Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Stop at the Vestibule of the Castle of Pleasure?

It is amazing now to think back on the fact that Fulton J. Sheen, a Catholic archbishop, had a weekly TV show that was vastly popular in the 50s and 60s, in which he defended the Catholic faith. We used to watch it every week when my grandma could convince my uncle to give up watching equally popular comedian Milton Berle on another channel. According to Wikipedia, when Sheen won an Emmy, Berle quipped, 'He's got better writers.'"

I came upon Sheen's book Three to Get Married on Amazon just now when I was browsing in reaction to the current tempest about Christopher West's interpretation of John Paul II's Theology of the Body, after West was interviewed on ABC news. See this link for one reaction to the debate.

Alice von Hildebrand has objected to West's popularizing of the topic and points out that her late husband Dietrich covered the topic of married love and its sacramentality and mystery more appropriately. I have to agree that von Hildebrand's books are more decorous on the subject of the role of what used to be called love in Holy Matrimony than West's rather racy approach, but now I think Fulton Sheen's writings may be better than either Hildebrand or West because what Sheen writes is both respectful and engaging. With all due respect, Hildebrand (and Pope John Paul II) on the subject are a bit dry. Here is an excerpt from Sheen's Three to Get Married.

[W]hen sex is divorced from love there is a feeling that one has been stopped at the vestibule of the castle of pleasure; that the heart has been denied the city after crossing the bridge. Sadness and melancholy result from such a frustration of destiny, for it is the nature of man to be sad when he is pulled outside himself, or exteriorized without getting any nearer his goal. There is a closer correlation between mental instability and the animal view of sex than many suspect.

I have been trying to put similar thoughts into words for quite some time. I pity the young people who have been trained to believe that sex expression is a good in itself, and that "relationships" must be "free," conditional, and nonexclusive. How many people these days would decide to marry someone without trying them out first? How many people think of marriage at all when they consider starting a "relationship"?

Nobody talks about the pain of creating a profound union with another person (which occurs as an often unwanted result of intimacy), or about the feeling of being exteriorized, pulled outside oneself that ensues when the "relationship" stops. Sheen's words give a vivid glimpse of the real toll the experience of intimacy without commitment takes on a person.

Here is another quote from earlier in Sheen's book:

What some people love is not a person but the experience of being in love. The first is irreplaceable, the second is not. As soon as the glands stop reacting with their pristine force, couples who identified emotionalism and love claim they no longer love each other.

The above quote is a bit dated sounding, unfortunately, because the word love itself is often exorcised from the equation. People routinely throw themselves into sexual relations out of desire (Boy is s/he hot!), then decide later if there is a chance they might love each other. Since love and commitment are often absent from the start, it is a miracle if a couple can actually get to the point of labeling their provisional "relationship" as love, especially since passion diminishes after a while.

But even if a couple makes it to the love phase, they may redefine what they feel as "not love" at any time, either before or after marriage. Think of the many movies that show couples living together sometimes even in the final stages of wedding planning who find their "true loves" and dump their current partner without a thought. But then, you don't have to go to the movies to see people dumping their partners, wedded or not.

The marriage bond is also seen as provisional. The words "Til death do us part" and "For better or worse." have no meaning. Sheen was writing at a time when there was little open cohabitation (which was against the law) and when promiscuity was much less acceptable, but Sheen still has a lot to say about all these topics, and about how important God is in the picture.

Two glasses that are empty cannot fill each other up. There must be a fountain of water outside the glasses in order that they may have communion with each other. It takes three to make love.

Okay, the water/fountain/love/God/true communion and satisfaction metaphor may not work completely, but you get the idea.

Maybe this is one example where Christopher West has said it better. In his recent ABC news interview, West said: "The problem is we have kicked God out of the bedroom. Do the math on that. If God is love, and we kick him out of the bedroom, then what's going on in your bedroom? It ain't love. ... We have to bring God and sex back together," said West.

Speaking of God in the bedroom brings to mind a related quote I found recently in the conversion story of Marilyn Prever, in Honey from the Rock,: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ. Prever, who is a very funny woman, wrote that when she finally realized they were ready to seek instruction, she and her husband went to a priest that someone told her was "easy to talk to."

When we brought up the topic of birth control, intending to get instructions in natural family planning, he hastened to assure us that "it's none of the Church's business what you do in the privacy of your bedroom." As I imagined all the mortal sins I could commit with impunity, from first-degree murder to blasphemy, simply by closing my bedroom door, I realized that something serious must have happened to the Catholic Church...

That priest and others like him have "kicked God out of the bedroom." Something serious HAS happened in that many Catholics, lay and clergy and religious decline to obey or defend the Church's teaching about the evils of contraception, extramarital "sex," cohabitation, and divorce. I pray that the misperceptions that even many clergy hold on these vitally important matters are cleared up and there is a widespread return to accepting the teaching authority of the Church by those who call themselves Catholic.

All these things that our are society thinks of as good are evils, because they go against God's plan for our happiness. We violate the laws of nature and of nature's God to our peril.

Christ forbade divorce because marriage is a holy thing that is a Symbol (with a capital S) of His Love for the Church, a Love that is summarized by West as Free, Total, Faithful, and Fruitful. When people practice intimacy outside of marriage or while setting up barriers to life within marriage, it is a grave misuse of a God-given gift, and that misuse creates unmeasurable amounts of harm that ripple out to the whole of every society in the world.

Another quote from Christopher West that I like because I've drawn the comparison myself before: he said in the ABC interview that contraception is like bulemia, you want to have the pleasure and prevent the natural functioning of body from its completion.

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