In the middle ages Catholics were expected to refrain from meat and dairy products and sex during Lent. Jewish tradition has a sexual morality with a very different idea of sexual ascesis. It has a more celebratory attitude to sexuality which is reflected in seeing the Shabbat as a day when a married couple are expected to have sex. Attitudes to sex are culturally conditioned.
Yet universally sex is such a delicate subject and difficult to regulate because it is so intertwined with our need for love and with our sense of beauty. Bede Griffiths thought that it was equally dangerous to give unrestricted expression to sexual energy as to repress it. The only solution, he said, was to see it as a sacred energy, as many of the great spiritual traditions have done, capable of transforming us if we handle it well. But how?
Any kind of love, according to Thomas Aquinas, is a ‘similarity of participation’ in divine love. The theology here is beautiful and integral. Eros is divine, belonging in the life of God, because it is an aspect and manifestation of all love. The difficult thing is believing it and then living the belief in the context of our lives along with the inconsistencies of our own character.
Many of the most loving and generous people in the world have not got their sexual energy harmonised in this ideal way. They struggle with fear and guilt, excess or compulsiveness. But if they are honest with themselves this struggle itself can humble them and so create spaces for grace and wisdom to flow in and eventually through them.
Sexuality is a sensitive and ineffably intimate energy. It relentlessly drives us to union with others but also often and painfully separates us from them: a source of bliss but often of anguish. It is odd, then, that we can be so cruel and high-minded towards other’s sexual faults or indiscretions. By we, let’s include many Christians and most of the media. Perhaps the reason for this is that when a sexual fault is exposed in one person it threatens to expose something of the same kind in everyone. ‘We’ defend and protect ourselves by attacking those who have already failed and been cast out.
This judgementalism might be a good thing to observe and arrest in our daily reflection on what we have done or failed to do. But then we have to act to reduce it. Do we give people the benefit of the doubt? Do we automatically join in the jeers of the crowd as it turns on its latest scapegoat? Do we project our own shame into a condemnation of others? Can we see how much of our judgeing of others comes not from our own considered decision but through our absorption of the opinions of the media, the ‘news’.
Stepping outside the crowd is a spiritual necessity essential for integrating ourselves and for being compassionate. But to do it we must face an even more dangerous secret in the human heart which is loneliness.