The Spirit of Lust

image for vicesPart 2 in our Friday series on the vices.

The Greeks had a myth of the blind prophet Tiresias, who had been both man and woman, and so knew what sex was like from both perspectives. The point they were making is that we don’t know what sexuality is like for the opposite gender.

We should notice that when it comes to sex, it would almost make sense to use two different words for the two different roles. Man and woman do entirely different things with entirely different organs, stimulating entirely different chemical responses (issuing from organs that the other sex doesn’t even possess).

A friend who was recently married told me the best advice he got was just that sex is nothing like what you expect. The reason is that, in heterosexual relationships, the other person just plain isn’t like you, and so doesn’t respond the way you would expect. In most respects, we are both human – but when it comes to sex, we are like two different species.

Deep down in the spirit of lust is precisely the expectation that a person who is fundamentally different from us ought to respond the way we want them to respond. How self-absorbed! How irrational! How strange that we should be so foolish.

On one level, sex really is the same for man and woman. At the most basic biological level, sex is for the perpetuation of the species through procreation. That doesn’t mean every act should conceive a baby; it doesn’t mean there isn’t an awful lot more to human relationships, and especially marriage. It just means that we should realize: gosh, there really isn’t any sense to this particularly bizarre biological conjugation except that it gets our gametes together.

St. Thomas Aquinas notes an important, very practical consequence of this. On the biological level – and gee, what is more biological than sex! – sex is a complete waste of energy for the individual, but a necessity for the species. In other words, its entire purpose is social.

In fact, says St. Thomas, that explains why the sex drive is so darned strong: precisely because, unlike eating and sleeping, there isn’t any selfish reason for us to engage in this act.  Nature has to give us a big push in the back to make sure the species doesn’t die out. That push appears to have been strong enough. . . . Strong enough, ironically, that many people do it for nothing but pleasure – just like pigs.

That goes too, of course, for the bonding associated with sex. Human babies don’t thrive without a mama and a papa. Thus it’s built into both man and woman, on the most natural level, to stick together with the person we mate with. This caveman stuff, as if men just want to inseminate and run, is nonsense: a man’s DNA isn’t even passed on if he doesn’t make sure his baby survives to adulthood. In fact, bonding is so built into our sexuality that mating can also be used just to bond.

A consequence of that is that we should realize: every remotely sexual act – even a look that arouses desire – is naturally designed to make us bond with the other person. We weren’t made for casual sex. It doesn’t make biological sense for a species like us.

That’s a lot of biology. A couple words on spirituality. First, notice how irrational we are about this. Lust, all the great spiritual writers agree, is not the most important problem in the spiritual life. But it is a very good indicator of the Fall. We are not as strong as we think we are. Let lust – and for some people, its reverse image, which is the inability to summon desire when appropriate – just remind us of our desperate need for God’s grace. How foolish we are! We are not as strong as we think we are.

Second, a word on virginity. The propagation of the species is a very fine thing, with all the nobility of human parenthood. A very noble thing. And yet there are higher things.

The spirit of virginity is the spirit of living for more. Living to love God above all things – but living, too, for human relationships that transcend the propagation of the species.

That’s a spirit that married people need to live, too. Ironically, to give ourselves totally to our vocations, we must not let ourselves be swallowed up by our sexuality. We must all carry within us the spirit of virginity.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The Spirit of Gluttony

image for vicesOn Fridays we will be going through the primary vices that stand in the way of our development in the spiritual life.


Our first vice is gluttony. Viewed from a worldly perspective, gluttony doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Sure, we should be healthy, and I suppose that means we shouldn’t sneak too much ice cream in the afternoon, or take fourth helpings every night. I don’t know about you, but what really causes me trouble, in terms of sheer empty calories, is bourbon. Ah, bourbon!

But on the other hand, and maybe ironically, the Catholic should have enough contempt for the body not to take this too seriously. There are worse things in the world than having a little bit of a beer belly. In fact, in our world today, it often seems that worship of the body has gone way too far. People organize their whole lives around staying svelte.

To truly love the body is not to worship it, but to live in it. A little bourbon, appropriately applied; a piece of birthday cake; a feast with friends: these, we rightly say, are worth more than a magazine-worthy body.

And indeed, there is a kind of gluttony even in taking food too seriously. Foodies – those who live for the coolest recipe, or the most super-organic food out there – often seem to be making their bellies their gods. We don’t want to do that.

So on the natural level, gluttony is a vice than can go both ways: we can love food too much, we can oppose it too much; we can be too worried about health, we can be not worried enough; we can be too picky, we can be too slovenly. The key is moderation – or, better, discretion. The key is to eat intelligently, to be led by our souls, not our bellies.

But gluttony is also significant on the spiritual level. It is significant, in fact, precisely because it is not that big of a deal on the natural level.

On the spiritual level, the question of gluttony is precisely why we make such a big deal of it. Why, when the tradition suggests we skip a meal here or there, or not have a fancy meal or too many desserts, does that make us panic? What are we living for?

Precisely because food isn’t that big of a deal – honestly, there are a lot of things we can go without, even if they are nice – it is a good place to practice self-control.

Think of it this way. An awful lot of our sins can be described as spiritual gluttony. Those nasty words I am so tempted to say are like a tasty treat. I need to say no. That lustful glance, that self-indulgent rest when I know I should be working or praying, the addictive acquisition of stuff I don’t need, and the delicious indulgence of my own will just for the sake of doing it my way: this is the real stuff of the spiritual life, but it is all an awful lot like grabbing a glass of bourbon (or a cookie, or a third helping of dinner, or an excuse on a fast day).

Fasting and gluttony are not the most important thing. They are the little thing, where we can practice living for something higher, instead of just indulging.

And so the Church encourages us to fast. Traditionally every day of Lent, except Sundays and solemnities, was a fast day: pretty tough. In the East they make it both longer and tougher. Canon Law still tells us to skip meat on Fridays (and for many of us, fish is even fancier than meat) unless we live a harder fast. Many in the tradition have found small ways to fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and the day before every feast day. And there are always ways to deny ourselves what we don’t really need.

On the other hand, we can also practice detachment from food by eating when we ought. To make a feast on a feast day: not just self-indulgence, but really celebrating with food.

And practicing hospitality. St. Benedict’s Rule says to treat the guest like Christ. He’s really just paraphrasing Cassian on gluttony, where he says that the desert fathers would eat nothing for days – then have six meals a day to welcome guests.

The point is to use food to practice setting love above all else.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.