Better Than Sex?
On pain and longing and true love
Frank Sheed once said of critics of Humanae Vitae that they viewed the sex act as “love’s highest expression. The ruling purpose in their own intercourse seemed to be the enrichment of their partner’s personality. One wonders how refinedly they bore the discovery that she did not want her personality enriched that night.” The first thing I thought when I read that passage was “but I thought the sex act WAS love’s highest expression.” But on reflection I began to see his point. It is not that performing this act whenever, wherever, regardless of whether one or the other is sick, is the highest expression of love. It’s all about the respect and love expressed through this act. This means that love is about self-mastery and painful longing as much as it is about pleasure or release.
The Bible is full of images of love, both in the sense of enjoyment and pleasure, but also in the sense of longing and pain. The beloved in the Song of Songs is described in vivid and beautiful terms. Yet the lovers are separated. They long for each other. She waits impatiently for him to climb the wall and get to her, for him to come over the mountains. Where is he? Why is he refusing her? Does he just have a headache tonight? What’s his excuse? Doesn’t he love her? Why isn’t he “enriching her personality” tonight?
It hurts to be refused. There is a visceral pain. You feel knotted up in your lower abdomen and your throat tightens up and feels like acid. You feel like crying out “my love, my love, why have you abandoned me? My body pines for you! How long, beloved, how long? Will you abandon me to the outer darkness? All I want is to express my love, to draw close to you, to see your face, to feel your embrace! The world mocks me and says ‘where is your lover? You are not living your own life! Abandon her, she’s just a ball and chain!’ You are my rock! Let me cling to you or I may fly away!” But this pain, this longing and emptiness is the other side of love the world knows nothing about.
We hate discomfort. We go for pills as soon as we feel a headache coming on. We turn on the AC the moment it gets warmer than 72. We streamline and mechanize everything in order to reduce wait time. But there are still places where we understand the good in “feeling the pain.”
Diet and exercise may be the only area where modern culture has got it right. Not that we should follow the latest trendy program, but when we go to the gym after a month of vegging out, we know what it’s going to feel like. All the toxins in our stored fat are going to come out. Our body’s going to be flooded with lactic acid. We’re going to feel like throwing up. We’re going to feel sick and dizzy. Our muscles are going to ache. It will feel like hell. But we know that’s what it’s supposed to feel like. We know that it’s the first step toward “the new me.” It’s all part of the whole package. You can’t have health without it. If only we could have this kind of big picture perspective on love.
The moment we feel the dull ache of love sickness, most of us look for the quickest way to relieve that pain. We leave a marriage the second it stops feeling “personally fulfilling” (read undemandingly pleasant). We mock those who practice any sort of sexual asceticism (hey, you know what that guy’s problem is: he’s not getting any!). We think that if we just find the right lover or the right technique, the pain would go away forever. And this suspicion and fear of the pain of love leads us to miss the deeper truth: that both the pleasure and the pain of love point beyond themselves, beyond earthly love, to Love itself.
When we feel the need to cry out our feelings of abandonment, of longing, of incompleteness, of need for “personal enrichment,” we are really calling out for the God who has abandoned us to this purgatory on earth. We are incomplete. Our hearts are restless. We ache. We pine. Our lower abdomens twist into knots and our throats tighten up. Our tongues cleave to the roof of our mouths. We are lovesick. We want to relieve the pain, but we know that our hearts can only rest in God, not in anything less. And this suffering is true love, truer than the love expressed in the sex act. True, the sex act is an icon of our final destiny, our final rendezvous with our true Lover. But it always falls short of expectations. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great! It’s the best example of kairos–of touching eternity–that I can think of. And yet it is always shorter and more… messy than you remembered. It always leaves you with that feeling that there must be more. Should you try another technique? Another lover? No. It’s just that it was never meant to be your ultimate goal. It may make you happier. It may even enrich your personality. But it isn’t “love’s highest expression.” It points beyond itself to a love all loves excelling which it can’t hold a candle to. That’s what you really long for. That’s why it will always hurt at least a little.