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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 were meant to be with, the one who is the answer to a prayer, who can make time stop.
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI refers to the love between a man and a woman as “that love which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.” In the U2 song “Original of the Species,” singer Bono says that love “steals right under my door,” neither planned nor willed. Bono can only cry for more, delirious with the fecundity and gratuitous grace of God. It’s probably no mistake, given his acknowledged Catholic spirituality, that he cries “I want you some more” three times, perhaps reflecting the Trinity.
Of course, the Beatles could not teach me the basics of reproductive biology. I also wasn’t going to get that in Catholic parochial school. In the 1970s my grade school, Our Lady of Mercy in Maryland, was not ready for the sexual revolution. The school was run by two women—Sister Mary, the principal, and Miss Donahue (not their real names), a teacher who would eventually become principal. Both women were tough yet fair; both were feared and respected by the students. Unlike my father, they could not joke about sex. Like any boy with a crush, I found myself obsessing about Lisa during class. Sister Mary or Miss Donahue would be dilating about the nature of angels or conjugating verbs, and I would stare out the window, fantasizing about kissing Lisa.
Finally, one afternoon I was on the street playing wiffle ball when Lisa came walking by on her way home from school. Inspired by “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” I asked her if I could kiss her.
She said yes.
I stood there. We watched each other for a few seconds. Then she turned and walked home. I had lost my nerve.
For the rest of the summer I was slowly tortured by my inaction—but I was also inspired. Lisa had said I could kiss her. All I had to do was do it.
The moment came when school began a few weeks later. I was playing catch with a friend when she came by on her way home from school. She was about to pass by when I spoke up: “Um . . . Lisa? Can I kiss you now?”
I moved in. At the last second she turned, making sure I hit her on the cheek and not the mouth.
For the next several days, I was in a dream world. Sister Mary and Miss Donahue talked multiplication tables and transubstantiation, but only my physical body was in class. I was already married to Lisa, or reliving the kiss over and over again. There was simply nobody in school or at home who could explain to me why I felt the way I did. When I mentioned Lisa, my dad just smiled. I graduated from Our Lady of Mercy in the spring of 1979 having kissed a girl, but still not knowing much about what the rock musician Elvis Costello, who had just hit the charts with his first album, called the “Mystery Dance.”
Things would be explained to me, graphically, when I got to high school. I went to Georgetown Prep, the little brother school to Georgetown University. Apparently by this time the Catholic Church had gotten over its reticence about sex. Our sex-ed teacher at Prep was a man named Bernie Ward, who would later become a well-known left-wing talk show host in San Francisco. Ward would also be arrested and convicted for sending pornographic images of children over the Internet.
On the first day of sex-ed class, Ward, an average sized man with a bad complexion, handed out the day’s reading—a tract about feminism and sex by Betty Friedan. He then went to the front of the classroom and made an announcement: There was nothing wrong with masturbation. It was healthy. It was normal. It would make you happy. In fact, masturbating, even if you were married, would only help the relationship. For the next six months, the female body became a sort of flesh-and-bone vending machine, something that would respond and deliver if you knew where to insert the quarter and pushed the right button.
Mr. Ward’s exegesis on sex did not do me much good when I lost my virginity the summer after I took his class. I met Donna when I had a party when I was seventeen and my parents were out of town. The kids left the house a mess, and Donna and a friend had stayed behind to help me clean up. It was about two a.m. when we were finishing, and as Donna was vacuuming up beer I pulled her toward me and kissed her. Mr. Ward had filled my vocabulary with words like clitoris, orgasm, and ejaculation. What he hadn’t prepared me for was falling in love with a real person. To be sure, hormones were driving me to have sex with Donna. But it was also something more transcendent. As Saint Ambrose once put it, lovers embracing seem to be attempting to breathe their souls into each other.
Again, rock ’n’ roll seemed to describe the powerful parallel world I was entering. Where my parents and their generation considered lovemaking a wonderful taboo not to be spoken of in detail, and Mr. Ward reduced it to Marxism and moving parts, the songs I loved told me that it could be both—the swiveling hips of Elvis and the tender ballads of the Fab Four; the erotic dynamism of Little Richard and the moonlit romance of Van Morrison. To put it in theological terms, the music made the connection between agape, the love of God, and eros, physical desire. At night, from Joe’s room, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, and the blues musicians he loved would serenade me with the wonder of love.
Yet the Church was catching up with the Top 40. In September 1979—my first week at Georgetown Prep— Pope John Paul II began a series of lectures that would be published as The Theology of the Body. John Paul II went back to Genesis to reveal the true meaning of love and the human body. The pope emphasized that man—meaning all human persons—was made in the image of God. Thus, when we are seeing another person, we are seeing the image of God. We become even more like God through the act of loving that person as an image of God, not as an object of lust. And we can only achieve mastery of ourselves and our sexuality by realizing that we ourselves are also created in the image of God. When we know this fully, we can come to realize genuine freedom.
The Theology of the Body had its origin in early 1940, when a nineteen-year-old Polish seminarian named Karol Wojtyla met Jan Tyranowski, a thirty-nine-year old tailor living in Krakow, which had been taken over by the Nazis. The Germans had stripped Poland of much of its Catholic clergy, and as a result many Catholics were forced underground, where they sought instruction and inspiration from laymen. One of the most charismatic of these was Tyranowski.
As a teenager, Tyranowski had heard a sermon in which the priest declared, “It’s not difficult to be a saint.” Smitten by the phrase, Tyranowski took a vow of celibacy and organized his life around religious practice and reading. He was soon a genuine Catholic mystic. In the words of theologian George Weigel, for Tyranowski, “the goal of contemplative prayer was a release from thoughts and images, a freedom to simply be in God’s presence.”
After the Gestapo sent Polish priests to concentration camps, Tyranowski formed an underground Catholic group called the Living Rosary, made up of groups of young men who devoted themselves to spiritual development and mutual support. Wojtyla soon became a leader of this group. Tyranowski’s example, he later recalled, “proved that one could not only inquire about God but that one could live with God.” It was Tyranowski who introduced Wojtyla to Saint John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Catholic mystic. Wojtyla, an athlete as well as a scholar who had seen several friends fall in love, was struck by the love poetry of Saint John, who drew a direct correlation between physical experience and the love of God. In works like “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “The Dark Night of the Soul,” Saint John combines poetry and prose in an ecstatic ode to union with the Lord:
O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.
In his commentary on the last two lines, Saint John writes that “since God gives himself with a free and gracious will, so too the soul (possessing a will more generous and free the more it is united with God) gives to God, God himself in God; and this is a true and complete gift of the soul to God.”
A reciprocal love is thus actually formed between
God and the soul, like the marriage union and surrender,
in which the goods of both (the divine essence
that each possesses freely by reason of the
voluntary surrender between them) are possessed
by both together. They say to each other what the
Son of God spoke to the Father through John: All
that is mine is yours and yours is mine, and I am
glorified in them [Jn. 17:10].
The young Wojtyla became so smitten with John of the Cross that he wrote his dissertation on the Spanish mystic. The future pope would emphasize the Trinitarian aspect of the union between the soul and God—that is to say, the love of God was mirrored in human love, especially human sexual love. Wojtyla: “This concept of the relationship between God and the soul, at once filial and conjugal, is based on two constant elements:  the adoptive communication of grace and  the power of love.” The soul, Wojtyla wrote, becomes “God by participation” and therefore by participation it possesses divinity itself.
The theologian Michael Waldstein has noted three “points of contact” between John of the Cross and John Paul II. They are “(1) Love implies a cycle of mutual giving, supremely the gift of self. (2) The paradigmatic instance of such self-gift in human experience is the spousal relation between man and woman. (3) The Trinity is the archetype of such love and gift from which the love between God and human persons as well as love between human beings derives as an imitation and participation.” Saint John, Waldstein writes, “describes the soul’s relation to God as a cycle of mutual giving. The deep satisfaction and happiness of love is found in this cycle as a cycle of giving, not only of receiving (see TOB 68:2–3).” Saint John speaks of man and woman in union, and of the bride as giving herself:
There he gave me his breast;
there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
and I gave myself to him,
keeping nothing back;
there I promised to be his bride.
The characteristic feature of the spousal love between human beings and God is the totality of the gift of self, which is reflected in the totality of the orientation of affections toward the spouse. “I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back; there I promised to be his bride.” “Spiritual marriage,” Waldstein observes, “is the total surrendering of the self-possession of each to the other, analogous to the consummation of love by sexual union in marriage.” As Wojtyla wrote:
Betrothed [spousal] love differs from all the aspects
or forms of love analyzed hitherto. Its decisive character
is the giving of one’s own person (to another).
This is something different from and more than
attraction, desire, or even good will. These are all
ways by which one person goes out toward another,
but none of them can take him as far. . . . The fullest,
the most uncompromising form of love consists
precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable
and non-transferable “I” someone else’s property.
It’s hardly surprising that on his deathbed, John of the Cross wanted to hear not prayers for those about to die, but the Song of Songs.
For much of the Church’s history, theologians were unsure how to interpret the Song of Songs, a book that can only be described as sexy. It is also the book that has generated more commentaries than any other in the history of the Church. The Song of Songs is a poem spilling over with the joy of physical love. It is fulsome with metaphor. From the Bride:
My beloved is mine and I am his.
He pastures his flock among the lilies.
Before the dawn wind raises,
Before the shadows flee,
Return! Be, my beloved,
Like a gazelle,
A young stag,
On the mountains of the covenant.
On my bed, at night, I sought him whom my heart
I sought him but did not find him.
So I will rise and go through the city;
In the streets and the squares
I will seek him whom my heart loves
. . . I sought but did not find him.
The Bridegroom replies:
How beautiful you are, my love,
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes behind your veil,
Your hair is like a flock of goats
Frisking down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
As they come up from the washing.
Each one has its twin,
Not one unpaired with another.
Her lips are a scarlet thread
And your words enchanting.
Your cheeks, behind your veil,
Are halves of pomegranate.
Your neck is the tower of David
Built as a fortress,
Hung around with a thousand bucklers,
And each the shield of a hero.
Your two breasts are two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among the lilies.
For virtually all of Church history, the Song of Songs was considered an allegory of the love of God for His people. Origen, Saint Basil, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa in the third century; Ambrose in the fourth century; and Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory the Great in the seventh century all interpreted the song in the same way. At the Fifth Council of Constantinople in 533, they condemned the proposition, held by Theodore of Mopsuestia and not many others, that the song was a purely secular poem. As one scholar put it, “The free love of Song celebrates only one thing: The splendid, radiant, and terrifying glory of eros between man and woman. Eros itself vibrates without any other purpose than natural love. . . . Eros is sufficient unto itself. The eros of the Song is not the agape of God.” In 1983 the Jesuit Blaise Arminjon, in his book The Cantata of Love, examined the Song of Songs from all the different angles. He concludes that the Song is holy not despite being erotic, even carnal, but because it is those things. “There is apparently no concern for theology, apologetics, teaching or morality,” Arminjon wrote. “Contrary to all the other books in the Bible . . . the tone of the Song is so passionate, even so daring here and there, and it makes such an appeal to the senses (to all the senses), that it is difficult to see how it could be suitable to the expression of God’s love. The love of the bridegroom and his bride is that of beings made of flesh and blood.”
Mystics throughout Church history have particularly embraced the Song. When he was seventeen in 1584, Saint Francis de Sales took a course in Paris on the Song, and it became his favorite book. Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila both adored the Song of Songs. And yet, throughout Church history, there was also suspicion of the Song. Saint Gregory the Great made this assessment: “In order to inflame our hearts to His sacred love, (God) goes as far as using the language of our crude love and, stooping thus in his words, he raises up our understanding. Indeed, it is through the language of this love that we learn how strongly we must burn with divine love.”
Saint Gregory of Nyssa actually advised that “when we want to devote ourselves to contemplation [of the Song], forget thoughts related to marriage . . . so that, having extinguished all carnal appetites, it will be only through the Spirit that our intelligence will simmer lovingly, warmed by the fire that the Lord has come to bring on earth.” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached, “One cannot start reading this book unless he has reached a certain degree of purity. Any other reading would be unworthy if the flesh had not been tamed, if it had not yet been submitted to the Spirit by exacting discipline.” When he describes this sermon, Blaise Arminjon imagines in the audience “a small Cistercian novice, still callous and poorly initiated in the Word of Wisdom, quite new to the science of love.” Despite that, he is “listening to the words of the Abbot with delight. He does not bother to ask himself whether he has reached the necessary degree of purity and maturity. Quite simply: He is happy.”
Here is real insight into the Song of Songs and its power. Instinctively, in our conscience and beneath official dogma and theology, we know that there is something holy in our bodies and their sexual expression— that in casting our eyes on the wonderful features of the beloved, we are casting our eyes toward heaven—or, as John Paul II would have it in The Theology of the Body, casting our eyes back to the very beginning, when Adam and Eve lived untainted by sin. I had felt it when I kissed Lisa for the first time. I felt it when I touched Donna.
In his biography of Saint John of the Cross, Crisógono De Jesús tells of the great mystic on his deathbed. “Tell me about the Song of Songs,” Saint John told the Carmelites who had started to read the prayers for the recommendation of the soul. “This other thing is of no use to me.”
Kurt Elling and the Fab Four might have said the same thing. And Lisa and Donna.