MY FOOLISH HEART
On St. Patrick’s Day 2006, the jazz singer and former divinity student Kurt Elling preached the theology of the body. The setting was the Strathmore Center, a resplendent $100 million concert hall outside Washington, D.C., and the sermon was in the form of song.
About halfway through the concert, Elling performed the standard “My Foolish Heart.” It is a romantic ballad, full of the kind of imagery that goes with love—the nighttime, the moon, the erotic charge of lips. Halfway through the song, the band died down, providing only a slow and steady pulse behind Elling.
Then he sang a poem:
One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
Clothed in sheer grace
I went out unseen
My house being now all still
On that dark night
Clothed in sheer grace
In darkness and concealed
My house being now all still
On that black night
In secret for no one saw me
With no other light as guide than the one that burned
in my heart
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where she waited for me
The one I knew so well
To the place where no one appeared
In the night
In the mystic night
It was a passage from Saint John of the Cross. Elling was commingling the carnal charge of “My Foolish Heart” with the metaphysical passion of a sixteenth century Catholic Spanish mystic. The band was barely audible, and the space in the concert hall became charged with a sacramental, erotic energy. After several minutes, pianist Laurence Hobgood softly reintroduced the melody to “My Foolish Heart.” Elling sang—“There’s a line between love and fascination, it’s hard to see on an evening such as this.”
The lyrics had returned to the pleasures of kisses and the fire of love, but the distance traveled between Saint John and the Great American Songbook was not far. The band charged back, and the audience of several thousand seemed to both sigh as one and applaud. They—we—had been seduced.
In ten minutes Elling had made the point once made by John Paul II in four years of lectures: To the human person, love recalls the “echo” of our time before the Fall, and as such, our bodily love is an icon of the Trinitarian love of God.
Elling had distilled to its essence The Theology of the Body
. Based on a series of lectures given between
1979 and 1983 by John Paul II, the book is a theological
Mount Everest, considered by most people— including
Catholics—too intimidating to approach. Yet at its
heart is a fairly simple idea—sex is participation in and
a reflection of the love of God; therefore sex, and our
bodies themselves, are very good things.
This may seem like an obvious insight—sex has always been associated with the divine. But in the hands of the late pope it reaches remarkable poetic and theological depth. The Theology of the Body
signaled a sexual revolution in the Catholic Church, one that is now even underway in the larger culture. But it is a revolution that has been more than one hundred years in the making. It is not, obviously, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and perhaps in the larger culture as well, with its shattering “free love” (which, as writer Stephen Catanzarite has pointed out, was neither). Nor is it exactly a conservative counterrevolution. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the thinking of Catholic intellectuals going back to the early twentieth century. These were defenders of sex as something good and holy, freely talking of orgasms and the language of the body at a time when most Catholics were discouraged from even thinking of such things. While their message never trickled down to Catholic schools or stormed the gates of the Vatican, it found powerful expression in the popular culture— particularly in the poetry of rock ’n’ roll music. And with John Paul II, it found validation. Now it could be the salvation for Western culture, which has gone sexually insane.
For a time, I was part of that insanity. I was born in 1964 to Irish Catholic parents, and the closest I ever got to a sex talk from my parents was when I was about ten years old. At school I had overheard a teenager call someone a “prick.” The next morning, I padded out to the small garden in our backyard where my dad was weeding. “Dad,” I asked, “what’s a prick?”
For a brief second, he hesitated, his sweaty hands hanging over the tulips. Then he simply started weeding again. It was as though he thought he heard a dog barking in the distance.
I asked again. “What’s a prick?”
“Dad,” I said again, stepping over the flowerbed so I could not be ignored. “What’s a prick?”
He looked at me. Then he gently took me by the shoulders and leaned in close. “It’s your penis,” he whispered. I felt myself blush. I knew what a penis was. It had to do with sex and we didn’t talk about sex. I backed away and retreated into the house while Dad tended to his garden.
Yet my father was the furthest thing from a prude. A journalist and world traveler for National Geographic
, Dad was brilliant, funny, and passionately loved my mother. The stories he would tell sometimes tended toward the ribald. Once when I pulled a groin muscle playing football, he noticed I was limping around the house. “Were you with a girl last night?” he whispered. I said no, that I had been playing football. “Uh-huh,” he said. A devout Catholic, he loved nature and once told my best friend and me that we were being silly when we laughed at two ducks having sex in the backyard. “Hey, it’s spring,” he said. To Dad, women were magical creatures. He would often become smitten with movie stars and never tired of ballads played by the big bands.
He was, in short, anything but a repressive or hidebound man. Born in 1928, he was of the generation who simply did not talk to their kids about sex— because their parents had not talked to them about sex. We had to find out about sex from other places.
In my case, I learned about love from rock ’n’ roll. I still remember the night I fell in love with the Beatles, which was shortly after I had fallen in love with Lisa, the girl next door. It was a hot summer night in 1970, and I was six years old. When I went to bed in our house in Maryland in those days, it was often to the sounds of my oldest brother Joe playing music in his room a few feet down the hall. One night, Joe put on A Hard Day’s Night
, the soundtrack to the great Beatles film.
Many people recall their first experience with the Beatles as cataclysmic, life changing, revolutionary. Like an atomic bomb, the Beatles supposedly destroyed everything that had once stood before, creating the future and a new landscape. Yet on that humid night in 1970, my six-year-old reaction was quite different. I didn’t think of war, revolution, my parents, or drugs. I thought of a girl. I thought of Lisa, who lived next door. I was in love with Lisa, and I found that love reflected back to me in the music of A Hard Day’s Night
. In hearing “And I Love Her,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” and “If I Fell” from Joe’s room, my imagination took off.
The Catholic theologian Fr. Paul M. Quay would later describe the sexual act as a woman opening herself up to a man, her giving of herself, and the man penetrating her with his very essence—put simply, their mutual self-giving—an expression of the love of God. Though I wasn’t remotely conscious of it at the time, John, Paul, George, and Ringo offered the same message. Like intense and very effective prayer, you could feel God in their sound—the happy bounce of “I Should Have Known Better”; the mystical, hopeful solemnity of “Things We Said Today”; the orgasmic cries of “When I Get Home.” In those brilliant notes, I saw Lisa and me dancing, laughing, kissing, being husband and wife. If this was revolutionary music, it was preaching a very old lesson: the power of love.
I soon realized that love—and its loss—is the great theme of popular music, from Louis Armstrong right down to Justin Timberlake. Popular music was exploring the initial ecstasy Adam felt when he first saw “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” Whether it was the Supremes declaring there ain’t no mountain high enough, the Beatles heralding the good news that she loves you, or Van Morrison whispering about a marvelous night for a moon dance, this great desire to return to our original union with God—including the conjugal union between Adam and Eve that preceded the Fall—is the urge that launched a thousand hits.
Indeed, it is such a ubiquitous theme that it’s impossible to run through my favorite bands without coming face-to-face with it. The punk group the Replacements, my favorite band when I was in my twenties, have a song called “I Will Dare,” about working up the courage to meet a girl. The Allman Brothers sing of “Sweet Melissa.” The entire Motown canon, from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, is a joyful soundtrack of the quest for love—more specifically, the quest for the love of that one person you w...