For all the absolutely millions of acres of millions of things a man can do – from being joyful, to dancing, to learning to play the sitar, from reading the dictionary to blowing up his car – there are only ten forbidden. This is no strictness, these forbidden ten, but a generosity and an easiness so immense it may only be described as divine. God is the dad who takes his kids to the playground: “don’t hurt yourself, and don’t pee on the slide, but besides that do what you want.” It’s all very kind of him. For if a man – or a woman, excuse my sexist grammar – draws these lines, a pentagram in the sands of his soul, then the entire world opens up to him. Only when adultery is really wrong can a man run into the excitement of faithfulness, of rash vows and of committed love. The poor, poor, modern man who denies the commandment, who draws no razor-edged line, himself dooms to mope along the beach, for if adultery and marriage are the same, what joy is there in either? Likewise, the man who says “God is God, and none other” does not make himself a slave but a free man! For if only God is God, then money is not, nor intelligence, nor science, nor sex, nor power, and he is free to run amongst such potent things lightly and happily, mocking them at will, for he is their master. But the poor, poor, modern man refuses to be chained to the Lord, and so either chains himself to many, and must serve a host of demanding masters, or to the great Nothing, and so lives unfulfilled.
Our Lord says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Which is fantastic for us not-very-in-tune-with-the-emotions kind of people. He does not say, “if you love me you’ll speak in tongues, you’ll levitate, and you’ll feel happy all the time,” but rather that, if we love, we will obey. How like our God to give us something solid as tablets of stone, that only action admits love! But I think it is equally true that if we love ourselves we’ll keep His commandments.
For even within the things forbidden, great joy and freedom is revealed. A man is not to covet his own goods, but he is at full leave – and I believe even urged – to covet his own. To covet your neighbor’s bed is to never sleep in it, and that’s an unhappy state of affairs. But to covet your own bed is to appreciate it fully – laying down is a triumph. We have all these blessings, and it is great that we are thankful for them – our houses and cars and trees and trampolines – but better still that we really want them, that we do not take them for granted, but desire them with all of the joy of first receiving them. Thou shall not steal, that is true, but you are allowed to steal from yourself! For only when we realize that we don’t deserve a mite of what we are given, and take it anyways, then we truly value it. Taking a book from your shelf should have all the exhilaration of stealing it from the school library, and even the very use of these glorious bodies should come with a breathless sort of “I can’t believe we just got away with that” – for they are not ours to own. Why else would we steal time? Thou shall not commit adultery, but you shall commit it with your lawfully wedded spouse. It should not take too much imagination for any married couple to realize that they do not deserve each other, and thus sex should always be a love-affair, full of the awareness that it’s all too good to be true – and yet it’s true.
“There is but one answer, and I am sorry if you don’t like it. If Innocent is happy, it is because he IS innocent. If he can defy the conventions, it is just because he can keep the commandments. It is just because he does not want to kill but to excite to life that a pistol is still as exciting to him as it is to a schoolboy. It is just because he does not want to steal, because he does not covet his neighbour’s goods, that he has captured the trick (oh, how we all long for it!), the trick of coveting his own goods. It is just because he does not want to commit adultery that he achieves the romance of sex; it is just because he loves one wife that he has a hundred honeymoons. If he had really murdered a man, if he had really deserted a woman, he would not be able to feel that a pistol or a love-letter was like a song— at least, not a comic song.”
“Do not imagine, please, that any such attitude is easy to me or appeals in any particular way to my sympathies. I am an Irishman, and a certain sorrow is in my bones, bred either of the persecutions of my creed, or of my creed itself. Speaking singly, I feel as if man was tied to tragedy, and there was no way out of the trap of old age and doubt. But if there is a way out, then, by Christ and St. Patrick, this is the way out. If one could keep as happy as a child or a dog, it would be by being as innocent as a child, or as sinless as a dog. Barely and brutally to be good—that may be the road, and he may have found it. Well, well, well, I see a look of skepticism on the face of my old friend Moses. Mr. Gould does not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry.”
“No,” said Gould, with an unusual and convincing gravity; “I do not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry.”
“Well,” said Michael quietly, “will you tell me one thing? Which of us has ever tried it?”