A young couple drove their car to a secluded spot to view the stars at night. While they enjoyed the beauty of a starlit gaze one thing lead to another and they began to make out in the car. Little did they realize they were parked on a Dominican campus. A priest was walking around the campus and noticed the car parked. The priest went up to the couple and asked, “What is it that you are doing here have anything to do with the stars out there?”
What do erotic desires have to do with the stars? In this story, we see an apparent stark contrast between sexual desires and the splendor of God’s creation – a starlit night. The cluster of stars sprinkled throughout the cosmos is a small peek into the God’s masterpiece of creation. Much like how the beauty of stars points to God, the sexual desires within people are also meant to point to God. John Paul II articulated in his Theology of the Body that human sexual desires are like a pointing finger to God’s work. The summary statement of John Paul II's Theology of the Body is:
"The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible; the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it." (TOB 19:4)
The body? Yes, the human body and it's sexual nature communicates God's larger plan. As St. Paul put it, the body is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body (see 1 Cor 6:13), and where he also declared, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 6:19). Therefore, what we do with our body in creating life through sex is a sacred process. Despite popular notions such as Dana Carvey's "church lady" where religious folks are perceived of as stuffy and prude and sex as wicked, Catholicism views sex, along with all material pleasures of this world as good, and not evil. Catholicism is not puritanical or stoic when it comes to human sexuality and sexual desires. Puritanism is an ancient teaching that articulates that the spiritual dimension is good while the material dimension is corrupt. Moreover, within the material realm, puritanism specifically draws out human sexuality as evil. The program of puritanical systems is to escape from matter and everything physical and enter to a pure spirituality. However, this idea is not Biblical at all. Going back to the beginning in Genesis we find God creating the totality of the material world from planets, to stars, to trees, to animals, and to human beings who have a body with reproductive organs. God communicated that all this physical creation is "good" (Gen. 1:13) and even "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Flowing from this there is nothing wrong with human bodies that have sexuality embedded in it. If we didn't have sexual desires, then human reproduction does not happen, thus, the human race would cease to exist. Jesus as well confirmed the sacredness of human sexuality: "He who made them from the beginning made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one" (Matthew 19: 5).
Say what you will but the phrases of “two becoming one flesh” and “be fruitful and multiply”(Gen. 1:28) are pretty sexy images because the only way two can become one and the two can be fruitful and multiply is through sex. Therefore, the Bible is illuminating that sex is a sacred process. It follows that if male and female are the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and God creates life, then in sex when male and female unite to create life we are participating in the very life of God. This idea is made clear by John Paul II statement, "Sexuality . . . is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person's connection with God." (Familiaris Consortio, 11; see CCC 2332)
Catholic teaching wants to place human sexuality into the wider framework of love. Love is not a mere feeling, but as Thomas Aquinas articulates, "Love is to will the good of the other." Thus, sex is love in that it produces new life and it makes the man and woman into selfless parents in which they serve each other and the new life they created. In short, the greatest thing a man can do for a woman is make her a mother, and the greatest thing a woman can do for a man is make him a father. Because in the motherhood and fatherhood state the two are willing the good of the other. Sex is the vehicle that makes this happen. God specifically created sex for this purpose.
Now, take one more step. Human love in marriage must be under the banner of divine love (see Ephesians 5: 25-33). That is, when a husband joins with his wife in sex they create a new child. Thus, they have now become a union of people in which they share a deep relationship. They are a communion of people or a tri-unity of three persons (father, mother, child) together as one (the Smith family). Notice in this tri-unity of family, they resemble the Holy Trinity - three persons in one (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Therefore, sexuality, marriage, and relationships are not merely under the banner of sexual attraction, it is a matter of God's will and God's very essence.
Given all of this, we now see that human sexuality in its pure form is, indeed, holy. The problem is when we take sex from its natural pure environment of “using the self for the good of the other” and replace it under the modern banner of lust in “using the other for the pleasure of the self.” Therefore, our human desire for sexuality is good and natural. The real question is how do we use this desire.
To show how our human desires at their initial stage is an echo of God, let’s back up to see the broader picture of human desire. We all have this inner craving for something more within us. Every person has an internal longing for something better than their current state. In fact, our consumerism mentality of constantly buying things and needing fun experiences suggests that we are in this endless seeking mode for something better. Even our music picks up on this human yearning for something more. Bruce Springsteen said, “Everybody’s gotta a Hungry Heart, while K.D. Lang sang that this “constant craving has always been.” The rock band U2 highlighted that this longing within is like an elusive itch that can never go away in their song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
To be sure, we are temporarily satisfied in this world after a good meal, relaxing spa treatment, vacation get-a-way, you name it. But, true to form this fulfillment of our desires are short lived. Inevitably, we’ll keep going back to these things in attempt to satisfy our thirst for ultimate fulfillment, but it won’t work. In other words, we have this constant itch within us that our man-made solutions (pleasure, money, power,) can never fully alleviate.
All human experience showcases that the pleasures of this world do not fulfill us. If all the treasures of the world did make us happy, then it would follow that those who have more money and thus, can experience a lot of man-made pleasures would be the happiest, most content, most fulfilled people on earth. However, as a Columbia University study indicates those people who come from higher incomes have a higher rate of depression and suicide. Anecdotally, this study is consistent with other research that outlines that richer countries have a higher depression and suicide rate than poorer countries. As Blaise Pascal says, “If man were happy the less diversions he had the happier he would be. But, is not a man happy who finds delight in his diversions.” What Pascal is suggesting is notice these diversions or "stuff" we buy never make us happier. Indeed, this perpetual wanting in our culture without finding ultimate gratification takes its toll on people.
Therefore, there exists in us a desire, which no amount of money, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy. However, the beauty is that God hard-wired our earthly desires in us as a clue to point to Himself as the fulfillment of these deepest longings. CS Lewis wrote extensively that our human yearnings that are satisfied on earth are like a pointing finger to our ultimate desire that is only completed with God in heaven. As Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,
"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling desires to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but to arouse it, to suggest the real thing."
These earthly desires that we attempt to fulfill don’t ultimately complete us. Rather these earthly desires constantly nudge us to look beyond this finite world and towards the infinite realm of God. John Paul II indicated that God put these earthly desires (sex, food, relationships, etc.) here precisely so they will draw us closer to Him – much like clues pulling people towards the ultimate answer. Therefore, all these smaller desires must point to the supreme yearning for humanity – pure happiness and contentment when all desires will be satisfied. As Augustine famously wrote, "Our hearts are restless until they rest with thee, oh God."
So, we all have what Springsteen calls a "hungry heart." But instead of looking to God to cash in on our hungry heat, we cash it in on the "stuff" in this world in which we think we can find happiness for 3 easy payments of $49.99. As a result of trying to cash in our hungry heart in the so-called pleasures of the world, we experience Mick Jagger's words in which he "can't get no satisfaction" (and he tries and tries, and tries, but still can't get no satisfaction). In this pop culture setting, there endures a constant tension because we are taking our yearning for something infinite (God) and plugging it up with a finite solution (sex, money, power, pleasure). At this stage, we are caught in an endless trap. Here, lies the dilemma of modern man.
For example, we have desires like food and sex and we temporarily satisfy this craving by having food and having sex. But, the desire pops back up stronger to communicate to us that we aren't fully satisfied. The problem arises now because instead of viewing the desire as a signpost leading us to the larger desire of infinite happiness with God, we try to solve this internal wanting within with earthly solutions. As we keep plugging up the desire (food and sex) with the pop culture’s solution (have more food and sex) we become more frustrated because the pop culture's solution never satisfies the craving. This is not pointing us to the solution it is merely demonstrating the problem! So, we are caught in an endless cycle. We are looking for earthly things to fill the heavenly hole in our soul. And it doesn’t work.
Let’s look at two of the most important and popular of these human desires, namely, food and sex. These two cravings are necessary for the existence of all of humanity. Without food, a person would die. Without sexual reproduction, the human race would die off. So, in themselves, these desires are needed for human life to thrive. Besides food and sex being the required ingredients for life, they also illicit pleasure through taste buds in food and the nerve endings of the reproductive organs in sex. But, the problem surfaces when we take this desire out of its natural end or purpose. For example, when food goes from something used for our survival to now something used to focus on the pleasure of our taste buds a major problem occurs - overweight/obesity. Also, when sex goes from to create life now to create pleasure, a similar breakdown will occur. (To see the psychological and consequently the physical problems of the hook-up culture see here here here here here here )
Notice the desire of food and sex goes from being life focused to now being pleasure focused. This dramatic switch would be as problematic as taking a car from its natural environment – being on the road, to now being placed in the water. Anytime you take a thing be it a desire or a machine out of its intended environment a problem will occur just as sure as night follows day.
To see the relationship of our desires, earthly pleasures, and God imagine that you are on a journey to your ultimate destination - heaven. All these pleasures of the world (surfing, food, sex, the mountains, etc.) are embedded in the sign that points us to our final destination in which the totality of our yearnings are satisfied in heaven. Just like when we reach a sign that points to our destination we naturally enjoy the sign. Last summer, my family went on a long car ride to Northern Michigan. Of course, we stopped to enjoy the "Welcome to Pure Michigan" sign at the border. We took pictures by the sign and hung out by the sign for a while. But, you'll notice we didn't stay focused only on the sign. Eventually, we got back in the car and drive beyond the sign to go to the destination the sign pointed us to - Northern MI.
All the pleasures of this world are many little icons that are meant to be a pointing finger to God. But when we direct our desire for heaven towards the icon, the icon of heaven then becomes an idol. What a sad state we live in today as many people have turned the sign (food, sex, music, the beauty of nature) as their supreme destination. Today the sign is now a God-substitute. But behind every God-substitute is the desire for the real God that has gotten misdirected.
A real life example of the beauty of creation as a sign pointing to God is the popular video on YouTube known as "The Double Rainbow Guy". It was posted about 8 years ago and has over 45 million views. In the video, a guy is in complete awe and wonder at witnessing a double rainbow to the point you think he's on drugs. He was on all the talk shows and repeatedly told people that he wasn't high when he was filming. For our purposes, we can say that this guy was bowled over by the sign that pointed to God - a rainbow. But, notice a couple times in the video he said, "Oh, my God!" "What does it mean?" In other words, instead of stopping at the sign and worshiping the sign, he delighted in the sign, but then did what any seeker of faith should do - he looked beyond the sign towards God in his "oh, my God," and "what does this mean" statement. In this sense, yes he was in awe of the sign, but he eventually got in his car to seek out that which the sign points to - God.
So yes, Catholicism says eating is a great delight of earth. However, the Church asks what you do with this great pleasure is the key question. Do you look beyond this pleasure to its ultimate fulfillment, or do you obsess over it? For example, I love Italian food. At the end of a good Italian meal, I am actually sad. I’m sad because it is over. Now, in my sadness, I have 3 options of how to respond.
- Pretend I’m not sad. In this, I repress my desires in what is going on in my heart. This is the life of a stoic, or the religious philosophy of purantanism or some fundamental denominations that instruct people to repress their desires.
- In my sadness, I can go back for more and more food hoping that this will satisfy me. But, in this scenario, I’ll be sad when this “more” food is over too. So, I’ll keep going back for more. At this point, I'll become addicted and stuffed. This is where most people are when they're attached to the messages of the pop culture.
- This is the Catholic option – become an aspiring mystic and read beyond to what that food or pleasure points to and head that way.
God gave us a taste of Italian food and all other earthly pleasures to be a little glimmer, a sign, an appetizer of heaven. In other words, look at these small enjoyments of the world (food, sex, music, nature) and ask where did it come from and what is it’s purpose? Catholicism doesn’t treat nakedness and human sexuality as bad. Have you ever read the book of Song of Songs in the Bible? It's an erotic love poem of a bride waiting for her husband-to-be. Have you ever seen the paintings on the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican? They are all nude paintings. The Church teaches that human sexuality is sacred – which is why the full human is displayed in the Vatican as a body and soul unity whereas playboy nudity sees the human person as a body only – thus as an object to be used for pleasure.
Therefore, under the Catholic perspective food and sex are good. But, if you obsess and worship food and sex, you’ve taken it out of its natural context. Jesus line, "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life" (John 6:27) can be interpreted don't worship food, instead worship what it points to - the Eucharist. However, human obsession with food and sex has twisted it as instead of being a pointing finger or sign to God, we are now worshiping the sign. But if you are permanently fixated at the sign what is going to happen? You’ll completely miss your destination. You’ll miss where this sign is pointing you to go. The very thing of virtue (food and sex) can be an occasion of sin. It all hinges on whether we treat the desire as a sign or as a god.
That sadness after eating Italian food is an indication that I am made for a heavenly feast that never ends and never makes me stuffed. We notice a lot of passages that talk about consuming the word of God through eating (see John 6: 32-58, Matthew 26:26, Ezekiel 3: 1-3, Psalm 34:8, Revelation 3:20, 10:9-10) and coming closer to God through a great banquet meal (see Exodus 12:8, 11, 24: 11, Isaiah 7:7, 25: 6-9, 55:2-3, Psalm 23:5 Proverbs 9:5, Luke 14: 16-18). Not only do we need food for our physical existence, we yearn for a tasteful banquet to take us beyond the physical meal but to a spiritual feast in which our soul is satisfied. All this imagery of eating food is supposed to represent this spiritual reality where we are spiritually complete much like I am physically satisfied at an Italian restaurant.
Coming back to the couple looking up at the stars we now see that they both have something in common. The beauty of the starlit night and the sexual attraction of male and female were created by God as a wonderful sign to point to Him. And once the couple knows this they can redirect their attraction of each other towards God and look forward to creating a family together in which they too become 3 in 1 - just like God is 3 in 1 (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). So, next time you feel your desires pulling at you from inside, ask what does it mean. You'll then begin to see the yearning within as the sign that points to something greater.