Yeah, I’ll admit it. I belong to that ever-decreasing group that thinks that our human sexuality is a big enough deal that how we exercise it has profound implications for human, societal, and spiritual flourishing. Further, I believe God has woven in the design of the world particular rhythms and ways in which sexuality lends itself to that flourishing. I see it as something so integral to our souls and bodies that there is a type of care and stewardship that we are lovingly called to exercise with it. And sometimes “stewardship” means placing limits on oneself.
I’ve talked about what this stewardship looks like in various other contexts, but for the purpose of this post, I’m focusing on one in particular. My focus today–to put it plainly–is on the idea that people who aren’t married aren’t “supposed” to have sex.
This isn’t a systematic defense of that idea. I know there are lots of differences of opinions and nuances (even among Christians) on this. I know that we talk about this in the abstract in one way, and when we get to particular people and situations, these “clear” ideas break-down quickly. I get that. But just walk with me for a little bit.
A while ago, I wrote a piece on how Advent speaks to singleness and celibacy in which I said that “celibacy” is not an “abstaining” from our sexuality, but is in fact a way of exercising it. In other words, it’s not that when you’re celibate, your sexuality is like a muscle atrophying without use, but rather there is an entirely different set of exercises and ways in which you’re using it–ways that have incredible depths of grace and joy. And this should be valued.
At the time that I wrote that celibacy piece, lots of people appreciated it, and especially this idea that celibacy was active. And yet, a few people (privately) asked me what that actually meant practically. Yeah, it’s a beautiful idea, but what does it mean?
Early last week, I ran across a New York Times Op-Ed piece that moves us forward in answering this. In “Life Without Sex“, Sophie Fontanel tells us about how she experienced her own sexuality during a period of her life where she took a twelve-year “break” from sex. She writes of her inspiration:
Alone in all that sun and snow, absorbing energy from the sky and mountains, I let my body breathe quietly. The freedom and whiteness of the snow and mountains produced a kind of ecstasy. And the special pleasure I found skiing in this paradise made me think about the possibilities of my body, my sensuality. And I asked myself, “Sophie, is your sexual life so very stimulating, actually?” And my answer was, “No.” I realized that even when I took pleasure, I was not ecstatic with my sexual life. In fact, I seemed to be going through the motions of lovemaking because, I thought, that’s what everybody did. I decided to take a break, to recover a true desire.
In this time, she became so much more aware of how people fundamentally define themselves–in every context, it seems–by their sexuality. The primary basis that drives how we relate to anyone is whether we are sexually attracted to them. She realized that joining your sexuality with someone else’s is not necessarily where “true desire” is found. But cultural obsessions about sex were not all she became aware of.
By giving up sex, I abandoned all this pretense. During the 12 years I didn’t have sex, I learned so much. About my body, the role of art in eroticism, the power of dreams, the softness of clothes, the refuge and the importance of elegance. That I can take more pleasure while watching Robert Redford shampooing Meryl Streep’s hair in “Out of Africa” than being in a bed with a man. Sometimes I took pleasure just by staring at men’s necks. Sometimes, just by listening to a voice. It was libido, trust me. It was desire. But society doesn’t recognize this kind of felicity. It’s too much! I’ve learned that most people mainly want to prove that they are sexually functioning, and that’s all. Strangely, people are ashamed to admit that they are alone in their beds, which I discovered is a huge pleasure.
She learned the utter sensuality of the world. She felt her own embodiment rather than trying to use it; her body became a home and not a tool. She tapped into a depth of experience that is still sexual even when it is not fundamentally physical or tangible.
And it is this depth that the Christian story speaks to. It is this true principle that is over-simplified when well-meaning married couples tell single people to “find their satisfaction in God”. The core of truth in this is not that Christianity is meant to make us “sex-less” or “desire-less” as we float in an ethereal ocean of the Divine. Our sexuality is so much deeper than “mere” physical touch, and it’s deepest wells are utterly spiritual. This is why the Psalmist can write:
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water….
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night…
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Or why Brother Lawrence, in The Practice of the Presence of God can write of his “general passionate regard to God… [that is] so charming and delicious that I am ashamed to mention them.” Delicious? Really? Yes.
This Op-Ed, though clearly not written from this Christian perspective, nevertheless taps into a profound truth of our humanity that is so often overlooked by the Church (well, not all of it). It encourages those of us that are not “sexually active” that our sexuality can be active and directed towards incredibly meaningful and even ecstatic things in the world and ourselves.
That’s not to say it’s easy. The Op-Ed, even describes it as a”desert”, but an essential one: “I believe that a desert is sometimes necessary. Sometimes, it is what your soul and your body need. A rest. To dream instead of do.”
This is why need to learn how to lament communally within every expression of sexuality. Each sphere comes with its own set of brokenness and loneliness. Millions of people with others in their bed are still, in a very real sense, sleeping alone. Every sexual sphere has a weight and sharp edges that can cut so deeply. It’s simply not the case that married people are hurt less in their sexuality than single people.
But this is why, along with lamenting, this also needs to be joyfully proclaimed and celebrated in the Church–so that there can be a community of people all knowing and freely-inhabiting–and enjoying–their particular sphere of sexual expression.
It’s possible for all of us to inhabit our sexuality while acknowledging both it’s Beauty and Brokenness. Each expression of sexuality should acknowledge the full spectrum of experience that’s possible within every sphere, so that none of them are “elevated” above the others.
And to this end, we need art, poetry, and drama that taps into these deep wells. We need individuals that are passionate about topics in an almost ravenous way. We need the beauty of the world to allure us like a beautiful face would. We need preaching and writing and ideas and lives that sweep us up into a rapture greater than mere “existing” and waiting for the next relationship or physical touch. We need Communion. And we need this among entire communities of people and their friendships within them–not just among romantic couples.
We need this to be so common place that it becomes mundane. It needs to be our intuitive way of living in the mundanities of the world, not our “escape” from them. Sexuality is woven into the fabric and rhythm of the world, and so to tap into it is a very “worldly” and tangible enterprise. And one to be celebrated.
We need the freedom to be fully and truly sexual, even if we’re not joining our sexuality with anyone else, and we need the safety and security that a “communal” sexuality provides. Our sexuality is meant to have limits, but these limits are ultimately to promote freedom and uninhibited exploration within those limits, and not to make us obsess about the limits themselves.
I hope the beauty of this is clear and appreciated. I hope it’s helpful. I hope it offers grace to our unmarried brothers and sisters that are hurting so deeply in their loneliness. I hope it offers healing to those that have been hurt as they have engaged in certain sexual spheres–including marriage. I hope it gives us all the tools and equipping to be more human, no matter where we are in life, rather than somehow feeling hindered in our own human flourishing because of some sexual dynamic not known.
Chastity is not a “negative” in the sense that it is a “lack” of something. Even married people exercise Chastity with one another. Mere “abstaining” is not true Chastity. Chaste-ness needs to be exercised and “done”. “True love” waits for nothing. It goes after whatever is its highest love in the sphere in which it finds itself.
I encourage us all–together–to explore and find those ways that our sexuality is tapped and stirred and expressed. To work together to find a common, communal sexuality that brings to bear the fullness of our humanity into the fullness of the world, on into the fullness of our Creator and Lover.