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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Body according to St. Augustine, John Paul II and...my dreams.

Over the years I've done a lot of climbing in my sleep, usually on stairs. I've ascended all sorts of buildings, modern and old, made of steel, glass or stone. Many of my dreams were about reaching the top, and according to Freud the meaning of this image is the desire for sexual climax. I'm not sure about that; I'd rather think that I was trying to reach Heaven.

However, I do believe that some of those dreams had a hidden sexual connotation. For example, let me tell you about a nightmare I had about thirty years ago. I was running up the stairs, and a monkey-like man was running after me, growling. Short and ugly, he was equipped with an extendable arm that would twist like a serpent in the attempt to catch me. But he failed, and I arrived safely at the top of the building.
As you probably know, the serpent is a phallic symbol. Looking back, I think that the monkey-man represented the negative effect that my sexuality was having on my life.

A few months ago I had a beautiful dream. I was walking on a steep path, among gorgeous plants and flowers. The path led to a fantastic villa. I entered a cozy room full of colorful pillows and looked out of the window. About fifty feet down I could see a pond, and under the surface I saw three gigantic dormant beasts: a dragon, a lion and a rhino. I looked at them in disbelief. Flat under the still water, they seemed to occupy the entire pond. I woke up with a sense of peace.
Of course, the rhino is also a phallic symbol. I think those beasts represented my sexuality, finally at rest.
I'm fifty-five-years old, so I can't take credit for having tamed my sexual impulses. They have simply subsided. I converted to Christianity five years ago, therefore I didn't have to struggle to keep them under control when they were at their peak. I just set them free. But sometimes I wonder: had I converted in my youth, would I have been able to live without sin?

Some of us, both women and men, encounter a lot more obstacles on the path to purity, simply because their hormonal level is higher. St. Augustine was one of them. He identified sexual desire with the factor that enslaves men and cannot be overcome. For him, sexuality expressed itself in a "diabolical excitement". He wrote:
"…These members are rightly called pudenda (parts of shame), because they excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master, as if they were their own master".
He accused ascetics of being arrogant and deranged, because they didn't accept the plain truth, namely that they couldn't win over their sexual impulses.
The historian Elaine Pagels informs us that the most passionate of his opponents, Julian, wrote that "Augustine's view of the world expressed the emptiness of a person who is spiritually dying, and having failed to cultivate his own possibilities, projects onto the world his own sense of loss".
But St. Augustine was engaged in a constant struggle against his sexual impulses, of which Julian had probably little experience. For some, the struggle is a lot more difficult than for others.

Today, Catholics can find inspiration in John Paul II Gospel of the Body. He was convinced that we can regain a culture of love and understanding of God through nuptial communion, because sexuality is by no means purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person. The family relationship is founded on the union of the sexes, and family is the fundamental call of society. If man does not encounter love, his life remains senseless. We want to know another person and be known by another person. But men and women must know each other spiritually first, to integrate body and soul. When this doesn't happen, people feel disintegrated, at least in the long run.
Man can only find himself through the sincere gift of the self. Sexual union represents this gift. We all seek to become unique for our partner, and John Paul II wanted to demonstrate that the moral teaching of the Church is not against human nature but, on the contrary, they correspond to the deepest desires of the heart. Modern man is disconnected from this desire. If we fail to realize this, living a moral life will inevitably become a burden of imposed and arbitrary rules. To follow the moral rules without understanding them would be sterile. Original sin is a mystery confirmed by human experience, for it has turned our heart into a battlefield between love and lust. Jesus speaks about committing adultery in the heart because the heart is the core of our personality.

Speaking about marriage, Jesus repudiates Moses' permission to divorce, Moses, he says, made a concession to the "hardness of heart" of human beings, but it wasn't so in the beginning, when the Creator made them male and female so that they would become "one flesh", leave their parents and live together for the rest of their lives. The disciples aren't pleased to hear this teaching. Their response is that, in this case, it's better not to marry at all. Jesus answers that celibacy is not for everybody, although some renounce marriage "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven". In conclusion, all Jesus ever said about sexuality is that marriage is a sacrament and should be avoided only by those who prefer the ascetic life and can handle chastity.

But what about sexual impulses that we accept as normal? What about lust that we mistake for love? According to John Paul II, the first step to overcome lust is to recognize that it isn't something that we really wish to pursue in our heart. We identify freedom with the possibility of indulging without restraint in lust because we feel bound by it, therefore we are not free at all. To say it with John Paul II, lust is at the core of the human being, and "…it invades his senses, excites his body, involves his feelings and, in a certain sense, takes possession of his heart". To get rid of this enslavement is not an impediment to Eros, which only exists when a true communion of the two people is achieved. To seek redemption doesn't mean to seek disembodiment, whereas a separation between body and spirit is taken for granted in our culture. We may learn how to control sexual impulses instead of being controlled by them, but if we only constrain them we'll never achieve freedom. Respect and love for ourselves and for others are the ultimate answer. In our divorce culture, the "other" only has value so far as he or she is an instrument of enjoyment. As soon as she or he doesn't allow our self-gratification, we don't love anymore and seek the next useful person. This is the "hardness of the heart" of which Jesus spoke.

John Paul condemned lust even among husband and wife, but he was misunderstood and the media reacted negatively all over the world. What he meant was that especially the conjugal relationship shouldn't be reduced to a mere satisfaction of sexual needs, but should be founded on love and respect. The Song of the Songs shows that fascination with the spouse's body is biblical, but we know that concupiscence is a distortion. Looking at our spouse's body through the latter we see just an object, but looking at it through the first we see a person and not just a body.

No one can deny that John Paul's ideas are beautiful and truthful. I was surprised to learn that the Pope exhorts men to care for their wives pleasure. He wrote:
"Sexologists state that the curve of arousal in woman is different from that in man - it rises more slowly and falls more slowly…The man must take this difference…into account…so that climax may be reached by both…and as far as possible occur in both simultaneously."
I also found interesting that he insisted on restoring Michelangelo's original nudes in the Sistine Chapel, which had been covered up by prudish clerics.

If you are not Catholics and are still thinking that the Pope is the representation of an old-fashioned prudery, think again. The late Hindu Master Meher Baba expressed exactly the same ideas not only about sexuality, but also about contraception. For him, we must overcome both indulgence and repression to free ourselves from the bondage of sexual craving. Sex within marriage achieves perfection when even the slightest shadow of lust is overcome. Artificial control methods are to be avoided, for they prevent us from exercising mental control, which leads to spiritual awakening.
I bet that these concepts sound acceptable to modern intellectuals, when they come from a Hindu Master instead of from the Pope!

So listen, religious or non-religious people, it's hard but you can do it! And if you can't, don't despair. According with St. Augustine you are in good company!