At the beginning of another journey through Great Lent, I would like to offer this review of a book I recently finished. Please forgive and pray for me a sinner, and may our good God have mercy on us and forgive us all. Veliki Post! Kali Tessarakosti! Blessed Lenten journey to you all!
Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”C. S. Lewis’ demon Screwtape
A better description of our current culture’s infatuation with sex and the diminishing returns of unfettered promiscuity has never been so well put. And now with the publication of her most recent spiritual memoir, award-winning author Carolyn Weber describes how to reorder these disordered pleasures and loves in line with what St. Augustine called the City of God. In Sex and the City of God (SCG), Caro (as her close friends call her) provides a personal and powerful roadmap through a variety of sexual temptations including idolization of the beloved, casual hookups with friends, and one of the most devastating of all temptations, adultery. With a sharp wit and creative literary inspiration, this English professor narrates the details of her own love life and illumines all of her various relationships with the eternal truths of Scripture and the Holy Fathers.
In her first memoir Surprised by Oxford, Weber tells the tale of how a committed feminist and agnostic could come to one of the world’s oldest universities and find faith in Jesus Christ. SCG completes this story by describing how a new Christian might relate the teachings of Christ to her old loves, her old friends, and her new life. Throughout SCG, her broken, but healing relationship with her father provides unexpected ballast in her desire for purity and righteousness.
In one scene, she struggles with idolizing a past lover and former fiancé and reconciling that past love with her new-found faith. Her deep honesty keeps her from being self-righteous or triumphalistic:
“I forced myself not to look at the undone zipper of his pants with a cynical air. Irritated beyond belief, or perhaps irritated back into it now, I bolstered myself, inwardly preparing for what all English majors will recognize as the Jane Eyre speech.
I adored Jane Eyre’s famous speech to Rochester, the one she gives when he wants her to be his mistress but she stands firm in her God-given dignity. No regular pre-suffrage lady’s speech. No swooning woman there. Three hurrahs for Jane!
Why then was I so modern and well, so Christian, now so wobbly-kneed and foggy-headed? Alas, however, try as I might, I couldn’t get my footing. The familiarity, the still being wanted, the, well, feeling… it all seemed so unfair! If I couldn’t muster Jesus, it seemed, at least I could muster Jane.”SCG, p. 25
In the end, she is saved not by her own will or great faith, but by the unexpected arrival of her father bearing gifts.
In another scene, a close acquaintance makes an unexpected appearance at her front door when she is alone and everyone else is stuck in a snowstorm. This very attractive “Marlboro man” sparks a moment that almost leads to a casual hook-up. What saves Caro from making that mistake is her growing knowledge and submission to the Word of God, and that submission leads to a surprisingly spiritual conversation that would not have been possible if she had given in to the temptation:
Our schools teach our children about using protection when having sex. But what about being protected from sex, or through sex? Such complete intimacy of a covenant within a covenant helps protect a marriage; it fosters a powerful bond as well as a certain kind of shell around two people, enclosing them in the safety of each other within the safety of their God, shielding them from the blows of a fallen world, sustaining them to do good battle together, to run a good race together. No wonder armor and amor depend on the “are” of where you are at.
Sitting there studying Edward’s silhouette against the wintered window, I also realized how obedience forms so many other layers of protection that we could never discern at the time of relying on faith. I could have really messed up things, not only for me, but more significantly, even for him. True love for a friend, let alone a beloved, looks to nurture the other’s faith walk as well. It seeks to protect.SCG, p. 87
My favorite scene occurs later in the book after she has married her Christian hero. He turns out to be human after all, and she struggles with her feelings about the marriage. Somehow she ends up walking past an old cabin in the woods where the sight of her former fiancé from a window leads to the seed of a thought of possible adultery. A phone text from a committed Christian friend keeps her from giving in:
I put the phone in my pocket and continued to watch the figure in the upper window through the brambles. I couldn’t make out if it was a man or a woman.
After more silence I felt the vibration again. My friend’s words glowed again, too: What are you doing now?
Unsure I tapped back: Standing here.
Thinking of knocking on the door.
Why? She asked.
Silence. More silence.
Just when I wondered if my phone had finally gone dead, it buzzed my palm. Two words , in caps, stared back at me: KEEP WALKING. A moment later the screen went dead.
Another glint caught my eye as I turned my phone over in my hand. The diamond on my ring finger reflected the faint sunlight, and despite all those years of making meals, doing laundry, and washing dishes, of cleaning and caretaking and creating, it still sparkled like, well, the Christmas star. I stared at it for a long time. Then, leaving the chalet door un-knocked, I turned around and entered the unnavigated woods by a different route, all the while soundlessly praying my way home.SCG, p. 191
In this season of Great Lent, our Lord invites all of us to pick up our cross, deny our sinful and disordered desires to achieve a glory that far outweighs all the pleasures of this world. May He who deigned to endure temptation as a man for all of humanity and our salvation give us strength to complete these 40 days and behold his glorious third day Resurrection!