THE BOILER IN THE BASEMENT

“...My house being now all stilled.”  It is remarkable how spontaneously and often the image of house recurs in the writings of the mystics; it is an image of the self.  Others pursue the image into greater detail: windows are eyes, the attic is the higher self, the hall door is the transition from private to public, and so on.  At the risk of being crude, may I suggest that the sexual instinct is the boiler in the basement!

First of all, God be heartily praised for that boiler: it warms the whole house and makes it a place of human habitation.  It often causes problems, true, but how chilly the house without it!  “Thank you for all your help,” said the young woman.  “It wasn't for you I did it,” replied the older one, “it was for the Lord!”  This frigid spirituality needs melting, needs singeing, needs licking with the recreative flames of Eros.  A warm firm handshake, a largeness of mind, an ability to sympathise with others: all are evidence of a flame of life burning quietly within the person, keeping feelings, intellect and will at human temperature. 

There has been a negative fascination with sex that leads to ruin in that very area.  Fascination, in the strict sense of that word, is a life and death matter: stoats and weasels are able to fascinate their victims, robbing them of the power of flight and attracting them, spell-bound, to the murderous tooth and claw.  The sexual instinct was lent this power principally by the teaching on ‘no parvity of matter’.  This was the teaching that even the littlest unlawful sexual pleasure was ‘grave matter’; in other words, if accompanied by ‘perfect knowledge and full consent’, it was mortally sinful.  Nothing like this was said of any other kind of immorality, not even violence or injustice, the deadliest enemies of “the Master’s whole teaching,” love.  It was the wrong kind of abyss, and it is not surprising that so many now, whether for or against it, are so fascinated and held by sex.

All the problems of the age come back to it in one way or another: marital breakdown, abortion, homosexuality, the war of the sexes, child-abuse, failure in celibacy.... Other ages agonised about the Trinity or the divinity of Christ or the place of icons in worship, killing and being killed for their beliefs; but our age has to come to terms with this one.  Blind fundamentalism will not serve; neither will self-indulgence; it will require all the wisdom we can find, and much more....

Perhaps we will find some fragments in Plato, who was not as other-worldly in this matter as he might seem; or at least we might find encouragement to move, rather than remain fixed in the heartless clarity of imperatives.  He regarded Eros as an education, because of its intense energy that needs gradual sublimation, and because it can raise a person above selfish interest.  Equally, of course, he knew that it can corrupt and destroy.  It is a terrible divinity, like fire: it can destroy or give life, it can consume or purify, but it does not paralyse.  How fluently we Christians speak about light, but how fearfully about this dangerous fire in the belly.  Light is comfortably outside us and we have it under control, it is safe and rational, it has every possible religious credential.  But fire is dangerous, it is able to challenge and (for better or worse) transform us out of recognition. 

God is not only light but fire.  The part of ourselves that we have often considered farthest from God is the very material of transformation.  Send down the Divine Fire: Veni Sancte Spiritus!  Bend the rigid, warm the frigid, straighten the askew!
            Flecte quod est rigidum,
            Fove quod est frigidum,
           
Rege quod est devium.

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.