A few days ago one of my worst nightmares happened. “I have to look at this,” a coworker whom I’ll call Bianca said, and began to roll up my sleeve to see my newest tattoo, which had been slightly exposed despite my attempt to cover it. It was a nightmare in part because this particular coworker is the mother of one of my students, whom I’ll call William. “So pretty!” she said. “I have a couple tattoos, too—but mine are super embarrassing, because I got them, like, right when I turned eighteen. Look.” She pulled the neckline of her shirt to the side to show how, on her left shoulder, she had her own name written in a nostalgic script, complete with a heart in place of the dot over the one “I” in her name. “William is always asking me, like, ‘Mom, why would you get your own name tattooed on you?’ And every time I have to be like, ‘Because Mommy was a stupid teenager. Don’t turn out like me.’”
I was struck in that moment by this breaking of privacy, showing me a part of her body that I’d never seen before because of the nature of our relationship. Put simply: at work, we keep our shoulders covered. But Bianca and William are mother and son, so William has seen more of Bianca’s body than I have, in all of the attitudes of intimacy between mothers and sons: shortly after a shower, or in bed in the morning, or just on a weekend, when you might wear, I don’t know, a tank top.
In truth, I regularly blister with envy of Bianca, simply in that she has a son. I want a son more than anything in the world, and lately I’ve been afraid that God hasn’t designated that for me. Thy will be done, obviously, but man, do I want a kid. Sometimes out of nowhere the thought of being able to wake up in the morning and wrap my arms around my son asleep next to me presents itself so vividly in my imagination that I’m moved near tears.
But, of course, to have a son, I need a husband. There are no two ways around it. That is simply that.
Chastity has been a difficult road for me, though it’s one I wish I never strayed from. I began entertaining the idea of celibacy a few years ago, but the urgency of maintaining that resolve did not present itself to me until this year, after a heartbreak. I went to Catholic school growing up, but even Catholic schools are by and large under the oppressive shoe of hysterical liberalism. Girls would wear their skirts unconscionably short. At dances, everybody would be grinding with everybody else. Stories would circulate about how Alexandra put the neck of a bottle of vodka in her you-know-what at a party, and let Brendan take a video. Our lessons on sex and purity had a double message that I didn’t give myself enough time to parse before simply giving up my virginity to a guy who didn’t deserve it. “It’s sex,” my teachers seemed to say on the one hand, “the most important and sacred thing in the world. You simply can’t touch it.” On the other, “It’s just sex, you guys,” they seemed to imply. “You can wait until marriage. It’s just sex.”
Instead of waiting to understand the meaning of it all, as I said, I started having sex with my boyfriend at the time, and by the time I went to college, I felt such shame about that that I became a raging feminist, determined to encourage everyone to have sex, and a lot of it, and with whomever.
Of course, now I understand the truth of what my teachers were saying: sex is, in fact, a gratuitous part of life; you won’t die if you don’t have it. But it’s a complicated thing, and you leave yourself open to a lot of pain if you don’t do it with someone who wants to protect you, who has promised God not to harm or abandon you at the slightest movement of his mood or whim.
It reminds me of this time a few years ago, when I briefly dated a man who said to me at the beginning of our relationship (if you can even call it that, because it was only two months), “I don’t know how to cook.” I took him to mean, “I don’t make anything too complicated for my meals. Maybe scrambled eggs, or pasta, or a can of soup.” What he meant was, “I don’t know how to cook.” You name it, he couldn’t do it: couldn’t use knives, couldn’t boil water, was unsure of how long to microwave anything. To cope with the devastating reality that a man in his late twenties could have such a huge lapse in his awareness of how to be a living human person, I would sometimes cook elaborate meals for him. One time, I woke up early and cooked a gorgeous brunch of blistered grape tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic toast, sausages, and eggs. If I am in love with you, I cook for you. I had set the table and made him a plate, imagining that we would sit, and he would praise me for a few moments for being the best thing that ever happened to him, and then we would sort of ceremoniously Begin The Meal at the fitting and proper time. Instead, he took his dish from me and immediately picked up his piece of toast and took a messy bite, right there, holding his plate, near the stove.
I give you permission to call me psycho for this, but that moment more than any of the other occasions when red flags to come into view steeled my conviction to break up with him. I had worked hard to make the meal. You don’t eat beautiful meals made by beautiful girls standing up in the kitchen! This, I felt, should not have to be communicated, and indicated a profound lack of understanding of how to appreciate a woman that, frankly, I just had absolutely no desire to help mitigate. Let me be dramatic: he completely disregarded the teleology of the meal; a place had been set for it and he had taken it somewhere else.
This is what casual sex is! You allow someone to take something you’ve worked to perfect and consume it in a totally vulgar, disordered way. And it doesn’t matter if somebody “doesn’t see it that way.” It is a matter of fact: God gave us these bodies for love and security and glory, and it is important to only allow those who will enter into a relationship of mutual honor to get their hands on us.
I wasn’t chaste last year, even after realizing that I should be. I would have been—I promise!—but I fell in love, and the man I loved told me he would marry me. When I was with him, I felt like his wife. I should have made his money meet his mouth, but I didn’t. I took him at his word, and I slept with him. The origin of many of my sins is that I am prone to terrible melancholy and loneliness: I feel that between myself and other people are massive chasms that we have hardly any hope of crossing, and when I fall in love, I want to close it at once. (One of my favorite poems says, “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.”) I was so in love that I couldn’t see how this man refused to make me a permanent place in his life. In Judea at the time of Christ’s birth, it was customary that husbands and wives would not consummate their marriages until the man had built a house for his bride. It informs the power behind the language when Christ says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” He is making a dwelling in which He will close the painful spaces between Himself and us. He did it, and does it even as we speak: unlike the man I thought I would marry, Christ has no bluff to be called. When I think about that man, whom I no longer love—possibly the last man I will ever have sex with, if God hasn’t made me to be someone’s wife—I wince at my own foolishness: I settled for far less than what I’ve been promised, and that is a beloved who will make me somewhere to stay with him, and die to do so.
And the reality is that I have done that many times; I have had no husband and many husbands, as they say. But it wasn’t until this most recent relationship and all the promises vacant of meaning that I realized how a lack of chastity and prudence is erosive to the soul. One of the reasons I want a son is so that I can truly live out Christ’s words: “This is my body, given up for you.” I won’t be able to live that out with my husband. This knowledge fills me with an inarticulable grief.
Happily, God writes comedies. It is a new year and I’ve put on new resolve. I’ve repented of my impurity. How could I not? I’ve inflicted such terrible wounds on myself, and I have told you about barely a fraction of them, and I haven’t even discussed the ones I’ve sustained from others, in which I also had my hand. I’ve climbed out of the beast’s belly and I’ve done what honestly seemed impossible: I’ve been chaste, and more than that, I’ve lived through the dogged loneliness of it all. I think a part of me really thought I would die if I wasn’t constantly the object of someone’s affection. Instead I’ve been doing the work of preserving and rehabilitating my maimed spirit, so that one day, God willing, I can bring a being into the world and be a home to him and the man with whom I made him.
Of course, I’m saying “I,” but I didn’t write this only for myself: I’m writing to you. You are too precious to do these things to yourself; you are too precious to let others do these things to you. And don’t you know, the wait isn’t so long, and your love has almost come, is nearly at the door.