In the Brothers Karamazov, Grushenka tells Alyosha:
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her.
This one good deed, the story seems to say, will save them all. The peasant woman, though, is not happy:
. . . she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.” Grushenka ends the story in this: “I am that wicked woman myself.
I wish I could tell you that that I don’t mean any of this talk about church in a sentimental way, but the truth is that I do. (Is it only a mellowing into middle age?) I find myself not just “willing the good of the other” in a detached way, but feeling waves of affection–for those inside and outside the Catholic Church, inside and outside the larger community of all those who follow Christ. I am foolish and lovestruck, to be honest.
My response to this invitation was to say that I would write an essay with a slightly different title: “Why I Remain a Non-Polarized and Super-Sexy Catholic.” I meant it as a joke. I have teenage children now, and I have to keep up my end of the bargain in embarrassing them whenever possible. But again, this title sort of writes the essay itself. Sex, it turns out, is a lot like the Catholicism that I love. I don’t mean so much the earthiness of Catholic practice, the way it revels unabashedly in the physical. I mean the longing for the other that propels us toward sex, the longing that is filled when sex is very good.
Sometimes at Mass, when the congregation moves to reception of Eucharist, I fail to pray piously, as perhaps I should. Instead, I watch those who receive Christ into their own bodies. I feel like a voyeur. But at that moment, the source and summit of the Catholic faith, is about them, just as it is about the liturgy and the elements themselves. It is them-in-Christ, Christ-in-them, and the unexpected way that our best chance may be hanging onto one another’s heels.
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