RonRolheiser,OMI

The Goddess of Chastity

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Ancient Greece expressed much of its psychological and spiritual wisdom inside their myths. They didn’t intend these to be taken literally or as historical, but as metaphor and as an archetypal illustration of why life is as it is and how people engage life both generatively and destructively.

And many of these myths are centered on gods and goddesses. They had gods and goddesses to mirror virtually every aspect of life, every aspect of human behavior, and every innate human propensity. Moreover, many of these gods and goddesses were far from moral in their behavior, especially in their sexual lives. They had messy affairs with each other and with human beings. However, despite the messiness and amorality of their sexual behavior, one of the positive features inside these myths was that, for Ancient Greece, sex was always, somehow, connected to the divine. Even temple prostitution was somehow related to accessing the fertility that emanated from the divine realm.

Within this pantheon of gods and goddesses there was a particular goddess name Artemis. Unlike most of their other goddesses, who were sexually promiscuous, she was chaste and celibate.  Her sexual abstinence represented the place and the value of chastity and celibacy. She was pictured as a tall, graceful figure, attractive sexually, but with a beauty that, while sexual, was different from the seductive sexuality of goddesses like Aphrodite and Hera. In the figure of Artemis, sex is pictured as an attractive blend of solitude and integrity. She is frequently pictured as surrounded by members of her own sex or by members of the opposite sex who appear as friends and intimates, but never as lovers.

What’s implied here is that sexual desire can remain healthy and generative even while abstaining from sex.  Artemis represents a chaste way of being sexual. She tells us that, in the midst of a sexually-soaked world, one can be generative and happy inside of chastity and even inside celibacy. Perhaps even more importantly, Artemis shows us that chastity need not render one anti-sexual and sterile. Rather she shows that sexuality is wider than sex and that sex itself will be richer and more meaningful if it is also connected to chastity. Artemis declares that claiming your solitude and experiencing friendship and other forms of intimacy are not a substitute for sex but one of the rich modalities of sex itself.

Thomas Moore, in describing Artemis, writes: “Although she is the most virginal of the goddesses, Artemis is not asexual. She embodies a special kind of sexuality where the accent is on individuality, integrity, and solitude.” As such, she is a model not just for celibates but also for people who are sexually active. For sexually active person, Artemis is the cautionary flag that says: I want to be taken seriously, with my integrity and independence assured.

As well, Moore suggests that, irrespective of whether we are celibate or sexually active, we all “have periods in life or just moments in a day when we need to be alone, disconnected from love and sex, devoted to an interest of our own, withdrawn and remote. [Artemis] tells us that this preference may not be an antisocial rejection of people but simply a deep, positive, even sexual focusing of oneself and one’s world.”

What’s taught by this mythical goddess is a much needed lesson for our world today. Our age has turned sex into a soteriology, namely, for us, sex isn’t perceived as a means towards heaven, it is identified with heaven itself. It’s what we’re supposed to be living for. One of the consequences of this is that we can no longer blend our adult awareness with chastity, nor with the genuine complexity and richness of sex. Rather, for many of us, chastity and celibacy are seen as a fearful self-protection, which leave one dry, sterile, moralistic, anti-erotic, sexually-uptight, and on the periphery of life’s joys. Tied to this too is the notion that all those rich realities so positively highlighted by Artemis (as well as by the classical Christian notion of chastity), namely, friendship, non-sexual forms of intimacy, non- sexual pleasures, and the need for integrity and fidelity within sex, are seen as a substitute for sex, and a second-best one at that, rather than as rich modality of sex itself.

We are psychologically and spiritually impoverished by that notion and it puts undue pressure on our sexual lives. When sex is asked to carry the primary load in terms of human generativity and happiness it cannot help but come up short. And we are seeing that in our world today.

Of course, as Christians, we have our own goddesses of chastity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many women saints. Why not draw our spirituality of chastity from these women, rather than looking towards some pagan, mythical goddess? Well, for the most part, we do look to Christian models here.  Moreover, I suspect that both the Virgin Mary and all of our revered virgin saints would, were she actually a real person, very much befriend Artemis.

The Unhappy Cost of Resentment

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It’s not only love that makes the world go round. Resentment too is prominent in stirring the drink. In so many ways our world is drowning in resentment. Everywhere you look, it seems, someone is bitter about something and breathing out resentment. What is resentment? Why is this feeling so prevalent in our lives? How do we move beyond it?

Soren Kierkegaard once defined resentment in this way. Resentment, he suggested, happens when we move from the happy feeling of admiration to the unhappy feeling of jealousy. And this, sadly, happens all too frequently in our lives and we are dangerously blind to its occurrence. Me resentful? How dare you make that accusation!

Yet it’s hard to deny that resentment and its concomitant unhappiness color our world. At every level of life, from what we see playing out in the grievances and wars among nations to what we see playing out in the bickering in our board rooms, class rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, there is evidence of resentment and bitterness. Our world is full of resentment. Everyone, it seems, is bitter about something, and, of course, not without cause.  Few are the persons who do not secretly nurse the feeling that they have been ignored, wounded, cheated, treated unfairly, and have drawn too many short straws in life; and so many of us feel that we have every right to protest our right to be resentful and unhappy.  We’re not happy, but with good reason.

Yes, there’s always good reason to be resentful; but, and this is the point of this column, according to a number of insightful analysts, both old and new, we are rarely in touch with the real reason why we are so spontaneously bitter. For persons such as Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Robert Moore, Gil Bailie, Robert Bly, and Richard Rohr, among others, the deep root of our resentment and unhappiness lies in our inability to admire, our inability to praise others, and our inability to give others and the world a simple gaze of admiration.

We’re a society that, for the most part, can’t admire. Admiration is, for us, a lost virtue. Indeed in the many circles today, both in the world and in the churches, admiration is seen as something juvenile and immature, the frenzied, mindless shrieking of teenage girls chasing a rock star. Maturity and sophistication are identified today with the kind of intelligence, wit, and reticence, which don’t easily admire, which don’t easily compliment. Learning and maturity, we believe, need to be picking things apart, suspicious of others’ virtues, distrustful of their motives, on hyper-alert for hypocrisy, and articulating every reason not to admire. Such is the view today.

But what we don’t admit in this view of maturity and learning is how we feel threatened by those whose graces or virtues exceed our own. What we don’t admit is our own jealousy.  What we don’t admit is our own resentment. What we don’t admit, and never will admit, is how our need to cut down someone else is an infallible sign of our own jealousy and bad self-image. And what helps us in our denial is this: Cynicism and cold judgment make for a perfect camouflage; we don’t need to admire because we’re bright enough to see that there’s nothing really to admire.

That, too often, is our sophisticated, unhappy state: We can no longer truly admire anybody. We can no longer truly praise anybody. We can no longer look at the world with any praise or admiration. Rather our gaze is perennially soured by resentment, cynicism, judgment, and jealousy.

We can test ourselves on this: Robert Moore often challenges his audiences to ask themselves this question: When was the last time you walked across a room and told a person, especially a younger person or a person whose talents dwarf yours, that you admire her, that you admire what she’s doing, that her gifts enrich your life, and that you are happy that her path has crossed yours? When was the last time you gave someone a heartfelt compliment? Or, to reverse the question: When was the last time that someone, especially someone who is threatened by your talents, gave you a sincere compliment?

We don’t compliment each other easily, or often, and this betrays a secret jealousy. It also reveals a genuine moral flaw in our lives. Thomas Aquinas one submitted that to withhold a compliment from someone who deserves it is a sin because we are withholding from him or her some of the food that he or she needs to live. To not admire, to not praise, to not compliment, is not a sign of sophistication but a sign moral immaturity and personal insecurity. It is also one of the deeper reasons why we so often fill with bitter feelings of resentment and unhappiness.

Why do we so often feel bitter and resentful? We fill with resentment for many reasons, though, not least, because we have lost the virtues of admiration and praise.

Sacred Permission to be Human and the Tools to Handle Frustration

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Sometimes certain texts in the bible make you wonder: Is this really the word of God? Why is this text in scripture? What’s the lesson here?

For example, we have verses in the Psalms, in passages that we pray liturgically, where we ask God to bash the heads of the children of our enemies against a rock. How does that invite us to love our enemies? We see passages in the Book of Job where Job is in despair and curses not on only the day he was born but the very fact that anyone was born. It’s impossible to find even a trace of anything positive in his lament. Similarly, in a rather famous text, we hear Qoheleth affirm that everything in our lives and in the life of this world is simple vanity, wind, vapor, of no substance and of no consequence. What’s the lesson here? Then, in the Gospels, we have passages where the apostles, discouraged by opposition to their message, ask Jesus to call down fire and destroy the very people to whom they are supposed to minister. Hardly an exemplar for ministry!

Why are these texts in the bible? Because they give us sacred permission to feel the way we feel sometimes and they give us sacred tools to help us deal with the shortcomings and frustrations of our lives.  They are, in fact, both very important and very consoling texts because, to put it metaphorically, they give us a large enough keyboard to play all the songs that we need to play in our lives. They give us the laments and the prayers we need to utter sometimes in the face of our human condition, with its many frustrations, and in the face of death, tragedy, and depression.

To give a simple example: A friend of mine shares this story: Recently he was in church with his family, which included his seven year-old son, Michael, and his own mother, Michael’s grandmother. At one point, Michael, seated beside his grandmother, whispered aloud: “I’m so bored!” His grandmother pinched him and chided him: “You are not bored!” as if the sacred ambience of church and an authoritative command could change human nature. They can’t. When we’re bored, we’re bored! And sometimes we need to be given divine permission to feel what we’re spontaneously feeling.

Some years ago, for all the noblest of intentions, a religious community I know wanted to sanitize the Psalms that they pray regularly in the Divine Office to rid them of all elements of anger, violence, vengeance, and war. They had some of their own scripture scholars do the work so that it would be scholarly and serious. They succeeded in that, the product was scholarly and serious, but stripped of all motifs of violence, vengeance, anger, and war what resulted was something that looked more like a Hallmark Card than a series of prayers that express real life and real feelings. We don’t always feel upbeat, generous, and faith-filled. Sometimes we feel angry, bitter, and vengeful. We need to be given sacred permission to feel that way (though not to act that way) and to pray in honesty out of that space.

My parents, and for the most part their whole generation, would, daily, in their prayers, utter these words: To You do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Our own generation tends to view this as morbid, as somehow denigrating both the beauty and joy of life and the perspective that faith is meant to give us. But there’s a hidden richness in that prayer. In praying in that way, they gave themselves sacred permission to accept the limits of their lives. That prayer carries the symbolic tools to handle frustration; something, I submit, we have failed to sufficiently give to our own children. Too many young people today have never been given the symbolic tools to handle frustration, nor sacred permission to feel what they are feeling. Sometimes, all good intentions aside, we have handed our children more of Walt Disney than Gospel.

In the Book of Lamentations we find a passage that while sounding negative on the surface, is paradoxically, in the face of death and tragedy, perhaps the most consoling text of all. The text simply states that, sometimes in life, all we can do is put our mouths to the dust and wait!

That’s sound advice, spoken from the mouth of experience and the mouth of faith.

The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, once wrote these words to a friend who, in the face of the death of a loved one, wondered how or where he could ever find consolation. What do I do with all this grief?  Rilke’s reply: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give that heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”  They are, so too is life sometimes and we need to be given God’s permission to feel that heaviness.