As I warned when I started my considerations of the Seven Deadly Sins and opposing Virtues, there will be a test. Seven of them, in fact, each inspired by Walker Percy’s quizzes in his satirical work of apologetics, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. It’s a marvelous book: I only plagiarize the best.
This week, I’m treating the crowd-pleasing trio of Lust/Chastity/Frigidity. As always, I’m in search of the fleeting Golden Mean. Before I dive in, however, I must make a stark admission: I write from the male point of view. Now, readers have sometimes complained about my prose’s testosterone content, which apparently leaches through the page even when I write of bloodless, neuter topics like the economy. No surprise, then, when the subject itself is sex, that my stuff is even muskier. When I sent an early draft of this to a female friend for her feedback, her eyes rolled audibly. She sighed: “You are such a guy.” Some of us take that as a compliment.
Rather than trying uselessly to approximate the feminine point of view by dressing my brain in drag, I’ll just confess my bias right up front — and if I can’t offer lady readers direct insights, I can at least provide a bracing glimpse of How the Other Half Lusts.
Let me preface the test with an insight I think almost as important to the understanding of masculine sexuality in its fallen state as psychologist Barney Stinson’s discursus on the relational significance of external erotic attraction and psychological dysfunction, “The Hot/Crazy Scale.” I have not yet submitted my own results to a peer-reviewed journal, so it’s best not to cite my work in your own research, but I can’t resist sharing with readers the Abstract of my discovery: “The Orange Traffic Cone Hypothesis.” It is drawn not just from personal experience, but interviews with hundreds of other heterosexual men, many of them deeply chaste and extremely devout. Here goes:
From the age of eleven right up into Alzheimer’s, your average straight male walking down the street doesn’t see people in their various demographic categories — according to age, ethnicity, social class, etc. Nope. Instead, he sees his fellow humans breaking into two categories:
- Good-looking women.
- Orange traffic cones.
I know what the kindly female reader is saying, the one who has many men in her life whom she loves and respects as fellow Christians. “Well, that’s not true of . . . Harvey! When he works with me at the soup kitchen, I know that he looks at each of those homeless men who come to us as human beings. In fact, he once said to me that he viewed each of them as an image of Christ . . .”
Nope. Sorry sister. That may be what he wants or tries to see. But when he looks over the bubbling kettle of hot dog soup in the dim church basement at that long line of “people-who-aren’t-good-looking-women” (it’s a broad and, alas, all too common category) what he really sees are orange traffic cones. Now, when he looks at you, on the other hand . . . notice how his face lights up. That’s because you’re literally the first person he’s seen all morning. Try to take the compliment. He can’t help it. None of us can.
Likewise, when one of us enters a room, the first thing our eyes scan for is someone attractive we can glance at, from time to time, just to keep our spirits up. The same thing with movie posters, magazine covers, and auto-tool calendars. That’s the reason advertising types stick pretty women almost at random into ads for all sorts of things. It’s not so much to stimulate Lust as to keep us from feeling lonely. In the midst of this otherwise dismal, lengthy meeting/subway ride/rosary vigil, there will at least be a few real live human beings, alongside all that orange plastic. Those of us who aren’t caught up in the deadly sin of Lust just take a flicker of pleasure from these moments, then look away. Want to spot a guy with a problem? He wears dark sunglasses so he can stare as long as he wants without worrying about eye contact.
I have not embarked on the lengthy, Kinseyesque research that might be required to explicate Lust from the feminine perspective — and indeed, I think the very effort might constitute a near occasion of sin, so I’ll leave that task to those who might find the task less of a “trigger.”
And now that my biases have been accounted for, on to the quiz, which is meant to help you diagnose your soul. Do you suffer from the deadly sin of Lust? Have you attained the virtuous Golden Mean, treating with due respect the created Good (Eros) whose abuse would lead to this vice? Or have you done such a good job of “mortifying” this particular passion that you’ve actually lurched into Frigidity? (That probably can’t land you in Hell, but it might make your earthly life a short-term substitute.) Answer these impertinent questions, and find out.
One important note I’m adding to the printed version is this: “If you plan to write in the book, please think about the impression you’ll make on the next dinner guest who finds it in your restroom, or the children who dig it out of your secret stash, where you keep those pop-up Theology of the Body books, and your guiltily unread copy of The Secret of the Rosary.”
The quiz: When you see an attractive, well-dressed member of the opposite sex, which of the following runs through your head:
a) The pleasing pattern those clothes would make, spilled on your bedroom floor.
b) A twitter of interest, followed by a quick prayer of gratitude for the goodness of Creation.
c) The image of Miss Piggy, languorously swimming through a pool full of champagne — the only trick you’ve found to banish impure thoughts.
d) A surge of anger at the torrents of filth to which decent people are subjected, followed by images of the souls of the Impure, falling into Hell like leaves in the autumn, just like Our Lady said at Fatima.
If you picked:
a) Time to zip up your libido, and quick. Read up on the connection between promiscuity, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion — and remember that every “unplanned” pregnancy started out as a raunchy thought just like . . . yours. It might also help to go home and Google some images — only this time, instead of “barely legal,” try “herpes lesion.”
b) A wholesome thought. Ramp it up a little by actually praying for the person you found so . . . distracting. Wish him or her a happy marriage, and ask God to send you joy in your own vocation. Then, for heaven’s sake, look away.
c) Whatever works for you, man. Careful that it doesn’t start to backfire; once you start associating sexual arousal with Muppets, those kind of neural pathways are really hard to alter.
d) You’re not a lone “decent person” surrounded by sinners. We’re each of us fallen, and the first step is admitting it. (Just make sure that’s not also your last step.) Find a faith-friendly counselor — either a Christian therapist who accepts insurance (good luck with that one!) or a wise, compassionate priest. Schedule some serious time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, pleading for guidance and peace of mind.
The Solution: If you think you’re in spitting distance of a serious problem with Lust, increase your prayer time and invoke the appropriate saints — for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, whose libido was so robust that when his parents tried to ruin his vocation by locking him up with a harlot, he had to chase her out of the room with a blazing poker. For his effort, God granted him a lifetime of uninterrupted chastity after that. If you’re having similar troubles, chances are you’d benefit from:
1) Increasing your daily exercise. Those old-time priests who drove their teenage charges into the boxing ring and the rugby fields knew a thing or two about human nature.
2) Engaging in little sacrifices that remind your reptilian brain just which quadrant is in charge. Give up one tangible, sensory pleasure every day — such as smoking that second cigar, putting whole milk into your coffee, or letting your dogs crap on the lawn of your least favorite neighbors. Keep doing this until temptation diminishes, or those people finally move away.
3) Spiritual reading. Here your selection depends on your situation. If you’re married, or someday hope to be, you might start with Old Testament texts that celebrate sexuality in its good and holy context — faithful marriage. The Songs of Songs and the Book of Tobit are a nice place to start. Move on to more theological works, such as Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refined or a book on Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body.
4) If marriage is out of the question (for whatever reason), it’s best to shove aside all such happy talk and work instead on finding peace with your situation. The Twelve-Step Serenity Prayer is remarkably powerful; if it can help aging rock stars stay off crystal meth, it’s certainly worth trying. Regular Eucharistic adoration is enormously comforting, as is frequent confession (find a priest who won’t either berate you for falling yet again, or shrug you off, explaining that the only sin is racism). Finally, adopt a program of nightly spiritual reading, with classics like Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, Robert Benson’s The Friendship of Christ, or the forgotten masterpiece Gateway to Hope: An Exploration of Failure by Maria Boulding. This last book is one of the best I’ve ever read, so of course it is out of print.