“For without you, what am I to myself but the leader of my own destruction?” The Confessions of St Augustine, IV.i.8
Before I graduated high school, my experience with girls was very limited. It amounted mostly to a hard-core bout of puppy love, a predictably awful first kiss in tenth grade, and a lot of admiring from afar. Nobody gave me the instruction manual so I rarely asked any girls out on dates in high school. When I first started discovering the intoxicating appeal of femininity, I don’t think I ever thought about what it would be like to be sexually active. As with most boys, my attraction to girls was innocent at first.
My first real brush with love was in freshman English class and Stephanie. Oh Stephanie. I was as completely, madly, and innocently in love with that girl as only a 14-year old kid can be. It paralyzed me. She made my stomach flip and my chest tight and my legs all clumsy and made me feel like my brain and my mouth had never met. She was the kind of girl who makes your eyes all wide and your brain foggy and who inspires a boy to walk half way ‘round the school just to watch her walk out of class and catch the scent of her hair and gaze upon “those soft and fuzzy sweaters, too magical to touch” as the J. Geils Band sang at the time.
When Stephanie leaned forward and whispered in my ear in class she shook my soul and I thought my entire life would explode. There was nothing lustful about these feelings. They were probably the only truly chaste sexual feelings I ever experienced until quite recently. For most of my freshman year my days in school and out were filled with thoughts of Stephanie. I never did anything about it of course, but she consumed my thoughts and my heart like few girls or women have since.
“For the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction.” (Matthew 7:13)
Coming of age in the early eighties, the sexual revolution was firmly in place. There was a very casual attitude about sex among my friends as we moved into junior and senior year of high school, even though we all grew up in good Catholic homes and went to church weekly. Sex just seemed like something that would be very pleasurable and fun. Having sex was what people did who were attracted to each other, like the next step if you were dating someone for a while.
My first time was in June of my senior year. My girlfriend and I had been friends since sophomore year and had been dating since junior year. We even went on Catholic retreats together with our friends. It almost happened on prom night at our group hotel room, but we decided it was too important a decision to do it that night, whatever that meant. Maybe it was the tower of empty beer cans, or maybe we were both just nervous and scared. Whatever the reason, we didn’t do it that night, but I definitely wanted to. A few weeks later we were in her living room on the couch watching TV, then we went up to her room. That day, a few weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday and high school graduation, I lost my virginity.
Guilt followed after that first time and every time after. I made attempts to normalize my relationships away from sexual activity, but not very often and never successfully. It’s hard to go backward. For the most part, I was typical of many young people at the time: sexually active, serially monogamous, enjoying sex, and seeking it in every relationship. Every adult relationship I had until a few years ago involved sexual pursuit in some way. I had no concept of the virtue of chastity. It was only in my thirties that I started making real attempts at living a chaste life (though I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms yet), again with little success and lots of resulting guilt and broken relationships.
The Hard Road Back to Chastity
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life.” (Matthew 7:14)
So what changed? My turn toward chastity was at first more like a growing sentiment that what I’d been doing was wrong. Call it Catholic guilt if you like, but that’s not a bad thing. Guilt is a signal from a healthy conscience that we’ve done something wrong. Getting older, too, I started realizing that I was not finding the relationship I desired so what I was doing clearly wasn’t working. I knew what I was doing was wrong, yet I didn’t yet know how to get myself right.
Moving to Texas in 2005 gave me a chance to start over, and put me in the place where the beginnings of a deep spiritual re-awakening began. I was born and raised Catholic, and went to church regularly, if not always weekly. I always talked the talk and considered myself Catholic, but I never really walked the walk and lived out my faith. After I moved to Texas, I attended a church retreat that re-ignited the fire of my faith. At this point, I still wasn’t thinking in terms of living a chaste life, only that I knew I shouldn’t be and didn’t want to be in sexual relationships. It was still a negative impulse in the sense that I knew it was wrong and tried to not do it.
It wasn’t until a year or two later when I started discovering Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and saw Christopher West speak about it that the impulse turned in a positive direction of knowing that living a chaste life was not about what we’re not supposed to do or not allowed to do, but about what is right to do and what is best to do. At that talk, Christopher West asked what we would do if a guy treated our daughters the way we’ve treated our girlfriends. Though I don’t have children, I knew immediately that my answer was the same as that of every other man in the church that day: “I’d rip off his…” I quickly realized, of course, that if this would be my attitude toward men with my daughter, why was it OK for me to treat someone else’s daughter that way? The answer, of course, was it’s not OK. Ultimately, I realized I’d been using women, and I grew tired of using women, tired of pretending at marriage, and tired of counterfeit love.
“But in this was my sin, that not in Him but in His creatures, in myself and others, did I seek pleasure, honors, and truths. So it was that I rushed into sorrow, conflict, and error.” (The Confessions of St Augustine, I.xxxi)
Despite my new understanding of the right place of sexuality in my life, it was an intense struggle to be free of it. Sex is a powerful drug. I knew I didn’t want sex in my relationships (and the idea of chastity started to grow in me) but kicking it cold turkey was hard. I often fell back into old ways and, even when I didn’t actually engage in sexual activity in a relationship, it was a mighty struggle not to. The last time I had sex was the proverbial rock bottom. It was with someone I knew I didn’t want a relationship with. It was embarrassing and I felt bad for the woman I was with. I was deceiving her and intentionally using her. I knew she liked me and I took advantage of that for selfish reasons. The awful way I treated her (and myself) was the last straw for me.
What finally helped me conquer and gain control of my sexual desire was realizing that I couldn’t change on my own. I didn’t have the strength or the courage. I was too weak. I finally realized that I couldn’t move away from my old life unless I moved toward God. Only God could slay my lust. But, even with all God’s might, he would not slay it without my permission, and it would not happen without pain and struggle. However, the power of chastity (as C.S. Lewis describes so beautifully in Chapter 11 of The Great Divorce) is that it transforms lust into something infinitely more beautiful and glorious: an authentic love whose gifts far outweigh any pain you suffer getting there.
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride!” (Song of Solomon 4:9)
So how profound has this change in my life been? In 2011, I had been dating Julie for several months and was growing more in love with her by the day. One night we went to a storybook Texas roadhouse, complete with BBQ and two-stepping to a live country band. At the end of the night I drove her home and walked her up to her apartment. She invited me in and we stood on her balcony for a few minutes looking out at the night, holding hands, and talking. My thoughts were going to all the things that the future might hold for us. Eventually we realized it was getting late, so we said our goodbyes and I left.
On my drive home, a startling thing occurred to me. For the first time in my adult life, I was alone with a beautiful woman I was wildly attracted to and didn’t have a single thought of taking her into her bedroom. I didn’t even have the thoughts to dismiss them. I was just happy to hold her and love her. Sex never crossed my mind. That was a profound moment for me that would not have been possible even two or three years earlier, and certainly not possible without the grace of God.
“Man’s capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others.” Karol Wojtyla [Saint John Paul II], Love & Responsibility)
Becoming sexually active at a young age prevented me from learning how to be in a truly loving relationship because I was looking for what I could get out of them, not what I could offer of myself to them. I was always (and still am) socially reserved and introverted. I’m bad at communicating my feelings with someone I’m romantically involved with. Like, you know, talking and stuff. Sex was the shortcut, and a bad one at that because all it did was short-circuit the discovery and friendship building that needs to happen early in a relationship and that makes it so exciting and helps build up our desire into a deep and lasting love.
Sex makes all that getting to know you stuff kind of beside the point and uninspiring. But it’s precisely the building of trust, friendship, and self-giving love that lays the solid foundation that a lasting relationship requires. Without them, it will all just crumble. It took me a long time to learn that, and I’m still learning it. I still have a hard time knowing what I should feel, what I should do, and how I should act in a loving relationship. That is the true and lasting consequence of my unchaste life. Sin leaves scars that must heal, and some that don’t. But I’m learning — slowly but surely — and I finally understand that desire is important for love; it just can’t be the end of it.
“For because He himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18)
With God’s grace, I now live a chaste life for the first time in my life. That’s a very sad thing to say for a man who’s almost 47, but it’s also profoundly comforting. I won’t say that sexual thoughts never occur to me (they do, I’m a man after all), but now I understand that those feelings are simply natural bodily desires that do not control me. with God’s grace, I control them. You can’t imagine how good that feels.
Image: “Worship” by spaceamoeba / https://flic.kr/p/3iV1P7