Desire and Design

Humans are hardwired for sexual attraction; we are formed, bodily, to satisfy it.

To restate what’s in the Catechism: sex is good, natural, and mostly licit in marriage. Still, we’re still left with impulses, programmed by instinct and reinforced (or perverted) by years and years of exposure to cultural expressions of sexuality.

And as I began reading Christopher West’s new book, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, I thought to keep a pad and pencil at hand to count the number of times during the week that I would encounter images of sexuality: in media, on the street, at the gym, even in church. I didn’t do it, but if I had, the incidences would be numerous. And you can’t look at sex-obsessed America without conjuring that fine catechetical word: disordered.

West quotes Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete to the effect that “human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity.” And yet (quoting Mr. West now) the big mistake we make is in thinking “that sexual activity is in itself our ultimate fulfillment.” That may be an overstatement, but sex certainly is a staple.

Indeed, West uses analogies to nourishment to put sex into what he considers a proper context: starvation diet, fast food, and a banquet.

By starvation he means renunciation: “sex is bad.” He cites the singer Madonna’s experience of childhood repression, which led a nice Catholic girl to make a career out of being naughty. She binges, you might say. The irony is that because she was taught that sexual longing is depraved, she became depraved. She tries to sate herself, but she’s always starving.

Then there are the folks fed up, you might say, with starving, who go for the junk food, and there’s plenty of it. This is, I gather, the opposite of Madonna’s problem. Sex to the junkies is always good, which, according to West, is only half bad.

Victoria’s Secret-style soft-porn ads improperly tap into a proper longing: “although the marketing industry misdirects human desire, it still understands that we are embodied creatures of desire.” [Emphasis in the original.]

The banquet is different. This is a prayerful meal, you might say, a mystic feast: “an ecstasy of [divine] love and union only dimly foreshadowed in the ecstasy of love and union that spouses know here on earth.” (Much of the chapter on “The Banquet,” by the way, is an extended gastronomic meditation on the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.) And here we get the gist of Mr. West’s work:

We encounter spiritual mysteries not by rejecting the pleasures of the physical world, but by entering into these pleasures in the right way. [Again, emphasis in the original.] . . . As we learn the proper rhythm of fasting and feasting, the joys of the senses become not an occasion of sin, but  . . . of grace.

As Saint Augustine wrote: Christian pleasure is “having everything you want and wanting nothing wrongly.”

Allegory of Chastity by Hans Memling, 1475

Mr. West has dedicated himself to explicating John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which simply stated is this: “Human sexual desire as God created it to be is something profoundly dignified and noble.” [As always, West’s emphasis.]

It’s a noble effort – rescuing human sexuality from the Jansenists. Much of Christopher West’s apostolate involves seminars on TOB, as it’s known, and some of his writing clearly derives from oral presentations. This is not always for the better on the printed page. He quotes James (5:7-8) on patience in the spiritual life and explains:

It’s in this waiting that our desires are stre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-etched. Oh! It’s painful! Our prayer, our waiting, becomes a lifelong groan.

Or again: “If God is speaking to us through the natural world, then it’s clear that one of his favorite subjects is mating and fertility, coupling and life-givingness.” God has favorite subjects? He prefers those Mr. West has listed rather than, say, calculus or geology? Okay, so I’m joking and West is not, but his zeal to assure us of the goodness of sex relies too much on zest in popularizing, which often serves up empty literary and theological calories. In West’s many citations of pop culture, how many, on their own terms, are truly Christian? 

Mr. West is earnest about the way male and female bodies in union represent Creator and creation, Christ and the Church. Sexual intercourse can be a mystical experience. There is a “code” written into our bodies and our desires, and Christian marriage offers a way to unify those desires with God’s desire for our salvation.

I just wish the word renunciation popped up now and then in Fill These Hearts.

But Fill These Hearts is not a marriage manual, and there are no references to specific sexual actions. There is a fair amount of Biblical exegesis, some of it interesting. But I imagine a couple driving home from one of West’s TOB seminars and, after some hours and miles of silence, turning to one another to say simultaneously: “What exactly are we supposed to do?”

One thing really struck me though. Mr. West describes a conversation he and his wife had about why their marriage seems better. He says:

“I think I’ve been realizing  . . . you can’t satisfy me.”

She replies:

“And I’ve been realizing the same thing . . .”

This is Good News manifest: theirs is a marriage that puts Christ at the center.

Still, I have to say that, whereas it’s good to liberate married couples for the fullness of love, there’s the potential here for an undisciplined interpretation of sexuality, which is certainly not what John Paul II intended.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.