In Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, a medieval minstrel returns to his village, seeking healing and salvation after having wasted years as the willing slave of Venus. But when his former neighbours learn where he has been, they tell him he has forfeited all hope. Once a man has tasted Venus’s delights, they say, he will never get her out of his blood.
Modern-day Tannhäusers are all around us: men and women addicted to pornography; singles seeking love through sex; and spouses desiring pleasure to the exclusion of procreation. Our Catholic faith teaches that a way of forgiveness and restoration is open to them. Yet all too often we give them up for lost, speaking of chastity as if it were a virtue reserved only for virgins. In doing so, we effectively buy into the culture’s lie that slaves to pleasure will never be able to find freedom in Christ.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen described a state of disillusioned satedness that he called “black grace” – a kind of fed-upness that could open the way for the “white grace” of conversion. Many who have bought into the lies of the sexual revolution find themselves confronted by the darkness of this black grace. If the truth about chastity is presented to them, they can attain transformation in Christ. I know, because that is what happened to me.
During the 1990s, as a young Jewish rock journalist living in New York City, I spent my days interviewing bands for MOJO magazine and my nights haunting nightclubs in outfits calculated to offer onlookers an epidermis buffet. Today, I am a postgraduate student of theology
at a Catholic seminary and author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfilment While Keeping Your Clothes On. I look at my life and it is as though Marianne Faithfull were transmogrified into Mary Whitehouse. What happened? My conversion began in 1995 when a Los Angeles rock musician I was interviewing on the phone mentioned he was reading a novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, by an author I had never heard of, G K Chesterton. I promptly purchased a copy, figuring it would help me chat up the musician when he came to town.
A line in the first chapter jumped out at me: “The most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.” That was my black grace moment. At the time I read those words I was trapped in a vicious cycle. Lonely because I was not loved, I offered myself to “lovers” who did not love me. Chesterton forced me to recognise what I had been trying to suppress: how deeply I longed to experience healing, to have my life ordered from the top down, to know the poetry of not being sick.
With time (and more Chesterton), I began to experience the white grace of conversion. But reluctant to put myself under the authority of any particular denomination, I tried to walk the Christian walk on my own. I soon discovered that changing my beliefs wasn’t enough to change my habits.
It was clear that all the desires I had ever indulged had failed to bring me closer to the love I sought. And it was likewise clear that the only way I would ever receive such love was if I learnt how to give it properly. But how was I to learn?
A Catholic friend who saw I was struggling gave me a book that quoted liberally from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There I found my answer: developing the virtue of chastity would show me how to love others as God loves me (CCC 2347-48). Chastity was not about shutting human love out, but rather about letting divine love in. It meant letting God reshape my desires to align them with his will for my happiness.
In the new Catholic edition of The Thrill of the Chaste (revised from the 2006 edition, which I wrote before entering the Church), I focus on the “yes” of Church teachings, because one can’t understand the various “no”s unless one first understands the overarching “yes”.
For example, one can’t understand why the Church teaches against contraception and same-sex marriage until one first understands that married love is by definition freely willed, total, faithful and fruitful (see Humanae Vitae 9).
Admittedly, chastity is not the in thing. But in a society that has ceased to be Christian, that is what makes it so very interesting. Here in the West, Christianity had a good, long run as the prevailing culture and is now once again the counterculture.
Pope Francis gets this. That is why, when he speaks about chastity, he uses the language of rebellion. Addressing young people on the theme of the diocesan World Youth Day 2015 – “Blessed are the pure in heart” – he urged them to “rebel against the widespread tendency to reduce love to something banal, reducing it to its sexual aspect alone … [Rebel] against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.”
In Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser seeks to extricate himself from Venus’s embrace because he senses, however faintly, that something vital is lacking even in her most enticing delights. Francis encourages us to have faith that our Tannhäusers, too, can reach that point of black grace: the searing recognition that the no-strings-attached “love” that they expected to fulfil them was, in fact, only an impoverishment of what love is supposed to be.
But they need our help. We can start creating a chaste counterculture by ceasing to treat our “hard teachings” as though they were bitter pills bearing only an accidental connection to the heavenly banquet. Chastity is not an inconvenient footnote to the Good News. It is the Good News, showing that the arms of Venus are no match for the heart of Jesus.
Dawn Eden’s books, The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, are distributed by Alban Books and available through amazon.co.uk
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (13/3/15).
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