Sex and companionship
Max Lindenman — everybody’s favourite blogger (or mine, anyway) — recently posted on the limits of companionship in a life of celibacy.
He was responding to a post on a blog called Sexual Authenticity. Melinda Selmys suggests the most common cause of sexual sin is isolation and loneliness:
The sexual appetite is an urge to overcome isolation, to give and receive another person. A person who is fulfilled in their daily life through other forms of ‘knowing and being known’ will find that chastity frees them to be generous and loving and to receive love and generosity without the clinging neediness of sex. The problem is that most people in the contemporary world are literally starving for human communion, and sex fills that need at least temporarily.
How true. Who could possible argue with that? Selmys is especially good in critiquing the old chestnuts about contemporary licentiousness.
Lindenman, however, is less enamoured by Selmys’ solution:
She stumbles, I think, in recommending “companionship” as an antidote for sexual promiscuity. That’s like saying apples are a substitute for oranges. The Greeks conceived of Eros as a kind divine madness or pleasurable wound. While pounding sand after Daphne, Apollo wheezes, “There is no herb to medicate my wound, and all the arts that save have failed [me].” Even while spiritualizing Eros, Plato allowed that its aim is possession of the beloved. Aristotle’s Philia, or a bond of mutual affection and concern between good people, is a much tamer animal. In its own right, for its own sake, it’s great; but it doesn’t satisfy the precise needs that will make you send Long Island iced teas to the girl down the bar in the push-up bra.
Mostly, I think Lindenman is spot on.
As the seminary’s resident spiritual director once warned us, priestly celibacy leaves a gap which even Jesus cannot fill. That’s not to deny that intimacy with God is possible or that it is satisfying; only to observe that it is different to sexual intimacy.
Some people can’t be happy — they can’t be fulfilled — by celibacy. That needn’t reflect poorly on them. St Thomas More, for example, is generally believed to have abandoned thoughts of a monastic life because he concluded celibacy wasn’t for him. Instead he became a husband and father of such heroic virtue, that quite apart from his martyrdom, he is remembered as ”the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints.”
In the same way, Pope Francis (before he was elected pope) shared his own experience as a seminarian falling in love, and his advice to seminarians in a similar predicament:
When this happens, one has to get one’s bearings again. It’s a matter of one choosing again or saying, “No, what I’m feeling is very beautiful. I am afraid I won’t be faithful to my commitment later on, so I’m leaving the seminary.” When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest.
If God himself can’t “plug the gap” which continence creates, it’s disingenuous to suggest that chaste companionship will do it. So it’s in this sense that Lindenman is right to identify ‘the limits of companionship.’
On the other hand, I think he has perhaps diminished the power of friendship. Aristotle considered the chaste love of ‘perfect friendship’ — wherein two people spend a lot of time together, doing things in common — as the key to eudomonia, or the secret to happiness. This sort of companionship, which to be fair to Selmys is the sort we should consider as a salve to sexual sin, doesn’t resemble the “tamer animal” Lindenman describes.
But here I am, quibbling over Lindenman’s post, which is quibbling over Selmys’ post. Better, instead, to read them for themselves. They are both well-written and thoughtful reflections on love and lust, and they will no doubt get you thinking yourself.
Melinda Selmys: Sad bad sex.
Max Lindenman: The limits of companionship.