SPECIAL SERIES: The Seven Deadly Sins
What is lust?
What is lust? Well, for me it is unconscious physical desire for sexual union with another. The ego's misplaced desire for another body occurring through sex as the way to connection with the divine. What makes it "wrong" is not what it is but what we do with it. When we rely on the physical act of sex as the basis for a connection which already exists between us and the Other, it distracts us from the Real. When we learn to hear in it the siren call of the Holy Spirit, it can lead us to the Real.
In all of the great spiritual traditions, lust or sexual desire has two faces, on the one hand, it is the base unconscious use of the body to act out one of the most fundamental truths of the universe, the connection of Godde and humans, without conscious understanding. On the other, it IS one of the purest expressions of the understanding of the connection between Godde and humans that we have been given. It is this latter face that I have and will continue to pursue as a spiritual path for most of my adult life.
The problem is, when we rely on the act of sex itself, or the base grasping after the act, we ignore a very important fact. The wonderful connection we have with one very special person with whom we resonate in a particularly sweet, or sexy way, is not exclusive to that person, It is a reflection of what connects us to the rest of life. The difference is that some of us, because of similarities or, more accurately, correlative mental abilities, emotional tendencies, attitudes toward life and personality traits have what I call a "pull from the groin" with another person. In and of itself, it isn't anything more or less than energy. It's the meaning, conscious or unconscious, with which we invest it, that makes it into something destructive or transformative. The goal in integrating it into our lives in a healthy, life-giving way is consciousness or meaning.
When I was growing up, I somehow acquired the belief that sex was in the same category as mystical religious experience. I have no idea how this came about but it may have had something to do with my minister father's stories of reading the Song of Songs to my very prudish mother on their first date. My family was protestant, so there weren't a lot of symbols going on. My parents seemed to have a reasonably healthy sexual relationship, which in American culture means they weren't deviant. My education about sex was hysterically funny and about par for the course for a middle-class, white girl growing up in the sixties. I was a teen in the 70s when, for the first time in history, a girl had free and easy access to birth control AND abortion and when AIDS had not yet started its galloping march around the world. And I was . . . VERY curious. At this advanced age, with 50 years of experience to look back on and compare to, I wouldn't say I was lusty but I was very anxious to participate. I didn't even realize I HAD any expectations for sex for a long time.
I didn't develop an understanding of what sex meant to me during my first marriage, although I learned a lot of technique. I didn't learn it when I was indulging in a second adolescence between marriages, although I did learn that sex used to accomplish power over another rapidly becomes dull and unsatisfying. I didn't really learn what it meant to me until the failure of my second marriage and the experience of desire without attachment or fulfillment with the man who is (much to his alternate delight and chagrin) the Great Love of my Life. I will probably never experience the fulfillment of years of desire I've had for him, but I have learned how it is that the experience of loving without attachment or clinging that changes one for the better. The details of the physical experience are entirely up to Grace, or not, as the case may be. Another saying of Andy Greeley that sustains me is this, "Godde cheats on Her own rules to bring us to Herself." Including, I think, our own very confused ideas about ourselves and what we need from others.
How lust becomes grace is really what made me a Catholic...
How lust becomes grace is really what made me a Catholic: I was working at a job, not long after the end of my first marriage. The marriage had been abusive, with my ex-husband delighting in telling me how undesireable I was, that I was mediocre and unattractive. Coming as it did immediately after my very uncertain self-development in adolescence, this had a very powerful effect on me. Now, here I was, working every day surrounded by men (I was a secretary in a fire department) who daily made it clear that my ex-husband must have had certain sensory, as well as cognitive, deficits. The guys would leave novels hanging around the recreation room and one day I happened upon what looked to be a very racy novel with the back of a beautiful woman draped in some gauzy fabric and a title that was something like, "Deadly Sins," (that wasn't it, I can't remember which one it was, but Andy always titles his books in some way similar) by a man named Andrew Greeley.
I took it home and before long, I'd read every one of the books Fr. Greeley had written. I couldn't get enough of them. He had a very interesting way of working out sexual interactions in a way that the protagonists were led into experiences that should have resulted in the same tired, tedious, dead-end, disappointing results, but because of (aha!) Grace became life-altering. And he did it in the most unexpected ways. Sure, there was some racy sex going on, but he knew how to communicate that, when Grace was involved, it could be a sanctifying experience.
Which led me to the beginning of what I really understood and expected from lust. During that time, I learned a whole lot about lust for its own sake and it left me bored. When I married, I thought of sex as "just biology" and believed that if I committed sufficient attention and love to my husband, for whom I had no real sexual desire or attraction, our relationship would work itself out. It didn't work out that way. I ended up with a marriage where there was simply no common ground of understanding of the importance of sex. The "pull from the groin" toward my husband had always been lacking, and because I'd ignored that important point, had foolishly thought that I could generate it with an act of will, my husband and I never found the connection that is the basis of the sexual act. The "pull from the groin" that leads us as humans to desire sexual union with another human being is a precious spiritual clue that there is a connection we neither see nor can define that could be the basis for a deeper and more holy union, what we Catholics call "sacramental." I ignored it with very predictable consequences.
The lack of connection in my marriage led me inward, to study, to spiritual practice and to developing a crystal clear understanding of desire as a spiritual path. I began to study the wisdom literature in Scripture, and The Song of Songs, and the place of eros in Christian and Judaic traditions. I began to become aware of my lifelong belief, heretofore unrecognized, that sex/lust/desire, could be gifts of the Spirit, sent to help us in our path to Godde.
One of my favorite spiritual writers, Eckhart Tolle, has said that relationships "are not here to make you happy or fulfilled, they are here to make you conscious." He goes on to explain that if you, "pursue the goal of salvation through a relationship, you will be disillusioned again and again." 
The same is true for the unconscious lust that is the poor reflection of the Grace that is possible in the sexual experience. If we focus on the having of another's body, we miss the fact that the Other is always unattainable. The musician, Tom Waits, has been quoted as saying, "There's no prayer like desire." This was the introduction to a book about the instersection between Buddhism and psychology, Open to Desire, by Mark Epstein M.D.  In his book, Dr. Epstein explains poignantly how it is possible for the discontent of desire, particularly unfulfilled desire, to lead one into deeper and richer love that does not require "having" or "possessing" the Other to exist. In fact, it is this very experience that opens us to the reality of our underlying connection to the rest of the universe. Renunciation becomes the basis for understanding, accepting, and integrating both the connection and the separateness of the Other. This understanding engenders a deeper respect, and hence, a deeper connection, with the Other, whether or not the physical act of sex occurs. The Other goes from Object to Subject.
Dr. Epstein repeatedly emphasizes the symbolic distinctions between male desire (doing) and female desire (being). We need both to be whole. Hence, the compelling urgency of desire for the body of another. The problem is, these desires are reduced to a morality play where we merely act out impulses when we engage in them without conscious understanding. This consciousness is not about analyzing (the male "doing") or emoting (the female "being"), it is an experience of holding both the doing and being in awareness, of observing both without attempting to manipulate or control either, that can lead us to the experience of desire without the necessity for having, which is at the heart of spiritual ecstasy. When this understanding is fully integrated, made fully conscious to the individual, the actual act of having the body of another finds its proper place. One can say, with St. Paul, "I have learned in all states in which I find myself, therewith to be content." Sexual longing becomes a grace. It is transformed from base lust, which is the cause of disruption and dissatisfaction to the bliss of the knife's edge existence of finding ecstasy in the experience of desire, fulfilled or unfulfilled.
Bibliography and further food for the journey:
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