Thursday 21st February 2019

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Holy Bashfulness Vs. Shame By ALICE von HILDEBRAND

June 21, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

My dear young friend,

Years ago, Cardinal O’Boyle was discussing some sexual matters with a group of men; all of a sudden the cardinal noticed that a young girl had joined the group, and interrupting his talk, he said to her: “Please excuse me.”
But he was immediately rudely rebuked by one of the men present who snapped: “It is clear that you consider sex to be dirty.”
This remark inspired my next topic. We all know that nineteenth-century England was puritanical to the core. This attitude was deeply rooted in British society, starting with Queen Victoria and reaching to middle or low-class citizens. It was the predominant climate of the time.
The gist of it was that sex was considered to be “shocking,” something which good taste prevented one from mentioning; it was improper to do so because, basically, it was something to be ashamed of, something that human persons share with animals.
The twentieth century (which Chesterton calls the century of uncommon nonsense), under the leadership and inspiration of Freud, reacted to puritanism with a vengeance, and today to discuss sexual matters on talk shows, in books and magazines, in the classroom, in public places, in the living room, is not only highly acceptable, but a matter of course. We are now comfortable with the fact that we are trousered apes and that animals’ behavior can give us valid norms for our own conduct.
This view has serious metaphysical consequences. For the biblical teaching according to which man was made in God’s image and likeness is now put “in the closet” (most children never hear this fact mentioned in religion classes), and evolution has replaced the divine teaching. The moral consequences of this “scientific” discovery are easy to foresee: For if man descends from apes, it follows that instincts which we share with them should be given their “birthright” which is “full public display.”
Footnote: If I were ever to discover that I have some blue blood in my veins, I would certainly find ways and means of relating this information to my students, or to my friends. It would flatter my vanity. Now let us assume that evolution had an unshakable scientific foundation, and that we should therefore all bow to the fact that we descend from apes. I would then personally see no reason to exalt over this discovery, and proudly spread this “great news” all over our society. The satisfaction that people evince in claiming that we are just animals with a more developed brain, definitely calls for psychoanalysis.
But to go back to my topic: My late husband used to say: “Truth is not between two errors; it is above them.” Applied to our topic, it means that the right attitude toward the sexual mystery is not to be found in a via media: It can only be found above these two aberrations.
In our society, Puritans are a dying species (and if there are some left, they had better keep a low profile, for fear of being forced to go to counseling). I do not deplore this fact, for they were and are wrong in viewing sex as something low, dirty, “unmentionable,” degrading to man’s dignity. Nevertheless, they had to grant that sex played a role in human life, and exercised a strong appeal upon humans; moreover, it was indispensable for procreation. To the Puritan, the best thing — the only thing — that can be done is to keep it hidden under a thick veil of shame. Shame is indeed the proper response to what is ugly.
If we are caught red-handed stealing, we would feel shame, and possibly blush, because it is shameful to steal. When we have an ugly wound, we cover it, because we know its sight is disgusting to others. We also feel shame when we are performing some unaesthetic act which is meant to be done privately, and suddenly, someone comes in and sees us.
But have you noticed that we seem to give an identical response when someone intrudes in our bedroom, and finds us on our knees, praying? In such a case, we immediately get up and try to divert the other person’s attention by some innocuous remark. Obviously, even though the response looks like “shame,” it is essentially different: We shall call it — following my husband’s terminology — “holy bashfulness.”
There are things which we hide because they are base and ugly; there are things we hide because they are personal, intimate, and beautiful. In both cases, we blush, but we can blush because we are ashamed, or because we feel “holy bashfulness.”
How tempting it is to confuse these two attitudes. But as soon as we focus on the question a bit more deeply, we see once again that we are dealing with radically different phenomena. In the first case, we hide, because evil thrives under the protection of darkness; in the second case we hide because, as St. Therese of Lisieux, referring to the soul’s sublime relation with God, writes, “We should not reveal the secrets of the King.” (Manuscript B, p. 220).
What is base and repugnant calls for a cover; whereas what is personal, intimate, and sacred calls for a veil. (By the way, this is the reason why women used to be veiled in church; far from being a sign of their inferiority, it simply indicated that women have a deep relationship to the sacred.)
It was a grave error to see sex as something dirty that man shares with animals; in some way, it was an insult to the Creator who has made us “male and female,” to His image and likeness. One of the striking differences between men and animals is precisely their relationship to sex (when its meaning is properly understood).
But the tragedy is that this mystery has been defiled by original sin, and this is why Adam and Eve — after sinning — discovered that they were naked, felt ashamed and covered themselves with fig leaves. They felt shame because through their sin, they had become prey to concupiscence — a temptation unknown to them before the fall when the relationship between our first parents was based on reverence.
Concupiscence has a degrading effect on the human soul because it sees in other persons an object capable of satisfying a physical urge. Shame was the proper response to this degradation. This tragic bent was going to play havoc in sexual human relationships.
But the biblical teaching, culminating in the teaching of our Lord and Savior, aims at saving man from sin, and reinstates the original beauty of the divine plan. This is why marriage has been elevated to the dignity of a sacrament. This is why — thanks to Revelation and grace — we can appreciate the beauty, depth, mystery, and loving intimacy of the sexual union.
Granted that we have succeeded in eliminating Puritanism, I fear that we have fallen into another error — just as grave if not graver — and we now see sex as plain, good fun, as a pure instinct which triggers intense pleasure, as something healthy, soothing to “one’s nerves.”
The mystery, depth, and greatness of the sexual sphere is then totally obliterated, as every sin brings about its own punishment (St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 12). This degradation of the sexual sphere can easily lead to promiscuity which, in its turn, leads to boredom and then possibly to drugs which give one still more of a “high.”
Most revealing is the remark made by Professor Bloom in his famous book, The Closing of the American Mind: He overheard a young girl telling her friend that she had just lost what Shakespeare called “the precious jewel of her virginity,” and making the terse comment: “It was no big deal.” How tragically sad. Sin promises so much, and does not only not give when it promises, but both degrades and blinds the sinner and ruins the legitimate joy that God has put in its nature.
I hope that you now see the chasm separating shame from holy bashfulness: They are so easily confused and are so radically different.
It is my hope that these remarks will be helpful to you at the beginning of your beautiful and perilous voyage through human life. They are communicated with lots of love for you and for all the dear young people who — like Dante at the beginning of The Divine Comedy — “have lost the straight way” (Inferno, I, 3).

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