When I was in graduate school, in class one day the professor was lecturing on sexuality and morality, the issue of masturbation was raised and a student stopped him dead in his tracks with the question: “Do you masturbate?”

The professor’s first reaction was one of anger at the impertinence of the question. He turned away from the class towards the black board and his body language said what his words did not: ‘‘you are out of order with that question!”

However, he recovered himself soon enough and turned and faced his questioner and the class with these words: “My first reaction is to tell you that you’re out of order and that you’ve no business asking a question like that in this class, or anywhere else. However, since this is a class in moral theology and in the end your question has some value, I will in fact answer you: Yes, sometimes I do – and I am not proud of it. I don’t think ifs very wrong and I don’t think ifs very right either. I do know this though … I’m a better person when I don’t because then I am carrying more of the tension that w all of us, should carry in this life.”

Whatever its merits or lack of them in moral theology that answer says something important humanly and spiritually. We are better persons when we carry tension, as opposed to always looking for its easy resolution.

We see examples of this in great literature. What makes for a great hero or heroine? What do we call nobility of soul?

Usually we ascribe that quality precisely to the person who, mindless to his or her own comfort, need, and pain, is willing for a higher reason to carry great tension for a long period of time. We sense greatness of soul when we see someone who is sweating blood and not acquiescing to the temptation to prematurely resolve things.

Thus, for instance, we see in the heroine of Jane Austen’s, Sense and Sensibility, a certain greatness of soul. Why? Because she carries a great tension for a long time. She puts other peoples’ needs and the proper order of things above her own need to have her tension resolved. We see too in that story, as well as in many others of its kind, what makes for sublimity  – the fact that first has been some sublimation. Generally, the more prior sublimation there is the more sublime the experience is. Great ioy depends upon first having carried great tension.

And this is true for every area of life, not just for sexuality. Nobility of soul is connected to carrying tension. The great illustration of this is, of course, Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. There we see the necessary connection between suffering and resurrection. Understood fully, we also see in this the necessary connection between sweating blood in a garden and keeping our commitments and our integrity. Nobody will ever remain faithful in a marriage, a vocation, a friendship, a family, a job, or just to his or her own integrity without sometimes sweating blood in a garden. 

After his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, in trying to explain the connection between carrying tension and attaining what is sublime to his disciples (who slept through the lesson in Gethsemane) Jesus asks them the question: “Wasn’t it necessary … ?” It seems it was necessary – there is a necessary connection between carrying tension and fidelity.

We see this clearly illustrated too in the figure of Mary in scripture. The gospels tell us “She pondered these things in her heart”. Pondering, in the gospels, however, does not mean what it meant for the Greek philosophers like Socrates who cautioned us that the unexamined life is not worth living. In Hebrew thought, pondering did not mean a certain intellectual contemplation of life’s great mysteries. It meant rather a painful helplessness before a certain suffering that leaves us wondering.

Thus, when Mary stands under the cross of Jesus and watches him die – and there is absolutely nothing she can do to save him or even to protest his innocence and goodness- she is pondering in the Hebrew sense. She is carrying a great tension that she is helpless to resolve and must simply live with. From such a soul we get the Magnificat.

In Jesus’ message there is a strong motif of waiting, of pondering, of chastity, of having to carry tension without giving in to premature resolution. The idea is that the resurrection follows only after there has been an agony in the garden.

But why? Why is there value in carrying tension?

Carrying tension, if it is carried as Jesus, Mary, and Jane Austen’s heroines carried it (as something one does for others), is a gestation process. Something grows in us. What? Compassion, eventually forgiveness. To carry tension is to be in labour for birth because it is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth.