I don’t think purity is mere innocence; I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive.
– FLANNERY O’CONNOR
One recent night I went to dinner at the house of a gay friend I’ll call Dave. The other two guests, Todd and Pete, were also gay. Somehow we got to talking about childhood trauma. All three told of being molested before the age of ten: one by a female baby-sitter, one by an older boy, one by his father. All three spoke of how, as adults, they instantly fled if left alone in a room with a person under the age of eighteen of either sex for fear of being accused of pedophilia.
One said his earliest memories, when he was trying to clamber to his feet to take his first steps, were of his mother shrieking, “Don’t walk like a girl!!” He had helplessly raised his hands, as if to defend himself; the limp-wristed gay stereotype, we observed, may emblemize an unconscious reversion to the fetal position.
All my friends at dinner that night had been sexualized before puberty. All struggled with low self-esteem, painful relationships, and addictions of various kinds. All had been working for years toward inner healing, and were trying to use their gifts in service to the world.
My heart bled for them, and for all victims of incest, abuse, and sexual violence. We went on to speak of how pornography is endemic in both the gay and straight worlds, and of a TED talk Pete had seen on the way porn dulls the capacity both for pleasure and for joy. He mentioned that researchers today have trouble conducting studies because they can’t find control groups: they can hardly find a single adult male who has never seen porn in one form or another. A whole generation is coming up that has been raised on porn, whose psyches, nervous systems, brains, and bodies are being formed by porn. The average age at which boys start watching porn now is eleven.
As I listened to my friends, I suddenly thought about the gift, the mystery, of simply sitting there with them silently, invisibly chaste. I had never been so keenly aware of my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (I can never use that phrase without thinking of the masterful Flannery O’Connor short story of the same name and snickering). I had never felt so deeply the value of—I’m just going to use the word, however incongruous it may sound in connection with myself—purity.
“Purity strikes me as the most mysterious of the virtues,” O’Connor wrote, “and the more I think about it the less I know about it.”‘ It may also be the most difficult of the virtues to speak of. Like humility, to even speak of your own is to sully it. And because we laugh at it, and ridicule it, and fetishize it with “chastity talks” (please!), we have yet to plumb its depths.
As O’Connor said, purity is not innocence: For years I was a barfly: the lower-down and dirtier the bar, the better. I’ve slept with married men. I’ve had three abortions. So purity is not innocence, but neither is purity some creepy, snow-maiden, don’t-touch-me weirdness. Purity has juice at the center of it or it’s not purity; it’s repression, it’s fear, it’s withholding, it’s fossilizing one’s “virginity” in amber. It’s playing hard-to-get that’s veered off to pathology.
The erotic urge behind purity is more, not less, intense than the erotic urge behind sex alone. Authentic purity is fueled by procreative, erotic energy that’s been brought to a white-hot flame—and channeled.
I came into the Church in 1996. I’ve tried to remain faithful to her teachings, on sex and everything else. When I haven’t, I’ve availed myself of the sacrament of reconciliation (among other things) and sincerely tried to do better.
We want to give ourselves fully, to forget ourselves, of which orgasm is a foretaste, an emblem, an echo…
I’ve stumbled, I’ve failed, but one thing my efforts toward fidelity have given me is some rough purity of heart. I go to confession because I believe that what we do and think matters. I go because I believe someone, somewhere, needs me to be pure. Maybe it’s the father of a ten-year-old girl who is contemplating molesting her. Maybe it’s an adult who was abused by a priest as a kid and is about to abuse his own kid. Maybe it’s the teenagers who are about to lynch Matthew Shepard.
That night at dinner, I looked around at the faces of my friends—good men, creative men, kind men, who had suffered deeply—and I thought of the times I’d trudged to confession, usually on Saturday afternoons, alone. I remembered waiting alone one winter afternoon in a church in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, for the priest to arrive, and looking out the window at the bare trees, and thinking that we don’t know the mercy of God. We make rules, as we must—because to have a free-for-all makes for a way worse bondage than rules—but at the end of the day we will be judged on love. For all the ways we’ve fallen short, aimed for pleasure divorced from joy, thought of ourselves instead of the whole world, we’ll be judged on one thing: how we treated the least of these.
We’ll be judged on whether we’ve woken up to the fact that the whole joy of life is admitting our brokenness, falling to our knees in gratitude, moving our chair a little to make room so that the person beside us can sit at the table, too. We’ve already been forgiven; are forgiven even as we’re falling short. I wonder if we go to confession mostly so that we can forgive ourselves.
To strive for purity in this culture, even privately, is to feel oneself a laughingstock, grotesquely out of step, a freak. But sitting quietly amidst my friends, I “saw” in a way I never had before that my life in Christ had borne fruit. My prayers, my tears, my sorrow, my longing for wholeness, for all of us, had been in a sense for them. Christ had made use of the long, slow discipline that I’d been tempted to think had gone for naught. All along I had been offering up the only, the deepest, the first and last thing I had: my body.
Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac observed, “We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear.” We don’t know the worth of a single tear, and we don’t know the worth of entering into a kind of voluntary exile out of love. We don’t know the worth of the simple bodily presence of someone who lives by a creed that costs.
But while purity isn’t innocence, neither is it penance. To, say, try to atone for my abortions by taking a vow of celibacy: no. Too harsh, too much self-will, too much focus on my sacrifice. No priest has ever suggested such thing, or anything close to it. The question is never, “How huge a sacrifice can I make?” but rather, “How can I best contribute to the world?”
Purity is the conviction that we are all pearls of great price: not to be violated, tampered with, used loosely, or given away for less than we are worth or to someone who’s incapable of understanding our value. Christianity is all invitation and all gift. To offer up my body also gives me a way not to die of the sorrow of the world; not to be crushed by my inadequacy, my seeming meagerness, my inability to “help.”
So this chastity—in my case actually celibacy, which, believe me, has not been entirely voluntary, nor always joyfully, wholeheartedly embraced—is a great mystery. I have often felt like a loser, an aging outcast, an exile. I have worried that I am incapable of giving and receiving love. I have of course wondered whether I’ve embraced the teachings of the Church or whether I’ve parlayed my fear of intimacy and my wounds into some kind of crackpot “holiness.”
Purity is the conviction that we are all pearls of great price: not to be violated, tampered with, used loosely,
Pop psychology encourages me to view my situation as “sexual anorexia” but I know that’s wrong because I am more, not less, available to the world—and I am also less lonely. I’m alone a lot of the time, but I’m not plagued by loneliness, scourged by loneliness, as I have been for much of my life. I feel useful, needed, at my full powers as a writer and a human being, part of an adventure infinitely greater than myself.
My friends know I’m Catholic. They know I’m single. They know I care for them and for their spiritual well-being, and I know they care for mine. Beyond that, we don’t go. They don’t know the years of sorrow, of working through my neuroses and blocks, of loneliness unto death, of searching, of finding. They know nothing of my life in Christ and little of my sexual and emotional struggles.
I can hardly speak of them myself. I remember lying on my bed one afternoon many years ago, in anguish over a man I loved and who did not love me, or not in the way I wanted him to. I thought “I am either going to drink again or I am going to kill myself.” And I wouldn’t do either of those things. Drinking would be tantamount to suicide, and I would not choose death. Someone would have to kill me first; and at the time, I wished someone would kill me. My God, Lord, how long? I thought. How much longer? Will this suffering that I had already endured for years never end? And I had a very short but very decisive moment of clarity. I thought, Christ never lied. He never said that following him was going to be easy. He said, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it,” (Matthew 7:14), and that’s because to go through the narrow gate hurts. It hurts like hell. It hurt like hell for him. And he never lied.
So in the deepest part of my being I made a decision, and the decision was simply to trust, like Job, who said, “See, [God] will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face” (Job 13:15). It wasn’t so much that I had to give all hope of every having a partner, of having sex, of being married, of bearing fruit with a man; it was a matter of giving up my whole self, my capacity for romantic and sexual love included, for God to do with as he would.
I’d tried going after what and who I wanted. I’d tried all my life. I’d never come to the deepest fulfillment and I also had never given my all, which I think is truly the deepest desire of the human heart. We want to give ourselves fully, to forget ourselves, of which orgasm is a foretaste, an emblem, an echo—and of course, why it’s so compelling.
I’m human. I’ll never be entirely free, nor entirely well. I’ll never know my truest, deepest motives, which at best, remain mixed. But if I waited for my motives to be pure, I’d never take any stand at all. Lost sheep that I am, I have cast my lot with Christ, who said, “My sheep know my voice.” Not that kind of voice, not for me, anyway; not visions, not deus ex machina miracles. Rather the silent conviction, to the depth of my being, that we are connected: cell to cell, bone to bone, flesh to flesh, body to body, spirit to spirit, tiny flickering light to light. You don’t come to that conviction through philosophy or theology. Those things may lead you to the threshold but at some point you have to trust, even though “God will kill me.” And he does kill us.
God kills us, and then he brings us to life again: the same, but different. St. Maria Goretti consented to be stabbed to death at the age of eleven rather than yield her virginity, not because she was some shrinking-violet Victorian who became faint at the thought of sex, but because she knew her full worth. She had taken the full measure of herself, her mind, her strength, her soul, her heart.
When you take the full measure of yourself, in Christ, you, too, know your infinite value to the rest of the world, even if the world never knows or sees one thing about you. Every hair on your head is numbered. You are worth more than many sparrows because you have lusts and longings and desires unto death and out of love, you consent to hold the tension of the conflict. And your infinite value doesn’t cease when you die. It lives on, into eternity.
Everyone can make the prayer of the body. “It is possible for everyone, always, if they have a body,” wrote Caryll Houselander in The Mother of Christ. “It means offering our bodies as a sacrifice for mankind. It needs no sweet meditation, no eloquence of words, no sensible fervor. It can be made in aridity, weariness. dullness, boredom, pain, in temptation, in any circumstances at all, by anyone.”
I had never given my all, which is truly the deepest desire of the human heart.
To the world this is folly. That is because even we believers shrink from the radical call of Christianity, which is not only to give our whole selves but to be ridiculed for it, misunderstood for it; to be charged with a lack of compassion. I thought of all the people who would jeer, “Who cares that you haven’t had sex in ten years; why don’t you picket for gay marriage?” I thought, again. of Flannery O’Connor, who observed, “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it in that way. There is not much possibility of understanding between the two.”‘
In The Lord, Romano Guardini observed:
Every Christian one day reaches the point where he too must be ready to accompany the Master into destruction and oblivion: into that which the world considers folly, that which for his own understanding is incomprehensible, for his own feeling intolerable. Whatever it is to be: suffering, dishonor, the loss of loved ones, or the shattering of a lifetime oeuvre, this is the decisive test of his Christianity. Will he shrink back before the ultimate depths, or will he be able to go all the way and thus win his share of the life of Christ? What is it we fear in Christianity if not precisely this demand? That is why we try to water it down to a less disturbing system of “ethics” or “Weltanschauung” or what have you. But to be a Christian means to participate in the life of Christ—all of it; only the whole brings peace.’
That is what we call each other to as Christians: the highest level of awakening, the highest level of sacrifice, the highest level of participation, the highest level of love.
So, we give all that we have. We are like the widow’s last two mites, and like mites, we are unseen, tossed aside, hidden, of no account in the ledger of the world. We give all we have anyway, in silence, scorned as bigots, ridiculed as nutcases, our hearts aflame with the hope that one day, perhaps not in our lifetimes, another human heart may catch flame as well.
I didn’t tell my friends any of this that night. I didn’t inform them that gay sex is wrong. I didn’t mentally check to assure that my thoughts were in accord with the finer points of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I said, “That must be hard, thinking people are going to accuse you of pedophilia.” I spoke a bit of my own lifelong sense of exile, of how relationships to me have always meant more or less unalloyed pain.
We went on to speak of movies and books. We ate panna cotta with praline and raspberries. I left the three of them, still drinking coffee, and walked home alone, beneath the moon.
“Save all of yourself for the wedding though / nobody knows when or if it will come,” wrote Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade.’
We offer up all that we are as we wait, in secret hope, for the wedding. And receive it back—a hundredfold, a thousandfold, as I did that night from my friends—as a gift.
Excerpted with permission from “Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between” by Heather King. ©Copyright 2015, Heather King. Published by Franciscan Media.