“The Body & Society” Notes Pt 2: Against Celibate Privacy

“The Body & Society” Notes Pt 2: Against Celibate Privacy January 24, 2018

The heart should be all of one piece. No hidden motives should lurk within it. The believer should face others with a heart as transparent to their needs as it was to the will of God. “Singleness of heart” condensed a warm and eminently sociable ideal. It summed up the moral horizons of the average man. It formed the basis of a morality of solidarity, which stressed unaffected straight dealing and ungrudging loyalty to kin and neighbors. It was a virtue particularly appropriate to the self-reliant and abrasive householders of the small towns and villages of the eastern Mediterranean. … Their most bitter struggle was to control cunning and resentment in their relations with their modest peers.

The Body & Society: Men, Women, & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

This is a description of the ideal of “singleness of heart” for married people, householders raising families. Just as you can harm your neighbor by holding back your material possessions from him, you can harm him and your community by harboring–cherishing, cultivating–envy, covetousness, and resentment. You can harm him by dishonesty and impatience.

Today we’re struggling to find ways to describe the problem of privacy, the problem of the opaque heart. I think a lot of our talk about “emotional affairs” is really an attempt to describe how it damages a marriage when one spouse creates a private world, a cherished sphere of intimacy and fantasy which isn’t shared transparently with your spouse but is held secret. (That’s what distinguishes “emotional affair” from “devoted friendship,” by the way, although we today have such a hard time recognizing and cultivating nonsexual friendship that these lines get even more blurred than ordinary fallen human nature would make them anyway.) And we don’t even talk about the problem of the privacy and opacity of our financial lives. Would you be ashamed to have your church see your bank account? Why is that? What would have to change, in your fellow churchgoers (e.g. if you/they assume your poverty is your fault, or judge you unmercifully for actual mistakes and misdeeds for which you’re paying harshly) or in yourself (e.g. because you have more than you need, because you place your treasure and your heart in security against anxiety about the future rather than in Heaven–this is me btw), in order for you to be willing to live with financial transparency?

Later on Brown will talk about how freeing oneself of sexual fantasy became symbolically important to some ascetics because it was the most visceral and nearly-uncontrollable example of the private world. In itself it’s only one form of sinful privacy among others, and monks generally had to figure out how to overcome resentments and learn patience, all the other tasks of making the private corroded heart match the public ascetic persona. But sexual desire, like hunger, was one of the most symbolically-freighted areas because it so undeniably humbled an ascetic’s pride. For which some ascetics did manage to be grateful.

For a lot of gay people today trying to live out Church teaching, the lure of the private world is especially strong. If you’re struggling to piece together a life of love and fruitfulness, but you’re not married and not called to (or accepted into) religious life, you may end up spending an unusual amount of time alone. Being by yourself can mean solitude–being in the desert with God. But it can also mean isolation–the slow crafting and hardening of a private world. The temptation to resentment is especially intense in a culture where marriage and family are idols and celibacy is denigrated, mocked, or treated purely as a deprivation. The temptation to dishonesty, with oneself and others, is especially strong in church cultures where being openly gay is often treated as inherently sinful or uniquely shameful. The temptation to distraction is probably about equal so that’s… good???… insofar as we’re all being destroyed equally by anti-prayerful noise???

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that thing Jesus says about the return of the unclean spirit:

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none.

Then it says, ‘I will return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order.

Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first. Thus it will be with this evil generation.”

I am not sure what this is about and please forgive me (and tell me!) if I’m totally off-base here, but I’ve been told that this passage is about the difference between absence of evil and presence of God. The soul is swept and empty: relieved of demonic presence and that’s great, but the demonic inhabitant hasn’t been replaced by love. It’s sort of the spiritual-warfare version of addiction-switching, a thing I totally do, where I don’t drink anymore and I am deeply grateful for that, but I still find myself shoveling my life into slightly shallower pointless holes of internet distraction or sugary sweets or self-righteous anger.

Gay people specifically are really likely to get spiritual guidance which is all about avoiding lust. Even for people who in fact do struggle with chastity (this is still me btw), having a spiritual life which is solely or primarily about not lusting is just sweeping out the empty room. It is better than making the demon comfortable in there! But at best the room is empty, and simply waiting for that demon and his fellows–despair, resentment, envy, spiritual pride, self-pity, distraction and sloth in prayer–to return. It is the active practice of love, in prayer and in service to one’s neighbor, which fills the empty room with sunlight, makes it open to those around you and to God, which destroys the private world where demons like to dwell and consecrates the whole house of your heart to its one single purpose.

You can see why it’s so hard to want to do this. Don’t destroy my private world!!!! we cry, as all the demons laugh behind their hands.


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