The monk replied, poetically,
An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter
Nowhere is there any warmth
On hearing the report of this, the widow kicked the monk out of his hut and burned it down.
This may be the most truthful story about sex I’ve ever encountered. When the widow hears what I take to be the monk’s claim that he’s gone past being subject to sexual desire, she calls bullshit. If his twenty years of spiritual practice really had convinced him that he’d stepped out of that human mess of desire where the rest of us live, then burning down his hut may have been the most skillful response possible. Just suggesting his error to him probably would have been ineffective, given that he was bought into delusion to the point of reciting spontaneous poetry about it.
Sex is the force that never leaves any of us alone, and it’s the conundrum that’s never resolved. Wallowing in it is destructive. If you regard finding satisfaction from it a requirement for a fulfilled life, prepare to live unfulfilled. Not even the extremely attractive ever find that. But brace yourself against it and you tend to brace yourself against pleasure in general, with a great temptation to turn into a self-righteous Puritan. Religious or other regulations don’t resolve it, as neat and tidy as that would be, for this force is never neat and tidy.
The sexual revolution that began in the twentieth century has been a positive thing in terms of allowing us to understand ourselves to be sexual beings, to abandon a lot of the unnecessary shame associated with sexuality, and to look at sex with much more honesty than had before been possible. But that honesty didn’t solve the problem either. Increased sexual freedom hasn’t kept sex from being one of the greatest sources of suffering and dissatisfaction or from being one of the ways we hurt ourselves and each other, often pretty intensely. The revolution, with its many genuine benefits, didn’t change things in that regard.
And in the midst of the revolution, religion hasn’t let go of its role as arbiter of sexual morality among those who still listen to it. But among those of us who listen--and who haven’t simply closed their hearts against the revolution's evidence--there’s a reasonable impulse to examine why religion is said to impose restrictions when it comes to sex. A god who creates sexual beings and then forbids them to be sexual other than in very special circumstances would seem monstrous, and many of us have an intuition that the reality for which the word God stands is not a monster. I’m of a belief that anything that’s presented as God’s will can be subjected to scrutiny, for I don’t believe any rule attributed to divine command is inherently inexplicable, or that it will ultimately go against reason or the witness of our own hearts. The “God just says so” argument for imposition of sexual or any other rules is weak, particularly in this age in which few are content with such claims. That sort of justification has always worked best in times and places when the divine rule matched the status quo.
In Christianity, as elsewhere, there has of course been a consistent effort to confine sex to heterosexual marriage, sometimes with even further regulation within that relationship. There are a number of practical reasons for that regulation that might incline people to accept it as God’s will. Marriage is a safeguard for the legitimacy of children. It facilitates connections and alliances between families or political entities. And it can be a way of protecting (or controlling) women. All of these are societal imperatives for which religion traditionally provided the proof-text. But these are getting to seem obsolete today, and few are willing to accept them uncritically as God’s will (unless you’ve bought into the “God just says so” position and are resolved to look no further, in which case, this reflection will likely not be of interest to you anyway).
I’ve come to wonder if the impulse to regulate sex is at heart about protecting us from lust. Lust is pejorative term I’m not crazy about, but I can’t think of another word that works as such handy shorthand for what I'm talking about. So please don’t take me to be using the word in its sense as one of the so-called “seven deadly sins,” but rather in an effort to describe, with the intention of being as nonjudgmental about it as possible, the kind of sexual arousal that distracts us and that we might describe as “hot” (I’m pretty sure everyone will know what I’m talking about without my having to go into details—and the details vary a lot, of course, from person to person). I mean the kind of erotic attraction that affects us like the wind shaking an oak tree, to use Sappho’s famous phrase, that force that can cause us to make fools of ourselves at best or to hurt others at worst--or that these days is often simply negotiated between two or more people in an effort to get it taken care of with as few casualties as possible.2 But, with lust understood that way, what’s wrong with it? What does its regulation point to? If we’re created as sexual beings, why not accept that fact and enjoy it? What is behind religion’s impulse to inhibit it?
I speculate it has something to do with this: that lust usually has something to do with power. The kind of sexual arousal that can be called lust seems to me most often to have something to do with exerting power over the object of one’s desire, or, alternatively to have control exerted over one. It's in some way a reaching out to use another person to gratify oneself. Examine a lustful thought or an image that grabs you in that way and see if this seems true.
I’ve come to think that lust is nothing much else than the eroticization of the power exchange on which the world runs. It's the power-play that Christ and various other dangerous minority figures throughout history have revealed to be misguided, by their lives revealing the other, saving direction: the way of kenosis, the self-emptying that contains within it the triumph over the whole system of power-play. This kenosis doesn’t coexist with lust. They go in opposite directions. At heart, the regulation of sex is, I believe, about pointing us in that better direction: it's about making us aware of our impulse to use others and in doing so to highlight for us the saving direction, the way that leads to sacrificing ourselves for others. Showing us that this way of self-emptying is in fact the way toward God.
But as soon as you get that, you may also see that making rules about sex doesn’t work. The rules don’t turn us into instant saints, and they never have. You can cling to the rules and miss kenosis entirely. And try to restrict sex to marriage or even just procreation and lust still arises with full force to be dealt with by everyone. Marriage is neither a designated lust-free zone nor does the sacrament transform the lust that arises in it into something necessarily holy. Anyone with genitals should be very suspicious of claims to the contrary.
One of several reasons I get annoyed whenever I’m identified as someone “struggling with same-sex attraction”3 is the implication that the person who’s assigned me that identity is not himself or herself struggling in a similar way, that he or she is somehow not subject to the conundrum of eroticism we all encounter, or that his or her own sexual impulse operates within a sanctioned zone--that they somehow, unlike me, have tested out of the sex thing. No one has.
Self-emptying, offering oneself on behalf of the other, even the other who doesn’t love you or even hates you, is the most radical act there is. It undercuts power struggle to reveal the deeper truth. When you see this, God’s words to St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness”4 are revealed to be something other than just a nice platitude. They express the deepest truth about the nature of reality. This God-like weakness goes against the grain of power, and thus doesn’t coexist with lust.
As an experiment, try this: when you encounter a person, or visual image of one, that inspires lust in you, direct a brief good intention or prayer toward them. “God bless you,” or “May you be happy,” or some other such thing. Don’t do it in a “get-thee-behind-me-Satan” sort of way—not like you’re trying to squash sexual desire, but simply to notice it with no intention either to banish or embrace it, but to be willing to see what happens. And notice how it becomes difficult to maintain the feeling. Sometimes it may even disappear for a while. It’s very interesting how lust and good intention don't easily coexist.
If salvation is, as many of our fathers and mothers have taught, essentially a direction, an unending process from glory to glory, then it seems to me that every aspect of existence has to have a part in that directional process, sexuality included. There aren’t parts of us to be left behind on this journey. The experience of God transcends body and mind while leaving neither of them behind, and I don't believe sexuality can be singled out as the exception to that. The suppression of and demonization of sex (or of certain varieties of it) seems to me most often like an effort to do just that--to leave sex behind. But I’ve come to think that sex, or the physical aspect of it anyway, is better thought of as being transcended rather than being abandoned on the God-ward journey. That's a very different thing. Transcendence includes what’s transcended, probably even enhancing our understanding of it.
It seems to me that the right direction when it comes to sex lies not in the suppression of sexual desire (suppression generally backfires by turning what was fairly innocent into a powerful force) but in moving past it into subtler and profounder forms of intimacy. I think this is true for everyone, celibate or sexually active, regardless of the starting point. Lust doesn’t coexist with kenosis, but intimacy does--intimacy in fact belongs to it--and the intimacy ultimately transcends particular relationships to make us profoundly intimate not only with sexual partners but with all beings, with the cosmos. Intimate to the degree that sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others makes perfect sense. It becomes the only thing that makes perfect sense. We become christs, anointed just by seeing this. To me it seems that sex is made meaningful when its expression is seen as being along that trajectory toward greater intimacy with God and each other. Navigating lust without a vision of transcending it can be destructive at worst, boring at best, embarrassing if it goes on too long (lecherous old people are never anything but ridiculous). But, that said, if the magic feeling of sexual desire can be the beginning of something that transcends it, that points to those profounder kinds of intimacy, if it occupies a place somewhere along the trajectory from glory to glory, it’s hard for me to think of it as something uniquely sinful among the vast number of other ways we miss the mark.
The problem with regarding sexual desire as an evil force to be braced against is that doing so can keep us from this understanding by keeping lust demonized. But if you meditate or simply spend time sitting quietly on a regular basis, you begin to notice thoughts as they arise and pass away, and you see that lust is in fact a thought like any other. Noticing that lust itself also arises and passes away is liberating. You don’t have to pick up the thought, but pushing it away as something scary misses the point, as that makes the thought into something more substantial than it is. Just recognizing the thought tends to make it dissipate, a lot more than you’d imagine it would. Even though it doesn't go away, it loses at least some of the power you thought it had. You begin to see that assigning lust a source other than yourself is a way of not taking responsibility for your own thoughts and actions. The demon is usually us.
It’s possible to see through sexual desire to a degree and to understand what I’ve opined above about the imperative to transcend it in favor of subtler forms of intimacy. That’s a good thing. But even if you understand all that, sex doesn’t go away. It remains there, like the pebble in your shoe that you can’t ever get rid of. Almost no shoe is without this pebble, and to acknowledge that fact is to understand yourself a part of the whole human condition. To deny that the pebble makes you limp a bit (like the monk in the koan tried to) is to live in a lie. You look funny trying to walk as though you aren’t limping. Deny the pebble’s existence, and it can, amazingly, morph into a boulder of extreme stupidity given the slightest chance. This happens, amusingly, all the time with the sexual falls of the religious and moral authorities who strike the pose of having pebble-free shoes.
But, say that you’ve gotten to the point where sex isn’t much of an issue for you. Maybe you’re old enough that the fire has mostly gone out, or you’re not attractive enough to be much of a player in the game, or you’ve directed your interests elsewhere, or you don’t have access to the Internet with its easily available pornography. Or say you’ve come to understand that lust is nothing more than a thought that arises that, when recognized as such, loses a good deal of its force. Or you’ve even understood, through an encounter with someone wise or through reading or through personal experience, that lust is hard to carry off with compassion, and you’ve understood that sex, when done right, leads in the direction of transcendence of the physical act to subtler and profounder forms of intimacy. Say you’ve gotten all that, and reason would thus suggest that sex shouldn’t be much of a problem for you. That’s exactly when reason will be foiled by a serving girl who’ll sit on your lap and ask “What now?” That’s when a sexual image will come your way and shake you like a storm shakes a sapling, and you’ll be faced with acknowledging your place in the predicament that’s common to humankind. Like all your fellow beings, you never lost that pebble in your shoe.
But the pebble often asserts its presence in subtler ways. Maybe it could even happen like this: say you’re cut off in traffic, and you get the impulse to respond to the offending driver with an obscene gesture. But before you do, you see that the driver is a beautiful male or female who sparks something pleasant in you, even if what it is isn’t articulated in that split second. And you hold back from the gesture, and instead you smile forgivingly at them, instinctively hoping for a smile back. And maybe you’ll see through that momentary impulse and be amazed to understand that even this inoffensive and fairly innocent trawling for a smile from someone who holds the beauty card is related to the eroticization of power too. And perhaps instead of feeling like an old fool, you’ll be astonished at that fact rather than embarrassed. Because you’ll see that that small moment is of the same species as all the less decorous manifestations of erotic power exchange. It’s related to what sado-maschoists or foot fetishists do, or to the activity of the guy addicted to giving serial blowjobs in an alley somewhere. It may be at less destructive spot on the trajectory, but it’s on the trajectory nonetheless. And maybe you'll see that your own more innocent behavior is related to what might be called karma or the grace of God, based on the teachers you had the good fortune to meet, maybe the books you read, the way you were raised, or wisdom gained from experience. And you’ll be further shocked to realize that the difference between you and the serial blowjob guy is as thin as a piece of paper in a book as thick as the universe. And you find yourself identifying with him, not as an exercise in altruism or pity, but in simple recognition of the way things are.
And once sexual desire has revealed the lack of distinction between you and rest of humanity, it doesn’t stop there, but it extends to all the various other forms of human frailty we share. You begin to understand that the great saints who called themselves the greatest of sinners weren’t just saying that to make themselves seem humble. They deeply understood the lack of distinction between any of us. Every sin is in some way yours. Every blooming of greed, hatred, and ignorance includes your participation. The over-the-top language of the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete5 is revealed not to be hyperbole but rather to be a plain expression of reality (The consolation prize is that we’re also much closer than we thought to every virtue). You’re profoundly, indelibly connected to all humankind, to all sentient beings—and it was the inescapable arising of sexual desire that was the window through which all that was perceived. And what a wonderful thing that was.
The sin of the monk in the koan is in missing this great wonder, like so many of us do, by thinking ourselves to have tested out of desire. His response was false. But what would a better answer have been to the girl’s “What now?”? Maybe a poem something like this:
An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter
Yet the touch of a warm breeze makes it tremble like a twig.
What a fool I was to have thought it would be otherwise!
I thank you for exposing my stupidity! With joy, I start over.
That answer probably would have prevented the widow from torching his digs. It’s not a perfect answer, but that’s the point: none of us has a perfect answer. In order to be honest, our answer has to be imperfect. And not having a perfect answer, doing the best we can, we may end up discovering that the pebble in our shoe unites us to all our fellow beings. How wonderful.
1. A koan is a record of an interaction between people concerned with ultimate things, usually confounding or confusing at first glance, then on second glance and on further glances. In Zen Buddhism, a student is assigned a particular koan to contemplate, and his teacher will question him about it in order check the progress of his practice. There are several large classic collections of koans with commentary of which Entangling Vines is one.
2. I’ve lately been reading with interest the sex-advice column of Dan Savage, which is an intriguing modern document of the post-revolution negotiation of sex. It provides evidence to me of both positive and negative aspects of the sexual revolution. What’s especially interesting is that, in the world of Dan’s readers, for whom sex has been liberated from the rules of religion and society, it still causes so much suffering. It seems like everyone, when freed to explore the erotic, ends up finding themselves to be sexually “kinky” almost without exception according to Dan. But given his correspondents’ accounts, it becomes difficult to find that level of sexual self-discovery liberating, as it generally ends up a kind of negotiation between one or more people for getting their sexual needs met. And it’s hard to imagine any of these arrangements remaining satisfying for the long-term—unless, as I opine in this reflection, the sex is somehow transcended for deeper intimacy. But it seems to me that many of these negotiated sexual groupings end up hardly much more satisfying in a lot of cases than the old arranged marriages used to be. And a lot more complicated to arrange. I’m not advocating for going back to arranged marriages, nor am I necessarily criticizing Dan’s correspondents. Just noting that, even when sex is open to be pursued without restrictions, it still ends up unsatisfying.
3. I believe term “struggling with same-sex attraction” was coined by the late Father Thomas Hopko as a way to avoid giving in to the normalization of the term gay and to affirm his rejection of all modern understandings of homosexuality. It seems to have been picked up on as the epithet of choice for Eastern Orthodox Christians who wish to mitigate their own demonization of gays. Nice try.
4. 2 Corinthians 12:9
5. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is a lengthy penitential prayer recited collectively by Orthodox Christians every year during the first week of Lent. In it, we address our soul, accusing it of all the great sins of history.