Sunday, March 21, 2010

St. Mary of Egypt

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, dedicated to the remembrance of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt. Mary’s story is certainly one of extremes. As a young woman she lived a life of horrible promiscuity. When a mystical encounter with an icon of the Theotokos brought her to understand the evil of her choices, she entered into a life of repentance that was equal in its extremity to the sins of her former life. Leaving all human company behind, she fled into the desert to survive in complete solitude for 48 years. Only after this time did she finally see another person, the priest Zosimas of Palestine, who discovered her while on a lenten pilgrimage into that same desert. Zosimas was amazed at the sight of this spiritual athlete, and even more amazed as she related her life story. Had it not been for this divinely-guided meeting, we would never have known of Mary, and would not have this incredible example of Christian repentance which the Church puts before us each lent.

Unfortunately, Mary’s former life of immorality, once seen as so shocking, has become rather more common in our society. We’re always hearing that America is “Victorian” and “repressed” in its attitudes toward sex, but it’s hard to imagine how anything could be further from the truth. We’ve become a culture obsessed with sex in even the most unnatural forms, and are on the verge of making Sodom and Gomorrah seem like a moral paradise by comparison. Mankind has always had a tendency to pervert sexuality, but I’m of the opinion that our culture took a sharp turn in this direction in the early 1960’s with the advent of the birth-control pill. Perhaps more than anything else, this one invention changed the way that Americans began to have sex, and changed our fundamental attitudes toward sex as well. These changes have had an incredibly negative impact on our culture.

Once upon a time, sexual activity tended to result in the production of noisy little things called babies believe it or not, and thus it not only served society better if sex were restricted to marriage, but married couples themselves tended to practice it more carefully, less frequently, and with a very wholesome understanding and acceptance that children would eventually result from the practice. Sex was completely linked with baby-making in the minds of most people, but the advent of “The Pill” quickly began to change all that.

With such a reliable and easy-to-use contraceptive at their disposal, married couples could now engage in much more frequent and casual sex without any concern of pregnancy. For the first time, people actually began to expect sex not to produce children! The sexual act very quickly became disassociated from procreation to become more a matter of recreation. Almost immediately, we lost any sense of sex as a sacred action connected with God’s blessing of the marital union, and reduced it to a function of mere pleasure-taking.

As soon as this change in perspective began to occur, the national divorce rate also started to rise alarmingly. There are many reasons for this, but one of these surely must be that as couples began to see the sexual union less as a matter of procreation--a view which automatically orients toward commitment and sacrifice for the benefit of family--and chose to see it in terms of personal gratification and fulfillment--an essentially self-centered perspective--it became easy to apply this latter, selfish standard to every aspect of the relationship and find it wanting in some way or another. We began to be more concerned with having our own needs met than with meeting the needs of our spouses or families and this became our undoing.

An increasing number of couples began to forego marriage entirely, as the sexual union no longer carried an implication of children or commitment, but the simple enjoying of a partner. Couples cohabiting without the benefit of marriage--a relationship that society once termed “living in sin”--became more accepted and today might even be the norm. [Perhaps some will remember that as recently as the mid-1970’s, many landlords still refused to rent apartments to unmarried couples on a moral basis. Such a thing seems almost unbelievable today!]

With procreation psychologically detached from sex, pregnancy began to be viewed as an “accident” and abortion moved from the back alleys to become a legal and lucrative industry. Jesus has warned that in the last days, most people’s love would grow cold, even to the point that mothers would lose a natural love for their own children. We suspect we are in those days when a living, healthy baby in the womb is often described as an “unwanted pregnancy” and the heartless murder of it, “a woman’s right to choose”.

Our linking of sex to pleasure exclusively has led to a change in attitudes toward explicit pornography, prostitution, and masturbation as well. Once seen as vile and shameful, these are now promoted as healthy outlets. Promiscuity itself has become more culturally accepted, leading to the invention of a myth called “safe sex;” a term that concerns itself only with any physical repercussions, and never with the emotional or spiritual ones.

With pleasure-taking now understood as the primary purpose of a sexual encounter, it no longer seems to matter if the couple is even of the opposite sex. The growing acceptance of homosexuality and the rapid move toward same-sex unions is merely the latest logical and predictable manifestation of the redefining of sex as pleasure over procreation that all began with the broad acceptance and use of easy contraceptives within otherwise traditional marriages not so very long ago.

Now this might sound as if I’m preaching against the use of contraceptives but please understand that this is not my point. There are many methods which of course should never be used because they can cause spontaneous abortions or lead to health or long-term fertility problems. But there are other methods which can be approved for limited use if a couple has a proper understanding of what the Church teaches concerning the sacrament of marriage. Couples considering birth-control methods should seek the guidance of their father-confessor and not rely solely on opinions or teachings of others on the matter.

My true purpose for giving this admittedly simplified history was to show that our society’s rampant sexual confusion and immorality didn’t just appear out of nowhere one day last week. It is rooted in the gradual distortion of our understanding of the purpose of sex itself; a distortion that modern reproductive science, unleashed within an amoral secular culture, certainly helped to accelerate. The result is that our society’s distorted views on sex have affected us all, some of us adversely. Many of us need a miracle akin to Mother Mary’s of Egypt to set us back on a path of healing.

When it was revealed to Mary that her impurity had separated her from God, she undertook an extreme repentance to correct her life. Our repentance may not involve desert wandering, but in the eyes of the world, the actions we must take for our own recovery might seem nearly as extreme. It comes down to the fact that we need to learn to take sex seriously once again, recognizing it as a sacred action which God has blessed for marriage alone.

All single people and unmarried couples must practice absolute and total celibacy, without exception. Dating couples need to enter into covered relationships and strictly follow the rules given to them by their priest to preserve their purity. Married people must be monogamous and work harmoniously together for their mutual salvation. If they are using contraceptives, they must make certain that they are using acceptable types and in a manner that is not to simply maintain a double-income, no-kids lifestyle indefinitely. We should also say that any people troubled by a same-sex attraction must not follow this impulse, but learn how to live in purity through the sacrament of confession. All of us must labor to be chaste in thought and deed, avoiding pornography, indecent entertainment, and every unclean action done in secret. We must resist the secular notion that we have some inherent “right” to give in to our passions and indulge in whatever form of sexual pleasure-taking we enjoy. This is not what God created us for.

In today’s world, such steps might seem nearly as extreme as desert monasticism. But our culture has become hostile to sexual purity and we must oppose this trend in our hearts and in our lives. In essence, we must take sex back from a culture that has utterly trivialized it and learn to regard it as something sacred once again. Since sexuality is integral to our humanity as God created it, any perversion of our sexual practices or attitudes leads invariably to the deconstruction of our humanity itself. This is exactly what we are witnessing taking place in our society, and perhaps in our lives as well.

Through the prayers of our righteous Mother Mary and of all the saints, may God help us to reverse this trend and find healing through a diligent and careful repentance.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.