Perhaps the most difficult chaper of Sr. Meg Funk's Thoughts Matter is her teaching "About Sex." Of the eight types of mental preoccupation that inhibit conscious contact with God, sexual thoughts are among the most pervasive, powerful and intractable. Like our desire for food and drink, the desire for sex is instinctual, natural, and basically good. But like food and drink, sex also can become compulsive and self-destructive when it exceeds its proper end and becomes unbalanced. It can be all the more powerful for operating often at an unconscious level.
"As with thought about food, my interior thoughts about sexual intimacy can dominate the whole of my consciousness. These thoughts freeze me in endless thinking. Not only can I not love God with my whole mind, body, and soul, but I cannot love anyone else either. My thoughts get turned back to myself over and over again. The loop goes nowhere and locks the ego to the self. If I am looking for a mate in each person who walks through the door,or if I am preoccupied with the thought of getting my sexual longings satisfied, spiritual awareness is dim. The interior life is about union with God and being in service to others. Sexual urges pull me back to self-reflexiveness. The ego is served, the self is dominant, and we are busy working for gain. Ultimately this kind of interior agenda is unsuitable for the spiritual life. The false self is shored up once again. Sex is good, but like food it can consume me rather than nourish my body, mind, and soul."
Sex is good, but powerful. It must be handled with care or it can overwhelm and even destroy us. The first step is to become conscious of our sexual thoughts and inclinations so that we can make decisions about them. Do we have sexual thoughts or do they "have" us? Awareness is the first step toward freedom in this aspect of our spiritual life.
Here we must come to terms with some basic issues. Clarity about one's heterosexual or homosexual orientation is important and can be discerned by "honestly facing the inner object of one's own fantasy." Then one must become clear about one's vocation or calling in life, and how sexuality is to be integrated into that lifestyle. Notice that the goal is not to suppress or deny our sexuality, but to make conscious choices about it in relationship to our chief end as human beings: unending communion with God through Christ.
Here a few distinctions are in order. Continence, refraining from sexual activity, is often dictated by life circumstances: a partner's death, extended illness, or pregnancy. It is a matter of refraining from sex for whatever reason. This can be helpful in getting clarity about our own sexual thoughts so that we can discern how we are called to integrate our sexuality into our life and ministry.
Celibacy is a monastic promise to remain continent, not because sex or sexual thoughts per se are bad, but in order to consciously sublimate them in service to the love of God and neighbor. This actually requires a sophisticated level of awareness and continuous turning-over to God of one's sexual thoughts. It is not a matter of sexual avoidance or suppression. The goal is chastity, or purity of heart with respect to sexual thoughts so that the mind is focused on God alone.
Marriage is a promise to be sexual exclusively with one other person. The path of sexual union then becomes a means of cultivating sexual awareness and practice in the service to the love of God and neighbor, beginning with the beloved and extending to a deeper capacity to love others as well. Sr. Meg, perhaps due to her own monastic promises, seems less clear about the spiritual practice, indeed the sacramentality, of sexual union. In fact, she implicitly treats it is a lesser spiritual state that we all outgrow eventually, analogous to the traditional Hindu practice of moving through the stages of student, householder (marriage), hermit (retired person), and ascetic. In the end, are we really all meant to be a monk or nun?
I would disagree with her that celibacy is necessarily the form of integrated sexuality most conducive to contemplative practice. The conjugal way, the practice of sexual union, can become an expression of self-giving love for the sake of the beloved rather than mere selfish gratification. It can become a symbol of our participation in the Paschal Mystery, the very mystery of God's self-giving in Christ for our sake. However, I think she is right that whether celibate, married, or single, gay or straight, it takes serious spiritual effort to integrate sexuality into our contemplation of God.
Perhaps Funk's best counsel is her recovery of the practical advice of the desert mothers and fathers for dealing with compulsive sexual thoughts. One consistent aspect of this counsel is a willingness to ask for help. We cannot make progress in this area by ourselves. Thus, we are admonished to pray God for help (most thoughts or feelings diminish in intensity after about 5 minutes), or to exercise, read, or engage in some other healthy endeavor with the intention of turning over troubling thoughts to God.
Funk also recalls the desert mothers and fathers' practice of exagoreusis or manifestation of thoughts to a trusted elder spiritual father or mother. "The monastic would manifest his interior thoughts in an external forum, to his abbot. No analysis. No storytelling. Just laying out the thought in a safe, sacred space: 'Dash your thought against a rock.' The abbot or an elder would listen with a discerning heart." Moreover, the trusted elder would offer a word that would break open one's heart and release the source of the compulsion. The point of the exercise is freedom.
"Chastity is heart work. One of the fruits of a chaste life is to be innocent. My soul is open and my heart is not divided. No secrets, no inner desires are kept from God or my spiritual director. No duplicity exists in me. I am naked to myself, to God (and to my spouse, if married) and what others see is what they can trust to be really so. The heart is at peace. The fruit of a chaste life is to seek God right now, right here because the self is wholly present. Awareness leads to insight and creative energy."