April 4, 2014

SYMPOSIUM Part 4: Sex and Salvation

This is Part 4 in an IRD Symposium on Millennials in the Church. Here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5Part 6, and Part 7.

She was bound for college as a PSEO student. I was bound for my senior year of high school. We both were eager to grow up. We’d met through a mutual friend on a cool June evening in Minnesota. That night we ran off and started talking. Evaporating topics of conversation fairly quickly, we turned to necking. This continued for several weeks. I would bike over to her house. She would meet me on a secluded trail. We’d snog for an hour and then part ways. It ended the very day that 500 Days of Summer was released, August 7th, 2009. I was a nominal Catholic. She was an emergent Christian, and a follower of Tony Jones.

His recent essay (if one can call it that) about World Vision is mostly meaningless puffery. I wondered aloud if his opening line that he is “not going to recount the facts” was an indirect attempt to justify using more unnamed sources than an amateur spy novel. Couldn’t he have made up a few names just to make his piece readable? Perhaps not. But he did insist on one, very nefarious, point. Christianity ought to be totally unconcerned about sexuality. It is a “lie” in his words “that issues of human sexuality are somehow central to Christian doctrine.” This is plainly false. I know, because I once thought as Mr. Jones does.

C.S. Lewis’s volume of The Screwtape Letters suggested that the demons of the world cannot understand man’s being both spiritual and physical. Repulsion comes at the very thought that humans will one day be raised to the vision of ‘the Enemy.’ Angelic creatures (which is the nature of the demons) must be superior for being spiritual. Thus every temptation is given with the goal of driving mankind back to the beasts. Perhaps God will eventually see how wretched these little vertical apes really are and leave them to their baseness. The Oxford Don’s musings come to mind looking at the recent inquiry into Millennials’ sexuality published by Rolling Stone; claiming to catalogue the predominant sexual attitudes and habits of my generation and reminding me of my own checkered past.

Cohabitation looks tame compared to the exploits celebrated by the magazine. The “new monogamy” is hailed as “a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship (but to) openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time.” This attitude is regarded as very progressive and preferable to the old-fashioned ideal of monogamy. Interestingly, William Tucker has a new book out arguing just the opposite. When the whole of human existence is taken into account, polygamy belongs squarely in the barbaric past, with monogamy arising alongside sophistication and science. But to read Rolling Stone, one would think that the new monogamy is the ground of stasis, surrounded by fringe millennials who are content with the hookup culture (29 sexual partners by age 20 in one case) or who prefer multiple partner encounters or are so sexually shy that they are addicted to internet pornography (as in the case of an unnamed computer wiz, identified as “nerdy”). The normal couple we meet at the beginning of the story closes out the action at a Las Vegas sex joint, discovering even more ways to live their sex lives to the fullest.

But all the sex, more sex and rock and roll (they even interview a band) is justified because: “at the end of the day, it’s a piece of body touching another piece of body- just as existentially meaningless as kissing.” The sage who spoke these fine words may have a point, if indeed we filled magazines and video racks and movies and music albums with coverage of kissing. But we don’t. The premise that sex is unimportant cannot explain the attention it receives, or even the appeal of the Rolling Stone investigation. But this much is obvious; confronted with the cool skin of another, wrapped in darkness and in secret, the nature of our sexuality is plain. We sing songs and write poems. We prance, we preen, we pine. On a dim afternoon in 2010, after waiting an hour for my girlfriend to arrive at her dorm, I was finally able to have what I so desperately wanted. Certain that all the tension, distraction, anxiety and desire was soon to be quenched; I set myself upon her. Of course my anxiety was all the worse after. Of course the tension I sought to dissipate was only intensified. Of course we were as close together as two bodies could be and as far apart as two persons could be. But in the moment, one thing was obvious: Sex can be heaven or sex can be hell. But the one thing it cannot be is unimportant.

I have no need to recount all my experiences here. I have filled the air of many confessionals with them. As an aside, please note that these exposés of sexuality, such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone piece, rely, for their illicit literary fuel on the loose lips of millenials like me. Is this anything but a confirmation man’s need to tell another his shortcomings? Confession of sins, like the marital act are two activities towards which we all are oriented. The Rolling Stone essay is admissible as evidence of this truth, even as the word count strains with attempts to deny it. But I myself have survived those exploits. Holding the belief that the pursuit of truth had no relation to sexuality, as Mr. Jones claims is correct; I explored all I thought I have been denied.

Though there was much variety, I lived unconsciously a form of this “new monogamy” in that I kept company with one woman most of the time. With her I learned the rule of diminishing returns, with ever increasing examples to support it. Location, time of day, duration… all these factors were changed as we worked to avoid the ugly truth that we cared little for the other person, but cared very much securing an outlet to relieve and an object to excite the frenzied panic of lust. One such attempt involved a mutual obsession with Mumford & Sons. We found a song they performed live on the radio called ‘Untitled,’ a fitting name for the nature of our relationship. “I came home like a stone,” crooned Marcus Mumford from my laptop, “and I fell heavy into your arms.” No more suggestion was needed, and we fell together, and “Untitled” became our song.

Rolling Stone tells us that 90% of my fellow millenials desire marriage, which is sufficient to say that they, we, desire something permanent. For the sexual relationships here in question are as fleeting as the satisfaction derived from them. So my relationship with this woman did not last. But I was fortunate that it was replaced not with another woman and more perverse activities but with another, truer, love.

Due to the immanence of becoming employed and homeless (such is the effect when you lose your job as a Resident Assistant) and my increasing uncertainty about atheism; I began living at a Catholic Men’s House of discernment. Mr. Jones implied in his essay that focusing on matters of sexuality keeps our eyes “off the ball” of the Christian faith. But which Church actually focuses on sexuality at the expense of God? It certainly is not the Catholic Church. To say it is would be absurd.

My first months in the house were spent living a double life. Night prayer in the chapel was often followed by a rendezvous on campus. Father Todd, the head of our house, never once chastised or shamed me. He must have known what I was up, but I was never scolded. Rather he pushed me to grow closer to God. Night prayers were required, daily Mass was strongly recommended. Theology and spirituality were discussed almost every night. If he knew of my double life, he knew I couldn’t keep it up forever. One cannot sit in a room with Him who is all-loving, all-merciful and all-good day after day, and then go night after night to encounter another in mutually-irritating lust. The tension demands that you break one way or another. This experience persuaded me, more than an argument has or could, of the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. How could it not? Had that Tabernacle been empty, filled only with cheap wafers, I would have slept perfectly in what was a very comfortable bed. But I didn’t. Insomnia became a permanent companion. I resorted to falling asleep with the young woman I was still seeing. Father Todd must have known of the strain I was bearing, tossing and turning night after night begging to fall asleep. I looked like hell. But I’m sure he, as my spiritual guide, slept quite soundly, perhaps even with a grin beneath his beard. He knew that God has a way of expelling all that is not of him. I would either die from lack of sleep or abandon sin to be faithful to the Gospel.

Eventually I did break, and I broke in favor of God. Months before, I once woke up in the middle of the night to see the shape of that girl against the dim glow of the dirty window. Such anxiety formed; knowing I wanted her to leave but addicted to having her stay. Cutting off ties with this girl I was able to turn back to the Tabernacle, with a cleaner heart than before. I even slept. Waking up in the chapel, after dozing off in prayer, has a reassuring effect on the heart and mind. My eyes opened and there was the Christ before me, bathed in the light of the candle we always kept burning.

That was two years ago. Two weeks ago, I found myself opposite a lovely woman in a small coffee shop. We have been exchanging letters for a couple of months and find ourselves here in the evening at the end of our first date. Our courtship has been entirely Scrutonian in nature. We are setting out on the first steps of “a process that begins in bashfulness and proceeds by stages to an intimacy both resisted and desired.” The bashfulness is certainly present. I haven’t even touched her since we started writing letters and my cheeks redden as I trip over words to say. It is positively blissful. Cutting through this bliss comes words from the in-house stereo and a millennia ago: “I came home like a stone. And I fell heavy into your arms.”

Mumford is back. Despite all that has happened, I cannot escape this song. But perhaps this is good. For those of you who know these lyrics know that Mumford didn’t stop with a song called “Untitled.” Nor has God allowed me to stop with that form of relationship. The Church in her wisdom looks at sexuality and calls it up to higher things. We can settle to squirm like animals in mud or foam like dogs in heat, but we are not mere material. Contemplation of the Life of the Trinity, which Mr. Jones rightly asserts as important, calls up everything into that life. Sex becomes holy and it is placed in right relation to the rest of creation. Monogamy is this elevation, marriage is its complete expression. Through the ministry of the Church I learned this truth. Through the ministry of the Church I can finish the Mumford song, for they added a new refrain. As I think of my future bride, whoever she may be, my heart swells to harmonize on the now famous chorus: “I will wait…I will wait, for you.”


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6 Responses to SYMPOSIUM Part 4: Sex and Salvation

  1. Steve says:

    Interesting musings, clearly written by a Catholic. With the benefit of some chronological advancement the question of sex and sexuality has become fairly obvious. It isn’t brain surgery. Sex is for procreation. This one is as obvious as the deduction that teeth are for chewing. Intimacy on the other hand is for relationship. One can have one without the other but not very well or very lastingly. Sex and intimacy are like love and marriage, the proverbial horse and carriage and even most of the best married couples that way. They are both better in the company of the other. But fundamentally, logically, the simple truth is that sex without the possibility of procreation, that miraculous, divinely inspired beginning of a new human live (or eight), is reduced to mere body parts touching, as the author noted. That is why sex is rightly left for use by couple who are willing and prepared to host and nurture new human life. Using sex for mere physical, or even emotional titillation and gratification, even using it merely for intimacy, misses the point. It is the posture of the developmentally stunted, the morally immature, the spiritually asinine.

    • Marco Bell says:

      Not everybody that gets married, is doing so for the purpose of procreation, and not every act of sex is intended to reproduce offspring. So please don’t discount the virtues of the human experience, or restrict the act to just those who wish to promulgate overpopulating the world.
      Seriously? Eight kids?!!
      My father would say: “You’re going to ‘screw’ your way out of house and home!”

  2. Paul W. says:

    Hmm… Confessional content is tough; there’s a very fine line between edifying and prurient. I understand the author’s intent and I truly rejoice with him over his escape from his bondage to sin. However, the amount of detail is jarring and I think detracts from the intended message. I would respectfully suggest minor editing to reduce the amount of detail.

    • Heather says:

      I agree with Paul W. John makes many strong points in his article, and writes well of his spiritual awakening and growth, but I must say I felt a little sorry for his past partners who would surely cringe if they read this article. He used them then, and he’s using them now, albeit in a different manner.

      • Marco Bell says:

        Oh PLEASE, Paul W. and Heather!

        We’re all adults here!

        You’re not participating in his recounting of his past, simply listening to it for benefit of context and background…Sheesh! Prudes!

        Yes, (human) sex is meant to make more humans. It of course works as well for all the creatures on this planet.
        Their natural tendencies for physical pleasure (enter, the Bonobo monkey) our closest primate relative who has built a rather well structured society for it’s species, and has found that sex is also a form of currency within it’s quiver of exchangeable offerings.

        Let’s not think that we humans have an edge over Nature, just to feel superior to other animals under Gods domain, just because we can withhold when it comes to enjoying, or having sex.

  3. Barbara Deller says:

    Excellent article on a sin that we as Christians often allow to blur into culturally acceptable behavior. Mr. Goerke looks at sin and calls it sin, and more importantly shows us in an unmistakable fashion that the presence of Jesus Christ brings a light that is brighter than darkness, and can bring true freedom.

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