Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Mystery of Finding Love

A reader comments on my most recent post ...

First off, I recently discovered your blog and it has been like water in the desert. Thank you.

But here is where I need help: you see, I am one of those wistfully single Catholics, in my late 30s, watching my hopes for marriage and children dry up. Most of my dating career has been with mostly upstanding religious guys with whom I shared few common interests and to whom I felt no physical attraction. I mean, I have literally prayed that certain guys wouldn't try to kiss me for a few more dates, just because I wanted to give myself more time to get used to the thought. 

But then I have also had the experience of dating a couple of guys (invariably non-religious) whom I couldn't wait to see again, where I didn't know which I wanted more: to kiss him or to talk with him some more. Attraction and feelings don't measure up to true friendship and sacrifice, I know that. But I still can't figure out a way to just make myself settle down with the religious fellow (who would probably objectively treat me well, maybe die for me if he married me, and when sex is off the table pretty much my only dating option)---And I ask this seriously with all my lonely, despairing heart: how do I make myself kiss him? (And, more importantly, enjoy his companionship when I just don't?)

I guess I see it like this: you were obviously drawn and attracted to acting, if you'd had no choice but to become an accountant, how would you have made it work?

My married friends tell me marriages are difficult enough when you're attracted to and like spending time with your spouse, and couldn't understand why I kept seeing this one guy whom I respected but wasn't attracted to (it was in a recent, desperate, "I'm going to be 40 in a couple years and he's Catholic and interested in me and there's nothing objectively wrong with him I have to just make this work" panic.)  In the end, I broke it off because I just couldn't go through with it. The awkward, silent dinners were too awful---we had little beyond a shared religious background in common. 

It was so easy for my non-religious friends: if they weren't attracted to someone or didn't enjoy hanging out with him, they stopped dating him. Simple and natural. For the most part, they found great, ethical, grounded husbands. Many of them are opposites in some respects (introverts / extroverts) but they are compatible. 

Help? (I would also welcome any advice for getting over persons for whom you did have feelings and attraction because those memories aren't helping me.)

And now I have to figure out what to reply.

First of all, whatever I say, please consider the source.  For some reason I've been inspired to write lately on issues of romance and friendship, especially as they tie in to the difficulties devout Christians encounter in their attempts to be devout Christians.  However, I'm hardly an expert on this - but then again, who is?  I've simply been blessed with a solid marriage that's had its share of problems, with a powerful vocation to serving God through the dramatic arts, and with a strange journey that's brought me to this point.

For my life has largely been the story of impossible desires fulfilled through unexpected fidelity.  By that I mean that the great and deep call that I would hear as a boy walking alone in the country after midnight in Hermit Hollow in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks where we lived, walking alone with the Milky Way and thousands of stars blazing overhead - that silent and mysterious majesty, "deep calling unto deep" (see Ps. 42:7), that mystery that lifted my heart to God even when I didn't believe in God - that great and profoundly serious and mournful joy - that call that I heard, that still small voice that moved me, all of that desire that I felt was a desire for something - for someone - that I loved.  Yet how to find or serve my love was beyond me.  How to answer that call in the real world was part of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Could I have been an accountant and not in show biz?  No.  I tried things like that.  I tried to be sensible and ignore my desire.  I tried to quench the Spirit (1 Thes. 5:19) and I could never get it to work.  That's why I've always said that one of the signs of a true vocation is the inability to hold down a day job.  And I couldn't - I simply couldn't - hold down a day job.  I was unable - constitutionally unable - to do anything for money that was not related to my calling.  It got so bad that the only money I had at one point was the jar of pennies my grandma had given me - a huge, heavy jar, whose contents, to my chagrin, after I counted them, amounted to $17 and change.  I'd get some sort of work and quit after a day.  I was like the character in the movie A Thousand Clowns, only more unhappy, more driven, less able to rest.

And because this drove me, I got creative.  I realized I'd never get someone to hire me to do what I loved.  I had to hire myself.  So I started my own singing telegram business, and performed over 2,000 singing telegrams and made good money - doing what I loved.  When that ended, I became a free-lance director, writer and teacher of children's theater classes.  For a while I made a living as a stand-up comic.  I made money touring to military bases overseas with a show I wrote and produced.  And then I stumbled upon the delightful fun of playing all the parts in my own interactive comedy murder mysteries, which I sell to wineries across the country, and which has paid my bills and supported my family for 25 years now.

This wasn't easy.  I suffered a lot.  I never gave up.  And I never married the lame gal who didn't turn me on.  

This all sounds secular, but it's really all religious.  For here I now am, having been an atheist at age nine, spiritual but not religious at age 18, a New Age Jungian by my mid-twenties, then after my conversion a right-wing fundamentalist Lutheran, a left-wing goofy Episcopalian, and finally simply Catholic: and still making a living doing what I love doing and what God has made me to do - here I am somehow continuing to find impossible desires fulfilled through unexpected fidelity.  The fidelity has been at the very least to this: the realization that God does not place a longing in your heart unless He wants you to go on a quest to satisfy it; that the great mystery of our being includes what we love and what we're drawn to, includes who we love and who are drawn to marry, and that to deny or to bury this is somehow in some way to turn your back on God.  It is to refuse to take up your cross and tread that winding and challenging trail, which is both a way of sorrows and a way of intense satisfaction and fulfillment.

That's why I criticize Devout Catholics who are simply eunuchs, quietists unwilling to cooperate with God's grace, unwilling to take a risk and suffer for what they love.  That's why, on the other extreme, I criticize the Westians and the neo-Gnostic sex-magic Catholics who make a god of desire and who frustrate the function of the sexual urge by smearing it all over everything they see.

That's why I rail against Unreality (the tendency of devout Christians to make God something artificial and fictional that they can control) - for Unreality is anti-Incarnational.  The challenge is the Incarnation: to bring God's Word to bear in the Real world - and that's painful, that's risky, that takes us out of our damned "comfort zones".

But even though I write (and write and write) I never quite get it right.  When I wrote yesterday ...

Find a spouse who is willing to die for you.  And then you be willing to die for your spouse.

... I was afraid that that would be misunderstood as "the whole picture" or the magic pill.  What I meant was not, "Marry someone who is willing to die for you even if you're not attracted to him".  When I quoted Chesterton, "I have known many happy marriages but never a compatible one," I did not mean that compatibility is beside the point.  There is a literary license, a way of talking that's illustrative and metaphoric, that every written work adopts, which (apparently) confounds and confuses the literal minded among us - and confuses all of us when we're in a literal mode.

Yesterday's post was one in a longer series that touches on many aspects of a very big and complex story.  The point of yesterday's post was, "Don't be fooled into thinking that intimacy is the same thing as friendship.  Friendship is a greater thing, a divine thing, and intimacy does not necessarily indicate it.  The heart of friendship is sacrifice, the cross of Christ.  Any 'friend' that shirks this cross is either simply a casual acquaintance, or someone who's using you.  And a fair weather friend is a foul friend indeed."

But, as you know, dear reader, a friendship with no spark - even if there's mutual self-sacrifice - is not the sort of stuff that makes for a good marriage.  Agape without Eros is clinical and dead.  Eros without Agape consumes itself in lust.  The challenge is uniting them both - which is our great call: a call to love, for God is love.

And so the answer (after all this verbiage) is rather obvious.  Don't date guys you're not attracted to.  Duh.

Why is this so shocking in the Devout Christian world?  Indeed, if you read some of my earlier posts on this subject, you'll find that if I so much as say, "Look for character in a prospective mate; that's more important that religion," readers will quote Canon Law to me and tell me that Catholics should not marry non-Catholics.  But not every non-Catholic is really not-Catholic: full communion with Christ is an outward sign of an inward mystery, and what you want is a man who is Good, for all Goodness comes from Christ.  You want a man who is willing to be in full communion with Christ, but how he gets there may end up being largely determined by you and how you love him.  Yes, you must get married in the Church and you must raise your kids in the Church - but don't put the cart before the horse, and don't date only devout Catholics (who are often simply nuts), for your true love probably lives outside of your own metaphoric zip code.  In other words, better a good man who doesn't take communion than a scoundrel or a loser who does.

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband (1 Cor. 7:14)

So don't compromise.  Don't settle.

There's a reason you're attracted to certain men and not attracted to others.  Deny that at your own peril.  Attraction alone does not make a marriage, any more than intimacy makes a friendship.  But it's part of the picture.

And the picture is a vast and sometimes confusing one indeed.  And yet some day we'll see the whole of it.  Here we are on the wrong side of the tapestry.  But there we will see how all the threads fit together in a design more beautiful and grand than we can imagine.


Anonymous said...

I was watching an interview program on EWTN a couple of years ago and a priest and the man is was the founder of Ave Maria Singles, or something like that, were being asked questions about relationships and love. One caller was asking if she should continue to date a guy that she had "no spark" for whatsoever. The priest spoke up right away and said that no only should she not date him, but to continue to date a person you have no attraction to, is to commit the first violence in the relationship.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for replying to me. I appreciate your words.

I originally found your blog, btw, following a link from another discussion criticizing Catholic Courtship culture, a version of which I was fed and followed in my teens and 20s, and which I believe did me real harm.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't think you get the point here.

Devout Catholics aren't dating people they don't find physically or emotionally attractive just because that is some fetish of theirs.

It's because there are so few Devout Catholics around and they are so hard to meet that if you find one, it could be your only chance to get married at all.

Date someone you can tolerate but don't love in romantic sense. Or be alone and feel that you are just going to sit and rot for the rest of your life.

The sheer loneliness of being a Devout Catholic is crushing at times. Our parishes ignore us.

There is nothing as discouraging as watching your prime family building years waste away -- or in my case, disappear further and further back in the rear view mirror.

jvc said...

A few thoughts...

To the anonymous lady who inspired the post, I'd like to say that I've had your same awkward experiences, but as a guy. This is what happens when there are so few practicing Catholics left, after 75 or so generations of having plenty of potential matches. My bad experiences have always been in connection with you-know-what website.

I would like to help her understand, though, that a lot of men are emotionally broken, and they've played this dating game for ~20 years, or more, and are exhausted by it - emotionally and spiritually. I think if you go into some of these encounters with more than usual compassion it might help with opening them up.

The biggest problem with dating non-Catholics (which I don't object to) is contraception and chastity... the Catholic position is so far out of the norm (statistically), that it's probably a giant turnoff to most non-Catholics.

Kevin O'Brien said...

For crying out loud, JVC, don't bring up contraception or chastity on the first date! If you click after a few dates and she wants to sleep with you, explain that love is too important to you for that, per what your Faith teaches. If she's worth it, she'll respect that. If she's not, you'll find out right away. That's sort of the advice fathers used to give daughters.

Anyway, I'm violating my rule of non-engagement in the combox. I am doing so to link to my reply to Anonymous 2 above. Meanwhile, Anonymous-es, please come up with a name, even a fake one, so we can refer to you and not get confused.

jvc said...

Well, clearly a person shouldn't bring it up on the first date.

IHS Vinces said...

Kevin, I disagree with your comments and want to support JVC.

Also, Anonymous 3 says some good things.

The reality is that in today's dating world, especially if you are over 30 and in a professional field, sex on the third date is practically automatic. It's presumed. A lot people think it shows heroic restraint to wait that long.

I agree that you don't want to talk about premarital sex and contraception on the first date. It is a bonehead faux pas on the order of asking your date whether she has read Christopher West.

But if you don't have the sex talk on your first date, it is going to be coming up soon after your second. That's not much time to establish rapport and decide how serious your relationship is going to be.

From a guy's perspective, this is exhausting. And worse. It is humiliating and demoralizing to get abuse from a woman who is angry and upset with you because you won't sleep with her. Some even take it as an insult--as in, what's wrong with me? I have had these experiences, and I know.

JVC is correct that serious Catholics are such a small part of the population, statistically, that the number of available matches borders on zero.

I totally agree that a lot of Catholic men have just given up. What can you do? You are facing 99% odds against in any given situation. Once you have started dating someone and realize that you can never marry her because you don't have a Catholic faith in common, or maybe any faith at all, you need to break up. And frankly, what's the justice in starting this process over and over again. You just get tired of it.

And for some reason, at least for me, online dating is not the answer. Like JVC, I haven't had any good experiences there either. Clearly it works for some people, but statistically, I wonder what the overall success rate is.

jvc said...

Thanks, Vinces. I wasn't really disagreeing with Kevin or anyone else, just pointing out something that I'm not sure many non-millennials fully grasp, which is the problem of raw numbers, and the extreme statistical difference between the standard Catholic position and everyone else's position.

I wouldn't mind dating a non-Catholic. In fact, I wish I had come around to that position a lot sooner. It's something that kind of developed in my professional life. I'd be much happier with a women who I connect with on everything but faith who I think might be reasonably convinced over a lifetime.

But, again, the biggest problem is that chastity is just seen as ridiculous to most non-Catholics.

IHS Vinces said...

JVC, I completely agree with you. The numbers are a big problem.

And by the way, look at the unmarried under-30, even under 40 population of the typical Catholic parish. These people are missing. They're gone. They have left.

Among the few that remain, I would cite two problems. First, the active social networks that existed in Catholic parishes 50 years ago are gone today. Catholic lay society is not doing its job in helping singles find each other.

Second, as a man, I can only speak about the bad experiences that I have had as a man. I can be baffled and frustrated when pressured for sex by a sexually aggressive woman, but that is nowhere near the pressure felt by our Catholic sisters who are bluntly told no sex, no date, no relationship. And frankly, a lot of the bad actors are nominally Catholic men. You can see why the level of trust between single Catholic men and women has gotten to be so low. Why do you think Catholic singles events are always so deadly dull? It's the toxic spillover of the hookup culture, which damages even those who don't participate in it.

I have had great dates with Evangelical Protestants, Jews, High Anglicans, and even the occasional Muslim or two. It is not that I didn't explore that area. But the reality is that the sexual ethics are totally different from ours, which is a problem. Also, I have decided that I really want to marry someone who will go to mass with me on Sunday. That's all. Just very basic Catholic practice. But as a result, I have spent many years wandering in the Great Catholic Dating Desert.

Anonymous said...

"There's a reason you're attracted to certain men and not attracted to others. Deny that at your own peril. Attraction alone does not make a marriage, any more than intimacy makes a friendship. But it's part of the picture."

Sociologists sometimes call this "sexual mapping". What people are attracted to is not something built into us a birth, but acquired and formed over our life times. It is most strongly changed through sex but can be changed through porn. What we are attracted to can be malformed.

Just ask the numerous single mothers in the church.

DK said...

I actually feel better reading these comments. Even though I intellectually knew I couldn't be only single thirty something devout Catholic, it's nice to actually hear the others calling in the distance. My scant dating experience seems to mirror that described both with Catholics and non-Catholics, and I would add that the mere thought of the sex talk has hindered a few opportunities for me. The few occasions where a nice, cute, non-Catholic guy has expressed interest, my mind immediately races to "How do I tell him I'm not going to sleep with him?" Hence I freeze and he thinks I'm not interested.

Anonymous said...

I have dated guys I wasn't attracted to. And when I figured out that wasn't changing, I let go and let them find somebody else. It made me happy when I found out that they did marry somebody else, and that they are happy and have happy kids. They were great guys; I just wasn't the one for them and vice versa.

Dating is about possibilities and decisions. You don't keep people on a string when it's not working; it's no good for you or for them. Figure it out and move on.

Kate said...

Don't put dating a Catholic on a pedestal either. If you sacrifice a lot (desire, compatible personalities, personal preference, etc), you'll only find yourself particularly unprepared and poorly-ballasted should a storm knock your "checks all the right doctrinal boxes" spouse off their pedestal--or right out of the Church. Sin is the cause of suffering, and sin comes from within, not without.

I think it's a real temptation to try to escape the pain and sin we see in other people's lives by doing all the right things--marrying the right kind of person so we can have the right kind of life--but at some level that constricts God's ability to bring surprising graces and reveal His plan for you. Which could include all kinds of things, including living like Elizabeth Leseur did--as an example of love and patience to her beloved (atheist) husband until the day of her death, only converting him after death through her journals.

Choose a mate who you have the capacity to love even when it hurts (which it will). Choose a mate who demonstrates the ability to love even when *he or she* hurts. If they're non-Catholic, try to see if that capacity for love extends far enough to include the things *you* love because they can see that the Faith is a part of you that makes you the person they love.

Anonymous said...

The numbers maybe discouraging but do keep the faith! Go date a good person you're attracted to and who you think has capacity to understand and respect your beliefs.

As the author so eloquently puts it, agape and eros should go together. Don't settle for anything less.