|The Allegory of Chastity by Hans Memling (1430-1494)|
Cutting Yourself With Your Own Knifeby Anthony Esolen
How does the practice we have been calling in recent columns Nice Fornication hurt those who practice it? How do they, as Chaucer put it, cut themselves with their own knives?
A good book could be written on this matter. They commit, objectively, a mortal sin. If they engage in this with full knowledge, they sever themselves from friendship with God. If they practice contraception, they separate sexual intercourse from the possibility of giving life, severing the act from its biological and theological meaning.
Whether they do or not, they behave with blithe irresponsibility toward the child they may conceive. They mimic marriage, and accustom themselves to some measure of deceit. They allow hedonistic experimentation to take root in the heart of the marital act, so that even after they are married they continue in the habits once established. For one of the curses upon those who pretend to be married when they are not is that they may feel no different after the ceremony.
Since all along they have justified themselves by a feeling of “being committed,” rather than by a public vow or a conferred sacrament, they will be helpless to understand why that vow should remain in force when the feeling disappears. You cannot treat the vow as a mere formality while you are fornicating, and then as solemn and eternally binding afterwards. It cannot be both. If it is a mere formality, the marriage itself is but a pleasant fiction. If it is solemn and eternally binding, then it demands that we behave accordingly, and not pretend with our bodies that we are married before we have made that vow.
But instead I should like to discuss one great blessing that the Nice Fornicators lose. I’ll illustrate it by a story.
When my father was engaged to my mother, he had to spend two years in the army first, and then when he returned he had to wait a little longer for my mother’s youngest sister to graduate from high school. That was because my mother was working to support the family, and would naturally quit that job once she was married. He loved her dearly, and he was a quiet young man, a tad on the lonely side, and deeply devout. Maybe he felt unsure of himself and wanted a guarantee of her love.
He asked her for the honeymoon before the marriage. I’m pretty sure he did so half wanting her to turn him down. These were two good-looking young Italians, healthy and strong. My mother was in a quandary. She spoke privately to the parish priest about it, and in a firm and kindly way he reminded her of the beauty of chastity, and of the solemnity of the act of marriage, which God had blessed in the beginning. So my mother in turn reminded my father of these things, and they preserved their innocence for the wedding. I was born eleven months later.
My father wasn’t one given to flights of poetry, but he thanked my mother ever afterwards for being strong when he was weak. I imagine them, in my mind’s eye, approaching the altar of the church where I and my brother and sisters were baptized, where we received Holy Communion, and were confirmed. They would there take one another fresh, as if made by the hand of God in the beginning. They would place God, in the order of time and the order of devotion, first in their marriage.
All the time before this moment, meeting one another and courting, going to dances, writing letters, would fade into relative insignificance. They would now know one another, as Adam and Eve, for the first time. Every chaste marriage is thus like a new creation, as if we were granted a vision of what it is like to be, as Charles Péguy describes Mary, “younger than sin.” They would be bound to one another in the holy vow, with God saying, “Be fruitful and multiply!”
And they left the church not as people old with the pseudo-knowledge of sin, but as youths, in mind and heart and soul a boy and a girl, ready to begin the world. My father and mother could say to one another something incomparably precious. It was not simply, “I will keep myself only for you,” but “I have kept myself pure in the sight of God, and now before God and man I give myself entirely to you forever.” Their lovemaking was born from the seed of the sacrament. And it flourished.
On the day my father was to die, we were gathered around him at home. He was sitting in his favorite chair in the parlor. He could no longer eat or drink. Sometimes he fell into a light sleep, but mostly he was awake. My cousins had stopped by to make their farewells. The priest had been by to give him the sacrament.
Early in the evening his breathing grew heavy and erratic. We surrounded him, touching him, calling his name. My mother placed her head next to his. She was the only woman he had ever known, and he had known her only as coming from the hand of God. And now he was going back to God. He whispered his last words into her ear. “I love you,” he said.
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.