Friday, October 25, 2013

Madness and Sex - Been There, Done That

James Mason in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita

When we become a little bit mad, we never know we're a little bit mad.  That's what makes it so dangerous.  And I speak with some experience, for I'm always just a wee bit insane, and I have sometimes been more than that.

There's a scene in the movie Lolita where James Mason, whose character has given himself over to sin, is struggling to break free from the grip of psych ward workers who are trying to restrain him.  It's the moment in the film where the viewer realizes, "Wow.  This guy has really gone nuts over this."  A natural vice, in an unnatural form (his lust for an underage girl, his step-daughter), which this man has indulged, grows to have more and more of a grip over him, until he is, in effect, mad.

In a similar way, I have known people who allow a touch of pride to become a hole in their personal "firewall", as it were.  "My intentions are good, therefore I am doing good" is a rationalization all of us can easily fall victim to.  I have seen otherwise good people spiral downwards to a point where, without losing the trappings of their daily lives, they become something like homeless people talking to themselves on the street corner - all from allowing this hole in their firewall caused by pride; and into this hole rushes a very dark and dangerous thing, and they become more than a wee bit insane.

Have you ever had this experience in your life?  Have you ever looked back over a particularly dark period where you were obsessed with something or someone, whether it was a sin or an idea or a person or a worry which consumed you - and then after you're out of the woods and the air clears and a few months pass, you say, "Hey, that was crazy.  I actually went a little crazy there."  Sometimes it happens in the same day - you obsess over getting your computer to work, or you get too caught up in a World Series game on TV, or something similar: you lose yourself and your perspective - and a bit later you say, "Wow.  I was a little nutty about that.  It kind of consumed me for a while."  This sort of thing probably happens to poets and creative types (who are naturally a bit unhinged) frequently, and speaking as one who's "been there and done that", here's what I've learned.

The antidote to such madness is simple.  It is singleness of heart - also known as purity of heart.  And that only comes with humility.


One of the things in the Catholic Church that is really rather mad these days is the bizarre obsession with sex under the cover of a kind of pop-culture version of the Theology of the Body.  One putatively ultra-orthodox Catholic college (located in the swamps of Florida, which I will not identify) even staged a Valentine's Weekend where all the 18-22 year old students, bursting with hormones, spent all weekend talking about sex - the role of sex, the blessing of sex, how to fulfill God's plan with sex, the gift of sex.  Oh, yeah, that's a really good idea!

And as I've written before, the sex these pop-Catholics talk about is almost never referred to in the context of the institution sex forms - marriage and the family.  Marriage ain't sexy and the family ain't sexy, so they ain't talked about.  Babies are never brought up, because babies ain't sexy - changing dirty diapers in particular ain't sexy.  Pornography, however, is discussed in detail - and while porn is officially condemned with a kind of sanctimonious faux-horror, the point these folk seem driven to make is that the use of porn is really only our way of approaching God (I am not making this up, this is what these people say).

The main proponent of this school of non-thought whom I will not identify (it's Christopher West) actually says that if you've achieved "mature purity" (by which he seems to mean "purity of heart") you can, in this life and on this earth, gaze on naked ladies other than your spouse with impunity, for the erection you presumably get while doing so points heavenward.  (That last image is mine, not West's, but it sums up what he's saying).

So, you see, this is a kind of madness.  Sex itself is not mad, but an obsession with sex, especially one that's cloaked in a kind of pretend-sanctity, is indeed mad. Such obsessive madness produces a kind of blindness; it produces people who look at normal and beautiful and simple and spiritual things and see not what's before there eyes, but instead blocking their vision is the only thing that matters to them. West looks at icons of the Virgin Mary and keeps thinking about her breasts; he looks at the Paschal candle dipped in the baptismal font and sees sexual penetration - intercourse.  This kind of thing happens not just with sex.  A man filled with greed can look at natural beauty on a fine spring morning and wonder why the fields and hills that stretch before him haven't been "developed" into money-making parking lots.  A woman with an eating disorder can see a pizza pie in a Rorschach ink blot.  And a man filled with lust can look at church steeples and see giant penises (see footnote below).  This is obsession; this is madness.  


Meanwhile, Kevin Tierney at Catholic Exchange is methodically countering the pop-TOB (Theology of the Body) madness in a series of posts, the most recent of which places Bl. John Paul II's Wednesday Audiences in the context that John Paul himself places them - the context of Scripture and the Sacraments.

Tierney writes ...

there is a very good way to test whether or not the person presenting John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is doing so faithfully:  what does this individual say about the Holy Sacraments?

Tierney then focuses on two of the Sacraments- Confession and the Eucharist - to show how both are oriented toward purifying our hearts - which is to say curing that madness that results from following our own sinful desires.  (Note that the primary Sacrament the pop-TOB Catholics consistently avoid is the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony - Marriage).

In making his point, Kevin Tierney quotes Scripture quite a bit.  The most famous Bible verse on purity of heart that Tierney does not quote, however, is this one ...

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. - Mat. 5:8

They will not see God by gazing on naked ladies other than their spouse or by gazing (with "mature purity") on internet porn; they will see God by being sane, their madness cured, their blindness healed.  The big thing that was before their eyes will be removed, and after a while they may even say to themselves, "Wow.  I was pretty nutty for a while there."

And may we all pray that this madness ends - in our hearts and in our Church.


FOOTNOTE (from The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton) - How a Man Obsessed with Sex sees a Church Steeple

I was once sitting on a summer day in a meadow in Kent under the shadow
of a little village church, with a rather curious companion with whom I
had just been walking through the woods. He was one of a group of
eccentrics I had come across in my wanderings who had a new religion
called Higher Thought; in which I had been so far initiated as to
realise a general atmosphere of loftiness or height, and was hoping at
some later and more esoteric stage to discover the beginnings of
thought. My companion was the most amusing of them, for however he may
have stood towards thought, he was at least very much their superior in
experience, having travelled beyond the tropics while they were
meditating in the suburbs; though he had been charged with excess in
telling travellers' tales. In spite of anything said against him, I
preferred him to his companions and willingly went with him through the
wood; where I could not but feel that his sunburnt face and fierce
tufted eyebrows and pointed beard gave him something of the look of Pan.
Then we sat down in the meadow and gazed idly at the tree-tops and the
spire of the village church; while the warm afternoon began to mellow
into early evening and the song of a speck of a bird was faint far up in
the sky and no more than a whisper of breeze soothed rather than stirred
the ancient orchards of the garden of England. Then my companion said to
me: 'Do you know why the spire of that church goes up like that?' I
expressed a respectable agnosticism, and he answered in an off-hand way,
'Oh, the same as the obelisks; the Phallic Worship of antiquity.' Then I
looked across at him suddenly as he lay there leering above his goatlike
beard; and for the moment I thought he was not Pan but the Devil. No
mortal words can express the immense, the insane incongruity and
unnatural perversion of thought involved in saying such a thing at such
a moment and in such a place. For one moment I was in the mood in which
men burned witches; and then a sense of absurdity equally enormous
seemed to open about me like a dawn. 'Why, of course,' I said after a
moment's reflection, 'if it hadn't been for phallic worship, they would
have built the spire pointing downwards and standing on its own apex.' I
could have sat in that field and laughed for an hour. My friend did not
seem offended, for indeed he was never thin-skinned about his scientific


Kevin O'Brien said...

I posted this comment on Tierney's blog, though since it's my second comment there, it may not pass moderation ...


I can't help thinking that, for most popularizers of TOB, it's not sex that leads to God, but God that leads to sex.

... the emphasis is much more on spiritualizing sex than on enfleshing a kind of nuptial union with God. If the message of TOB is that our bodies are made to glorify God, and that the marital act is, in some ways, a sign that points toward union with God - then the emphasis should be on God, not on the sign.

The emphasis is usually the other way around.

Many of the pop-TOB folks do what JP2 never did, use this material almost as a kind of "grooming" behavior - getting us to lower our guard about the one thing that we should be most guarded about, especially in this culture.

jvc said...

This is really excellent, Kevin.

The value of introspection keeps a lot of us from going too deep into our own preoccupations.

Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of introspection going on these days with the pop-Catholic crowd.