Sunday, January 15, 2012




No priestly infraction, however egregious, could diminish my devotion to the Church.

So this is NOT a call to let’s-all-tell-our-unfortunate-priest-experiences. It’s a reflection on the Church's teachings on sex, which is to say on what it means to be fully, ecstatically alive.

What prompted the reflection is a Mass I attended, on the Feast of the Holy Family, at a church that was new to me.

For a full half-hour, the priest took the congregation to task (most of whom had excellent posture, were shepherding several frighteningly well-behaved children, and were dressed like Puritans) about how the girls should hide their knees and do they really want to be an instrument of the devil and as soon as young people kiss he tells them they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first. This priest complained, carped, and looked down upon all the parents with spoiled, ill-behaved children who refuse to properly discipline [super creepy emphasis] them, the result being that, unlike a couple HE knows, they will not grow up to have their very first kiss at the altar.

The whole homily was about saying no—no, no, no, no (plus he kept interjecting “My dear ones,” as in "My dear ones, this cannot be" which made me want to shriek)—without in any way explaining that the reason for all those no's is a larger, sublime yes.

In Love’s Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisitedcontemplative monk Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis--(now known as Brother Simeon) observes:

Léon Bloy…once said that if we receive the Eucharist and fail to practice charity, fail to allow the Eucharist to have in us the effects that by its very nature it must have, then ‘the sacred Host we have consumed, rather than nourishing us, will become within us like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy to high heaven.’”

It will be like a bomb exploding our hypocrisy, and it will be like a bomb exploding our timidity and fear.

Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways.

Look at Beethoven’s, say Sonata 11, Opus 22, where in the allegro the tension is drawn out and agonizingly out and then, finally, that e flat that turn that makes you moan with release/joy!

Look at the spires of Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia.

Look at the stories of Flannery O'Connor, the life and work of Emily Dickinson, the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty.” That--“Praise him” at the end is an ejaculation, with the beat, the silence, the lacuna, the gathering in before ejaculation (preceded, no less, by the generative thrust of “fathers forth”!), and it is all the more sublime for having been written by a gay man--a Jesuit priest and a severe depressive who stayed faithful to his vows and offered his suffering, his loneliness, his love, his failure as a teacher, his body, blood, genius and soul to Christ.

As the writer Alice McDermott notes, “Being a Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossibility of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Or as Sr. Jeanne McNulty, third order Franciscan, former Poor Clare, and Order of Consecrated Virgins, once told me: "This may sound strange coming from a nun--but one man wouldn't be enough for me! I want it all! I want HIM!"....

So the reason to save your first kiss till the altar, if that's what you choose to do, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so juiced, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world.

What that priest forgot to add is “Man, and let’s hope those two had the night of their life! Let’s hope those two saw stars! Maybe they conceived a kid and if so, let’s hope that kid is juiced to the skies with life, with enthusiasm, with poetry and song and jokes, with the capacity to suffer and the capacity to love.”

Because this is how sensual, how erotic Christ is—one of the manifestations of waiting is that pleasure is sharpened. Waiting brings pleasure and joy to their highest possible point, and to bring things to their highest possible point is explode with love. We will suffer, of course, we will undergo the agony—for that is the very highest point of love; the point that Christ reached on the Cross. Consummatum est. To consummate our love in every sense is to give our whole selves to the world.

And that is the opposite of no, no, no.

That is one cataclysmic, self-giving, aching, life-affirming yes.

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be 
Our luxury!...


  1. Heather said, "To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension."

    Like St Teresa in ecstacy

    I spent a week in Rome in 2004 staying close to where this sculptured setting is displayed and I never tired of calling to gaze at it.
    Stephen Sparrow

  2. Yes I can see all that! The explosion of being an alive Catholic, sensual as the sun, funny and free. When I was young I was ordained a priest, found the sexual time bomb too much, got laicised, married and fathered two children. The Church has come on a long way since, what with JP2's scary Theology of the Body stuff.It is so hard to find priests of Rolheiser's kind who speak sensibly about the gift of explosive sex and God.

  3. Happy New Year Heather. I spent too much time yesterday being angry at a friend who castigated me for suggesting one might derive some benefit from reading Kazantzakis and reflecting on suffering. I didn't realize it fully, but I was trying to tell him almost exactly what you are saying here. Yes, some [religious] things are theological dynamite, but we are made to question and explore, confident that if we stay close to Christ, He will be there to help, protect, and guide us.
    This post really helped to unwind some of my frustration at being labeled insidious by a true "conservator" of the faith.
    I have spent too much time in th Cathlic ghetto. It is so good to breathe fresh air...

  4. I hope you don't mind that as a non-Catholic,( posssibly catholic-in-spirit), and attempting follower and lover of Christ, who has always found the title "Christian" rather too-big-for-comfort, I add my "Amen" to all you have written.

    It is the sense that we are made for more mind blowing life than we can imagine that should move us, rather than the grubbing fear that we are made for non at all.

  5. The Song of Songs...

  6. I never read better article on this matter...I can't stop repeat Jesus( that means marvel)...
    and before read this yesterday I've started to think of celibacy, similar thoughts...and it is an ulster in a way took the example of young couple(ideal)...ages, spiritual growth afterward that is big issue too...another story love your wands how could we not...marvel of article...thank you Heather!

  7. I hope JP II Theology of Body is uniformly incorporated into marriage preparation...and the pre-wedding night prayer in Book of Tobit

    But why "more sublime" coming from a gay man...


  8. Why particularly sublime? Because a gay man, within the teachings of the Church, doesn't have the option of marrying and having children with someone to whom he is sexually and emotionally attracted--and thus is subject to a particular and particularly deep kind of loneliness.

    And because we have very many examples in our culture of gay men who take another route, and very few examples--precisely because of the stigma and discrimination attached to being gay; that is, to having been born with a same-sex attraction (which we should be DEEPLY pledged as Catholics to fight against and avoid)--of men and women who have consciously chosen to follow and to live out their lives according the teachings of the Church.

    Also gayness was just one of many attributes I listed re Gerard Manley Hopkins that made his suffering, his sacrifices, and his poetry especially sublime.

  9. Amen. Thanks for writing this.

    I wrote something similar recently how our culture's obsession with orgasm is really a hidden desire for union with God. We're all just looking for transcendence, or, as you wonderfully put it, for that orgasmic yes!

  10. I've seen several writer's reference Joyce's definition of Catholicism as "Here Comes Everybody," but this post makes me think that his Molly Bloom was closer to the definition of Catholicism when she said:

    "...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. "

    Mind you, she isn't referring to Jesus...but then again her husband, Leopold, was a wandering, misunderstood Jewish man, so who knows?

    Beautiful post, Heather! Thank you!

  11. Is it good to literally save the first kiss till the altar?

  12. Heather--this was wonderful!

    Patrick, Heather wrote: " of the manifestations of waiting is that pleasure is sharpened." If you believe that, you have an answer to your query.


    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  13. Heather, you are absolutely right about the vibrant, transformational power of the Eucharist and the Catholic life, but I have to disagree that the priest had the right message delivered in the wrong way. If he was insisting that no one should ever kiss before marriage then he was giving absolutely the wrong message. There are so many actions that are rightly forbidden in the realm of sexual behavior that it is arrant nonsense to insist that something that is not a sin, is a sin.

    Sex before marriage: sinful.
    Kissing before marriage: not sinful, nor even harmful.

    A couple may choose, for prudential reasons, not to kiss before marriage, but that doesn't necessarily make them more faithful or chaste than couples that do kiss. This priest's insistence on such a standard is not only contrary to a true Catholic understanding of love and sexuality, it's just wrong.

  14. First time I've had such bipolar reactions to a post of yours, Heather.

    On everything you say about the eroticism of true faith, on the Church's teachings being about "what it means to be fully, ecstatically alive" - Amen!

    On the specific example of saving the first kiss until the altar: surprised at the valorization of fantasy in real life here. Have to agree with mrsdarwin. Not only what she said, but your vision of that out-of-this-world wedding night, Heather, looks like a bad case of inflating expectations and setting up young married people for disappointment, and worse, for anguished self-doubt and angst and worry--not only about themselves and their marriage, but about the Church's teaching--when the fireworks don't measure up to your arguably Hollywood-esque scenario. Which I'm pretty sure they frequently don't.

  15. It is so comforting to read this post and know someone else feels similarly to me about this Church and her Boss. The Church, to me, is the most romantic and erotic entity. I go to Mass, and I am turned on in a mystical, authentic, spiritual sense. It is very much a physical experience as well. I feel "filled up" as nothing else can do for me. I find tears overwhelm me regularly because of the beauty. It surely must be a burning foretaste of the Beatific Vision.

    Following "the rules" is incorporated into the romance. The rules are romantic. To save your virginity for your new husband - how romantic can you get? To fast for the purification of your soul - romantic!

    I remember the fist time I encountered Jesus on his Cross. It was in the Church where I would eventually receive baptism. Looking up at the large bronze corpus, I felt pierced by some divine expression of erotic pain/pleasure. It took the breath right out of my body. I was converted on the spot.

    Thanks for the post, Heather.

  16. MRS Darwin: I don't think Heather was adopting the priest's position, as you suggest: when you read Heather's comments in their entirety, in context, there is something other, something way more, than a prohibition on a kiss before marriage as being sinful.

    Heather wrote: "The reason to save your first kiss till the altar, in other words, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so juiced, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world."

    This doesn't sound like the "no, no, no" Heather heard from the homilist/priest, but like a YES to waiting, for something way better, and suffering in the process, in order to bring "pleasure and joy to their highest point...the point that Christ reached on the give our whole selves to the world."

    What Heather wrote contradicts, completely, the priest's admonition that " soon as young people kiss...they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first."


    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  17. I just wanted to quickly comment on how wonderful I think this post is -- the world's view is always that these things are restrictive, limiting; but the message I try (in my own humble ways, much less effectively than you have here) to convey in my homilies and elsewhere is one of freedom, of joy, of fulfillment!

    Best blog post I've read in quite some time -- keep on keepin' on! :)

  18. Hi there Stella and Mrs. Darwin, well now, having been trained in law school to "issue-spot"--no, even apart from my law school training--this is fascinating to me that someone could read this post and think its thesis is that we should save our first kiss till the altar and/or that when and if we do, to purport to promise a Hollywood-esque wedding night.

    The thesis of the post, thank you John, Fr. Josh, Sarah et al. is that part of the function of all Church teachings, in this case with respect to sex, is so that we can flower, explode if you will within them. Maybe you missed the line "We will suffer, of course. We will know the agony." Maybe you missed the part about the fact that the highest consummation of love was Christ on the Cross.

    As for meeting for the first time at the altar, having done very much the opposite, I wouldn't know about saving ANYTHING for the wedding night! I'm glad for those who do, out of joy and love.

    Thank you for weighing in!

  19. Heather, I'm sorry if I came off as nitpicking. I didn't miss the main point of the post, or any of the aspects you mention -- they're the main considerations, of course, and worthy of deep joyful contemplation.

    Nor do I think you're advocating this priest's position. But I think it's a fallacious example on his part, since kissing is not Sex Lite. It's a different action, a pleasure which waiting may indeed sharpen, but there's no real moral component to the proscription as there is against premarital sex. It's that lack of moral seriousness that makes that particular waiting the non-kiss of a very different quality than that of the suffering and agony that accompany the waiting for the Consummation.

    It's the very falsity of his position which jars so much against the the power of this phrase: "The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways." It is the serious moral dimension of these rules which makes them so paradoxically oppressive and lifegiving.

  20. I guess this is what happens when I choose just one point in a post to respond to. It looks like that's my whole response to the post. It isn't. Like MrsDarwin, I got the main point of the post, and gave it an "amen!," as I affirmed at the beginning of my first response. I don't think the whole thesis of your post is the point about saving a first kiss for the altar. So I get it. And I really like what I like in your writing, which is almost all of it!

    In contrast to all that good stuff, the kiss example--though it is smallish and clearly subordinate, as an illustration, to a much bigger, more glorious truth--that example seemed a bit off-key to me.

    As MrsDarwin explains better than I, the example proffered by the surly priest is flawed, and your post's participation in it, even though by contradicting his view, doesn't entirely overcome that. I didn't mean to go all literal on you, but for many, "selling" to engaged couples the fantasy of holy cosmically mind-blowing sex, and the spiritualization thereof, if they'll just abstain until the wedding night, and even abstain from kissing until the altar, is literally a big deal, a corollary to the negative thou-shalt-not rules.

    Of course, that's not your project at all. It struck me as part of the unquestioned background scenery, though. I kind of wish I'd never brought it up. It's too hard to discuss a response to a small point of a post online without appearing to make a mountain out of it. Then trying to clarify piles it on more. Sorry.

  21. A very engaging post. I am a new reader of your blog and I must say that it has quality writing and useful insights. The post reminded of the poetry of William Everson (Brother Antoninus), one of my favorite Catholic poets.

    There is an amusing and slightly "off-color" story that Everson used to tell about one of his poetry readings as Brother Antoninus that may apply to your topic.

    Antoninus always attempted to enter into a dialogue with the audience that came to his readings. During one such interlocution in England a man in the crowd yelled out, "Christianity makes my penis shrink!" The Brother was struck dumb for a few seconds, but then gathered himself and replied emphatically, "I wish it did the same for me!"

    Everson's long poem "Riverroot" is one the most explicit yet sublime evocations of the erotic--and the mystic--in marriage I have ever read.

    I think that in many parts of the world the restraint you described before the altar would not be looked on as so strange. Of course, the right intention based on some kind of spiritual formation would be the ideal background for that type of ascesis. I don't think it is appropriate to simply shelve it under the modern category of "repression".

    Many thanks for your blog. I read only one other--Rachel Fulton's "Fencing Bear at Prayer". She is a soul searching Anglican medievalist who fences. Your blogs complement each other.

    William Small

  22. Again, Mrs. Darwin and Stella, thank you!--I very much appreciate your both taking the time to respond, and your readership.

    And William--welcome and good one re the anecdote! This is also good to know of a blogger who fences. (Someone told me I looked medieval the other day and I realized (I, too, sometimes wish we could go back 700 years or so) I had unintentionally draped my gray scarf like a helmet of chain mail)...

    And yes, that's just what I was saying--if we're going to instruct people to save themselves for the altar, for the love of heaven let's tell them and form them in a spirit of excitement, hope, a sense of humor, wild interior freedom, the love of Christ, and joy...

  23. Stella,

    I agree with your remark here: "for many, "selling" to engaged couples the fantasy of holy cosmically mind-blowing sex, and the spiritualization thereof, if they'll just abstain until the wedding night, and even abstain from kissing until the altar, is literally a big deal, a corollary to the negative thou-shalt-not rules."

    We should tell people about the "yes" that the "no" (or "no's") ought to serve, but we shouldn't set them up for something that is probably not reality. God is often found in the ordinary and there is already plenty of wedding day/night fantasizing in our culture; it can leave couples confused and unprepared when the "honeymoon's over" and real life begins. The ultimate "yes" that we should be calling people towards is not some "erotic" vision of Christ-like love as that can be easily misunderstood, but rather the very humble dedication of living out that "yes" at the altar in seemingly "heroic" fasion when much of the world will be trying (albeit often implicitly) to drag dedicated couples who've vowed their lives to each other away from the reality in which such fidelity is to be lived out.

    What we should teach people is greater interiority, silence, adoration, simplicity, forgiveness, honesty (with God and with ourselves and with the other), and the premise of personalism as articulated in the Theology of the Body.

    In the midst of this, when erotic desire for the other does arise and feelings are heightened, we will be able to receive them for what they are, and let them move us as God intends. They will not be the basis or the foundation of some false expectation, but rather an impetus for greater commitment and fidelity. They will be like whispers from God that we are on the right road and that we ought to return continually to our beloved with devotion and single-mindedness. We will be so moved to pray and sacrifice and "wait" continually on the other - such is love, in my opinion.

  24. Stirring post, Heather. Amen!
    I suppose all the ecstasies and joys of this life are but a shadow of the Reality that awaits in Heaven. It brings to mind for me the Wedding Feast of the Lamb that we are all looking forward to. And believing that if there is to be a Wedding Feast, then surely there will be a Wedding Night for the Bride of Christ!!

  25. Heather, I have held off commenting for a couple of days, but I have to say that I was taken aback by the attack mode you took against your priest. If you disagree with the way he delivered his sermon, fine, but to criticize his girth and use amateur psychology to explain his obesity is wrong. I think a little self- editing was in order.

  26. My goodness, Heather, have you seen what some are saying over at the Word on Fire blog?

    I would suggest that the subtly pious poison of puritanism (I promise that my alliteration there was wholly unintended and has no sexual undertones) has found its way into the Body of Christ. I just don't know how one argues with the Song of Songs (not to mention Ezekiel and Hosea), Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" and Hopkins' "Pied Beauty", and say that erotic language and images in description of the Divine love are somehow inappropriate. I think this super-sensitivity to the erotic is something wholly outside our Catholic tradition.

    "Well done" to you, though!

  27. Thanks, Ryan, oh this is sad a strain of puritanism has crept into the comments at WOF--I can barely keep up with my own blog, and vitally, intensely live my life!--so won't take the time to read them.

    As you say, the Song of Songs, Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross--these are just a few of the people of faith who have shown us that if Catholicism is not big enough to take full account of--and to make full use of!--our erotic urge (which is way wider than sexuality), it is not fully human.

    And to me anyone who is so afraid of the erotic, procreative urge, and the astonishing things that happen when we channel the urge via the example of the saints and the teachings of the Church (I myself have been celibate for ten years, this post being part of the fruit!), is missing a major, major point...

  28. Re your response to Ryan: if you can't be bothered to read the comments on WOF, why are you bothering to post on the site in the first place? I think the "puritanical" element you're dismissing would welcome a dialogue with you.

  29. I don't post on Word on Fire: from time to time they ask permission to re-post something I've already posted on my own blog. For which I'm happy and grateful!

  30. Many people are not in a position to understand St John of the Cross while they are in the heat of a juicy teenaged kiss.
    Fat is one of the sins which our society castigates with impunity; it's totally PC to shake a shameful finger at one who is losing the battle against gluttony--it is just too unsexy to be fat. The other six deadly sins are pretty much okay, even laudable. We worship sexual expression with such gusto that, believe it or not, there is a movement afoot to delete the pejorative "pedophile" and replace it with the kindlier "minor attracted."
    It may be that this priest is helping the young of his flock to see a side of life and love that our secular culture is trampling underfoot. Teen-pregnancy and -abortion are a very real concern. I see nothing wrong with that priest presenting a lone voice in the wilderness, calling forth realities that mainstream media is crushing in our culture of death.

  31. From G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man:

    "Nothing is more common, for instance, than to find such a modem critic writing something like this: 'Christianity was above all a movement of ascetics, a rush into the desert, a refuge in the cloister, a renunciation of all life and happiness; and this was a part of a gloomy and inhuman reaction against nature itself, a hatred of the body, a horror of the material universe, a sort of universal suicide of the senses and even of the self. It came from an eastern fanaticism like that of the fakirs and was ultimately founded on an eastern pessimism, which seems to feel existence itself as an evil.' Now the most extraordinary thing about this is that it is all quite true; it is true in every, detail except that it happens to be attributed entirely to the wrong person. It is not true of the Church; but it is true of the heretics condemned by the Church....

    The early Church was ascetic, but she proved that she was not pessimistic, simply by condemning the pessimists. The creed declared that man was sinful, but it did not declare that life was evil, and it proved it by damning those who did. The condemnation of the early heretics is itself condemned as something crabbed and narrow; but it was in truth the very proof that the Church meant to be brotherly and broad. It proved that the primitive Catholics were specially eager to explain that they did not think man utterly vile; that they did not think life incurably miserable; that they did not think marriage a sin or procreation a tragedy. They were ascetic because asceticism was the only possible purge of the sins of the world; but in the very thunder of their anathemas they affirmed forever that their asceticism was not to be anti-human or anti-natural; that they did wish to purge the world and not destroy it. And nothing else except those anathemas could possibly have made it clear, amid a confusion which still confuses them with their mortal enemies. Nothing else but dogma could have resisted the riot of imaginative invention with which the pessimists were waging their war against nature; with their Aeons and their Demiurge, their strange Logos and their sinister Sophia. If the Church had not insisted on theology, it would have melted into a mad mythology of the mystics, yet further removed from reason or even from rationalism; and, above all, yet further removed from life and from the love of life. Remember that it would have been an inverted mythology, one contradicting everything natural in paganism; a mythology in which Pluto would be above Jupiter and Hades bang higher than Olympus; in which Brahma and all that has the breath of life would be subject to Seeva, shining with the eye of death.

    That the early Church was itself full of an ecstatic enthusiasm for renunciation and virginity makes this distinction much more striking and not less so. It makes all the more important the place where the dogma drew the line. A man might crawl about on all fours like a beast because he was an ascetic. He might stand night and day on the top of a pillar and be adored for being an ascetic. But be could not say that the world was a mistake or the marriage state a sin without being a heretic."

    That "ecstatic enthusiasm for renunciation and virginity" is exactly what I'm trying to get at. As Chesterton observes, it is every bit as heretical to be body-despising and grim and "far removed from life and the love of life" as it is to be licentious. And as he also observes, dogma safeguards this ecstatic enthusiasm. Dogma assures that we veer neither too much or rather in the wrong way toward the ecstatic, and it also assures that we don't veer in the wrong way toward renunciation.

    The sign that we're on the right path is that the fruit of our renunciation, whatever form it may take, is charity. This is my paean, or one of them, to the teachings of the Church that have formed me, pruned me and brought me so much joy. I stand by every word.

  32. I love GK Chesterton and I love Heather King. And thanks be to God that neither of them is yoked with the burden of preaching salvation to a churchful of a 2012 Sunday.
    And me neither. Hah!


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