Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Gratitude… The Original Aphrodisiac

As a high school teacher, you learn very quickly what is in the collective imagination of young people. For example, last year around this time, 50 Shades of Grey came out, and though it wasn't discussed widely among the student body (at least not in front of me), it was quite obvious that they were well aware of the movie's content. One senior asked me, "What's the Church's position on something like bondage, etc. within marriage"?

This should give you some idea of just how casual such talk had become. In any case, because this particular class was a little rougher around the edges than some of the other classes (I called them my Welcome Back Kotter class), I decided to take up the question. After all, I reasoned, I don't want them to think that the Church is afraid to answer such questions confidently and with clear rationale.

However, my deeper concern was that these students, like society in general, would come to accept the pernicious lie that "dirty sex" was somehow more pleasurable and fulfilling than genuine intimacy. Setting aside the bizarre notion that health consists in feeding perversion, how does one exactly respond to such a question in a meaningful way?

Some might say that such questions should not be addressed at all, especially in such an academic environment, or that such an indignity should be passed over in silence. Perhaps this is true. But in this particular instance, I wanted to take up the question in earnest, and hopefully provide a more positive and satisfying solution.

Firstly, I pointed out that we should be incredibly cautious about how we go about "turning ourselves on". If simulated rape and having sex with people that masquerade as strangers (or some combination of both) is what you're "feeding on", then how are you not feeding into a culture that glamorizes rape, violence, and meaningless sex? How strange is it to seek to turn intimacy into its polar opposite (i.e. being raped by a stranger/friend). Why not just make a snuff film while you're at it? Like an addictive drug (one in which the dosage must be progressively increased in order for one to feel a rush), so also this "game" of simulated sexual violence.

OK, this is what to avoid. But can Godly intimacy truly provide a positive alternative?

In some ways all of the former's pleasures are legitimate. Yet the problem isn't with sexual pleasure, the problem comes down to the means by which we obtain them. If we are simply using another person as an instrument and object from which to derive pleasure, we cannot help but to literally treat them as something disposable. For the moment any object ceases to accomplish its objective (viz. sexual pleasure), it immediately becomes something expendable.

Yet, once again, the problem isn't that we want love to be ever-new or exotic, it is that we almost prefer the experience of the "strangeness" of the circumstances to the people themselves. More specifically (and dangerously), we separate the pleasure from the person.

The ultimate source of pleasure is not a pharmaceutical drug, nor is it the perfect sexual move or device- rather, it is the virtue of gratitude. While the former may deliver a great deal on the front end, one is far more likely to lose everything on the back. Like the story of the Prodigal Son, we want to receive everything at once- without any mind for what it actually takes to maintain our inheritance.

The lustful one is always hankering for the pleasures yet to be obtained, while the eyes of gratitude are like the child on Christmas morning- unable to decide precisely where to begin. The eyes of lust are the eyes of a hung-over drunk looking for the "hair of the dog that bit them," while the eyes of gratitude are consumed with wonder over the fact that there is such a thing as sex in the first place, or as G.K. Chesterton so aptly put it in his biography of St. Francis; "Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything", and also this gem from his book Orthodoxy; "I could never mix with the common murmur against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd as sex itself… Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman."

The man who sees himself as unworthy of his beloved, and who sees his relationship with her as tantamount to winning the lottery, will always echo the words of Franki Valli; "You're just too good to be true… You'd be like heaven to touch. I want to hold you so much." And let's not forget about that silly Beatles ballad that sounds a little like the mushy musings of an 8th grader; "I want to hold your hand". The moment you begin to "deserve your wife" is the moment you begin to lose her (either figuratively or literally).

Yet the secret to this divine sense of gratitude involves not only an appreciation for the feminine, but also for the astonishing little things that surround us every day. The problem for us arises from the fact that awe and romance are not simply a kind of reflex (though we want them to be), but rather a virtue that must be practiced on a continual basis. One must truly take the time to- as one might say- "smell the roses", but even more importantly, one must take the time to literally thank God for the sweet fragrance that accompanies the flower.

Praise is always particular, and never generic (i.e. thanking God for nature in general). Each man should be in the business of creating, as it were, his own encyclopedia of awe. For any one who begins such a list will quickly discover that there really is no end to it. So grateful will he be, that he will find himself seeking to make a return, not in the spirit of one who expects something compensation, but in the spirit of George Bailey.

One can never truly repay God for all the good that he has wrought in our lives, but we can honor Him by using his gifts as they were originally intended. Perhaps this is why little children so often chat with inanimate toys. They are like St. Francis or George Bailey, praising everything in creation simply for existing: "Hello, Bedford Falls! Drafty old house! Broken knob on the stairwell! Hello brother sun, sister moon, blood from a punch in the mouth… And did you know that I'm going to jail for some unpaid debts… isn't that great?" (is there better proof for the joy of purgatory than this). The fact that things exists at all (as opposed to not existing), even when they are imperfect (perhaps especially when they are imperfect), becomes a kind of natural aphrodisiac injected into the bloodstream and into the mind of the man who sees things from this perspective. The fact that there are restrictions placed on creation is a small price to pay for the delight of being a participant.

Thus ensues a kind of eternal competition between lovers, a competition of generosity, humility, and sacrifice- a divine form of "one-upsmanship". Indeed, the aim of this never-ending game, like an immortal game of limbo (or riding a see-saw), is to elevate the other by the act of lowering yourself. Yet, best of all, in this game of "giving more than you get," there is no real motivation to end it, for who would genuinely want true love to cease, who would want to cease being grateful to another?

And so it is that we return to our initial question in order to answer the latter. What could possibly explain society's recent fixation with BDSM, especially in light of the beautiful alternative? In keeping with our previous theme, if love and sex are really to be equated with a game, then BDSM must be a game of a different sort; one that sacrifices agape love for the sake of erotic love, one that makes human interaction entirely  optional. Vulnerability in this case is not the gift of one lover to another. To the contrary, it is the usurpation of said vulnerability by an act that would otherwise be regarded as violent. Mystery (in this case) is not cultivated by a sense of gratitude and creative imagination, but rather by a creepy and sinister masquerade.

In this instance, one really must be willing to sink as low as possible in order to obtain the latest fix ("how low can you go"). In this infernal version of limbo, one does not possess any upward mobility. Quite the opposite, in order to obtain the diabolical reward, one must be willing (like "hell week" at a frat) to sink deeper and deeper into the mire of indignity and humiliation in order to attain it. However, unlike its divine counterpart, the ratio of pain to pleasure goes progressively in the wrong direction. So much so, in fact, that eventually the only way for the hedonist to "get off" is by not "getting off" at all. In this life we call it the old "bait and switch", in the next it will simply be called Hell.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Roe v. Wade, Martin Luther, and the Power of One Individual

Oftentimes when we discuss the power that one individual possesses, we give it a positive spin, and well we should, because if we were always trying to kill Hitler before he was born (a la Minority Report), we might wind up killing off the whole human race in our paranoia. In any case, while there is tremendous value in pointing out all the good one individual can accomplish, there may likewise be value in pointing out all the evil one individual can accomplish as well, or at minimum, how one individual (or event) that seems small and insignificant can turn out to be cosmic.

Depending on who you are, you may well see this post quite differently (along with the title), but if nothing else, let us agree on one thing: every single human being has a cosmic significance well beyond what he or she may have previously imagined. In recent weeks we have been reminded of this fact, for not only was it the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 23rd, but also during that same week, the "week of prayer for Christian Unity".

What do these two events have in common? They both point to the power of one individual to change the world. Yet the point of this post is not so much to critique Protestantism, or even the evils of abortion, but rather to point out the unimaginable consequences of our actions. Consider that the now pro-life Norma Roe, the woman whose case helped initiate and facilitate the Constitutional right to an abortion for all woman (not to mention the subsequent termination of the lives of over 58 million children in the womb), never actually had an abortion herself. That's right, the very individual over whom this whole battle has been fought, wound up having the child, giving her up for adoption, and now as we speak the woman in question is forty-six years old.

And then there's Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, a Catholic priest, and a jealous defender of the papacy... until he went to Rome. Upon his arrival in the eternal city, he was understandably scandalized  by all of the corruption that was going on there. Motivated by his righteous anger, and to be honest, a case of spiritual OCD, he posted his now famous list of 95 Complaints on the door of the cathedral at Wittenburg in Germany. With help from the recently invented internet printing press (not to mention the fact that there was some truth to everything he was saying), his criticisms essentially went "viral", and the next thing you know- all hell broke loose in the body of Christ.

Wars of religion broke out; Christians killing Christians; an endless proliferation of "versions" of Christianity spring up (not unlike some nightmare from Fantasia). Atheism begins to take root in the West, and consequently faith and reason are rent asunder and sacrificed on the altar of human sentimentality. Worst of all, a form of Christian self-mockery arises out of all this. Indeed, now the scandal has come full circle, a new kind of "indulgence" is sold, but this time it is coming from the critics of the Catholic Church.

Today, unfortunately, we must deal with a "new spring" of televangelists and mega-churches, each with his own catchy little jingles, great product placement, and an endless assortment of programs and building projects, all seeking to expand and build up everything that Luther fought to tear down. Pelagius lives on thanks to Luther's doctrine of Sola Fide.

Let us not forget about good King Henry VIII- a man who really wasn't trying to reform anything at all, and who, before his infamous run-in with the pope, was ironically dubbed "defender of the Faith". At any rate, it is a good reminder that- no matter how faithful one may be- we all have our own weak spots when it comes to fidelity. Yet whatever the circumstances, could King Henry have ever imagined, even as a "divinely elected king," that such power could be in his hands? Could he have suspected that by annulling his own marriage, he could- by fiat- call into question every other binding agreement along with it? For if everyone's vow is annulled based on personal interpretation, is there anyone who is really married? And who's to say what defines marriage in the first place?

The question is where does this all leave us, and why do I bring it up in the first place... other than to cause despair? I bring it up, not because each of these individuals are necessarily responsible for every subsequent action or event that ensued as a result (though one could make that case). But I do wonder if each of them (along with Tetzel and a few of the Renaissance popes) had been able to divine the future, would they have done the same thing, or would they have died immediately out of despair, or better still, would they have run off to a monastery (or nunnery) and never uttered another word the rest of their lives (a la St. Thomas Aquinas "I can write no more").

We indeed are gods, and terrifyingly so. Consequently, the next time we are tempted to criticize, or question how it is that God could possibly be so hard on our ancient parents, who just so happened to eat a tiny morsel of that inconspicuous fruit in the garden of Eden, perhaps we should call to mind a few other significant historical figures, if only to heighten our appreciation of the profound ramifications of every single one of our words and actions.