“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 couple hard-core bouts of puppy love, a predictably awful first kiss in tenth grade, and the beginnings of a lifelong fascination (if at that time very limited experience) with The Great and Wonderful Breast. Nobody gave me the “Operating Manual” for girls so I rarely asked any out on dates in high school. When I first started discovering the intoxicating appeal of girls, 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.
I didn’t really have what I would call a true sensual experience until English class my freshman year of high school and Stephanie. Oh Stephanie. My very first love. I was as completely, madly, and innocently in love with that girl as only a 14-year old kid can be and 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 the swell of those magical breasts. When she 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 in 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.
The first time I had sex was a week or two before my eighteenth birthday and graduation. 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. We almost had sex on prom night at our group hotel room, but decided it was “too important a decision” to do it that night, whatever that meant. I think we were both just nervous and scared. Whatever the reason, we didn’t “do it” that night, but I definitely had the desire for it to happen. Working up to the day it finally did, I was trying to scheme a way to get her alone in her house and in her room. I had some sad little plan to spill something on her so she’d have to go upstairs to change. Ridiculously lame. I don’t remember how it actually happened that afternoon; I just remember we were in her living room on the couch watching TV, then we went up to her room. That day, just shy of my eighteenth birthday, I lost my virginity.
Since that first time, I always felt some level of guilt after having sex and occasionally made an attempt to “normalize” a sexual relationship, but not very often and never successfully. It’s hard to go backward. For the most part, I was typical of most 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 activity in some way, from groping and touching to full intercourse. I had no concept of the virtue of chastity. It was only in my thirties that I started making real attempts at having sex-free relationships, most often with little success and lots of guilt.
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 that I’m now writing about my newly chaste life? My turning away from the sexual life and toward chastity was at first more like a growing sentiment that being sexually active was 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 wasn’t conscious of the thought at the time, but I think knowing that my relationships weren’t moving toward marriage made me feel guilty about having sex with a girl.
Moving to Texas in 2005 gave me a chance to start my life 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, though, my desire to have sex-free relationships 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 what my answer was: “I’d rip off his…” I quickly realized, of course, that if this was my attitude toward those men, 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 Id 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 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 using her. I knew she liked me and I took advantage of that for selfish reasons. Also, to be completely honest, I wasn’t even really attracted to her. It was just an opportunity. It was pretty pathetic the way I treated her (and myself).
What finally helped me conquer and gain control of my sexual desire was realizing that I could not continue on my current path, but (most importantly) 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 beauty of a chaste life far outweighs any pain you suffer getting there. (C.S. Lewis shows this beautifully in Chapter 11 of The Great Divorce.)
“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 type place, 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 girl 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 that 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. After you’ve been to the mountaintop (if I can use a lame cliché), wandering around in the relationship foothills doesn’t seem quite so exciting. But the foothills (to continue with the lame cliché) are what support the mountain. 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. 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 am now sex free for the first time in my adult life. That is 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), but now I understand that those feelings are simply natural bodily desires and they 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