No, really, I’m serious. Whenever I read the lives of the saints, I am always so blown away by their heroic virtue. (I’m convinced there’s just no other word for it—HEROIC VIRTUE.) In one of the children’s books on St. Dominic that I read to my kids, it tells how young Dominic, at the tender age of 8, started sleeping on the floor for a penance. He didn’t do this for Lent; he did it all the time. Young Dominic understood his faith a lot better than most Christians do today. And I would say that he showed more wisdom than many of today’s priests and bishops.
The word non-negotiable gets thrown around a lot these days, but only in a political context. But let me tell you something else that is non-negotiable—asceticism. You can find an ascetical passage in just about every epistle. And while it is true that specific ascetical practices are disciplines that can change, asceticism itself is much more than a mere discipline; it is a doctrine—the doctrine of the Cross.
St. Paul knew that the Cross was unpopular and would forever be so. His words in Philippians 3:18 express this concern and are especially relevant to our own generation:
17 Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so walk as you have an example in us. 18For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. § 20But our commonwealth is in heaven . . . (RSV, Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.)
St. Paul is telling us in verse 17 to imitate him and those Christians who follow his example, particularly with respect to the practice of asceticism. This is what the Church has always understood about the saints. They set an example of holiness for us to follow. If we have any concern at all about our eternal salvation, we would do well to follow their holy example; they are the only people that the Church can confidently say made it to heaven.
And this leads me to a subject that is often on the minds of many. Of course, I’m talking about SEX. You see, today is March 3rd. It is the feast day of a great American saint, Katherine Drexel. But I don’t want to talk about her right now. Instead, I want to talk about a lesser known saint who shares this feast day with Katherine. I’m talking about the eleventh century empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Cunegundes, Patroness of Lithuania. According to the story I got from Lives of the Saints, Cunegundes had taken a vow of virginity prior to her marriage to the emperor, Henry II, Duke of Bavaria. According to the story, she asked Henry for permission never to have sex with him—EVER. How I would have loved to have been present for that conversation. (Did she ask this favor of him before or after the nuptials?) Apparently Henry consented to this arrangement and, for understandable reasons, he also was made a saint in the Church.
Now given that we are supposed to imitate Paul and the other saints, a big question that should not be so quickly set aside is whether we should also emulate their example where sex is concerned. Both Paul and Jesus practiced and praised celibacy and recommended it to those who could manage it (1Cor. 7; Mt. 19: 11-12). It would certainly seem, given all the trouble in society with sexual immorality, that our culture could stand in need of a little “sexual healing”—but not the kind Marvin Gaye had in mind. We need a new and different kind of sexual healing—a healing from pornography, addiction, STDs, abortion, pedophilia, sexual slavery . . . My own strong hunch is that if more people followed the saints in denying themselves, we could begin to heal from these many sexual plagues.
The recent writings of two great popes also suggest this. A common cause of much sexual sin is a lack of self-control, and Humanae Vitae teaches us that ascetical practice is necessary for cultivating sexual self-control. You can also find this teaching in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5. There St. Paul teaches that asceticism is necessary for the cultivation of the fruits of the Spirit, and he identifies self-control as one of these ascetical fruits. John Paul II reaffirmed this teaching in The Theology of the Body. But he went much further by implying that this ascetical teaching belonged to a much larger body of Biblical knowledge about human nature—what he called the “moral psychology of the Bible.”
My book is an investigation of this Biblical Moral Psychology. And as I show in my book, BMP is now being confirmed by neuroscience, just as John Paul predicted in the early lectures of The Theology of the Body.
Thus, there is a growing body of evidence that the Bible teaches important truths about human nature that we cannot afford to ignore. Perhaps the greatest lesson we need to relearn is that the seven deadly sins are deadly primarily because they are addictive. The saints show us by their lives that self-denial is a powerful remedy for much of what ails our fragile human nature.
I leave you with two thoughts. The first is that a lot is wrong with our culture, and we Christians need to do a better job of communicating to a skeptical and hostile world that our faith has the power to help and to heal many suffering people. The second is a prediction, and it is this: I don’t see the name Cunegundes making a comeback anytime soon. St. Cunegundes, pray for us! JG