2020.
 Richard" class="redactor-autoparser-object">https://leftbankleeds.org.uk/.... Stott, “Faith in Art: Ric Stott,” Faith in Art (September 26, 2018).
 Alejandro Morales, Little Nation and Other Stories, version PDF), trans. Adam Spires (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2014), 53.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 63.
 Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 344.
 Ibid., 34.
 Alejandro" class="redactor-autoparser-object">https://www.firstthings.com/we... Morales, Little Nation, 62.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 66.
 Adam Spires, “Alejandro Morales: Writing Chicano Spaces,” xxiii.
 “What Is Hypostatic Union?” Zondervan Academic, November 18, 2018, https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/hypostatic-union.
Left Bank Leeds. Accessed June 11, 2020. https://leftbankleeds.org.uk/.
Milliner, Matthew. “Sex and Mysticism: Matthew Milliner.” First Things, September 19, 2007. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/09/sex-and-mysticism.
Morales, Alejandro. Little Nation and Other Stories (version PDF). Translated by Adam Spires. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2014. Arte Público Press.
Spires, Adam. “Alejandro Morales: Writing Chicano Spaces” in Little Nations and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2014.
Stott, Richard. “Faith in Art: Ric Stott.” Faith in Art: Ric Stott. September 26, 2018.
“What Is Hypostatic Union?” Zondervan Academic, November 18, 2018. https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/hypostatic-union.