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Friendship and the Language of Sex

Tobiah, too, has come to acknowledge that his sexual desire can be oriented toward a noble purpose. Earlier, when Raphael describes Sarah to him, indicating that by Mosaic law Tobiah is the rightful husband of Sarah, Tobiah's response is joyful: "When Tobiah heard Raphael say that she was his kinswoman, of his own family's lineage, he fell deeply in love with her, and his heart became set on her" (6:18). This is not merely a response to duty, but neither is it simply a random rush of hormones. Tobiah has never met Sarah, and yet he falls in deeply in love with her. He understands on some level that what gives him joy is precisely the knowledge that God has chosen her for him, that God has made him for her.

Today, our common cultural attitude toward sex is that it is a pleasurable activity to be enjoyed by consenting adults, with proper protection. The story of Tobiah and Sarah, however, suggest a radically different model. Their sex is a duet in a story authored by God, made possible by their free and willing response. It is embedded in a context of familial and clan relationships; it is blessed, as it were, by parents and friends. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is sex that is oriented toward a noble purpose, rooted in prayer, expressing a shared desire to do what is good.

Let us not be put off by the fact that the cultural contexts of ancient Israel and contemporary America are different. Yes, it is difficult for many to imagine the kind of ideal social structure illustrated in the story: rich extended family ties; shared religious practices; generosity among strangers. For many today who live amidst the fragmentations caused by divorce, geographic mobility, and constant competition, the ideals of the book of Tobit are as distant as other planets. Therefore I wish to close with focus on one much more modest theme that encompasses both the ancient and the contemporary worlds: namely, friendship.

I want to suggest that what the story offers to us is a way of thinking about sex that is rooted in friendship. According to Aristotle, who was active only a couple of hundred years before the author of Tobit, true friendship is rooted neither in pleasure or utility, but in a shared striving for the good. Even if we grant that the reason why many people choose to have sex is because it's pleasurable, we must ask why people consider pleasure important. The psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl observed in his landmark book Man's Search for Meaning that the people in concentration camps who did not survive were those that gave up on meaning, and turned to pleasures shortly before they died. Pleasure, he seems to suggest, is for those who have lost a sense of noble purpose.

What makes Tobiah and Sarah friends is their shared sense of acting in cooperation in the unfolding story of God at work in the world. At the heart of Catholic faith is a profound sense that God reaches out in friendship toward each creature, and that living in cooperation with God enables us to live in cooperation, in friendship, with each other. In the context of friendship, then, sex is to be understood as cooperation with God. It is the shared practice of an intimacy embedded within a larger web of relationships: with parents and siblings, friends, fellow pilgrims. For that reason, the Church has from its earliest days recognized that sex has a social dimension to it.

 It changes one's relationship to the other, and the changes the couple's relationship to the rest of the world. 

It is holy ground.

4/11/2011 4:00:00 AM