Inside of each of us, rooted so deeply that no cynicism or hurt can ever eradicate it, lays the ideal of purity. In the end, all of us hate stain, physical and moral. We like what’s clean and pure. This is connected with our very integrity as human beings. When purity breaks down or is violated, part of our self-identity also breaks down. Rape is so horrible precisely because it assaults not just someone’s freedom and vulnerability, but it violates that person’s purity. For this reason it leaves such deep scars and threatens the psychic health of its victim at a primal level.
When we are baptized a white dress is put on us to symbolize purity and words are spoken to remind us that this garment is the outward sign of our dignity and we are to bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.
Sadly, this ideal has taken on almost exclusively sexual connotations; purity has come to mean sexual chastity, pure and simple. This reduction is tragic, not just because a sexually liberated age so easily denigrates and ridicules sexual purity, but, especially, because we no longer see how impurity creeps into other areas of our lives, especially into our relationships with those dearest to us, and stains deeply the purity that once enrobed those loves.
Let me try to illustrate this with an example. D.H. Lawrence once wrote a poem on love entitled, History, which reads:
The listless beauty of the hour
When snow fell on the apple trees
And the wood ash gathered in the fire
And we faced our first miseries.
Then the sweeping sunshine of noon
When the mountains like chariot cars
Were ranked to blue battle and you and I
Counted our scars.
And then in a strange, grey hour
We lay mouth to mouth, with your face
Under mine like a star on the lake.
And I covered the earth, and all space.
The silent, drifting hours
Of morn after morn
And night drifting up to the night
Yet no pathway worn.
Your life, and mine, my love
Passing on and on, the hate
Fusing closer and closer with love
Till at length they mate.
In the beginning of every love, romantic or not, the dream for that love is connected to the ideal of purity. And, in the early stages of love, this ideal is spontaneously respected. In the stage of attraction, flirtation, infatuation, the rooting of that love in one’s poetic memory, and first fervour, generally the love is, figuratively speaking, enrobed with whiteness. It has a purity.
What D.H. Lawrence describes (so earthily and brilliantly) is how love can gradually and imperceptibly distort and stain, even through its most intimate expressions. And the change that he is referring to is not the healthy transformation, beyond immature romantic ideals, which all love has to undergo to continue to grow. Nor is he referring to the valuable psychological insight that hate is not love’s opposite. He is talking of the distortion that creeps into a relationship precisely when the purity which was part of the dream that initiated that love is violated. Milan Kundera once said that when the idea that a love was founded on dies, then that love too
Real love and real romance are always founded on the ideal of purity … we want not to stain nor be stained in that love. This implies many things prior to and beyond the issue of sex. Essentially, it says that when we say the words: “I love you!” we may not then mix those words with any kind of disrespect whatever with the hope that the sexual bed, or any other expression of intimacy, can then redeem the initial dream for that love.
Outside of mutually, honestly, and respectfully facing our miseries, not counting our scars, and keeping a worn pathway, love will imperceptibly begin to sleep with hate, until we can no longer tell the difference; it will come to contain as much resentment as it does delight; and we will find the other becoming a stranger.
The purity symbolized by our baptismal robes must be part of the poetic dream for every one of our loves and, as with all aspects of our baptism, it is our lifelong challenge to bring that dignity home unstained.