Thursday, February 1, 2007

Thomas Moore's Loves of the Angels and Christian Sexual Ethics

Photo by Ruth L

Point your browser in the direction of a free copy of Thomas Moore's The Loves of the Angels, which as far as I can tell is in the public domain.

According to a few sources, such as The Catholic Encyclopedia, Moore's beautiful poem was a scandal when it first came out, but so it goes.

In yesterday's post, we discussed the issue of chastity, which should be the goal of our personal sexual lives and the goal of sexual education. Today, we are discussing how to form the conscience on this subject. That brings me back around to Ireland's greatest poet.

Some time ago, inspired by C. S. Lewis's suggestion that fourteen-year-old boys read Spencer's The Faerie Queene to develop a healthy sexuality, I put together a list of books I thought could bring about a similar effect, including Paradise Lost, Solomon's Song of Songs, Bone, and I'd like to be able to add Acorna: The Unicorn Girl, but Anne McCaffrey, unfortunately, seems unfamiliar with chastity.

Some Catholics to whom I showed the list were cool on the idea, preferring more practical and didactic texts like Pope John Paul II's The Theology of the Body. But that's the whole point. My list was not intended for the uninitiated. After all, any of the works I just named could be read as pornography--but they can also be read, and should be read, as poetic and potent depictions of chaste love. Granted, some of them are imperfect; the same ideas that moved Milton to describe the love of Adam and Eve also earned him the nickname, "the Divorcer." Nonetheless, I believe anyone who has a developed understanding of the Church's teaching on sexuality could find these texts useful.

C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce features a character with a nasty lizard on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. The lizard represents lust. After some arguing, the man allows an angel to kill the lizard. Interestingly, the lizard doesn't simply die, but morphs into a beautiful horse that carries the man into Heaven. This has probably puzzled a number of Lewis's readers, but he has hit on something profound, something that lies at the heart of Catholic sexual ethics: The sexual impulse is good. Lust is a perversion of that good. The antidote to distorted sexuality is not no sexuality but rightly ordered sexuality. I believe the works named here may serve as great tools to the person struggling with (rather than indulging in) lust; if he flies to these books, he will see human sexuality at its finest. His lust will ebb, for what his lust demands will be shown to be too poor a substitute.

Moore's poem is a whimsy based on 1 Enoch about angels falling in love with human women, and therefore, along with the other titles mentioned except Song of Songs, classifies as fantasy. Yet a heavy strain of purity underlies even the sin in this poem. Observe:

Sweet was the hour, though dearly won,
And pure, as aught of earth could be,
For then first did the glorious sun
Before religion's altar see
Two hearts in wedlock's golden tie
Self-pledg'd, in love to live and die--
Then first did woman's virgin brow
That hymeneal chaplet wear,
Which when it dies, no second vow
Can bid a new one bloom out there--
Blest union! by that Angel wove,
And worthy from such hands to come;
Safe, sole asylum, in which Love,
When fall'n or exil'd from above,
In this dark world can find a home.

Ah. In a world where sex is used to advertise everything from skin cream to snow tires, Moore's words come like a blast of fresh air. It's also better poetry than we've seen in English for a while.
blog comments powered by Disqus