Thursday, September 15, 2005

Jesus, Christians, intimacy, and you - 3.

In the previous two posts, we appreciated the privilege it is for priests to go away for 5 days or longer at times for a retreat, when lay people - especially those with family responsibilities - generally can't do that. However, we did explore what it is possible for women and men to do, either with the help of trusted relatives to watch over the children or by going separately, to procure for themselves some days or even hours of retreat experience. Retreat means withdrawing for a time from the hubub of routine activity and constant flow of demands from those for whom we are responsible.

A key theme of our retreat and of life for every human being for that matter is that of intimacy. Though we may have been hindered from naturally developing an ability to open ourselves up to others in intimate and trusting relationships; it is possible even now to take steps towards authentic human intimacy. Simply defined, intimacy is what we experience when I let you see into me. Naturally, we can be afraid of doing that because of what may happen if we do. If you really see me as I am, you may not like me any more and may just walk away. I also run the risk that you will use what you find out about me and use it to other ends that will damage me or my reputation.

We also examined how it is that for many today, especially younger generations but not exclusively the young, the Hollywood "romantic" culture rapidly going around the world is taken for cash: intimacy equals sex. In fact, the truth couldn't be more different. It is a misconception which identifies sexual, genital activity as the most intimate human experience there is. At this point in my previous post, I took off from the reflection shared with us by our retreat preacher and began to ponder the whole area of sexual activity and its relationship to human intimacy. It is true that physical human contact does convey feelings of an intimate nature, and sexual expression evokes and involves among the most intense human emotions, but sexual activity by itself is not human intimacy.

For example, it's possible for those involved in the sex trade - both women and men - to so completely deny or shut down their personal feelings that they can engage in sexual activity as a commercial transaction, apparently remaining cool and collected, only pretending to experience feelings to satisfy the other person. The truth is that even this is an illusion, because we cannot shut down our feelings. What really happens is that these persons suffer damage to the capacity for genuine intimacy God has given them. It is not without hope, however, since Jesus came as a doctor for the sick, to forgive sinners and heal the lame and wounded.

Those engaged in the sex trade may even, for a time or an occasion, activate to some extent their capacity for compassion, and may even feel pity for those to whom they grant favors in exchange for money, feeling sorry for their pitiful existence and loneliness. The truth, however, is that such activity abuses the capacity given to us by God to give and receive human tenderness, and hardens the heart, as it were.

Moreover, it employs sexual power in ways that are manipulative, a mockery of human love, and ultimately destructive of the characters, emotions, minds, and souls of the persons engaging in them. Using our sexual powers, either for personal gain or in an attempt to strengthen a romantic relationship, but with no unconditional commitment of marriage, is a mockery simply because sexual imtimacy communicates something absolute, total, or permanent. Each use of our sexual powers in a transitory or occasional way, for one night or for limited duration, contradicts the significance contained within our sexuality itself.

If the entire life is not given as a gift in marriage, then any enjoyment of sexual favors is a violation of each person's integrity, or a commercial transaction, or a trivialization of something deep and holy, a betrayal of the permanence of genuine intimacy, or the predatory theft of affections already given to another in the case of a married party. Even misused, our sexuality feels good and may even seem right, until the contradictions and partial truths begin to sink in, and the cracks become visible, resulting in the painful tearing apart of what was not intended or meant to be permanent.

People who engage in sexual activity as a kind of sport in which they test and push to the limit their ability to conquer the hearts, at least temporarily, of those who are unwary and hungry for tenderness, or simply to accumulate "trophies" are the most to be pitied. They leave behind them a trail of wounded or broken hearts, turning their own heart into the coldest and hardest stone. Ultimately, they are destroying their own capacity to become truly human beings and authentic human persons. Their victims probably have more of a chance to become good, kind, compassionate, and truly loving people than those who violated them.

Then, there are those who simply enjoy the emotions involved with sexual arousal and activity. It's more like a hobby or drug for them. The people with whom they get involved don't really matter to them. Others don't really exist for them as people, but more as objects that they find attractive, try to obtain, perhaps collect, enjoy for a time, until they tire of them or find others that seem more exciting. Today's heartthrob gets dumped on tomorrow's trash heap. This is rather crude language, but it seems to be the only way of honestly depicting this kind of sexual predator, for this is exactly what this kind of personality is, a hyena on the prowl looking for a meal, a snack, to devour and feed a growing sexual appetite.

Perhaps a very large portion of people are more honest and sincere than any of these. They genuinely desire to find friendship that may lead to or include after a while an openness to sexual activity. Sincerity is good, but even sincere misuse of sexuality will result in either damage or delayed development of our God given capacity for tenderness and love. There has traditionally been more variation between men and women in their readiness to engage in sexual activity without a marriage commitment.

Women eager to take for themselves the liberties taken by men become, like them, more inclined to act out of physical urges of attraction and make advances of a sexual nature. Male sexual sensitivities are physically external, tending to activate more rapidly, which is why males without discipline are dangerous predators; so in many societies, women are raised to resist all advances until after a marriage commitment is secured. The good of society suffers is women surrender their sexual virtue and become as undisciplined as men. Men serve society better by acquiring the discipline of virtuous women, who know how to conserve their favors for their eventual spouse.

Both women and men need to develop character and discipline in order to rein in their feelings of arousal, learn how and accept to delay or deny physical satisfaction, and make room for human relating at a deeper level of complete respect and friendship. It is generally accepted that in comparison with men women are far more interested in relationships and friendship. Perhaps it is because their sexual sensitivities are more internal and diverse - linking up physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual realms - and also because of their closer bond to the maternal world within which life is transmitted and nurtured.

Both men and women have attributes desirable to the other, but as males are at first more subject to their physical impulses and tend to act in a way that's more directly focused on sexual gratification, women are in a position to take advantage of this situation by taking more time to explore their feelings and motivation. They are more focused on their relationships, including that with God, which tends to delay at least a little the onset of full blown sexual attraction. When women keep a cooler head for a while, they can take more time to decide their course of action: to allow themselves to be attracted, to manipulate the man to try to get what they want, or to disengage. Men can also manage a cooler head by going into their faith relationship with God, opening up to and getting support from family and friends, and working off their emotions through vigorous physical movement, exercise or sport.

Eventually, though, both women and men do decide to engage in sexual activity, as we can observe in the culture and society around us. Many deplore the fact that young people engage in sexual activity at a younger and younger age. This is sad, because until a human being is fully mature - in body, mind, heart, psyche, and soul - it is very difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer raw power of our sexual faculties. In other words, it's almost impossible for young people not to become addicted to the whole range of sensations in the body, emotions in the psyche, images in the mind, fantasies in the imagination, and movements in the soul that all relate to activating our sexual powers. The tragedy here is that once our personality is overrun by all this high intensity experiencing of sexual power and effects, it is difficult to pay attention to the far more subtle but deeper affairs of the heart and soul, such as friendship, fidelity, loyalty, commitment, trust, love, and, yes, intimacy.

That is why God's plan for human beings is so beautiful, meaningful, and effective. Men and women have been created by God to be complementary. This means that we each have attributes that are either unique, stronger or weaker in one than in the other, or else oriented differently. The differences are intended by God to challenge the other, requiring the exercise of freedom and will to endure the challenge and make the effort of continue in the exchange, in the dialogue, in the cooperation, and in collaborative ventures together.

Our differences are also designed to fit into one another in a complementary manner; so that together, women and men can make quite formidable human beings. The products of our relating, working, playing, caring, and living together in civil society draw out of men and women an ongoing commitment to care for, build, create, nurture, and multiply life and activity. The more men and women relate to one another in normal, honest, and gentle ways, the greater discipline they can exercise over their sexual faculties and feelings, because they are learning to consider one another as persons rather than treat one another as sex objects.

In marriage, the mutuality required for a single man and a single woman to commit to each other their entire selves and lives is astounding to the point of seeming quite impossible, were it not for the love that binds them together. Their individuality pulls them constantly in opposite directions; while their love ever pulls them toward each other. Their gender differences constantly push the other beyond their comfort zone into the realm of growth, purification, pain, and greater vitality; while their willingness to ever renew their interest in and care for the other draws the other into the warmth, healing, and safety of unconditional acceptance, kindness, and love.

However, because of the raw and incredibly volatile power of their sexual faculties, it is still possible for a husband and wife to prop each other up in an addiction to sexual pleasure that is simply a comfortable mutual arrangement, a kind of contract or commercial transaction. In either case, whether they are mutually considerate and practice a great deal of selflessess, or whether they are entirely self-absorbed and supporting each other's sexual addictions, or somewhere in between; God's plan goes further into the realm of generativity.

As married couples conceive and then bear children, the utter dependence of each and every child for many years and the ongoing dependence of children until the emergence of adolescence and young adulthood, draws them into a process that is guaranteed to push them beyond comfort, control, mutual arrangements, far into the realm of selflessness. Couples unable to bear children often adopt and experience the same benefit of being drawn out of themselves into a life of selflessness and loving care. Those unable to adopt find other ways to spend their energy in caring ways for those in need of love, care, and compassion.

People who marry without having attained an essential minimum of human character and maturity - though in their 20's, 30's, or older - in effect are really children having children; it is among such parents that occasionally some shake, strangle, or otherwise abuse their infants to death at the extreme, or simply neglect them or treat them as personal possessions, trophies, or accomplishments. It is very difficult, but by the grace of God not impossible, for children to become fully functioning, compassionate, honest, and gentle human beings if their parents are entirely absorbed by their own desires, impulses, and self-serving considerations.

The better human beings parents are, the more advanced the starting point they provide to their children. However, even so, the kind of rearing parents give or fail to give to their children has great influence on how their children will develop or fail to develop into good human beings. Children need to learn boundaries, the difference between good and evil, responsibility, that there is a hierarchy of good things, respect for living things, and a whole host of values, character traits, and a variety of disciplines necessary for living a good, just, honest, kind, loving, and meaningful human life.

So many parents over the years in sharing with me have said they deplore the lack of a proper school for parenting beyond what we can learn from our elders, families of origin, the families of friends with a better developed family culture, reading, and so on. It would be great if someone created a school for parenting with theoretical learning as well as practicums and internships! The family is the fundamental school of humanity, and it would be a necessary and wonderful thing to shore it up, so that it also becomes an effective school of holiness as well as wholeness.

Without maturity of character and personality, it becomes difficult to see that there is any difference between sexual satisfaction - which is ephemeral - and mutual care, which is deeper and generally more lasting. To put this in the simplest terms we can, I cannot know whether you truly love me as long as by being with me you are getting something, some pleasure or satisfaction, back. However, if I am sick, stink and can't do anything for you, am in bed and need your care for a long time, I get angry with you and treat you badly, and you keep coming back to care for me, and keep putting up with my terrible moods and treatment of you; then it begins to look like you really do care for me just because of who I am, and not because of any goodies you may be getting from me. Incidentally, this is also true for how we relate to and treat God: as three real though divine Persons that we try to appreciate, understand, and love, or as the provider of all the goodies of which God is capable.

God in the Bible says that the human heart is tortuous beyong reckoning; who can understand it? For this reason, it is so difficult to know the authenticity of the other person's friendship and love for me, or the authenticity of my friendship and love for another. In fact, we can only know the true nature of our own character or that of any other human being once they have breathed their last breath and are dead. Only then is their life complete. Only then can we judge the whole life as a single, complete reality.

In the meantime, we need to test and judge one another, and even ourselves, and never take for granted that our current state of emotions is pure and genuine. We are created by God to appreciate and delight in all the good things He has created, but our human nature is fallen and we are inclined to self-indulgence; so we must freely choose to embark on a journey of testing and purification of our thoughts, emotions, words, motives, decisions, behaviours, and actions.

Friends become friends because they accept to put up with each other along the way, and to help each other engage more fully in this personal purification and growth. This is why God is truly our ultimate friend, as Jesus revealed Himself to be for his disciples and for us. Now, at this point, I can return to reflections coming from our retreat preacher and some of the echoes within me as I ponder his words.

to be continued....

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