Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Intimate Sphere

I have found Dr. Alice von Hildebrand's essay on love and marriage to be so profound that beginning today, the Feast of the Magdalen, I will be quoting excerpts from it. Here are the opening remarks:
It is a joy to praise a great book or author; it is a grief and duty to criticize a bad one. But it is especially difficult to criticize someone who has many talents, whose work has positive sides, but which also suffers from certain faults, calling for correction. Such is the case with Christopher West, with his popular presentation of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

As gifted as he is—and as much as I appreciate all the good he has done for the Church—West’s work continues to fall short in many respects. He has sometimes misunderstood the authentic Catholic tradition; overlooked or disregarded essential aspects of it; and promoted a new form of religious “enthusiasm” which can best be described as wayward. Monsignor Ronald Knox, who critiqued this attitude so well in his book Enthusiasm, was a prophet, recognizing such outbursts as recurring phenomena in the history of the Church, characteristic of easily misguided movements for which we should always be on the watch.
Key to my concerns is West’s hyper-sexualized approach to the Theology of the Body. The French have a wonderful word to capture the veiling of one’s intimate feelings, out of a proper sense of shame—pudeur, a “holy bashfulness,” so to speak. Seized as he is by what he regards as his calling to evangelize a new generation with this theology in “modern” ways they can supposedly better understand, West practically ignores the importance of pudeur, and, by his imprudence, winds up undermining his own message.
In light of the controversy surrounding West’s work, which has affected millions via his books, DVDs, videos and conferences, I would like to contrast his views with those of my late husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose work regarding Catholic teaching on human sexuality avoids the hazards and traps too often found in West’s work. My goal is to alert parents and educators alike to common philosophical errors that have  gravely negative consequences in Christopher West’s lectures and publications.

Part 1:  The Nature of the Intimate Sphere
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand and the Intimate Sphere
In 1927, thirteen years after his conversion to Catholicism, Dietrich von Hildebrand published a book of key importance, Reinheit und Jungfraulichkeit (In Defense of Purity). Through unmerited graces—coming, as he did, from a non-religious background—on a purely natural level, Dietrich had always "felt" that the intimate sphere was essentially linked to love, and so to approach it as "fun" was a desecration. But the moment he entered the Blessed Ark, the Holy Catholic Church, his approach to this sphere was "baptized:" He now viewed sex through the eyes of a believer, perceiving its profound relationship with God.
Prior to his conversion, Dietrich did not "see" that artificial birth control was a matter of serious moral gravity. But once he became a Catholic, he gratefully perceived what he had always "felt"—namely, that  sex within marriage had to be completed and perfected according to Heaven’s design, which meant being open to the creation of human life at all times. Dietrich, as a Catholic, now understood that in the marital embrace, when the husband gives his wife the precious semen that God has placed in his body, he  starts a causal chain that can lead to pregnancy: the spouses are collaborating with their Creator, in order to bring a new life into existence. This is a privilege not even granted to the angels; the importance and beauty of which needed to be recognized. Between "procreation" and “copulation,” Dietrich saw an abyss separating persons incarnated into a body, and animals. The human body, as the utterly unique creation of God, was—and still is—called upon to have the “Heavenly seal” of personhood in every single bodily activity. This is why St. Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, glorify God” (1 Corinthians 10: 31-32).
The insights Dietrich garnered, prior to his conversion, were now elevated to a supernatural level, opening his eyes to the Church’s teachings on chastity --marital and non-marital-- and the beauty of virginity.

 2. The Intimate Sphere and Original Sin
Because the intimate sphere differs radically from other bodily instincts, it was bound to be deeply affected by Original Sin.  Corruptio optimi, pessima. The ugly harvest of sins committed in this sphere is large.  We need not go into details, but no one can deny that it is a domain in which the Devil (the master of ceremonies) has had a field day since the onset of Original Sin, and still does. Dorothy Day, who admired my husband’s work, wrote about her own reaction to the work of Havelock Ellis, a popular “sexologist” of the day:
“One might also say that an ugly tide rose in me, a poisonous tide, a blackness of evil, at reading there so many things that certainly do not need to be known by other than doctor or priest, by those who are schooled to bear it and trained to help in relation to it. Dr. von Hildebrand writes about the poisonous fascination of sex, its deadly allure in the abstract. I felt it then in its most hideous form, and there was no beauty in it, no love, but it was like the uncoiling of a dank and ugly serpent in my breast. These may be extreme ways of expressing myself, but I am sure that at times there has been this consciousness of evil in us all. Evil as a negation, as an absence of God, as a blackness, a glimpse of Hell ‘where everlasting horror dwelleth, and no order is.’”
Day, a great convert,  goes on to favorably quote a young mother who laments how so many “are easily betrayed by that ‘poisonous fascination’ of which Dr. von Hildebrand speaks. They begin the descent to the Dark Angel, through the mysticism of Evil, only half knowing what they are doing” (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, Eerdman’s, 1999, pp. 129-134).

When Christ through the Apostles and His holy Bride, the Church, slowly conquered the Western world, one crucial task was to make Christians aware of the unique character of this sphere: its dignity and its dangers. Plato had already warned us that pleasure is an enemy that is not easy to conquer: one of the main aims of education, he wrote, is to teach a child to achieve victory over pleasure.

Pleasure in itself is not evil; it is the Creator himself who has linked pleasure to certain bodily activities. But the great task of a truly Christian education is to baptize pleasure, to receive it gratefully as a gift, and not to claim it as a right. There are legitimate pleasures, calling for gratitude, but also illegitimate ones: gluttony and drunkenness, and alas, inherently perverse ones.

The Church, as a loving Mother, has the mission of reminding Her children, wounded by Original Sin, that the intimate sphere has to be approached with reverence. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s In Defense of Purity makes the point that God, and not a boundless search for “pleasure,” should always be king of the bedroom.
As Day noted, Dietrich stressed that this private sphere, though blessed by God when properly entered, is fraught with dangers. It can be inebriating, befuddling, and totally anesthetize man's spiritual and moral faculties. Man easily becomes prey to his feelings. The Bible is rich in such examples. Clearly, King David—a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14)—totally lost control of himself when he saw Bathsheba who was very beautiful.  He was defeated by her attraction, and committed adultery, followed by murder. Because of an unchecked desire for “pleasure,” one of the greatest sons of Israel committed an abominable crime. Thanks to Nathan, however, he repented.

King David’s sins underscore how sexual desire can degenerate into what Dietrich calls "diabolical" temptations.  Some of the most atrocious perversions occur when the Devil takes over completely.  And one should never downplay, or minimize, the gravity of these evils. It is plainly false to claim that such abuses are "tragic,” rather than “filthy.”


Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, I think it is a wonderful idea to post these excerpts! I will be reading along as you do. Thank you! =)

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome, E. I think that it is worth reading carefully and for me that will be easier if I take some a day at at a time.

Terry Nelson said...

Excellent. I saved a copy from CNA but now I know the essay will be on your site as well. Thanks.

elena maria vidal said...

It is a magnificent essay.

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