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As was stated in the last article, “Balancing Eros and Agape”, we live in an age of a “new paganism”. Contrary to Christianity, paganism exalted eros – the desire for and the seeking of personal happiness, over agape – the selfless giving for the good of the other. Christ, as He did with so many other things, turned this upside down (or more accurately, right side up after Adam and Eve had turned things upside down). Christ preached that those who hunger in this life would be well fed in the next, while those who are rich now will see the comfort they sought in this life die with them (Luke 6:21, 24). In the eschaton, we will see the great reversal: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish” (Luke 16:25).
Failing to understand this, St. Peter considered it a scandal that Our Lord would allow himself to suffer and die (Matthew 16:22). But the real scandal was Peter’s admonition (Matthew 16:23). Doing the Lord’s will in this “valley of tears” is hard and painful work (Genesis 3:17b-19a) which brings with it a great deal of “mourning and weeping” (Salve Regina). If we place too much of an emphasis on joy and get too attached to pleasure, we will never be able or willing to do the work the Lord would have us do. This is something the Saints understood very well, as can be seen in the penitential and ascetical lives they lived.
But there is another who wants us to fixate on the joy and seek to remain there instead of going back to our crosses: the Evil One (which is why in rebuking Peter, Jesus said, “get thee behind me, Satan”). Because all things in this world were created “good” (Genesis 1), we derive a certain joy in possessing them. However, these goods remain material or human signs that are meant to point us toward and ultimately lead us to the greater spiritual or divine reality. Hence, the joys which derive from the things of this world will never completely fulfill us or give us ultimate joy.
Now Satan, being the “most subtle” of all creatures (Genesis 3:1), tries to get fallen man to stop short at the sign so as to keep us from the reality. He tries to get us to make the good things of this world our “supreme joy” rather than God, which is the very definition of “idolatry” (CCC 2113). Thus we worship the “creature” rather than the “Creator” (Romans 1:20-25) by placing the “sign” above the “reality”.
It is this truth which is at the root of the theology of religious life. There are primarily three things in this world that are so good, we tend to become more attached to them than to God. These are (1) money, (2) sex, and (3) power. Through the evangelical counsels, one completely renounces those three things through vows of poverty (money), chastity (sex), and obedience (power), and thus renders powerless Satan’s three greatest weapons.
It is not a coincidence that the Golden Calf of Exodus 32, which is the epitome of idolatrous worship, symbolized these three great “gods”. A stud bull represents both power and sexual prowess, while the gold that it was made of represents wealth. In the ancient world, foreign gods were worshiped in order to obtain what the gods promised to bestow. The Israelites, therefore, chose money, sex, and power over Yahweh and His will.
But the main god, it would seem, was sexual pleasure. First, Moses commanded the people to prepare to ascend the mountain and meet the Lord by “abstaining from sexual relations for three days” (Exodus 19:15) in order to teach the Israelites that as good and holy as sex was, God was holier (here we see the Biblical roots of the Catholic theology and practice of priestly celibacy and the vow of perpetual continence). However, the Israelites failed to practice temporary abstinence (Exodus 19:12, 13b, 16, 19-22). Second, in the worship of the Golden Calf, the Israelites “rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6, 18) – or, in other words, had an orgy. Scandalously, this was done under the guise of Yahweh worship: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. … Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exodus 32:4-5).
Although those who do not embrace the evangelical counsels also do well because they are choosing that which is good, it is nonetheless a more difficult and dangerous path (1Corinthians 7:28b). For those who “remain in the world” and marry, pursue a career, and choose various pastimes, a life of “asceticism” is essential. Fasting, abstinence, and penance help us to “mortify our senses” (Catechism, #2015, 2549) and achieve a “detachment from creatures” (Catechism, #1472, 2544) so that we do not become more attached to created goods than to the ultimate good – the Uncreated God. As John XXIII stated in his encyclical on penance, Paenitentiam Agere, “Penance is that counterforce which keeps the forces of concupiscence in check and repels them” (paragraph 10).
This is why the early Christians as a rule fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and why, until recently, the Church mandated fasting throughout the 40 days of Lent. It is why various forms of penance were employed, including the use of hairshirts, “the discipline” (self-flagellation), the “cilice” (a necklace or bracelet with jagged rocks or metals which dig into and irritate the skin – still popular with Opus Dei), and a various other methods of “chastising the body” (1Corinthians 9:27).
Finally, it is also why the practice of temporary continence among married couples was highly encouraged and even strongly recommended by the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which, just as Moses did, encouraged married couples to abstain from sex for three days before receiving Holy Communion (when Communion was received much less frequently) and for longer periods of time during Lent (Chapter “Holy Matrimony”, Section “The Use of Marriage”).
This rich and ancient theology of asceticism and continence has unfortunately been absent from our catechesis – even within orthodox circles. Once again, various members and movements in our Church have been influenced by this post-Christian, neo-pagan world which has refashioned the Golden Calf and resurrected the ancient gods of money, sex, and power.
In certain catecheses on sex and marriage, this influence can be detected. For instance, many such presentations speak of celibacy exclusively in terms of its eschatological significance. They speak of sexual union as a foretaste of the ecstasies of heaven and celibacy as “skipping” that sign in order to embrace that reality in the here and now (as though the only difference between a celibate and a married person is that the celibate “gets there a bit quicker” than the married do). It is all about what the celibate “gets”.
The Catholic Tradition, on the other hand, speaks about many other essential differences between celibacy and the married, including the celibate’s ability to serve and love with an undivided heart and be more available to the universal Church. Furthermore, the focus is not so “egocentric”. A young religious sister whose acquaintance I met (Sr. Miriam of the Nashville Dominicans) was formed well in this Tradition when she answered the question, “what is the greatest thing about being a religious?” by stating, “I have the opportunity to sacrifice”. In other words, she is ecstatic about what she is able to give (agape) rather than what she receives (eros).
We should remember the words of Paul VI in his encyclical on penance, Paenitemini, in order to assist us correct our defective catecheses on sex and marriage: “True penitence … cannot ever prescind from physical ascetism as well. … The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam's sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification – far removed from any form of stoicism – does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through ‘corporal fasting’ man regains strength and the ‘wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence’” (Chapter II).