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Spirituality and sexuality

In discussions about such things as money, sex, and authority I regularly underscore that these have powerful human energy that can be used for great good or great evil. Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s recent column on spirituality and sexuality expresses this thought in relation to sex with insightful balance. For those of us who see ourselves in a sacramental universe he also places sex into that context. He writes:

A common complaint about the classical Christian teachings on sexuality is that so many of these have been written by vowed celibates, unmarried priests and nuns who do not have sex. The complaint is not that these people (and I am one of them) teach something that is wrong but that, not being married, they invariably tend to over-idealize sex and encase it in unrealistic sacred romance.

No doubt there is some truth to this. But, in fairness, everyone struggles with sexuality. Every religious tradition has its struggles with sexuality and so does every culture. No self-respecting theologian would say that Christianity or any other religion has made full peace with sexuality, just as no self-respecting analyst would say that there exists in this world a culture that has come to a healthy peace with sexuality. Religion and the world both struggle with sex, just in different ways. Everyone struggles.

And this is no accident because sexuality is always partially beyond us, too powerful to always healthily contain. In this life nobody comes to full peace with it. It is too powerful and too wide. It lies at the base of everything, life and non-life alike. Molecules are sexed, atoms are sexed, all life is sexed, and every human person is sexed in every cell, body and soul. Much of this, of course, is inchoate, dark, a longing and an aching without an explicit focus, though from puberty onwards it also has a focus and deeply colors every person’s consciousness.

Ironically it is on this point, the failure to take the centrality of sexuality seriously enough, where liberals and conservatives concur, conservatives by denying that centrality and liberals by trivializing it. Both tend to be naïve, just in different ways.

Moreover, beyond the sheer, brute power of sexuality there is still its complexity. Sexuality is both the most creative and the most destructive force on the planet. It is a great force not just for heroic love, life, and blessing but also for the worst hate, death, and destruction imaginable. It is responsible for most ecstasies on the planet, but also for a lot of murders and suicides. When healthy, it helps glue personalities together, when unhealthy, it works at disintegrating personalities. It can unite families and communities and it can also destroy them. It is a unique power to mellow the heart and produce gratitude even as it has equal power to make the heart bitter and jealous. It is the best of all fires and the most dangerous of all fires.

And this paradox is what lies at the root of so many of the tensions that surround any discussion on sex. On any given day, which aspect of sexuality should be emphasized? Purity or passion, its goodness or its dangers, its power to trigger ecstasy or its power to produce murder, its sacramental power to unite or its chaotic power to divide?

Because these questions are not easy to answer, what we often see are two opposing tendencies: the temptation to over-idealize and the temptation to trivialize, the temptation to be too fearful and the temptation to be too casual, the temptation to be unhealthily frigid and the temptation to be unhealthily irresponsible. We rarely get it right. Invariably the symbolic hedge is too high or too low.

How to we find a balance? Not easily. But, as with all complex issues, a good starting point is the refusal to compromise either of its paradoxical poles, to sell out any of its truths, no matter how apparently contradictory.

So it is important to admit that sex is a power beyond us even as we accept that we have a responsibility to control it. It goodness must always be affirmed even as its dangers are highlighted. Its holy, sacred character should always be taught even as it is earthiness should never be denigrated. We must be clear that it is meant to be sacrament even as it is meant to be playful, that it is meant to bring children into this world even as it is meant to express love, that it is meant to be healthily enjoyed even as it needs to be carefully guarded, and that it is not something before which we should stand in unhealthy fear even as we surround it with enough taboos to properly safeguard its meaning and our own emotional safety.

Sexuality might be compared to a high-voltage electrical wire. The 50,000 volts inside of that wire can bring light and heat to a building, but there are two risks: First, we may be so afraid of its dangers that we never connect our house to it. We then deprive ourselves of its light and heat. The second danger is the opposite: This powerful energy is safe only if its raw power is channeled through the right transformers and safely encased in proper insulation, otherwise we risk a deadly fire, inside the house and inside the psyche.

Conservatives tend to struggle with the first danger, liberals with the latter.

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser is member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, his website is www.ronrolheiser.com

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