Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Apocalypse: A Love Story

Apocalypse. Yes, it’s a strong word that for most people might bring to mind images of burned out buildings, empty streets, and the dark underbellies of storm clouds ribbed with flashes of lightning. Dirty little remnants of humanity lie huddled in farmhouses or patches of woods while zombies and armed zealots roam the cities with torches, turning over cars, punishing and pillaging anyone in their path. That’s pretty intense stuff, and might even remind you of the aftermath of the equally intense election this week in America. But it doesn’t quite capture the original meaning of the word apocalypse. It’s actually born from the Greek word “apokaluptein” which means to uncover, or reveal.

Now about that election. The recent shift in leadership in our country is certainly having apocalyptic effects, in this more ancient sense of the word. Much has been uncovered, and revealed: lots of raw emotions have simmered to the surface. As such, this rising is potentially good, for as Pope Francis recently said in his Joy of Love exhortation (directed to married couples, but we’ll direct it to all here) “Desires, feelings, emotions, what the ancients called ‘the passions’, all have an important place in (life). They are awakened whenever ‘another’ becomes present and part of a person’s life. It is characteristic of all living beings to reach out to other things, and this tendency always has basic affective signs: pleasure or pain, joy or sadness, tenderness or fear. They ground the most elementary psychological activity. Human beings live on this earth, and all that they do and seek is fraught with passion.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of Love, 143)

Now the bigger question is, what do we do with this passion? Eros, the Greek for passion, at its deepest level, is that “inner power that ‘attracts’ man to the true, the good, and the beautiful.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 47:5) But we’ve seen some pretty violent passion this week that’s neither good nor beautiful, from burning flags and effigies, to shouting hate and writing obscenities on walls and monuments, t-shirts and placards. But in the wise words of St. John Paul II, if man stops here at an undisciplined passion, he “does not experience that fullness of ‘eros,’ which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good, and beautiful…” (TOB 48:1) St. John Paul II when on to propose that when a person can set their passion “into the whole of the spirit’s deepest energies, it can also become a creative force; in this case, however, it must undergo a radical transformation” (TOB 39:2).

It has become abundantly and “apocalyptically” revealed that America is a land of passionate people. At the heart of this passion is a desire for something good; a desire for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in the words of our Declaration of Independence. This is our story, our history, and it is in the truest and deepest sense a love story. I believe that’s what this American “Apocalypse” is uncovering, and revealing, and purifying in us all. Our call to love our neighbor as ourselves. It brings to mind the passage from Luke 2:34-35, if I might tweak a few words, “Behold, this (election) is destined for the fall and rise of many in (America), and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” At the heart of every one of us lies this question, “Do I love my neighbor?” Do I even know them?

I suggest then that we allow this piercing of our hearts to uncover our deepest feelings, our passions and that we go deep within, with Christ, back to our roots, back to this simple and yet multifaceted question of love. We the people are called to this depth, so that our life and our loves can rise to the heights. And to those inalienable rights we hold to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and each are deserving first of our love and kindness.

Here are a few things I’ll be implementing in the coming years as the leadership shifts in these United States of America:
1. I will rekindle my love for this beautiful country, from sea to shining sea. I will celebrate the wonderful, dazzling natural diversity of these 50 states, celebrating the gift of it all in every season and teaching my children to do so as well. I will love this land without exploitation.

2. I will rekindle my love for every person I encounter, face to face, allowing a race, color and creed that is different from my own to teach me, to reveal to me the beauty of the human heart in its search for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I will love my neighbor without qualification.

3. I will deepen my prayer for our leaders, national and local, political and ecclesial, not succumbing to bitterness or cynicism but to becoming better and more respectful of the office despite any deficiency in their actions. “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

4. I will rededicate myself to becoming the best husband and father I can be, knowing that when I am right with God, my wife and my children in this most basic project of the family, that power is released into the wider world. “When things go well between man and woman, the world and history also go well.” (Pope Francis)

I pray you have a blessed Apocalypse, and may God bless America!

Thursday, September 15, 2016


(This post is just a little sampling of Bill’s upcoming TOB Congress talk entitled “The Beautiful Mess of the Family”)

The altar bells had rung, drawing our eyes to the moment of consecration. Their pristine tones reverberated throughout the stone nave of our parish church where the silent faithful gathered to receive the Bread of Heaven. For a moment, even our pew, nestled full of our four children (ages 7, 5, 3, and 8 months) with my beautiful wife, was uncommonly still; hushed as if by the unseen wind of angels coming to adore the King of Kings Who even now was descending upon the altar. Then, at the exact moment of the elevation of the sacred host and the powerful proclamation of those words that have traversed the globe and keep the earth spinning on its axis now for 2000 years, “This is My Body…,” my five year old whispered in my ear, “I have to go potty.”

Talk about a convergence of cosmic proportions! A psychosomatic synchronicity of the human and the divine! Now some might call this a distraction from the highpoint of the Mass. But for those who know the wondrous ramifications of a study of the theology of the body, this was in fact an attraction for me to ponder the mind-boggling kenosis of Christ in His Incarnation! Yes, I’m serious.
This is my body…. I have to go potty.

As we fumbled out of the pew, past the other siblings, and the smiling older couple who shared our row (smiling, for they knew all too well this trek to the latrine after raising their own kids), I pondered the humility of the Most High God. He Who is Eternally Three did in fact in His body have to go number one. Now I don’t mean to sound in any way disrespectful or irreverent, and I fully realize that this all too human activity is one that we all exercise in private. But what struck me in that Mass, in that simultaneous instant of the bread becoming His Sacred Body and my daughter needing to relieve hers, was just that. How human it was. How humbling. And none of this was beneath Him Who made the stars in all their splendor. This daily ritual of ours was also routine for Him. He took it upon himself, the fullness of our humanity. Every part of it. The humility of our God here is truly staggering.

Throughout the Church’s history, men and women have grappled with the greatness of the mystery of the hypostatic union – the Divine Person of Christ having two natures. Many have overemphasized his divinity at the expense of his humanity, ending with overly spiritualized images of Jesus. Some in fact were heretical, gnostic notions like him never leaving footprints when he walked, or not blinking… ever. See the gnostic text Acts of John for those ghostly thoughts. According to the gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, the real Jesus didn’t die on the cross but hovered over it laughing at those thinking he was dying below (By the way, these gnostic – meaning secret knowledge – texts came centuries after the true gospels and only used the Apostle’s names to give authenticity to their claims).

These superhuman (or we might say inhuman) images of Jesus however do linger even in the most faithful of hearts to this day. How many of us still find it hard to imagine that he laughed out loud, ate spicy food, drank wine, relieved himself, had an occasionally scruffy and tangled beard, and certainly smelled after a hard day’s work under that Nazarene sun? But he did. Jesus most certainly did, or our faith in the Incarnation is in vain!

Our adorable Savior had a certain odor all his own. A unique pattern of freckles on his tanned and muscular forearms. A fingerprint that was and is forever only his. Jesus had a distinct color in the iris of his eyes. He had to trim his fingernails. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, walking his fields and taking in the fragrance of the flowers he made, I’m certain he occasionally sneezed. And sneezed in a way unique to him, just as we all do!

We shall one day behold all of these idiosyncrasies of the Incarnate Word. And he will gaze upon ours, and we will gaze for all eternity upon each others. All of us and each of us in this beautiful mess of the human family. What wonders! And all of this became my meditation that day in the middle of Mass, as I stumbled back into the pew with my little one, and nestled into the midst of the rest of our family. Wait, did we wash our hands?

Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016



A wonderful article appeared in the Federalist this past December by D.C. McAllister titled “How To Stop Sexualizing Everything.” It tapped into the schizophrenic character of our modern age, particularly in American culture, that surrounds our expressions of intimacy. Essentially, she posited, we either fearfully avoid touch and intimacy as it might be misread as a sin or a sexual advance, or we completely give in, and all that we touch is tinged with sexual undertones and innuendos. McAllister notes “The effect of these two warring attitudes – Puritanism and sexualization – has had a distorting effect on friendship. On the one hand, people don’t feel free to show emotions. On the other, when they do, those feelings are sexualized.”

A recent BBC documentary called “The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II” perfectly illustrates this distorted dichotomy. For decades, St. John Paul II held a well known relationship with Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish philosopher who was an expert in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The pope’s shared interest in Husserl’s phenomenology allowed the two to form a friendship over the years (albeit, not without its difficult moments – see George Weigel’s excellent article on that backstory here: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/431359/pope-john-paul-ii-letters-women-celibacy). She was a married woman with three children, living in America. He, at the time they met, was a Cardinal in the Church. Their correspondence lasted well into old age.
Journalist Ed Stourton, who crafted the documentary, proposes that the decades long relationship was somehow, for at least one of the parties involved, romantic. His claims are “substantiated” by Emeritus Professor Eamon Duffy of the University of Cambridge, who states in the interview, “Clearly there’s an element of playing with fire when you’ve got a strongly heterosexual man and an attractive woman in a very intense relationship that is cultivated and which engages mind at a high level of intensity. There’s danger everywhere.”

This thought that a male and female friendship simply by its very nature is “dangerous” is given further credence in the remarks of someone Stourton refers to as a “trainee priest” (My research revealed that a “trainee priest” is also known as a seminarian). John Cornwell apparently attended seminary from 1953 to 1958. He states that back then “The perception was that even if you had a close association of friendship with the woman, this could be what was known as an occasion of sin and an occasion of sin was as bad as if you’d actually done it.” This sad (and completely incorrect) articulation of what sin consists of is followed by another interviewee who states that their “training meant most priests would have been wary of such a close relationship. The most natural reaction would have been for him to terminate contact.”

Ironically, the language in this interview reveals to viewers and readers of this breaking story the deepest scandal of all, which has nothing to do with St. John Paul II. It is the scandal that all too many men and women today are incapable of imagining an intimate relationship that does not somehow involve some sort of sexually romantic overtone.

In truth, the Church has a long history of examples of men and women who have formed intimate and affectionate relationships that did not involve sexual relations. They were known as friendships (this is a wonderful word we should restore to the modern lexicon). In fact, St. John Paul II had numerous friendships with women that lasted decades and included letters, phone calls, shared meals, and walks together. The BBC footage seems to imply that this particular relationship with Dr. Tymieniecka was isolated and the meetings exclusive. But the fact is, they were not. St. John Paul II was a magnanimous figure who loved people deeply, and was rather transparent about his friendships. He was also prudent, meeting men and women together for those private meals and taking vacations with friends or families together. In the image of St. John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka standing beside a car, one should realize a third person took the photo. I imagine it was her husband.
Letter from JPII
Now regarding the correspondence, here is an excerpt from a letter:
“I know you have complete confidence in my affection; I have no doubt about this and delight in the thought. I want you to know and to believe that I have an intense and very special desire to serve you with all of my strength. It would be impossible for me to explain either the quality or the greatness of this desire that I have to be at your service, but I can tell you that I believe it is from God, and for that reason, I cherish it and every day see it growing and increasing remarkably… God has given me to you; so consider me as yours in Him, call me whenever you like…”
I’m sorry, I tricked you just there. This was actually an exchange between St. Francis de Sales to St. Jane de Chantal, dated June 24, 1604. After the death of her husband, St. Francis served as her spiritual director for years, giving her counsel in forming a new religious community. (I don’t have access to an extended quote from St. John Paul II’s letters to Dr. Tymieniecka, and would prefer not to cherry pick one out at this point as the BBC interview did.)

Regardless, here is an intimate note, man to woman, celibate man to widowed mother. How did you feel in reading that exchange? Did it make you uncomfortable? Were you shocked? Did you feel it was inappropriate? I know it really struck me personally when I first read it. I found it to be astoundingly beautiful, and I felt duped and double-crossed by this hyper-sexualized culture we live in because I too felt a little manipulated as it were to see romance when I read those words holding such fervent love. But who has the larger issue here? Who needs a little restoration of that original vision we’ve been called to?

The examples of chaste and simultaneously fervent love go on, nonetheless, and in each we are challenged to see others first as “occasions of grace” rather than “occasions of sin.” By this grace, in the words of St. John Paul II “we come to an ever greater awareness of the gratuitous beauty of the human body, of masculinity and femininity. This gratuitous beauty becomes a light for our actions….”

Over a two year period that lead up to her own early death, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and a seminarian named Maurice would exchange 21 letters in total. He wrote 11 and the Little Flower wrote 10. For both of these holy souls, the letters reveal a love that was fully human and completely chaste. St. Thérèse wrote in one note: “In your letter of the 14th you made my heart tremble with joy. I understand better than ever how much your soul is the sister of my own, since it is called to lift itself up to God by the ELEVATOR of love and not to climb the hard stairway of fear….” Later, as he was about to be sent on mission, she wrote “When my dear little brother leaves for Africa, I shall follow him not only in thought and in prayer; my soul will be with him forever. …”

Let’s look at another intimate exchange, now between men, from over 1600 years ago: “…To talk and jest together, to do kind offices by turns; to read together honied books; to play the fool or be earnest together… (to) long for the absent with impatience; and welcome the coming with joy. These and the like expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those that loved and were loved again, by the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were so much fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make but one. This is it that is loved in friends…”

That was St. Augustine, taken from his own intimate and perennially modern autobiography “Confessions” (Chapter 8, section 13), written between 397 and 400 AD. For modern ears, this level of intimacy between men can only be seen as some kind of closet homosexuality. The same minds, tinged again by a culture inundated by sexual allusion and innuendo in all things, even place a gay frame around the relationship between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18:1,3. “As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

We have become, in the words of St. John Paul II himself, “masters of suspicion,” incapable of seeing how human interactions could ever rise above mere sexual gratification and appropriation.
This is nothing new. During the beatification process for Padre Pio, in 1990, the case was blocked after a stash of letters were revealed that the holy Franciscan had written to his spiritual daughter, as he called her, Cleonice Morcaldi. He had met her around 1930. when she was a child, orphaned from both parents. St. Padre Pio had promised her dying mother he would take care of her like a daughter. Some investigators however felt the letters to be too affectionate.

Man and woman. This is holy ground. This is sacred ground, and in this place we are called to a deep self-mastery, and a healthy recognition of our own hearts and where we stand in the ability to truly see one another. I have placed several links to resources below and encourage readers to go further, to pray more deeply about this lost art of friendship, of holy friendship. It must be rekindled. It will take work and prayer and much patience, especially in this present darkness. But with grace we can reclaim a beautiful gift, and our vision of one another can indeed be restored. It is a hope within reach. It is our inheritance and a promise too. “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins.” (CCC, 2336) I’ll close with a wonderful and deeply personal word from St. John Paul II, originally signed on February 8, 1994 but was not printed until 2006:
“God has given me many people, both young and old, boys and girls, fathers and mothers, widows, the healthy and the sick. Always, when he gave them to me, he also tasked me with them, and now I see that I could easily write a separate book about each of them—and each biography would ultimately be on the disinterested gift man always is for the other. Among them were the uneducated, for instance factory workers; there were also students, university professors, doctors and lawyers, and finally priests and the consecrated religious. Of course, they included both men and women. A long road led me to discover the genius of woman, and Providence itself saw to it that the time eventually came when I really recognized it and was even, as it were, dazzled by it.”
Saint John Paul the Great, Poet of the Divine Mysteries and Apostle of the Beauty of the Human Person, pray for us!


A Meditation on Givenness by St. John Paul II 

But I Have Called You Friends; Reflections on the Art of Christian Friendship by Mother Mary Francis

Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction (Classics of Western Spirituality (Paperback))

Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla

How to Stop Sexualizing Everything by D.C. McAllister

Bill DonaghyBill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Digital Contraception

I wonder if I should just stop there, with that phrase - "digital contraception" - attached to this image, and allow us time to ponder this picture?

In this crowd of "popearazzi", (if I might coin a phrase,) an older woman, face radiant like Moses on the mountain, gazes without obstruction on Pope Francis, who appears to be looking at her. She's not touching him but is clearly touched. The younger woman, hand actually grasping the Shepherd's hand, holds in her other hand a smartphone, through whose 3 x 5 screen she stares at a pixelated image of the actual man five feet away from her. Granted, she too is touched. Both are joyful and smiling, but there is something sociologically intriguing about this image. Which of these two is having an actual, personal encounter? A 'communion of persons' for only a fleeting moment?

I think we all know where this is going. And you may have strong feelings about it.

Some history. Facebook launched 11 years ago this year. YouTube is just 10, and Twitter is 9 years old. The first iPhone debuted only 8 years ago. What a decade it's been. The digital revolution is in full swing. A tsunami of smartphones brimming with social-sharing apps has washed over nearly every continent and seems to be omnipresent, popping up even in the most remote of Third World villages. It's important we talk about its effect on us as persons, called to interpersonal relationships. I hope to do this in a circumscribed manner. So let's shift gears for a few paragraphs and then we'll return to this pregnant phrase, pardon the pun, of "digital contraception."

Decades before the digital revolution, in fact, shortly after the sexual revolution of the late 60's, the Theology of the Body debuted. It's a biblical and philosophical reflection on the human person by St. John Paul II; a glorious life-giving vision of the potential of human love. It speaks of how our sexual complementarity as created by God is meant to be a fruitful sign, imaging the gratuitous gift-giving nature of God Himself, Who lavished on creation from the very beginning a design of communion and complementarity that, when embraced, is creative and efficacious on many levels. It's an extensive catechesis on the human person as imago dei, a being fully realized in relationship, in family, for God in His deepest essence, as St. John Paul II wrote, "is not a solitude. God is a family."
Those who have reflected upon this beautiful teaching of the Holy Father, who have opened their hearts, minds, and bodies to its life-giving truth, can certainly attest to this fruitfulness in their own lives. When one receives the teaching, which in essence is Christianity itself, the gospel "reloaded", then the walls come tumbling down. Illusions are blown away. Misconceptions about who God is and who we are get a proverbial facelift and our faith is lifted! One finally sees within one's masculinity or femininity, not a confused and solitary shuffling around for meaning and purpose that we must construe by ourselves, but a divine dance. A holy communion. A divine romance.

Circling back... Today, the life-giving joy that flows from living the theology of the body shines all the more brighter as we live and move and breathe in this increasingly suffocating, contraceptive culture. When I speak of contraception and of a contraceptive mentality in the present culture, it isn't merely the biological block. It isn't merely latex or a pill that is the issue. That exterior contraception is really the manifestation of a deeper interior contraception. An emotional contraception. A kind of spiritual contraception that holds back the heart and soul of one person from another. We see it everywhere. We struggle with it at multiple levels. In our frenetic activism we've failed as receivers. We've neglected to become that naked heart to the real and raw encounters of everyday life.

In his beautiful reflections on our common home, Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote "We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature." (Laudato Si, 44) Can we add our little gadgets to this list?
Pope Francis advised us that "the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life... a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything." (Laudato Si, 113)
These naked hearts, open to encounters with the real world of persons and signs and wonders often feel as though they are the person who escaped from Plato's dark cave of self-inverted shadows and they've seen the light. They return to the cave changed. They try to express what they've seen and heard and touched with their hands but everyone in the cave is touching screens. 

The walls of smartphones that we've seen in the photos and videos of the recent visit of Pope Francis are certainly not intrinsically evil, or even sinful, but they sure seem strange. In a certain sense, these phone walls can be just as much a block to the life-giving call of humanity to love as other forms of contraception. I think you all know what I'm talking about. You all have experienced it in your own lives, in restaurants, movie theaters, workplaces, sidewalks and even busy streets.
Dozens of times per day, people hold up a very thin wall in front of faces. A 3 x 5 screen that aids us remarkably in communicating with others, yet too often hinders the communion with the real flesh and blood right in front of us.

Again, Pope Francis' insights here are spot on. In the Joy of the Gospel, he wrote that some people "want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness." (Evangelii Guadium, 88)

During the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States, watching video and looking at photographs from the various places he went, I was struck again by this reality of "digital contraception". I fall into the same struggle, I wrestle as much I'm sure as anyone with the wonder of these little gadgets but it leaves me wondering. Many of us touch these screens so many more times a day then we touch other people's hands and little heads of children, and blades of grass and the bark of trees. Our touchscreens have left us out of touch with the very real world we've been placed in by God. I think we need once again to possess our possessions rather than have our possessions possess us. Let's all make a promise to be more present, to be more of that naked heart who can really receive the other person in front of us. For as C.S. Lewis once wrote,
"Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." 


Originally posted here for the TOB Institute

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Stumbling on the Way of Beauty

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
- Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
It was a signature grace for me to teach for the first time this summer a new elective course for the Institute; Theology of the Body and Art: The Way of Beauty. This was a five day head and heart immersion into the great transcendental that's synonymous for the God Who is Beauty. He, in His Trinitarian Splendor, first captivated me as a young man and drew me into this Way, through the sounds and scents of the pine woods and streams I'd walked in my youth, through the lives of the saints, the varied writings of authors like Thoreau, Plato, Chekov, Sheen, Lewis and Tolkien. He was singing to me in the music of Van Morrison, John Williams, Palestrina and Purcell. But above all He was drawing me in through the sacramental encounters with Christ in those sweet clouds of incense surrounding His Mystery in adoration.
I'd been longing to intentionally walk this Way of Beauty with others for decades, to shed light on its path and to reveal Beauty not as a decorative diversion but an essential need. Now, with the release of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I'd been given papal orders to do so.
Pope Francis wrote in Joy of the Gospel that "Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the 'way of beauty'... Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus..." (Evangelii Gaudium, 167). This way has been acknowledged and alluded to by every modern pope back to Blessed Paul VI, who said to artists at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart... unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world."
In teaching this course, however, in opening up this “school” of the contemplative gaze, of wonder and awe, of the listening heart before creation, I didn't quite realize that I’d be the one schooled the most. As it turns out, from the first pages of our meditations, pondering our own posture before Christ as either Martha or Mary, the overactive doer or the contemplative receiver, I discovered I was more the former. The whirlwind of work, the rollercoaster ride of family life, the splintered directions that social media (even when intentionally used) can take you on, all of these were taking a toll on my heart. Those first few days, those initial steps on the Way of Beauty course turned out to be a kind of detox.
So much more than gazing at beautiful paintings or sculpture, pondering poetry or story, this Way took us into the deep of our relationship with Beauty Himself. It asked the question "Is it enough for me to simply sit at His feet, or do I feel that incessant urge to be busy and anxious about 'many things'?" We moderns too often are distracted by the glitz and glam of gossip or the latest gadgetry, as our fingers nimbly flip through our newsfeeds on our smartphones like hands in a bowl of popcorn. Is there ever enough? With all that is happening in our present culture in the realm of faith and marriage and family life, there is so much work to be done! And yet, our good shepherd, St. John Paul II, was advising us (me) to stop.
“Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing’. We must resist this temptation by trying ‘to be’ before trying ‘to do’. In this regard we should recall how Jesus reproved Martha: ‘You are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 15).
Beauty, we learned, is arresting. It holds you still, draws you in, heart first, through the senses, and then Beauty wants to teach you something invaluable. Something essential, which is at the same time deeply disquieting; you are not necessary. You, and I, and this entire world in all of its varied intoxicating glory, is an extravagance, a superfluity. We don’t have to exist. We are gift.
The pure gratuitousness of the world can be a stumbling block for our pride. As we pondered in the course, it can even lead some (perhaps too full of a misdirected sense of their own importance) to despair. Sartre said in one of his works "If man is terrified at the bosom of Nature, it is because he feels trapped in a huge amorphous and gratuitous existence which penetrates him completely with its gratuitousness: he has no place anywhere, he is just put on earth, aimless, without any reason to be there, like a briarbush or a clump of grass." (Sartre, Jean-Paul, Baudelaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1947)
In our utilitarian age, where things only have worth if they have a use, beauty can not stand. The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote “Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy... what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” (Leisure, The Basis of Culture). But when one discovers that at the heart of the universe, of God's plan for creation is this paradigm of pure gift, then this truth is a liberation. The conclusion is, I don’t have to own, grasp, take, clutch at life, at goods, at others as if they are essentials who define me. I also don’t have to save the world, fix everything, establish my worth or my existence through something I have done or accomplished! There is only one thing necessary, one thing essential; our openness to Him. And He is Gift. And He has made me to be gift, and to see all as gift.
Since teaching (and taking) this course, I have stepped back into the Way of the Busy, the maelstrom of modern life. But honestly, something has changed. I’ve caught the fragrance of the Beautiful; I’ve literally stopped to smell the roses, and discovered that this seemingly wasteful act is in fact the entire point. The tyranny of the immediate has loosened its grip. The tentacles of technology have receded into the shadows, as I begin to take a bit more ownerhip of my time and leisure. 
I still stumble, but I am learning to keep my head up and heart open. One of the lessons learned is that this Way of Beauty is above all an invitation. If one accepts, they are taken by the hand into a quiet place. It's a place where one sits still, allowing the senses to slowly engage the reality that surrounds the heart. If one refuses, they quickly fill their senses with the busyness of the day, or with experiences that might please the senses, though only at the level of the senses. The quiet place is the better part. The place where rich veins of inspiration are tapped, revealed, and pour into us with the water of His rejuvenating grace.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.” (Mishkan T’filah, prayer book).
If we've stumbled on our way, allowed our gaze to fall into a nest of distractions, come, let us rise up. The Way is always present, this door is always open.
This reflection first appeared at TOBinstitute.org 
 BILL DONAGHY has been hounded by beauty since he first heard John Williams’ score for Star Wars in 1977. He works as an international speaker & curriculum specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute, where he has been hard at work developing the Institute's new elective course on Theology of the Body & Art: The Way of Beauty, beginning June 21, 2015.  A husband, father, sinner & lover of bacon; Bill cannot pass by the glimmering glance of beauty without a gaze in wonder and awe. Consequently he is late for work. A lot.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Graphene and the Gift of Self

Graphene is the thinnest, strongest material known to man, and was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004. Imagine what incredible things could be accomplished with this material! Stronger bridges, buildings, even lightweight but virtually indestructible rooftops for the poor and vulnerable in third world countries who are susceptible to mudslide or earthquake: the possibilities are endless! But according to Bill Gates and a band of scientists, Graphene could serve even a "nobler" purpose: contraception.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding the men that can harness the power of Graphene and morph it with latex condoms a cool $100,000. Dr. Papa Sow, a senior program officer on a HIV research team, said a "redesigned condom that overcomes inconvenience, fumbling or perceived loss of pleasure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty.”

A powerful weapon against poverty? Doesn't he mean against the fecundity of women and the life-giving potential gifted to every man? How about crafting us a weapon against lust, misogyny, adultery? How about a weapon that can aid in the quest of honor, virtue, purity of heart?

As a good friend of mine always says, “The best form of birth control is self control.” The visionary Dr. Sow seems to envision man as some kind of animal, incapable of self-mastery, who needs the unbreakable power of graphene to shield him from his own weakness when it comes to the sexual act. He continues… "If this project is successful, we might have [an everyday] use which will literally touch our everyday life in the most intimate way."

Intimate? Yes. Nothing says "I love you and want to be a total gift to you” like a barrier made of the thinnest, strongest material known to man, holding back what’s emblematic of his total gift of self; a man’s seed. 

In all actuality, the strongest material on earth is the heart filled with grace, ablaze with the virtue of purity, with eyes that can see the glory of God shining in the human body and calling that heart to freely and fully give of itself. That kind of self-awareness leads, as St. John Paul II writes, to a whole-hearted self-giving in which man is “reconciled with his natural greatness.” The weakness at the center of a contraceptive mentality is the fearful heart that shrinks from the wild adventure of life, of total giving, of children, of love and responsibility. Only the strong-hearted, united to Christ, can build a unbreakable and saintly civilization of life and love. And that is worth more than $100,000. It’s truly priceless!

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

- C.S. Lewis

Originally posted at TOBinstitute.org

Friday, April 24, 2015

Jesus, the X-Men, and My Boyhood Dream of Flying

Flowing from the unprecedented joy and awe inspired by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in this still ongoing Easter season of the Church, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the five reasons why I believe Jesus was one of the original X-Men (If you are not familiar with the cultural phenomenon of the X-Men via graphic novel and blockbuster Marvel films over the last decade concerning people born with special powers, welcome aboard. It’s fun fantasy that I’m about to argue has roots in reality.) I will then proceed to ponder briefly the awesomeness of Reason #1, which we eagerly await to witness at the close of this Easter season; that is, his ascension into Heaven.

So, the five reasons why Jesus was one of the original X-Men…

1. He could fly. 
2. He could pass through walls. 
3. He could read your thoughts. 
4. He could miraculously heal himself (and others). 
5. He could change the molecular makeup of stuff into other stuff (water, wine)

Let’s spend the remainder of this reflection focusing on my personal favorite. Flying. When I was a kid I wanted to fly. I'm pretty sure I’m not alone in that desire. I think everybody has a deep-seated longing for the freedom of the birds, the freedom to simply lift off, float, ascend, sail away. From the Greek myth of Icarus to Leonardo's sketches of flying machines, to the Superman and X-Men modern mythologies, human beings have never been completely content as muddy-shoed bipeds.


When I first saw Superman in 1978, I wanted to fly like crazy. When I saw E.T. and watched Elliot and his alien friend cruise over the heads of those mean grown ups on his dirt-bike, my eyes were like saucers. I dreamt about flying across the moon on my sweet Huffy Pro-Thunder BMX Bandit with the star rims for weeks! Where am I going with this one? Excellent question! Give me a moment. I'd like to leave the cap off on this one for awhile; open, like the sky itself. I suppose there’s a part of me that doesn't want to bring closure to these youthful dreams. Adults are good at putting lids on things, limitations, caps and ceilings. “Now be realistic son. Get your head out of the clouds!” But isn’t that exactly where we last saw Jesus? And the clouds are the very place he said he’d come back through to take us home? C.S. Lewis once spoke about our desires in his powerful apologetic work Mere Christianity; “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” If we but give ourselves a moment to reflect on the wonderful, glorious theology of our bodies, we too will feel this longing for flight, for freedom, for a trajectory that takes us straight into the heavens! Body and soul.

Consider this: Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven, Mary was assumed body and soul. There are even stories of saints on this side of the eschaton levitating... sailing up to the rafters of a Church after receiving Communion, or even hearing the names of Jesus and Mary!

Why is our culture filled at the moment with so many movies about super heroes or supernatural beings that have amazing powers, from Spiderman to the X-Men, Superman to the Avengers? We give them the gifts we wish we had!

The animals don't dream like this! They’re satisfied with their lot. But we, made in the image of the Divine, are never satisfied. The truth revealed here is this; the animals are home, we are not… yet. In a certain sense, it's our home away from home. More accurately, we're exiled. The stuff of eternity is in us, and earth can't contain it.

Now I'm not saying we should try and fly, or levitate for that matter. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the Church's greatest "superheroines" (aka mystics), once hinted that she would rather have one normal experience to a thousand mystical experiences any day. She thought it too distracting for others I suppose, and the gift of her mystical experiences became a burden when people came for the show rather than for Jesus. That's humility!

Where did that power come from anyway? Not pride in their own skills, but from the LOVE they received deep into their very bones, their very DNA. The power lies in the theology of our bodies, written within as gift, and it fills us up like helium. Flight is not something we can master or muster at our own command. Love is free, and love is the fuel that gets us off the earth and into our eternal destiny!

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
- 1 John 3:2

Let’s conclude with another thought from one of the greatest fantasy writers of his own generation, and one whose work still fires the imaginations of young and old today, C.S. Lewis:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves — that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can't. They tell us that "beauty born of murmuring sound" will pass into human face; but it won't. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


Originally posted on the Theology of the Body Institute blog: http://www.tobinstitute.org/2015/04/24/jesus-x-men-my-boyhood-dream-flying

Thursday, March 12, 2015

LUCY and the Longing of the Heart for More

I was a young boy in the 1970’s and 80’s, coming of age in the early days of the movie magic of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; of galaxies far, far away, of Close Encounters, and hidden mysteries, of Lost Arks and great adventures. I can honestly say my formation and invitation into wonder and transcendence was assisted, however imperfectly, by the films of my youth. St. John Paul II once wrote in 1998 that movies are "the mirror of the human soul in its constant search for God, often unknowingly. With special effects and remarkable images, it can explore the human universe in depth. It is able to depict life and its mystery in images. And when it reaches the heights of poetry, unifying and harmonizing various art forms — from literature to scenic portrayal, to music and acting — it can become a source of inner wonder and profound meditation." I love movies! And I love St. John Paul II.

But let's be honest, as much as a film can form, or even transform the viewer, so it can also deform. There are the obvious movies that are simply full of explosions or exploitations of the beauty of human sexuality (or both). These films cheapen the human person, leaving their darkened images to cloud our thoughts like gnats incessantly buzzing about, and those images aren’t easily brushed away. But there are also the more subtle scripts whose ideas not only carry an impure vision of the human person but a deeply twisted one. With that in mind, let’s look at the recent release of the Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman movie “LUCY."

It’s premise is one I've always been fascinated by; accessing the full potential of the human brain. It’s an idea present in movies like the 1995 Sean Patrick Flanery sleeper “Powder”, the 1996 John Travolta film "Phenomenon", the more recent piece starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper called "Limitless” (2011), and in a more tangential way, last year’s “Transcendence” starring Johnny Depp. I’m fascinated with the idea because the speculative theologian in me has always imagined that the “unused” 90% of our brains might be due to the Fall in Eden. We’ve been promised that the full potential of the human person will be unlocked for us in Heaven. Perhaps there we’ll enjoy the full spectrum of light and of sound, of the deep knowledge of the physical universe and of a thousand other gifts that God wanted preternatural man to have in imaging His own beauty? After all, St. Irenaeus wrote “The glory of God is man fully alive.” LUCY, however, sees a far more impersonal eschaton. Prepare yourself for spoiler alerts.

Against her will, Lucy becomes a “drug mule" who transports a highly unstable new drug that can unlock the brain’s potential. Through a series of painful encounters, the pouch within her is punctured and the drug released into her blood stream. Lucy then frees herself from her captors and begins a whirlwind ride as her “unused” brain matter is exponentially actualized, even as her captors are in hot pursuit of their “stolen” goods. 

There are plenty of explosions, narrow escapes, speculative science jargon and even touching moments to make this film engaging. I was moved the most by Lucy’s phone call to her mother. Her brain power is climbing, 20%, 30%, 40%, as she sees her life and health (due to the drug) unravelling, she reveals a “knowledge” that no one before could possibly access, and it's done so tenderly. "Mom? … I feel everything... The heat leaving my body. The blood in my veins… The pain in my mouth when I had braces. I… I can remember the feeling of your hand on my forehead when I ran a fever… I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth. The room, the liquid... I just want to tell you that I love you, mom, and dad… I want to thank you for the thousand kisses that I can still feel on my face. I love you, Mom."

This for me was a climactic moment in LUCY. It revealed a fullness of humanity in the dimension of relationship. This is ultimately why we are here; for communion! In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote that “the core of all being, the inmost secret of all reality, is the divine communion.” (Lumen Fidei, 45) Human love here below is the gateway, the primer, the first steps we take to enter that communion!

But alas, the materialistic philosophy of the writers of LUCY stops short of such sublime communion. Instead, the more Lucy’s brain matter is actualized, the less human she becomes. Her communion is only with matter, not spirit, not the depth of other people or of the Divine, but only their DNA. She knows every atom, but she doesn’t know Adam. Lucy becomes increasingly stoic, vapid, almost as expressionless as a computer screen. In the end, this is exactly what she becomes; a disembodied cloud of consciousness who can “access” everything and yet touch no one. As Lucy sees herself slipping away she kisses a police officer, telling him she does this so she “won’t forget.” As a last ditch act of selfless heroism, we see Lucy wanting to give all of the “information" her brain has tapped into for the benefit of science. To take on this noble task, there is the ever popular Morgan Freeman, playing the role of Professor Norman. The dehumanizing philosophy of the LUCY film than reveals itself in a dialogue between them:

Lucy: "I don't feel pain. Fear. Desire. It's like all things that make us human are fading away. It's like the less human I feel... all this knowledge about everything; quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell's nucleus. They're all exploding inside my brain, all this knowledge. I don't know what to do with it."

Professor Norman: "You know… if you think about the very nature of life. I mean, from the very beginning. The development of the first cell divided into two cells. This whole purpose of life has been to pass on what was learned. There is no higher purpose. So, if you're asking me what to do with all this knowledge you're accumulating, I'd say, pass it on. Just like any simple cell going through time."

No higher purpose? Aquinas once posited the question of the hierarchy of knowledge over love. He reasoned that the knowledge of a thing gave us a power over it; hypothetically our knowledge could give us a power over the whole universe. But love, he saw, was our greatest “power." Love is that true evolution that is, as Chesterton wrote, a revolution. It allows us, not to possess, but to be possessed. Pope Benedict once wrote that "Love is the very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity... into an infinite otherness."

Our perennial lust for material knowledge can never satisfy the human longing for intimacy, the kind of knowledge that is in fact deeply spiritual. This contemporary craving for a disembodied life detached from the “limitations” of our earthly existence, is in reality a fear; a fear of love. Perhaps a fear of our own fragile humanity. But what appears to be weakness or a limitation is in fact our greatest gift; just think of the naked, crucified Christ, who is perfect love poured out for each of us! Films like LUCY and philosophies like that of the transhumanists posit the idea that we are deeply flawed in our bodies; that our “biological package” needs an upgrade. The transhumanist website humanityplus.org envisions a world that affords us "the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology…" (Max More 1990, www.humanityplus.org) But the path to true human flourishing, and the full actualization of the human mind must never be at the expense of the heart, or of the integrity of the whole human person. These ideas show us a twisted hunger for the kind of fuller knowledge that once shimmered in Eden, when the first man and woman could "see each other even more fully and distinctly than through the sense of sight itself... they see and know each other with all the peace of the interior gaze.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 13:1) This is the knowledge that leads to love, which is the “innate and fundamental vocation of every human being.” (St. John Paul II, Familiars Consortio, 11)

May we who have been given the beautiful integrated vision of the human person in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body shine a light on this ache for true knowledge, and lead modern man and woman back home to themselves. 

Lucy: "I want to thank you for the thousand kisses that I can still feel on my face. I love you, Mom."
Lucy's Mother: "I love you too, sweetie. More than anything in the world."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

GUEST POST: A Woman's View of 50 Shades of Grey

On 50 Shades of Grey
By: T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson

I've been thinking a lot about the 50 Shades of Grey issues ever since the book came out in 2012. People started buying it up—the more “prudish” reading it on Kindles so as to obscure the cover, and the brazen ones flaunting it on the beach and the subway; book clubs all over the country featured it as their choice of discussion material (even on the heels of the likes of Reading Lolita in Tehran), and the phrase “mommy porn” was used to describe the controversial book.  Now with the release of the movie (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), I have the same reaction that I had three years ago, when the book, whose storyline turns around what used to be a taboo, marginalized sex fetish, a “whips and chains” obsession of fringey weirdos, suddenly took mainstream culture by storm: WHY?

My first reaction to reading the (TERRIBLY written) book, which I read to see what all the fuss was about was, "this isn’t sex—this is abuse!" It's not just power and powerlessness, but abuse and torture that's being softened and packaged to women as something not just acceptable, but desirable-- something we should expose our most precious and vulnerable selves to in the name of pleasure. What the heck?

I know the whole fetish community and the people who practice BDSM have been around a long time. And it’s not the first time it’s made its appearance in mainstream or popular culture.  Those of you who are around my age (40something) may remember in the 90s when mainstream fashion adopted the multi-strap "Dominatrix"-style dress and high boots. The look was "supposed" to be "sexy" and "dangerous"-- but we just kind of wore it and didn't think twice that it looked like we were tied up in those dresses and bound in those shoes because, I think, it wasn't thrown in our faces as something we regular people should/could/might consider a legitimate sexual turn-on. It was “just fashion.” Maybe as a feminist, one could study those clothes in the 90s and say, well, they corresponded to a moment when women were actually gaining a lot of power in the workforce and the world as decisionmakers and policymakers, and the fashion industry (run by men, both gay and straight) wanted to rein them in in some way, making them dress in chokers and strappy black garments. But that’s a reach for the general population who just liked the thought of wearing 10 black straps and stiletto knee-high boots and didn’t think about being bound and whipped because they were wearing a choker (come on, I know some of you out there wore black ribbon chokers—did you want to be tied up and beaten during sex?). In fact, speaking of the 90s, I remember people used to use “S and M” terminology to describe people who unnecessarily brought pain upon themselves (why are you working so much—are you some kind of a sadist?) or mean people (don’t tolerate that masochistic boss who makes you work 15 hours a day!).

So now, with the 50 Shades series and movie and this whole "mommy porn," mainstream accessibility to what used to be a sort of sick view and practice of sex and sexuality, I am personally horrified.  Why aren’t more of us speaking out? Aren’t you angry? Here’s why I refuse to see the film and why I think more figures with a little influence in society need to get angry and speak up. 
Women have fought for centuries, millennia, not only to be recognized in society, but to be treated with respect. Throughout history, women who were held captive as sex slaves, forced to be confined in palaces, sold as property or forced to work as prostitutes are the most extreme examples of what we have fought against, but also, women who wrote poetry or wanted to be healers or who wanted a say in whom they would marry or a say in the law of their land, or in what jurisdiction we have over our own livelihoods and bodies and sexuality, or those of us who just wanted to be able to go to work and use our gifts without harassment from the men in the office, or from families, who may have encouraged marriage over education, have all been held captive in some way, victimized and bullied and sometimes even abused by a male-dominated society. And society’s norms have embraced this gender dynamic because when people are put in specific boxes, the powerful aren’t threatened when they have control over the powerless. In the past century, women have finally fought our way into society, and now I feel that mostly, we are beginning to be able to look at gender relations as less of a power play and more of a give and take-- women have fought for and taken opportunities to do amazing things in the world—with the freedom to choose their path in life, and in many developed countries, they have a say politics and business and a right to education. 

Furthermore, the international community has frequently rallied behind women who are still tortured in the form of sex trafficking and FGM; many individuals, governments and organizations have begun to address the inequalities that still exist in the world (though of course, there is still work to do) and most of our community and world leaders have said no to torture and abuse and sexual power dynamics. 

And finally...finally, it seems the beauty and power and gifts women have to offer (in addition to—and in some cases, especially childbearing) are recognized and honored in the developed world, and in the developing world, women are still fighting to get there because they know they don't deserve to be beaten down (physically or otherwise). They are not the second-class beings.

SO...this is one reason why 50 Shades and the mainstream complacency over not just the popularity of the book or the release of the movie—but the availability of bondage-themed sex “toys” in TARGET, of all places, disturbs me. Because after all of this...our society-- and WOMEN in our society-- embrace a book and film that tells us we don't really want to be in control of our bodies, ourselves and our lives. . What we really want as women is to be controlled and dominated-- not just in the bedroom, but in all aspects of our life, because being a thinking woman or an independent woman in the modern world is “too hard” and it’s “against our nature.”  Those of you who are familiar with the book will recall that in addition to his particular interests in the bedroom, Christian Grey is a control freak who doesn’t want to be vulnerable—so he won’t allow himself to be touched, and he starts controlling her entire life, down to the clothes she wears and the details of her life, and Anastasia is no longer her educated, intelligent self. In fact, she is consumed by his demands. And she feels “special” because he lavishes his attention on her—maybe the same way women will gravitate toward the “bad boy” and feel special when they win the guy over. There’s a bizarre sense of power tied up in that (pun intended).  

Sexual domination and abuse packaged in a way that makes BDSM seem sexy and desirable because it's "taboo" and "dangerous" is, I think, enticing for a lot of women who have not realized their own beauty or power because they feel they are "just a mom" or they are married to men who have given up on the relationship (because, in my humble opinion, of the ready availability of cheap, quick porn and standards of "beauty" that NO real woman could ever aspire to). Perhaps the way 50 Shades is packaged is supposed to appeal to the woman who "really" wants to be dominated by a man because she doesn't know what to do with herself in society-- the pressure of "thinking" and "performing" in a "man's world" is too much-- so naturally, she wants a man to put her in her place, to dominate and hurt her, and this is supposed to be a fantasy for all of us who have fought so hard to get out of the possibility of domestic violence or degradation or trapped in marriages we never wanted but were arranged by our fathers and husbands. The fantasy or escape aspect is supposed to be exciting to people who have been told all their lives to play by the rules and keep things safe. I suppose the book allows women to escape to this place, where things would probably never happen to them, but vicariously, they can experience the attraction to danger. But it is, in fact, danger, and pain—not beauty and intimacy-- so if what women “want” is to feel pain and danger during sex, how, then, can we know rape is absolutely wrong but see a “gray (grey) area” in sexual domination that uses force and pain to bring “pleasure”—and, worse yet, put it out there to mass market consumers? Is this acceptable because Christian Grey shows some concern for her and asks her if she’s ok once in a while? 

Grey’s dangerous "red room of pain" gives women who are desperate to feel a vicarious way to experience sensation-- even if it's imagined pain-- because they have lost sight of their own power.  And we as a culture have lost sight of the intimacy of sex and have made it a game, a sport, a pursuit-- and not just for men. "Everyone" has casual sex, and the Friday and Saturday night Tinder booty call is alive and well in bars all over the country (yes, some single people use this app to meet people -- but I recently read that married people use it "just for fun"-- as a drinking game and a way to “safely window shop”).

So what is the solution? I think maybe a little more vocal outpouring from religious organizations about the beauty of women's strength will help. For people who aren't religious, I think more groups-- not just feminists (because people will say, oh, it's those feminists again) need to address this.  Why is Hollywood making this movie? It's going to make money because people are going to pay to see it. Where are the female actors who have used awards ceremonies as a podium for advocating women’s voices and women’s rights now? Why are they not speaking out against the message this book/movie sends? And my biggest fear-- has our mainstream culture become so numb to this that we really aren't horrified?

If a woman was taken hostage by someone and bound and whipped and made to believe that she liked it, we would respond with outrage. Why are we supposed to be watching this for entertainment? We are no better than countries in which women are stoned in public, then, for sexual misconduct, or kept under lock and key. We are embracing that which we despise. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, he describes the souls in hell in this manner:  “their dread turns wish; they yearn for what they fear”—and then Dante is so frightened and horrified by this that he faints. 

In our wonderful country, we have the freedom to say what we want, to write what we want, to read what we want, to view what we want. And the erotica genre has been around a long time. Anais Nin and Henry Miller were both writers of erotica, and their books were banned for scatological passages. I am not suggesting we go on a censorship tear; rather, I think the accessibility and easy acceptance of BDSM as mainstream entertainment is symptomatic of other forces at work. This is about love and sex and the beauty of sexuality, which is being lost. It’s also about gender politics. It fundamentally cuts women-- and men-- to the core, and just because it’s out there and “softly” packaged so that it’s mainstream culture-friendly instead of on a fetish porn site or an adult store doesn’t mean we have to support it. Financial support is our greatest tool as a free-market culture. Without demand, the supply dwindles. What if we could raise enough awareness and make enough noise that we could prevent more of this sort of material from dominating mainstream culture (or at least keep it out of family-oriented stores like Target, for heaven’s sake!)? 

And if we really want to be bold… what if we looked at our culture and, even in our own lives, tried to make a small difference in uplifting both men and women, by fighting against not only the most blatant abuse and domination and sexual politics but also the micro-aggressions that slowly chip away at the self-worth and sense of beauty of those around us? Would 50 Shades be so entertaining then?  


T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson has a BA in Political Science 
and Italian Studies from Rosemont College, an MA in 
English Literature from Rosemont College and an MFA 
in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. 
She is a published poet and writer and teaches English 
at Malvern Preparatory School.