I once attended a Mass at which the priest took the congregation to task about how girls should hide their knees, and do they really want to be an instrument of the devil? As soon as young people kiss, he ranted, they must never EVER see or talk to that person again because they have wrecked their chances for putting God first.
Nor were parents spared. He groused about parents with spoiled, ill-behaved children who refuse to properly discipline them, the result being that—unlike the children of a couple HE knows—they will not grow up to have their very first kiss at the altar.
I understood what the priest was trying to get at. And the ever-deepening sexual/emotional wound at the heart of our culture is enough to make anyone want to start battening down the hatches. But as the writer Madeleine L’Engle once said:
The whole homily was about saying no—no, no, no, NO!—without in any way explaining that the reason for all those no's is a larger, sublime yes.
Catholicism is not some insipid, rigid, dead set of rules. Catholicism is our hearts, our minds, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them.
To follow Christ, to be Catholic, to practice chastity in the deepest sense of the word, is to hold an almost unbearable amount of tension in our bodies, spirits, and nervous systems … which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways.
Look at St. Thérèse of Lisieux, in The Story of a Soul, admitting that if she’d ever fallen for a guy, she would have been worse than Mary Magdalene, and then writing the Apostle’s Creed in blood, wearing it against her heart, and offering herself as a Holocaust Victim of Love!
Look at Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty.” That–“Praise him” at the end is an explosion, preceded, no less, by the generative thrust of “fathers forth”! And it is all the more sublime for having been written by a gay man–a Jesuit priest afflicted with severe depression, who stayed faithful to his vows and offered his suffering, his loneliness, his love, his failure as a teacher, his body, blood, genius and soul to Christ.
As the writer Alice McDermott notes:
Or as my friend Sr. Jeanne McNulty, third order Franciscan, Order of Consecrated Virgins, once told me, "This may sound strange coming from a nun–but one man wouldn't be enough for me! I want it all! I want HIM!"
The reason to save your first kiss till the altar, in other words, is not because you are so listless and etiolated and body-despising and intent on being a straight-A Catholic that you’ll suppress and deny your own God-given erotic urge, but because you are so vital, so wild with longing, so crazy about your spouse-to-be that you want to make your wedding night a work of art. You want to offer your wedding night to the whole world.
So what that priest neglected to add is this:
That is the opposite of no, no, no. That is one cataclysmic, self-giving, aching, life-affirming yes.
Heather Kingis a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.