Sex and companionship

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.

  • Clermont

    Interesting insights from these two laymen. Now here’s something from St Alphonsus, Doctor of the Church, (The Dignity and Duties of the Priest) on the matter of how celibates are to deal with women:

    “But if we wish to avoid sins against purity we must abstain from looking at women, and still more from looking at them a second time. ‘To look at dangerous objects,’ says St. Francis de Sales, ‘is not so hurtful to us as to repeat the look.’ And St. John Chrysostom adds that ‘it is necessary to turn away the eyes not only from women whose dress or manner is immodest, but even from those whose demeanor is full of modesty.’ Hence holy Job made a compact with his eyes not to look at any woman, even at a chaste virgin; because he knew from looks evil thoughts arise: ‘I made a covenant with my eyes that I would not so much as think upon a virgin.’ Ecclesiasticus advises us to imitate the example of Job. ‘Gaze not upon a maiden, lest her beauty be a stumbling-block to thee.’ St. Augustine says: ‘From looks spring evil thoughts; the thoughts produce a certain carnal delectation, though indeliberate. To this indeliberate delectation succeeds the consent of the will; and, behold, the soul is lost.’ Cardinal Hugo remarks that the Apostle commanded women to keep their heads veiled in the church because of the angels that is, because of priests, lest looking at their faces they should be tempted to lust.”

    The Most Zealous Doctor continues:

    “If to preserve chastity we must abstain from looking at women, it is far more necessary to avoid conversation with them. ‘Tarry not among women,’ says the Holy Ghost (in Ecclesiasticus). The inspired writer subjoins the reason, saying, that as the moth comes from clothes, so the wickedness of men has its origin in conversation with women. ‘For from garments cometh a moth, and from a woman the iniquity of a man.’ And, says Cornelius à Lapide, ‘as the moth comes from a garment inspite of the owner, so from intercourse with women evil desires spring up, even when we will them not.’ … St. Isidore of Pelusium says: ‘If necessity obliges you to converse with women, keep your eyes cast on the ground; and after you have spoken a few words, go away immediately.” Father Peter Consolini of the Oratory used to say, that we should practise charity towards women who are even saints as towards the souls in purgatory, that is, from a distance, and without looking at them.’ ”

    I think this makes clear exactly what St Alphonsus would think of celibates having close “companionship” with women.

    • Do you know Clermont, it never even occurred to me that companionship might occur between two people of the opposite sex? That might be blindness on my part. But I do wonder if it’s possible. I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. When Harry Met Sally and all that.

      There are always exceptions of course, but perhaps they are exceptions which only prove the rule. St Benedict and St Scholastica for example, weren’t close companions in the Aristotelian sense of spending a lot of time together, but certainly they had a deep and abiding love which sanctified them both. But of course, they were twins, so they didn’t have to navigate the sexual tension which Alphonsus et al are addressing.

      I think some of the advice cited is totally overboard. I’m a diocesan priest, not a monk, and as such, it is impossible for me to stare at my shoes whenever I address a woman, much less keep them ten feet away from me at all times. To do so would be, I think, a dereliction of duty. (Not to mention a bit creepy.)

      Still, “custody of the eyes” is something I take seriously. And there’s a lot of wisdom, I think, in the old practise of priests ministering spiritual direction to women in the confessional. The problem with that is that many churches don’t even have confessionals anymore!

      • Cathy

        I think that it would seem creepy for a diocesan priest to take an extreme interest in his shoes when adressing a woman, however what I believe is lacking now days is young women being educated in how to respect the office and nature of a priest. i have seen young women become a bit too familiar with their conduct toward a priest not to mention their lack of modesty in dress. It more commonly happens when the priest fails to wear his collar, and the girls literally throw themselves at them. when a priest wears his collar it reminds one that he is not available, but seriously teach your daughters how to be ladies and respect themselves and those around them.

  • MuMu

    The only sex worth having is within marriage. Otherwise, the tempted should think … broken heart, std, entrapment, obsession, crisis pregnancy, abortion, loss of self-esteem… these are what really, truly result from sex outside marriage.

    Young priest, here is what my parish priest 20 years ago confided in me: “On his day off, a priest should get together with some of his priest mates and play golf. Priests who don’t fraternise with other priests on a very regular basis, go off the rails.”

    How true. I’ve known some of these guys, before and after the fall. Full of life before, like crumpled cardboard cut-outs after, following their wives like … tragedies.

    The chaste priest is most Christ-like. He is Life itself to his flock. He has to keep telling himself, Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice.

    And yes, a priest must distance himself from women. One trick I have observed in a priest I greatly respect is when he is conversing with a woman, he lifts his upper lip in the manner of a rabbit which has eaten something nasty. It’s a great ploy.

    Me? I minimise interacts with a priest, unless he is young enough to be my grandson!!!

    • Joel

      Lifts his upper lip like a rabbit? What the…?

      • Kevin

        Well, St Alphonsus of Liguori would say….

      • MuMu

        You’d have to be there, Joel.

  • Now I’m hearing stories of girls who were taught to always wear mat-finish shoes. Shiny shoes extended an invitation for men to glance at the reflection and look up a girl’s dress.

    It’s all very confusing. It seems that even looking down at the ground, at people’s shoes, is an occasion of sin! Maybe the Arabs have it right, and women should be hidden from view. And unusually attractive men should be restricted while we’re at it.

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