Mile-High Musings on the Mystery of Sex, Love, and Life
by Regis Martin
I am writing this amid the high hills of Utah where, surrounded by snow, ice, and the occasional moose, I have been asked to give a weeklong retreat to a small Cistercian community of monks. Go figure. Feeling entirely inadequate, of course, I nevertheless soldier on, addressing souls so steeped in the spiritual life that, like water to fish, it is the very medium in which they live. What can I say? How am I expected to add to the sum of their wisdom? God obviously has a sense of humor, and soon we shall all be collapsing into gales of laughter.
In the meantime, I observe men whose numbers will soon disappear altogether unless fresh blood can be found to infuse a dying order. A grim prospect, to be sure, but an entirely realistic one when there are fewer than 20 monks rattling around the place, and when the youngest is nearly 70. And it has been more than 20 years since anyone showed up to try his vocation. He did not last long, the abbot sadly tells me, the rigors of monastic life having driven him clean away.
This I can well understand. For all the kindness and hospitality these good monks have heaped upon so undeserving a guest, I can hardly wait to escape myself. Yes, the world of silence is alluring and mysterious, and the fruits of solitude and prayer remain a rich, undeniable harvest; yet I confess after two or three days immersed in it, I find myself longing for the blessed chaos of my children. The small photo of my wife perched on a dresser in a strange room is no substitute for real presence, either.
So why do I begin an article on resisting the contraceptive mind-set among married couples with a vignette about moribund monks struggling to survive on a mountaintop in Utah? Because the future belongs to the fertile. It belongs to those who show up. And whether itís a monastery where fewer and fewer are willing to show up in order to risk everything for God, or a marriage bed whose mentality of not wanting life bespeaks the refusal to be generous, without that openness to life which is the defining theme and thrust of love, the very meaning and dynamism of eros, there can be only death. Sterility, sadness, and death. The extinction of eros followed by the triumph of thanatos-it is the fate awaiting all those who make no provision for the future. On two fronts, therefore, both marital and monastic, the signs unmistakably point to a state of sheer demographic demise. Unless steps are taken at once to arrest and reverse the trend, it will ineluctably usher in a winter without end.
Well, now, that certainly was an icebreaker. Is it true? Surely the signs are not so difficult to read. It does not require the subtleties of rocket science to decipher the data. People are simply not having as many children as they once did, and, that being the case, the numbers available for choosing the religious life when they finally grow up have sharply diminished as well. Families flush with children have always been sources of vocational life. And while the figures have not yet reached the levels of devastation we find elsewhere-say, among the European peoples, who appear quite cheerfully to be committing race suicide-nevertheless, when 68 percent of American households are reportedly without children, that is hardly grounds for complacence. If people need a reason to procreate, why has it become so elusive a matter nowadays to find one?
A Pagan Intuition
Suppose we start with the big three: sex, love, and life. Is there an integrity here that quite possibly predates the Christian religion? Yes, there is. Because in the effort to uphold the naturalness of seeing the three together, we are appealing to something basic and universal to all human beings, something so elemental that we find ourselves wired in just that way. Think of it as a sort of template inscribed in the constitution of our being. In other words, quite apart from divine Revelation, people have always and everywhere believed-and, yes, tried to behave as they believed-as if it were perfectly normal for an honest integration of the three to take place between men and women. The governing norm has been quite simply the following: Sexual intercourse ought to happen only in a context of a genuine love open to real life.
So much for the primitive rule, that fixed norm to which every upright pagan remained loyal. Even when honored in the breach? Of course. The immemorial tablets of the moral law are not invalidated by our failure to observe them; indeed, acknowledgment of their binding force is often the result of the guilt which those failures awaken. "Blessed be sin," Bernanos reminds us, "if it teaches us shame."
But with the coming of Christ, what would then become of this pagan intuition? Did Christianity disavow it on the grounds that, the children of darkness having observed it, it could never rise to the level of the true light? Of course not. It was never disavowed, only deepened and then divinized. If everything beautiful belongs to us, as St. Justin Martyr reminds us, then the inherent fruitfulness of life-affirming love belongs to us as well. Only now it has become sacramental, that is, a sign of the union between Christ and His Church. And it all happened when the leaven of Christianity first set about permeating the pagan lump.
Or again, what Tom Howard, in a wonderful little book called Chance or the Dance? has described as the mind-set of those who "saw all the data of experience precisely as epiphanies of what was true at the heart of the matter, and felt that therein lay their special validity." And so everything was seen as an image, an evocation of so many "correspondences running in all directions among things.. . . The world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another."
Eros in Flight
And so what does sex signify? Babies. True, there is much else besides, but never less than an opening to life, to the God whose very name means life. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, that has seemed to the Church from the very beginning to testify to the Catholic way. First you have nature, then grace. The one to penetrate, then perfect, the other. What on earth would there be for grace to do if, God help us, there were no natures around to be baptized? Or if the weight of natureís resistance were such that nothing could reach into the marrow of its life in order to transfigure it all unto glory? "Grace," the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, "rides time like a river." It does not merely skim the surface of the material world; no, it bores deep within the life of man, all the way down to his Christic center. Only then may Jesus, to quote the sublime Fr. Hopkins, "play in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, / To the Father through the features of menís faces."
What I am saying is that neither the God of Exodus ("I am who am"), who is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, nor the pagan goddess Venus, whose symbolisms include the springs of life and renewal, of fertility and birth, will be assuaged by false and prophylactic homage. That when we seethe enemies of eros in flight from life, afraid even to have babies for fear of the attendant grief and challenge in trying to raise them, it is the sexual itself that has given secret shape to their neuroses. That to say no to life, to babies, is tantamount to saying no to sex, since the full meaning of the latter necessarily includes an openness to having them. Where else should they come from?
In point of fact, for us to suffer any disconnect between the pleasure of intercourse and the purpose and meaning of the act is to mount an assault no less upon Venus than it is upon God. It is to outrage both the mythos on which the whole ancient world depended and the Logos of the true God on whom that world would later come to depend for its deliverance. Venus, too, must be given her due. Daughter of Jupiter (Zeus) and the mythic earth goddess Dione, she represents the fruitfulness of the union between the rain-giving sky and the fecundity of earth. Thus her claim to being the universal figure for the eternal feminine, for the woman whose whole being cries out for love and life. Why else draw her as emerging miraculously from the sea, as the artist Botticelli famously did, standing atop a scallop-shell, the Greek and Latin names for which (kteis, concha) signify the mystery of female reproduction?
If the world will not accept this truth, an axiom no more ancient and binding than which can be imagined, then it probably does not deserve to survive. A purely moot point of course, since the consequence of the worldís failure to recognize the exigencies of eros will deplete the planet of people in any case. The life force having spent itself, an exhausted race will simply collapse beneath the weight of its own ennui.
Another icebreaker, Iím afraid. Perhaps itís this mountain air, so rarefied that it has made me dizzy. Or maybe itís just the fact that the bones of dead monks buried in the cemetery out back outnumber the feeble few who still manage to shuffle their way into the chapel. But, then, why would the evidence still point to entropy? The fact is, for a very longtime now, great and still growing numbers of people, including I suspect most Roman Catholics, engage in a practice that not only the Church, but nature herself, acknowledges to be both wickedly wrong in principle and socially ruinous in practice. How long can it go on? If something that is neither honest nor healthy continues unchallenged, how long can those who sanction the disaster it invites postpone the moment of doom?
Birth control, G. K. Chesterton wittily reminds us, means, very simply, no birth and no control. Do we really wish to fashion an ethos that enshrines selfishness and suicide? "The odyssey of the self centered self " is how the Protestant theologian Dean Fitch once described it, and until fairly recently all of Christendom joined in seeing contraception as the flagrant and unnatural act that it is. After all, it was only in 1930 at the Lambeth Conference that, beginning with the Anglicans, the strictures first fell away. Rome held firm, of course, despite the storms of 1968 when, as a result of wayward theologians and weak bishops, it looked as if the Church might well change her mind on the immorality of the pill. But thanks to the sheer prophetic heroism of Pope Paul VI, she refused to surrender to the spirit of the age. I remember the exhilaration expressed, for example, by Malcolm Muggeridge, who saw in Paul VIís resolute refusal to change the course of 2,000 years of moral instruction, an absolute and compelling reason for him to become a Catholic. Which he thereupon did, spending his last years in tireless and eloquent defense of the Church.
If Muggeridge, the erstwhile editor of the British humor magazine Punch, could seize upon the intransigence of the Church on this issue as the best possible reason to join her ranks, maybe God really has armed her with an indefectibility with which to face the furies of the age. So what do I say to people, especially fellow Catholics, to disabuse them of the iniquities of birth control? Do I crank up my thunder machine and commence to bludgeon them with lighting bolts from Humanae Vitae? Are you kidding? The issue never comes up. It is a dead letter. Like usury and all those other oddities that clutter the basement of ecclesiastical museums, it is simply not mentioned. Condemnations of birth control, like the biretta priests no longer wear, are the snows of yesteryear. And that is just the problem: no awareness, no remorse.
But it does not follow from the seeming quaintness of the Churchís position that, like the passing of Victorian lace or the porcelain that went down with the Titanic, one must do nothing to try and raise the standard of an antique vision. There is one thing I and others can do, and, God be praised, a goodly number of us have gleefully spent years and years doing it. And that is to join sex and love in an act of co-creation so glorious that the Triune God Himself is reflected in the marital union husbands and wives share. Doing our little erotic bit, you might say. And when enough of the world sees the blessed fruit springing from the loins of marital love, the nonce again the lyric possibilities of life and hope may be found. If you live love with enough authenticity and reckless disregard for the zeitgeist, the future will come. Perhaps even to this old and beautiful place lost in the mountains of Utah.
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Dr. Regis Martin, a professor Dr. Regis Martin, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, is, in addition to being the author of a half-dozen mostly out-of-print books, the proud father of 10 children, all of whom remain happily in circulation. This article published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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