Politics & Policy

Understanding the Catholic Church’s ‘Yes’

(Portrait: Ron Sartini)
Dawn Eden discusses love of the chaste.

‘The love between a husband and wife, as with all types of love, is fulfilled only when both partners together look beyond externals and discover that something they can’t describe binds them together,” Dawn Eden writes in a new Catholic edition of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. “That something, I believe, is God’s own love, and it may truly be called a taste of heaven. It is the food for which we hunger most, even when our desires tell us that a longed-for mate holds the promise of distraction.”

Eden goes on to write: “If you want to receive the love for which you hunger, the first step is to admit to yourself that you have that hunger, with everything it entails: weakness, vulnerability, and the feeling of an empty space inside. To tell yourself simply, ‘I’ll be happy once I have someone to love,’ is to deny the depth and seriousness of your longing. It turns the hunger into a superficial desire for flesh and blood when what we really want is someone to share divine love with us. ‘to be for us God with skin on.’”

On the occasion of the publication of The Thrill of the Chaste, a revised version written after becoming Catholic and pursuing advanced theological studies, and after the publication of another book about healing after sexual abuse and about a ministry that’s emanated from that, Eden talks about the true hearts beneath the business of our world. — KJL

 

Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Unmarried men and women become caught in a vicious cycle. They feel lonely because they are not loved, so they lend their bodies to ‘lovers’ who do not love them.” What’s your Valentine’s Day pitch to them?

Dawn Eden: I would like to invite them to reflect on the words from 1 Corinthians 13 that we often hear at Christian weddings, “Love never fails,” and to ask themselves, “What am I looking for? Am I looking for a love that will never fail?” If yes, then the kind of “love” that you have right now, engaging in sexual intercourse outside marriage, is not going to lead you to what you seek, because you can’t seek permanence through impermanence.

But I would also tell people who feel such loneliness that even finding the love of their life will not satisfy them. And that, believe it or not, is part of the good news! Human beings will always fail us. But God’s love will never fail us, and his love is with us even — I would almost say especially — when we feel bereft of human love. The key to being happy, as I write in the final chapter of The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), is learning how to appreciate our loneliness as the empty space that God wishes to fill. When we do that, we learn how to bring divine love into all our relationships, in the manner that is appropriate to each individual relationship, rather than stockpiling our affection for the spouse who may or may not arrive.

 

Lopez: You’re a rock-music expert, so forgive me for the reference, but to quote Howard Jones with synthesizers: “What is looooovvvve anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

Eden: Although I was never a Howard Jones fan — my tastes run to vintage pop like the Kinks and the Zombies — he’s got a point. The word “love” has been used and abused in manifold ways. I like Saint Thomas Aquinas’s observation that, while “we are said to love a wine, or a horse, or the like,” this does not carry the same meaning as when we love a person: “For it would be absurd to speak of having friendship for wine or for a horse.” 

The idea of love that I explore in The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) is presence. What does it mean to say that someone is really present for you, or that you are really present for him or her? To be truly present for another person is to engage in a kind of mutual indwelling. That person, whether physically with you or not, is present in your heart, and you are present for him or her as well.

I see that ideal of love as presence expressed in Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). “Immanuel” is Hebrew for “God with us.” It was not enough for God to merely create us. He wanted to be with us, to be present to us always, just as we are always present to him. 

As a Catholic, I find God’s presence in sacred Scripture, in prayer, and, most of all, in the Eucharist, where Jesus comes down from heaven to be physically present for me in the most intimate way. Through his being really present for me, he teaches me how to be really present for others in love.

 

Lopez: Why would people even want to read about chastity? It doesn’t seem to be the in thing to do.

Eden: No, chastity doesn’t seem like the “in” thing to do at all — and that is why it is so interesting! The media and their advertisers press on us from all sides, trying to sell us on no-strings sex and voyeurism, instructing us on how to objectify ourselves and others. “Sex sells” used to be a catchy adage, but at this point, we as a culture have become sated with sex. It has become a drug just like any other drug, giving a temporary high that leaves us lower than we were before. 

Fulton J. Sheen called this state of disillusioned satedness “black grace” — a kind of “fed-upness” that could open the way for the “white grace” of conversion. In my experience, there are many, many people who have bought into the lies of the sexual revolution, seeking love through sex, only to experience the darkness of this black grace. If the truth of chastity is presented to them in its fullness — as a way to learn how to truly love and be loved — then they will be open to hearing it. If they then begin to implement it in their lives, they will be transformed. I know, because that is what happened to me.

 

#page#Lopez: At one point you write: “Maybe this . . . is a case where God is saying ‘no’ to one of my desires only so that I’ll be where he wants me to be when he says ‘yes’ to something I want even more.” How can one give thanks to God for his “no”s? That’s hard in the moment. . . . That’s hard when it’s long-term. That’s hard when there is loneliness and pain. That’s hard when it’s not clear what is right or true — if there is a right or true.

Eden: There is a wonderful Belgian movie out right now, the star of which has been nominated for an Academy Award, called “Two Days, One Night.” Its protagonist is a woman who, on returning to her job after taking time off to heal from depression, learns that her employer has given her co-workers an ultimatum: either they vote for her to be laid off, or they lose their bonus. She has one weekend to try to convince her co-workers to vote for her to keep her job.

In the film, you see the woman go door to door, and — while I won’t spoil the ending for you — you see her meet with many “no”s. At first the “no”s all but break her. They bring back all her old ghosts — her fears that she is worthless and unlovable. But something happens over the course of the film. A transformation takes place through which the woman comes to look beyond the “no”s and see the “yes”es all around her. She comes to take ownership of her life, of her well-being, of her choice of whether or not to be happy.

Two Days, One Night is not what Hollywood would call a Christian film. It was made in a country that is perhaps the most de-Christianized in Europe. Yet it captures something important about divine providence — how God can work through disappointment and rejection, to mold us into stronger, more centered, and more loving persons. I share a similar message from a Catholic standpoint in the new edition of The Thrill of the Chaste – only my narrative of grace at work amid disappointments, unlike the film’s, is true.

 

Lopez: Is there a danger there that the Catholic Church and Christianity itself is really about “no,” not “yes”?

Eden: I wouldn’t say there is a danger, but certainly there is a perception among non-Christians, and even among some who were raised in nominally faithful homes, that Christian identity is essentially negative, as though being a Christian meant being joyless and conformist. The mainstream media perpetrate this myth when they call Christians anti-abortion rather than pro-life, and when they apply the “anti-gay” slur to Christians of goodwill who uphold Biblical teachings about marriage.

In The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), I focus on the “yes” of Christian teachings, because you can’t understand the “no”s unless you first understand the “yes.” For example, you can’t understand why the Catholic Church teaches against abortion and same-sex marriage until you first understand that married love is by definition freely willed, total, faithful, and fruitful, as Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae.

Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., a hero of mine, wrote in 1938, “It sometimes seems that the Catholic Church is the only institution in the world that deeply loves and in practice honors human life.” Take away the “sometimes” and you have our situation today. We have the good news of the Church’s “yes,” and we shouldn’t be afraid to share it so that the “no” will be seen as a “no” of love, the “no” that the parent gives when the child strays too close to the fire.

 

Lopez: What’s the tomorrow principle?

Eden: I write about the tomorrow principle in the opening chapter of The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), describing it as the antidote to the pleasure principle. 

As enticing as the pleasure principle is, I learned through experience that if I am always seeking pleasure first and avoidance of pain second, then I will fail both to have what I want the most and to avoid pain. For what I truly want the most — what I am made for — is joy, not mere pleasure. To attain it, I need to be prepared either to defer until tomorrow the pleasure I could have today, or to seek instead a different kind of pleasure — a healthier kind that will lead me to be a stronger and better person tomorrow.

 

Lopez: You reflect in The Thrill of the Chaste on having acted out of desperation. But sex is seen as empowerment. Is there a danger that your message will be seen as just one piece of what is already believed to be a Catholic Church war on women?

Eden: Sex is not empowerment. Lasting, protective social bonds are empowerment. There is a difference.

Human beings are created for bonding, and we attain our individual empowerment — I would prefer to say flourishing — to the extent that we are able to actualize our full potential in society. For that reason, the sexual revolution has disempowered women, because it has fed them the lie that they will gain power to the extent that they are atomized — removed from the so-called dependence of husband and children. 

In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the family is the “first and vital cell” of society. Destroy the intricate network of family relationships that are held together by married parents, and you destroy the one institution that has power to stand up for the rights of all human beings — men, women, and children — against the state.

If there really were a “war on women,” those waging the war would give women the modern equivalent of bread and circuses to pacify them while they slide into greater physical, psychological, and spiritual poverty. I see the sexual revolution as just that — bread and circuses. The promise of empowerment is dangled in front of women so that they will fail to notice that the social structures and legal protections that enabled their true flourishing are being systematically demolished.

 

#page#Lopez: A lot of the saints — and some of them whom you write about in your book My Peace I Give You — are mystics. But you certainly do not have to be a mystic to be a saint, do you? Pope Benedict went out and Pope Francis came in talking about encounter with Christ. Is intimacy required? What does that look like for someone outside a cloister or seminary? For someone busy with all the burdens of the world? And could this talk be dangerous for someone who is relatively alone in the world? Are there tools for a balance? How can it be practical?

Eden: If being a mystic means seeing the Virgin Mary in your cornflakes, then, no, you certainly don’t have to be a mystic to fulfill your call to sanctity — thank God! But, in another way, I do think each of us is called to have a mystical outlook, in that we are called to seek God in the circumstances of our everyday life. 

What that “everyday mysticism” looks like will be different for each person. Part of it for me, as I write in The Thrill of the Chaste, is learning to be a child before God, looking for the hand of divine providence in daily events — especially those that are out of my control, like illness or rejection. 

I’m not saying I think God wants me to be unhappy — far from it! Illness, rejection, and disappointment are inevitable facts of life in a world tainted by sin; everyone has to face them sooner or later. Where divine providence comes in is in discovering how God seeks to give me, through the crisis, an opportunity to recognize my dependence on him. 

Crises or any kind of suffering are privileged points of opportunity for encounter with God. We may not recognize these opportunities at the moment, but at least, looking back on our lives, we should be able to see how our unavoidable pain made us more conscious of the hole in our heart, the hole that only God can fill.

 

Lopez: “The Catholic says, ‘I am a child of God in Christ, therefore I want God to order all my desires so that they lead upward to him. Only through wanting what God wants for me, when he chooses to grant it to me, and in the way he chooses to grant it to me, can I be truly happy.’” But isn’t that dangerous territory, claiming to know God’s will? Don’t wars start that way?

Eden: Wars and divisions arise from the corrupted desires of hearts that have turned away from heaven (James 4:1). Peace in the world begins with peace in our hearts, and peace in our hearts begins with seeking the face of God.

Again, I think of Father Daniel Lord, who said that, beyond all else, the piece of turf that God wants me to conquer for Christ is “my own heart and soul.” In his book Christ in Me, he prayed, “The small world within me, that is my field of battle and conquest. There I must plant your flag, which is the cross, and crown you as my conquering King.”

 

Lopez: What does it mean to you to have gotten mail from nearly every continent (not Antarctica) about your first book, the first editdion of The Thrill of the Chaste?

Eden: It feels wonderful! It is a testimony to the attractiveness of the countercultural witness of chastity. But I’m still waiting for that letter from Antarctica! It’s going to come, sooner or later.

 

Lopez: Why have seminarians told you they’ve found it helpful?

Eden: A large part of the reason I chose to rewrite The Thrill was that, while I had originally written it only for single women — because I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to address men — seminarians kept telling me they needed a book like it for them. They inspired me to revise it so that it would be for everybody, men and women — singles especially, but also married couples and those discerning a celibate vocation.

As to why seminarians took to the book, perhaps they liked that I didn’t shy away from describing the interior conflict that can arise when a person begins to make a radical sacrifice for God. I would like to think they found in me a spiritual sister, someone who was, like them, passing through the trial toward the joy on the other side.

 

Lopez: What have you done in this new edition to be more of a resource to them?

Eden: Besides toning down the female-centered language as much as I can while retaining my own perspective, I’ve added a chapter on discerning a celibate vocation. It is not only for seminarians; it is also for people like myself who are called to consecrated celibacy, or who think they may have such a call.

 

Lopez: Why was there a need for a “Catholic edition”?

Eden: I wrote the original Thrill of the Chaste as a Jewish convert to Protestantism who, after five years as a Christian, was preparing to enter the Catholic Church. Today, having been Catholic since Holy Thursday 2006, I am amazed that I was even able to begin to live chastely without the help of the saints, the sacraments, and the entire prayer life of the Church. Although I was beginning to find happiness at the time of the original Thrill, I have more joy as a Catholic than I ever had, and I want readers to experience that joy for themselves.

 

Lopez: Why are you so into Maximilian Kolbe? 

Eden: I believe, as I shared in My Peace I Give You, that the prayers of Saint Maximilian, the martyr of Auschwitz, brought me into the Church, and in the new Thrill of the Chaste I describe how he has continued to help me deepen my Christian walk. He shows me what chastity means, because he shows me what it means to love my neighbor as God loves me.

 

Lopez: Who’s the best Valentine’s Day saint? Saint Valentine certainly has the name for it? 

Eden: All of them. Every saint knew how to love.

 

#page#Lopez: What do you mean by “Hunger — true spiritual hunger — is a gift. Cherish it.” How do you?

Eden: Reading The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), you might think that hunger is a kind of fascination of mine — and you would be right. It comes up throughout the book, especially in the final chapter, “Craving Heaven.” 

The core of the message is that you have to be hungry for God if you are going to be fed by him. If you’re not hungry for him, then, to have the true happiness you were born for, you have to start looking inside yourself to determine what things you are filling yourself with that are not him.

By the same token, if you are already being fed by God, then your happiness depends on maintaining your hunger for him. Think about what would happen if you lost your appetite, so that eating became a chore. That’s the kind of spiritual state that I risk falling into if I don’t maintain my hunger for God. 

I don’t just need God’s love at Mass. I need his love every moment, every second of the day. So I have to keep up a constant dialogue with him — not always in words, but in longings of the heart. 

The beautiful paradox, as Saint Augustine tells us in his letter to the widow Proba on prayer, is that the more love I receive from God, the hungrier I am. And that is a good thing! 

In The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition), I tell how Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, suffering temptations to despair, asked Father Ed Dowling, S.J., if there would ever be satisfaction. Father Dowling replied, “Never! Never any!” Meaning, not in this life — only in heaven. 

The amazing thing is, Father Dowling’s answer wasn’t disappointing to Bill W. It was freeing. When you stop directing your hunger at earthly satisfaction and instead hunger for the happiness of heaven, you open yourself to the joy of the resurrected Christ, in whom heaven touches earth. We won’t see God face-to-face in this life, but, as we seek the face of Christ, we receive the love through which we learn how to love others. That life of loving, not waiting for love, is the real thrill of the chaste.

 

Lopez: What does this all mean for a woman or man who is not married but wants to be?

Eden: It means that, if you want to be happy, you can’t tell yourself, “Once I meet my spouse, then I will have a vocation.” God is calling you in the here and now, calling you to learn how to be happy by learning how to share his love with those who are already in your life — those who are near and those who are far away.

 

Lopez: What does this mean for a woman or man whose desires — same-sex attraction, which is not an academic debate but increasingly the stuff of marriage — the Catholic Church seems to condemn?

Eden: I wrote The Thrill of the Chaste (Catholic Edition) so that it could be read by anyone, regardless of his or her attractions, and I’m gratified that the Courage apostolate, which ministers to Catholics with same-sex attraction, recommends it as a resource.

When I spoke at the Courage Apostolate conference in 2013, I had the blessing of meeting many Catholics with same-sex attraction who love the Church and recognize that it does not ask anything more of them than it asks every unmarried person. 

I say that not to diminish the real loneliness of the person who can’t marry a same-sex partner in the Church but rather to acknowledge that there are same-sex-attracted people for whom the good news of Catholic sexuality is truly good news. It has led them to a happier way of life — not without pain, certainly, but in a way that reveals the futility of finding joy in “gay identity.” They have found their true identity — not as “gay Christians,” but as beloved children of God in Christ. Their stories deserve to be told — and, thanks to Courage, that is beginning to happen.

 

Lopez: What is this consecration business you’re involved in now? Is it a lesson in freedom? Does this year of consecrated life, which Pope Francis has initiated, have something to do with reestablishing what exactly the word is?

Eden: After writing My Peace I Give You, and especially after beginning to speak about healing from childhood trauma, I began to discern that God was calling me to live the mystery of spiritual motherhood in the heart of the Church. 

In 2013, I made a personal consecration of my celibacy to Jesus’ Sacred Heart, through Mary’s Immaculate Heart. My hope is to make that consecration permanent under the authority of a diocesan bishop, but that will be in God’s time. Right now, I am thankful to be writing my dissertation for a pontifical doctorate in theology, and to continue my apostolate of chastity and spiritual healing.

 

Lopez: What is the best-kept secret you refer to, about what the Church teaches about sex? How is it a secret? How can it be tweeted about? By which I mean, how can we better communicate it?

Eden: The best-kept secret is that our sexuality — not just our genital activity, but everything we do — is designed to demonstrate and concretize divine love, a love that is necessarily creative. In marital love, that creativity includes pro-creativity, but that’s not the whole of it. For we aren’t all called to marriage, and our call to share in divine love doesn’t stop at marriage. 

What I am trying to say is that every act of love is necessarily embodied, and that means that our sexuality — that is, our created sex as man or woman — always matters. I don’t love my mother and father as their “it”; I love them as their daughter. When I visit a friend in the intensive-care unit, I don’t wash off my identity as a woman when I sanitize myself at the door. No, I love that friend as a woman. Not by being girlish, not by wearing pink, not by telling stories of my daily life with “all the details” that make men’s eyes glaze over. No, I love as a woman because I love with the love that God gives me, in the body that he gives me.

That is what sexuality is about. It is creative because it comes from the Creator, who not only created me, but re-created me in Christ — and still does, every day. Deo gratias!

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.

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