Saturday, 1 December 2012

We are not Ivory Soap

From yesterday's combox:

How much influence do you think sexual sin has on the personal history of a woman? Obviously God can redeem and call anyone to anything (Mary Magdalene, for example), but do you think that women who have had some experience of un-chastity, even if not the sexual act itself, are far less likely to find themselves being called to religious life? Maybe because they would prefer to be married and experience sexuality that way, or because they no longer feel free to give themselves to God in a consecrated way? (Leaving aside canonical issues, of course.)

It seems worth discussing in this culture where very few remain completely pure until/ through adulthood.


Ah, the overwhelming issue of sexual sin. Well, as I understand it, most men at least when they are teenagers have quite a problem with what some confessors treat as a not-so-serious sin for pastoral reasons but which the catechism says is a serious sin. Many (at least when they are teenagers) also deliberately dwell on sexual thoughts instead of allowing them to flit through their teeming brains. And yet no-one ever says that these men are necessarily not called to the priesthood or religious life. Some men (and I know at least one) give up a life of wine, women and song for the life of men religious). St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Merton were all unwed fathers. (In the case of the third, this fact was too much for the Franciscans, but the Trappists found it no bar. NB It is believed the baby and mother were killed in the London Blitz.)

For the past 15 or 16 years I have resisted and decried the notion that men and women can be pure in the same sense as a bar of Ivory soap. Whereas the whole notion of spotless purity was perhaps important psychologically in the past, and roused chivalrous feelings of protection towards children, virgins and "nice women", I think its day is mostly done except in the case of Our Lady, who was preserved from all sin and perhaps other human experiences too by an extraordinary and arguably never-repeated gift from God. (As for children, everyone in my fifth grade class deserved protection from sexual exploitation, but I wouldn't call them "spotlessly pure" as a goodly number spent recess french-kissing each other behind the school.)

It simply is impossible to talk about the purity of women as if women were white wedding dresses that can be stained, uglified, cheapened and heaven knows what by sexual experiences. We aren't. Sexuality is a lot more complicated than a gravy stain, and women (like men) are not things but people. We derive our value not from our lack of sexual feelings or experiences but from our createdness by the Creator, especially in the two past thousand years because of our redemption by the Redeemer. The Father considered us worth the life and death of His Son, but this has nothing to do with our merits. It has entirely to do with the mysterious love of God for His creatures.

There is no Scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, other than that she was inflicted by demons, which suggests to me that she was left unprotected by her family and then, yes, prostitution probably would have been the only way she could have survived. If so, Mary Magdalene was a victim of one of the seriously unjust systems that Christ came to overturn. One might argue that since the sexual revolution, young people are also victims of an unjust system, one which shoves harmful sexual imagery and philosophy at them constantly: in magazines, billboards, television, music, the internet and even in doctors' waiting rooms and at school. Mary Magdalene did not define her life by how well she coped with the system, but by Christ. So should we.

So what does this mean in terms of religious life for women? Well, I was turned down sight unseen by the Tennessee Dominicans, bless them, because 1. I had had an annulment (and therefore had been married) AND because 2. I was 35. It wasn't just that I had been married. It was that I had been married AND was 35. If I had been 35 and never-married, they might have pondered longer. Or if I had just got my annulment and was therefore 28, they might have pondered longer. But actually I was a mess when I was 28, and it would never have occurred to me to join the T.D.s

I'm glad, too, because although I loved growing up with women--Brownies, Girl Guides, Pathfinders, ballet class, women's ice hockey, all-girls school--I enjoy the company of men. A lot. And not just as pals. Nooo. Since I was seven or so, I have been in a state of at least serious crush almost constantly. And the older I get, the more I like men. The attractive ones who also have good characters, anyway. It would be a real wrench to learn to think and speak and behave like a religious sister, which is no doubt why no-one who knows me well has ever suggested I would make a good one.

I can't pinpoint a particular Rubicon that I crossed that made me unfit for religious life. An examination of historical circumstances shows that my parents never praised religious life for women, that not a single teacher, including nuns, ever tried to interest me in religious life until my very last day at school, that between the ages of 6 and 34 I never met a nun whom I thought was the bees' knees*, that the episode in my school's order's foundress' (Mary Ward's) life that impressed me most was that a whole sloo of eligible Catholic bachelors wanted to get engaged to her before she was 12. Me, I could not get a date to the Spring Fling in Grade 9. Boo.

Meanwhile, the most romantic place in the entire world for me was not a convent of any description but the choir stalls of the local Cathedral, for there were the best-trained teenage Catholic Tenors, Baritones and Basses in the archdiocese, and I generally had a crush on one of them. In hindsight this suggests the deepest desire of my heart was to marry a Catholic Tenor, Baritone or Bass from some choir stall somewhere, which is what in 2009 I did.

I can see that developing habits of inchastity may make it difficult to quit being unchaste, but as a matter of fact throughout the ages thousands of women have gone into the desert or into convents to do just that. I am not sure the current structures of religious life support that kind of thing these days, but I'm not a Vocations Director, so who knows?

What I think suggests that a woman has a calling to religious life is not an "unspotted past" (if such a thing is possible for the vast majority of adult women--I mean, where does the spotting start? Kissing games at 12? Fantasies about boy bands at 13? Dancing dangerously too close to your principal crush object to "Stairway to Heaven" at 17? A grope-fest gone out of control with a "fiance" at 22? ) but a real interest in religious life and a real admiration for concrete, real-life women religious. For me it's not enough that St Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein were Carmelite nuns. I'd want to meet and admire a living Carmelite nun before I pondered her way of life for a second.

Frankly, I don't think we should define our lives by our sins, or allow anyone else to define our lives that way. And I don't think we should allow our sins to determine our history. We should define our lives and make our decisions by love. Not by sin. Not by the sorry stream of tatty decisions and experiences we dump on a priest and at the foot of the Cross in the confessional. By love.

We are far less likely to find ourselves called to religious life for the same reason German women in 1919 were far less likely to find themselves called to married life: historical circumstances beyond our control. In the case of the German women (Frenchwomen, Englishwomen, et alia), the men of their generation had been slaughtered on the battlefields of the First World War. In the case of the women of my generation, the upheaval immediately preceding, during and following the Second Vatican Council almost completely destroyed the traditional life of women religious. I do not know of a single Canadian woman my own age who became a nun although two of the boys I knew from local boys' schools became priests.

The situation of women's orders has improved, though, enough to inspire silly Seraphic to call up the Tennessee Dominicans, and to inspire two of the most wonderful women I know to join the Benedictines at Ryde. If a woman is really fascinated by religious life, particularly the historical Rule of a particular religious order, then I suggest she talk to a good priest about it, no matter what her past sins have been.

*When I was 5 or 6, I thought Sister Mary Anthony, IBVM was the bees' knees. When she retired as principal of my elementary school, I cried and cried. I was inconsolable. Possibly I was not just crying for the loss of Sister Mary Anthony but prophetically for the historical circumstances that made it unlikely that a nun would ever be principal of that school again.

Update: My eye just fell upon the idea of wanting to experience sexuality in a married way. Eek. Whereas it is absolutely good and normal to want to reserve sexual acts to marriage, it is not good to get married for "an experience." Marriage is not an experience but a way of life. It certainly has more stability and trust (or SHOULD!) than a non-married relationship in which sexual acts feature, but it is not a infinite font of exciting experiences. Sexuality in the broader sense is who you are as a woman and how you, as a woman, interact with men and the idea of men. In itself it is good, but of course as a created thing it has also affected by the Fall.

Update 2: Note that I am talking about past sins. It is hard to read God's writing at all when you are in a sinful state, and you can't assume God is going to grab you by the shoulder and shout "Hey, you!" He might, but He might not.


Gwen said...

I've been trying to understand what God's plan is for me, and I'm at a point where I have no idea. As a kid I always thought it was marriage, but lately I can't even imagine finding the kind of guy I would want to marry. (Meanwhile my friends have been making it look easy.) When I look back on past relationships, there have been a few truly decent men that I've met, yet for one reason or another it never comes to fruition. I try to learn and grow from dating, but apparently it would take me centuries to actually get it right.

Well-meaning relatives have asked if I'm dating anyone, but it just feels like "what's wrong with you - why don't you take what you can get before it's really too late." I believe that I have good qualities and there are good men out there, but I'm scared that the older I get, the less likely the odds are of finding someone. I really don't want to settle and I don't think I'm being unrealistic. Meanwhile the hormones are raging, which is even more depressing because there isn't anything I can chastely do about any of it aside from praying and exercising. (I guess at least maybe I'll finally get buff in my 30s.) Sexuality as a single woman all feels like a mean joke, even though I know that's not how God works. I have plenty of friends and such a great life that I feel greedy/guilty for even feeling bad about this. Sorry for being Debbie Downer but I just don't know what to do, aside from praying, which I have certainly been doing.

Seraphic said...

The older you get, the higher your chances of finding someone. And, the older you get and the more you invest in your career and friends and own personal interests, the less important it may seem.

Sexuality can indeed seem like a mean joke, but it can be channeled into more than exercise! There is enjoyment and creation of visual art, music and literature. But hopefully Single women will have some insightful replies for you.

Urszula said...

Thank you for this inspiring post, Seraphic. I find it very hopeful, in that it shows we can all aspire and hope for beautiful vocations, even if we may have fallen along the way.

I'm glad you also addressed the topic of female single sexuality. It's not something that is often talked about, yet I'm sure it's something we all struggle with, in one way or another. I'd be interested in what other commenters can suggest or recommend as ways to constructively deal with this.

I do remember The Crescat opened her commbox on this topic a while back, and there was some interesting suggestions there. I can't find the exact post, but I think it was from April 2012.

Maggie said...

Kat's blogpost is here:

Sunnysaffer said...

Gwen, thank you for your open and honest comment. I am in a similar place myself at the moment and it was a great help to be reminded that I am not alone.

I don't have any nice easy answers for you though. I do recognise that in essence these feelings stem from a desire to love and to be loved and that I should therefore focus on developing the relationships I do have with friends and family and those in need in my community. However this is difficult to practise - much easier to wallow in self pity!

Gwen said...

Could you talk more about why the chances of meeting someone increase with age? That seems counter-intuitive to me. But it sounds like it might be a hopeful topic.

Seraphic said...

Let me count the ways.

First, look at the marriage stats for your country and you will see that the older someone is the more likely it is that they are married.

Second, note in particular the age at which men are marrying/cohabiting now. It is taking men longer to grow up, and when they do they look around and take notice of the women who are left. A lot of these Leo the Late Bloomers have bloomed into beauties.

Third, the longer you live and the more you travel about, the more you meet people.

Fourth, despite the rumours, most men prefer to marry women their own age and in their own, believe it or not, "level" or as they call it "league."

Fifth, most men don't seem to stop being interested in women in general, no matter how old the women get, until they are way old. There are bachelors in their 50s on traditional Catholic dating sites--the Latin Mass ones, so we are taking hardcore rosary-rattlers, not just the kind of Catholic Match guy who is C.I.N.O.

Sixth, my personal theory is thanks to the internet shrinking the world and the popularity of mass pilgrimage of Catholics, it is easier for the truly eccentric and quirky (like me) to find the sort of guy who just wants to take them home and feed them. Unless a woman has a SERIOUS personal problem or a strong devotion to Single or religious life, the real (human) answer to "Why aren't you married?" is "The right guy hasn't found me yet." (The divine answer is that God hasn't willed it yet.)

I hope is helpful and still hopeful! Have a look through my blog for stuff about women who married in their late 30s, their 40s and (I believe) at 50.

Maria said...

The comment stream in The Crescat's post pretty much reflects my own experiences, so it's nice to know that there do seem to be common solutions to the problem. What's that line about the devil finding work for idle hands? Basically, I've found that temptation follows swiftly on loneliness, depression, and bitterness at being single. I have found it's easiest for me to keep the whole "package deal" at bay by keeping happily busy: that means fulfilling work if possible, interesting hobbies, and plenty of time spent with fun friends and family. When I don't give myself time to reflect on the fact that Id rather be married, I don't obsess about how I'm remaining celibate while "all those other people are getting away with it".
I'd also like to thank you for blogging on this topic Seraphic. It makes me feel terrible when I read stuff along the lines of, guys are the only ones dealing with sexuality and girls are always pure as newfallen snow in this regard.
I'd be interested in hearing what Serious Singles or women religious do about this - surely at least some of them struggle sometimes?

Jam said...

Here's what I struggle with when it comes to reading one's history. People often ask me if I'm discerning/considering becoming a nun, which I'm pretty sure that's not my calling, but it worries me that maybe I'm wrong. I know men who have this problem too. I'm pretty sure I'm called to marriage vows, not other kinds, but what if God's sending me a message through these folks who see a devout single woman no longer in college who never seems to have a boyfriend, and think "nun". I admit, I can see where it kind of fits.

Jackie said...

Seraphic, what a great, great list!

After hearing an extremely unkind remark and feeling pretty low about my chances for marriage, I truly appreciate what you have written.

Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for replying to my comment - I was hoping for a post like this. It seems like very few Catholic women are willing to discuss this kind of thing.
-- Anon from yesterday

Miss Doyle said...

Hey Jam, that happens to me too. I used to worry about that that might be the way God was communicating with me (i.e. through other's suggestions). Problem was, none of those people knew me very well and had very modern (aCatholic) ideas about the single life anyway. So don't worry!
Just because I'm 28 and have never had a boyfriend I don't take it to mean that i'm meant to be a nun. i don't do one color outfits.