Once, many years ago in confession, a priest taught me a profound truth. How anyone would prove its veracity I can’t say, yet force of the insight compelled my acceptance. Plato suggested that this was the way with deep truths. We can’t help but to acknowledge them, because hearing them, we think we’ve always known them.
The priest said that all sexual misconduct stems from low self-esteem. At the time, I had been confessing some of my own. After more than a quarter century, why do I still believe that to be true?
Because we are our bodies. We simply are our bodies, though, in desperation, we do so much to forget that. The mind roams all over the world; it seems loosed from the lowly body. And when it rests from roaming, to settle again in its own flesh, it immediately wants to alter it, both interiorly—in its imagination—and exteriorly—through the use of countless physical alterations: cosmetics, clothing, tanning, hair coloring and cuts, tattoos, exercise regimes and diets.
No one wants to possess a weak or an unattractive body, but the problem is already posed in the approach. The body isn’t something that we have. It’s what we are. The creases on the forehead, the tightness in the gut or jaw, the weariness of the back, legs, and arms aren’t attributes of a biological machine, which the mind drives through life. This is who we are, our bodies, our little spot in the world.
When the soul is hurting, or when it’s hungering for something it can’t quite identify, the instinct, the temptation—the instinctive temptation?—is to reduce those around us to their bodies alone. Yet the same inner repulsion that we feel for ourselves permeates the physical presences in front of us, and so we never quite find the flesh that satisfies the soul. We think the lack lies in the bodies of others. We surf the web for something better. But the deprivation is ours. All forms of sexual misconduct are linked by a self-loathing, a lack of self-esteem.
Confessors hear more than penitents say. Often penitents talk about foolish choices, addictive behaviors, sexual actions that leave them depressed and drained. The confessor hears the sound of a soul that cannot love itself.
How can we confess the existence of God yet deny the goodness of what God has created? Unbelievers think that God should prove himself through correction of the world, through the expulsion of evil. Sadly, too many believers insist that the world is governed by good, that God exists, yet they cannot believe the same about themselves. Self-loathing is the primordial sin, the great denial of God’s goodness.
Yet what Isaiah heard is gospel truth for all.
What saves us from our own lack of self-esteem? What ends the self-loathing? It’s love, not sex. Or rather, it’s sex that’s been focused into love of others. And by sex, I mean more than sexual activity. I mean our way of being in the world.
We hear the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the Christ as a diminishment of his own self, but it’s not. It’s the soul discovering itself in another. It’s human life finding its source in something that pre-exists itself.
I close with a quote from Saint Augustine, one I’ve used too many times before, perhaps because my soul can’t help but to acknowledge its truth.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6 1 Corinthians 1: 1-3 John 1: 29-34