AN ILLUMINATION

Indoctrinated in the Roman Catholic sect, I grew up with an exaggerated guilt complex around sex. This was understandable given the vehemence with which sex was stigmatized as mortally sinful. My interest and fascination with sex were not diminished by the knowledge of its sinfulness. But my enjoyment of sex certainly succumbed to guilt. My guilt peaked during adolescence.

I managed to cope with my feelings of guilt by what I thought were some rather innovative rationalizations. They went something like the following.

According to the teachings of the church, at least as I understood them then, sins of the flesh included both thoughts and deeds. Innocent as I was, I did not realize the insidious level of personal imperialism and mind manipulation I was dealing with.

Acts are a bit more obvious than thoughts. If you actually did something, of course, it was sinful. Sinful actions involved genitalia. If the genitalia were not involved, then the act was probably not a sin, or at least not mortally sinful. The second factor was pleasure. If it felt good it was probably sinful. If it did not feel good then it probably was not. Or if the pleasure were inadvertent and not premeditated it was probably not a sin either.

These distinctions enabled me to bathe without falling into mortal sin each time I did so. Even the Roman Catholic Church had to permit some degree of personal hygiene, although one had to take special care when bathing certain bodily parts.

Thoughts were trickier than acts. When does a thought stop being just a thought and become a sin? What divides the two? There was the crux of the matter in a nutshell.

The main criterion seemed to be pleasure. If you started to enjoy a thought that involved sex, then it had probably crossed the threshold into sin. If you were able to maintain a degree of disinterest then it probably was not a sinful matter.

I presumed this distinction enabled the medical profession to carry out its tasks in a sinless manner. Also, women could thus have babies without committing a mortal sin, but only as long as the experience did not feel good. If a woman actually enjoyed it, she was certainly committing a mortal sin. Unless she was married, right? Marriage, after all, and despite Paul's displeasure with it, was the only legitimate way to allow yourself any sexual pleasure at all. But in my mind the entire birth process still remained borderline.

Once the baby has passed through the critical genital area, of course, a woman might be permitted to enjoy her newborn. But there always seemed to me a very gray area. So much of a woman's pleasure in her baby seems to involve varying degrees of sexual pleasure that I was glad I was not a woman. How does one distinguish what is and is not masturbation here?

If I seem to be getting things a bit muddled, bear with me. These were not easy or simple distinctions to make during adolescence. Even mental giants like Augustine have struggled mightily with these same problems.

Certain thoughts, of course, were sins without doubt. For instance, if I wondered what sex would be like with the woman next door, who happened to be married, I had committed mortal sin. After all, Jesus named that one specifically. Adultery of the heart.

Of course, if you are not married any pleasurable thoughts about sexual intercourse are definitely mortal sin. I knew that for sure. No question about it. The gray areas involved other aspects of male/female interaction.

Was holding hands sinful? Probably not, but dangerous, since it might lead to other, definitely sinful, acts. Was kissing sinful? Probably not, as long as mouths remained closed. But kissing was very dangerous. Open mouths and tongues were definitely mortally sinful.

I am reminded of a funny incident one day in seventh or eighth grade. A girl raised her hand and told Sister Mary of the Immaculate Heart that her boy friend had put his tongue into her mouth. We called it "French kissing," and considered it very unsanitary when I was twelve years old. Sister told the girl that if her boy friend tried that again to bite his tongue.

I thought that was rather sage advice. The guy obviously had no fear of mortal sin, let alone germs. But he would certainly think twice about sexual assault with his tongue if he risked getting it bitten off.

How about arms around each other? Shoulders were OK. Waists were OK, but getting dangerous. Anything below the waist was definitely mortal sin.

What about legs? Very dangerous. Anything above the knees was very probably mortally sinful.

Thinking about dangerous or sinful matters was very dangerous. But I seemed to think about them all the time during adolescence. I still do, but now I do not worry about it any more. As an Roman Catholic adolescent, however, I had to figure out somehow to cope. I knew that these thoughts would not just go away.

My rationalization for coping was this. If I thought about something that would be sinful if I dwelt on it and allowed myself to experience pleasure doing so, then it was a sin if I actually felt any pleasure in it. If I simply thought about it without pleasure, there was no sin. The criterion was pleasure. No pleasure, no sin. Pleasure equalled sin.

Looking back from my vantage point of subsequent liberation, I know that for a time Catholicism had succeeded. It had conquered me. I had come to identify pleasure with sin. To identify pain with virtue.

You know the routine. No pain no gain. By the time I was fourteen years old I was a "good Catholic," meaning that I had bought the orthodox spiel completely. As a result I was totally guilt ridden and hung up over sex. Incidently, just about everyone else was, too, but I did not realize that then. I thought I was unique.

You may imagine correctly that I anticipated my first sexual encounter with a woman with monumental guilt and the full expectation of divine wrath. There was no doubt about the mortality of the sin of coitus outside of marriage. But in spite of the sin, something was driving me towards it. Relentlessly.

It was going to happen sooner or later. I desperately wanted it to happen. The mixed feelings of desire and revulsion, anticipation and guilt are impossible to describe. It was rather a delicious mixture in a way.

I knew God would not actually send lightning or speak from the clouds in disapproval. But I knew that I would be torn apart with guilt and remorse. Yet, I had to experience it. I was as certain of that as I was of its very mortal sinfulness.

I can remember quite clearly that day during university when I finally worked up the courage to ask my girl friend of the moment to touch my erect penis. Through my pants, of course. After all, I was still about as hung up as a good Catholic can be.

She refused and thereby saved herself from mortal sin. I of course had already committed myself by asking. She said that there was more to love than that. Her response confused me and I could not figure out why she had made that statement. I had uttered no claims of penile and vaginal exclusivity in love. In fact I totally agreed with her that love meant more than mere genitals.

In an effort to sway her decision, I did add that I felt the physical had a part in love and that in our particular experience up to that point in time it had not got its share. I merely wanted to try to even out the balance a bit. She was not impressed with that argument. I loved her very much, more than anyone else before her and more than anyone else for a long time afterwards. It just seemed natural to me to go further.

As the Maine winter 1967 merged into spring she softened her stance a little. We spent time at the spring ritual long honoured at universities around the world. We spread our blankets on the grass overlooking the Penobscot River and groped each other. Actually, I think I did most of the groping, but she very definitely enjoyed it and encouraged me to do so.

This was very mortally sinful, of course, and I dutifully confessed, to assuage my guilt. But looking back on it I know that it was a tentative step in the right direction.

It finally happened to me, of course. I had that initial coital encounter. Woman and man. Fumbling and clumsy. About as inept as you might imagine. Not with the lady I loved so dearly during my final year at the University of Maine, but with another more than a year later who came to love me dearly.

She had more experience than I did because I had none. But she was very patient and helped me figure out what went where. She showed me what she wanted and I proved an eager, if somewhat clumsy student.

In spite of the fumbling, however, something marvellous, something truly wondrous took place that first night. I was illuminated by a truth that forever since has remained at the core of my personal being.

In that klutsy first sexual act of love with a woman I discovered the center of the universe. I did not tell that young woman then of my revelation. I wish now that I had done so, for it had been she and no one else who showed me this truth. No Platonic abstraction, no chaste ideal, but a real and specific woman showed me that mystical and alchemical mixture of sex and love.

As vividly as the sun coming up in the morning, the awesome truth of love/sex entered my awareness. I had been initiated into the most wonderful mystery and adventure of life. For that I am grateful forever to her.

The experience was so totally life enriching that it just obliterated my Roman Catholic guilt. I felt not the slightest pang of remorse. I was just filled with amazement.

No wonder the churchmen were so afraid of coitus. No wonder they so vehemently tried to spoil it. No wonder they encrusted it with layers of guilt. Compared to the barrenness of the experience they had to offer in its place, it just blew them away.

I went to confession the day after my first coital experience. I told the priest, who was a friend of mine as well, that I did not feel any guilt over it, but elation instead. He had the wisdom not to try to feed me the orthodox party line.

He told me to trust in my own conscience. That was the last advice I ever took from the Roman Catholic Church. And the best by far.

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