Monday, September 14, 2009

Rationalizing Sexual Sin

"You musn't grieve over this sin. It's not a great one. God's law is not the same as the law of the land in this matter. Gunnulv, my brother once explained it all to me. If two people agree to stand by each other for all eternity and then lie with each other, they are married before God and cannot break their vows without committing a great sin. I would tell you the word in Latin if I could remember it--I knew it once."

So says Erlend, comforting Kristin for giving up her maidenhood. The first line of defense when one commits a mortal sin, is to find some way to rationalize and downplay the gravity. We have committed to each other for all eternity. Yet Kristin has the sneaking suspicion that Erlend has used this rationalization before with someone else.

I love how Undset nails this argument, which is so typical as a specifically Christian line of defense. Reminds me of the John Donne poem, The Flea: "Where we almost, yea, more than married are." We are in a committed relationship, we're more in love than most married people, heck, we ARE married....Except we're not.

I'd love to point you all in the direction of this blog post at Halfway to Normal and see what you think, particularly about this quote from an ex-Catholic in the comments:

"I don’t see a need for abstinence from premarital sex–-unfortunately, many Christians seem to take the idea that an unmarried union cannot be fully committed. I think this may relate to the fact that they believe the ceremony itself instills the couple with a special “grace” or “blessing” that no unmarried couple can get from God. I highly disagree with that, but then again, I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. I think if you really think something fundamentally changes about your relationship when you have a Church ceremony, then you’ll be pro-abstinence. If you don’t, you won’t see the difference. But it’s extremely dangerous to think that the ceremony can fix or increase a commitment that’s broken or lacking before marriage. Please think about the message THAT sends to your children. Please think about the potential heartache when they find out it’s not true."---Genevieve Charet

As a parent, I feel like I tread a fine line in helping my kids avoid the painful fallout of sexual sin, while at the same time, preserving them from feelings of oppressive sexual shame--the kind of shame that causes disconnect between body and soul--where the right hand no longer sees what the left hand is doing.


Thoughts?

19 comments:

Melanie B said...

"I think this may relate to the fact that they believe the ceremony itself instills the couple with a special “grace” or “blessing” that no unmarried couple can get from God. I highly disagree with that, but then again, I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. I think if you really think something fundamentally changes about your relationship when you have a Church ceremony, then you’ll be pro-abstinence."

Well, yeah, I do believe that as a sacrament marriage imparts certain graces that just living together "in love" does not. At the same time I think she makes a good point that "it’s extremely dangerous to think that the ceremony can fix or increase a commitment that’s broken or lacking before marriage." In such cases the Church usually finds that in fact a sacramental marriage has not taken place, while there was a ceremony, one or the other party or both had an impediment that prevented the sacramental graces from entering in. In other words if you disinvite God he won't show up and if you aren't really committed it isn't really marriage.

It seems to me that as a parent what I want to instill in my children is not so much sexual shame-- that's more of a secondary effect rather than the primary lesson I want to impart. What I want them to have is an understanding of and a reverence for the sacrament of marriage and for the dignity of the body such that anything less than full sacramental marriage is seen for the sham that it is, hollow and ugly and beneath their dignity as Sons and Daughters of God. I want them to be more motivated by love and idealism than fear. Not that fear doesn't have a place or should be absent; but that it isn't the first and only line of defense.

Of course my oldest is only 3. Does that sound terribly naive or overly optimistic?

To go back to the novel, I've been thinking about how Kristen's sense of sexual sin might have been colored by her mother's overwhelming guilt for her own past.

I was really struck by this today: "God help you, Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter," said Sira Eirik, shaking his head. "You want nothing more from all your prayers and fasting than to force your will on God." Her mother is carrying a great burden of guilt and is stuck in the stage where she thinks she can bargain with God and if God wont do what she wants, she is willing to jettison all her religious beliefs to save Ulvhild. How does her mother's moral reasoning affect Kristen's choices? Combine this with Kristen's confusion about how good people can have different opinions: her parents differ from each other and from the priests. She's in a position where she doesn't have a clear moral authority to follow.

Betty Duffy said...

I think you make a good point about Kristin feeling somehow that she is special, and different from her parents with their somber piety--that they had never felt the passion that she feels for Erlend. She thinks her father might have wanted to laugh more than he did. She thinks her mother is a social failure. She does lack authority, which all combine to form her argument that her love for Erlend is some rare gift--even while she has occasional moments of recognition that it's a sham, and something he's had before with another woman.

"What I want them to have is an understanding of and a reverence for the sacrament of marriage and for the dignity of the body such that anything less than full sacramental marriage is seen for the sham that it is, hollow and ugly and beneath their dignity as Sons and Daughters of God."--I think Kristin knows this intuitively, but she ignores it. And I guess I don't think her experience is all that uncommon in Catholic circles.

I'm going to quote another comment from Charet for the sake of dialogue, because I think it applies to Kristin Lavransdatter:

"To say that you’re proud of your sexuality is to say that sexual urges are natural and good and are there for a reason. To maintain this and then to tell your children that consummating these urges outside marriage is disrespectful of the body and of other people is wildly confusing. Beliefs such as these may keep your children virgins through a number of superficial or fleeting romances. But once they are convinced they’ve found someone special, once they feel that they have a mutual, earth-shaking love, it will be hard for them to believe that anything they do to express love is hurtful, disrespectful, or wrong. They may not see how formal marriage vows would make a difference, especially if they’re in long-lasting relationships. I can’t say I blame them. Marriage or no marriage, sex can be used to hurt or heal, and people who hurt will do so with or without the use of sex. Being a virgin does not shield any of us from the wounds of bad love. Good, bad, or indifferent, the Church does overemphasize virginity, especially for young women (when was the last time you heard the tagline “virgin and martyr” used for a male saint?). When girls are virgins, they are taught to hold their heads high–when they fall, or show themselves to be imperfect, they inevitably then feel shame (there’s that word again), as if they’ve lost something that made them special, that they’ve given something away that should be mourned. Is it really better for our daughters to be virgins with egos or non-virgins with complexes than to feel that sex can have a place outside marriage? By overemphasizing sexuality teachings (to the extreme neglect of some others), the Church often sets girls up to feel shameful when they have acted against these teachings. This is sad enough, but perhaps not as disturbing as what follows: soon enough, girls get tired of feeling bad about themselves, say, “to hell with, I’m going to love myself anyway,” associate their bad feelings with the Church, and then LEAVE the faith entirely because it has never made them to feel good about the choices they make regarding loving others. How counterproductive."

It would be easy for me to chalk this up and say, "Here is someone who simply does not want to change their lives." But I think her point about sexual sin taking precedence over other sins IS a reason a lot of Catholics leave the CHurch. Kristin thinks her leave-taking from her faith and her family are temporary, that she'll put things in order later, once she has obtained Erlend for good. But she is prepared to leave the country and give them up forever if that's what it takes.

I guess I just think it's interesting that the road to hell, this choice to abandon God's will, comes in such a worthy (to Kristin) disguise.

Betty Duffy said...

Actually, I think the aforementioned Charet quote is another example of how people want to say, "You're not a perfect person, so why don't you just lay off my sex life." Kristin does this, when she looks around the convent to catch other people in their sins, their pride, their vanity, Brother Edvin's rage.

Betty Duffy said...

"Her mother is carrying a great burden of guilt and is stuck in the stage where she thinks she can bargain with God and if God wont do what she wants, she is willing to jettison all her religious beliefs to save Ulvhild. How does her mother's moral reasoning affect Kristen's choices?"

I just made the connection here between her mother's infidelity and Kristin's.

Gosh. See, this is what I was afraid of: It's always the mother's fault. But I guess I said as much when I implied that some people become pedophiles just because their mother, or someone in their past shamed them out of healthy expressions of their sexuality.

Melanie B said...

From tonight's evening prayer: If the Lord does not watch over the city in vain does the watchman keep vigil.

It seems to me the problem we're discussing is a matter of watchmen keeping vigil in vain because God's been left out of it. Shame and guilt eating people up because they weren't strong enough to stand guard and thus the city fell under their watch. But you know they failed because they never asked God for help in the first place. Does that make sense? I think I'm stretching for an analogy but it works in my head. Guilt and shame are only useful in the context of a faithful relationship with God. If God isn't watching over the city, then they are vain watchmen that protect no one.

It seems to me that the problem for Ragnfrid and Kristen is not their faith but the lack of faith. It's not that faith tells them that sexual sin is a sin but that they don't believe that God conquers sin.

Ragnfrid's faith is empty. It's really a thin veneer over a greater doubt and despair. Specifically a doubt in God's love and mercy and forgiveness.

Ragnfrid never forgives herself for her sin. She is certain she needs to fast more, perform more penance, to win God's favor. Whereas a deep faith would accept the forgiveness she receives in confession, perform her penance assigned by the priest and then move on with life, convinced that the slate truly has been wiped clean.

Instead Ragnfrid s stuck and sees everything bad, the deaths of her children especially, as punishment for her sin. She doesn't allow herself to love her husband and Kristen, to find joy in their company. Nope she has to punish herself and everyone else. That's how she wounds Kristen.

So in a way it is her fault but not exactly as you seem to mean. It's not the shame at the sin that's the problem but the lack of faith in forgiveness which would move her past the shame and restore her to health instead of dwelling in the guilt that eats her alive.

Kristen struggles with shame and guilt throughout the novel, with forgiving herself and with forgiving Erlend. The problem is not that their initial encounter was a "healthy expression of their sexuality" that they should not have been ashamed of. I don't think it was. It was a mistake and a big one. But not an unforgivable one. If only they could have acknowledged their guilt, admitted that it was a misstep and then moved on with their lives and forgiven each other, it wouldn't have haunted them so.

In the end, though, Kristen does learn to forgive Erlend and herself and that forgiveness allows room for real love and joy to spring up. Likewise you see when Ragnfrid allows herself to let up on her fast while she's nursing Ulvhild, the entire family is transformed by her joy. Imagine if she'd been able to let go of it altogether. But when hard times come and Ulvhild is injured Ragnfrid's faith is shown up as a sham. She doesn't believe in a God who heals and forgives. She doesn't believe in miracles or mercy. Instead she turns to Fru Aashild's magic. She tries to control God, to control nature.

Melanie B said...

Guilt and shame are only useful in as much as they impel us to throw ourselves upon God's mercy. As endpoints they are dead ends. So it seems that in the conversation about people who leave the Church because of its teaching about sexual sin those who want to say it's no sin to have sex outside of marriage always overlook the Church's teaching on confession, on the power of the cross to heal all wounds.

In him and through his blood we have been redeemed and our sins are forgiven so immeasurably generous is God's favor to us.

Sin doesn't have to haunt you all your life, to devour you from inside. The solution is not to jettison a sense of sin, as Charet and so many of the other commenters are trying to do but to inculcate a greater trust in God's mercy to forgive sins and to heal the wounds caused by sin.

That's what drives me nuts about Kristen and Erlend. I just want to yell at her: forgive him already! He's human, he made mistakes, so are you! It's that whole part of the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Kristen can't forgive Erlend and thus can't believe God will forgive her.

Melanie B said...

I guess I'd agree with Charet that perhaps there is an overemphasis of "sexuality teachings to the extreme neglect of some others" if you mean that there is an extreme neglect of teaching about the necessity for confession, about the reality of forgiveness and mercy. However, I don't think the solution is to step down teaching about sexual sin (because the culture is screaming that sexual sin is no sin) so much as re-emphasizing sin in general in the context of why we need confession.

I went to Catholic school for 8 years and came away with practically no knowledge about sin at all. I made my first confession and maybe went once more and then nada for 20 years. No one ever took me to confession as a ki. I guess my parents assumed the school was taking care of it and vice versa. I had no idea it is a mortal sin to receive communion with unconfessed sins. Not until a few years ago did I learn that one. Still struggle with getting to confession. With how to make a confession. With understanding what sin is. But at the same time I couldn't say that I was taught about sexual sin any more than any other sin. It was neglected just as much as all the others. Rather I think that sense of it being the one unforgivable sin is more the emphasis of the culture that rejects the notion of sin at all. It's not that the Church is hung up on sex but that those who reject the Church are hung up on sex.

Betty Duffy said...

"It seems to me the problem we're discussing is a matter of watchmen keeping vigil in vain because God's been left out of it. Shame and guilt eating people up because they weren't strong enough to stand guard and thus the city fell under their watch. But you know they failed because they never asked God for help in the first place.

It seems to me that the problem for Ragnfrid and Kristen is not their faith but the lack of faith. It's not that faith tells them that sexual sin is a sin but that they don't believe that God conquers sin.

Ragnfrid's faith is empty. It's really a thin veneer over a greater doubt and despair. Specifically a doubt in God's love and mercy and forgiveness."


YES! This is what I wanted someone to say over in those comments. The one commenter who tried to stand in defense of chastity received mob justice--but I think it's because he left this important point out of his argument.

You make such a good point about Confession, and it's one of the things I think makes Kristin's plight more difficult--the inaccessability of Confession. She tries to confess, but Brother Edvin is not allowed to hear her Confession. There are proper channels for a penitent to follow in Medieval Norway--and it seems to ensure that the penitence is sincere, but it also makes the task very daunting. It's no wonder there's so much unshriven sin in Undset's world.

"Guilt and shame are only useful in as much as they impel us to throw ourselves upon God's mercy. As endpoints they are dead ends. So it seems that in the conversation about people who leave the Church because of its teaching about sexual sin those who want to say it's no sin to have sex outside of marriage always overlook the Church's teaching on confession, on the power of the cross to heal all wounds."

This is a particularly Catholic perspective--and I'm with you--but without this grace, to what do people have recourse? I know God's grace is still available to penitents even without the Sacrament, but such a visible sign makes the grace somehow more palpable.

As concerns, "healthy expressions of sexuality"--I guess what I mean by healthy, is "normal" or "commonplace"--in that, it is the human condition, but not necessarily good. Kristin seems to think that her feelings for Erlend are unique, even Ragnfrid thinks her sin is so unique or bad that it can't be forgiven. It seems to be that feeling, that we are alone in our sin, and somehow unlovable because of it that makes them hide from God.

mrsdarwin said...

I think that this scene -- I won't call it a seduction scene, because I think Kristin is as much a player as Erlend -- is the precise reason that Kristin Lavransdatter must be read as a trilogy, rather than as individual novels. To see the results of this sexual sin play out over Kristin and Erlend's lifetime is to be struck by how corrosive and poisonous sin can be.

And this choice to sin makes it easier to choose sin again, until Kristin -- remember how pure and innocent she was as a child? -- is meeting Erlend at what's basically a brothel. The squalor of the external surroundings mirrors what their relationship has become at that point.

mrsdarwin said...

To clarify -- I think Kristin Lavransdatter must be read as a trilogy because I think this novel, by itself, though the consequences of this first sin are reflected in the rest of the book (note Kristin's bitterness by the time of the wedding), might give the naive reader the impression that "Well, look, it all worked out! They got what they wanted -- they're married now and can live happily ever after." Not so much. Not so much.

mrsdarwin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mrsdarwin said...

Sorry, double post there.

Melanie B said...

"but without this grace, to what do people have recourse?"

Honestly? Nothing. Which is the real problem, now isn't it? Once you've rejected the Church's power to forgive sins, clinging to the Church's teaching about sin is just too hard. So one protestant denomination after another loosens its teachings about pre-marital sex, divorce, contraception, abortion.... But about some things the guilt and shame linger. People know it isn't good for them; but don't know where to turn for help. I want to go over there and just tell them all: "just become Catholic and it will all make so much more sense."


Mrs D, I heartily agree with you about the need to read the entire trilogy. (Rather like reading only the Inferno and not Purgatorio and Paradiso, you just don't understand the poem.)

Emily J. said...

Wow, I just spent entirely too much time reading this and halfway to normal comments. Was just going to check email... but have to join the conversation and say a couple things that I'm afraid to comment over THERE, where I might be attacked, like poor Ryan, who became a straw man. Bravo, man, for being unpopular.

My book got mailed to my old address, so still relying on old memories. Melanie, glad you brought up the Dante connection, because if memory serves, this book is very much about hell, and the others about Kristin's working out her penance, then her final forgiveness and acceptance of her true vocation. Also love the comments about Ragnfried. A good example of how we can lay our problems on something else, and let bitterness shrink us, rather than asking, giving, and accepting forgiveness.

No time to say everything fomenting in response to these discussions, but wanted the catharsis of adding to the print spilled on the topic of sex. Question: doesn't the Church actually "rank" sexual sin, as a sin of passion, as venial? Because our head is not totally in the game? Whether premarital sex takes place under a cloud of literal intoxication or the intoxication of the bodily, breathy nearness of a desired other, it seems to me that you could claim a lack of cognizance and intention of the sin you were committing - until you commit it repeatedly and divorce the idea of self-gift from the act, so that it becomes gift to self. I ask because it seems people attribute so much guilt about sex to the Church, when the Church really says, hey, confess and do better. Then enjoy "good" sex (JP's message still not being heard by all). So Ragnfried and Kristen sin more deliberately when they refuse God's mercy. (Like Olav in Undset's other series - just confess and be done, sir!)

Could it be that the guilt about illicit sex is so strong because it is such a powerful physical and emotional statement that we feel guilty about the lie committed when sex takes place without vows? Like Erlend suggests, marriage is a sacrament bestowed by the receivers on each other through word and deed - even people who don't believe in sacraments feel the sense of consummation.

What I couldn't believe on the other post is that there are that many committed extramarital sexual relationships out there. What I've seen more of are relationships committed to because they became sexual - not because they were healthy relationships. Saw more hearts broken than strengthened by premarital sex. Do we have to learn by doing or can someone say, "Hey this can hurt people. Don't do it."?

Don't you want to ask the "sex with commitment is okay" crowd, if you are truly giving yourself 100%, why not get married? Because someone better might come along? Because you're still discovering yourself? (so not giving all...) Because you don't believe in marriage? I'm not sure I understand why people who argue about marriage being unnecessary to a healthy sexual, committed relationship, worry about marriage at all. Reject it and let those of us who care about the meaning of marriage engage in it. Have your civil contract if you desire (I know some purists would disagree), but don't redefine marriage. (I did like the comment about having support in the community for young marriages.)

Emily J. said...

pt 2 So then, should Kristen and Erland have waited to get married? Was it God's will that they marry? Or should Kristen have married Simon and she ignored God's will and has to do penance the rest of her life? I sometimes struggle with the idea of trying to discern God's will, because what if what we choose is not God's will? Should you then break God's law? Was it God's will that Kristen and Erlend get married? Or rather that they have a good marriage to whomever? (Something along the lines of what an uncle once told my husband: to worry less about what job God wanted him to do, and worry more about doing a good job at whatever he was doing.)

Caveat: Married young. Wonder sometimes why I didn't marry younger. Sometimes find marriage difficult. Sometimes find it joyous. Know it is a good path to sanctification because I'm getting humbled all the time and having to practice forgiveness a lot. Maybe someday I'll get better at it. Also at the age when I'm watching friends' and family members' marriages begin to crumble because of infidelity - not the fault of marrying young or having/not having premarital sex, but my guess is of loving self more than other, which is nearly impossible not to do without openness to grace.

mrsdarwin said...

Of course, Erlend immediately gives the lie to his whole "we're REALLY married, babe" rationalization. If they were really married, there wouldn't be this need for secrecy and the clandestine and eventually sordid meetings. Being married is much more than being able to have sex when you want (and it's not always that). They aren't willing to take on the public duties and responsibilities of a married couple.

In that sense I guess it is a seduction. I think that Kristin was more honest than Erlend -- she would have happily left the convent and started a public life with Erlend, regardless of the social approbation. Erlend, having done that once before, wasn't so ready to repeat the cycle, though he has his lines down pat.

Question: do you think that this book would be a good resource when trying to teach teenagers about the importance of saving sex for marriage?

Emily J. said...

Mrs. D - definitely a good resource! Good idea. My mother, a labor and delivery nurse, taught us more about waiting for marriage by telling us horror stories of teenagers having babies, sucking their thumbs, crying for mama, than any pious books. With a 12 yr old at home, we're having to address these issues. Hard! I keep making my husband do it. Biggest discussion was when a babysitter got pregnant. (sex=pregnancy has been our message so far. Maybe a message missing from that other blog.)

Melanie B said...

Emily,

"What I've seen more of are relationships committed to because they became sexual - not because they were healthy relationships. Saw more hearts broken than strengthened by premarital sex."

Oy isn't that true! I've known too many women who knew the relationship they were in was wrong but they just couldn't break it off and it was clear that what was really keeping them together was a combination of the fear of being alone and the bond that the sexual relationship creates. I think had they not been sleeping together the women would have been much, much more capable of just walking away.

Mrs. D,

re: "a good resource when trying to teach teenagers about the importance of saving sex for marriage"

I've been thinking along those lines since I first read it and even more so as I re-read. Along with Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice also comes to mind. I think Undset makes the case quite well without preaching. And I'd think that reading Kristen with a teenager would open up space for some good conversations along those lines. It's always so much easier to buy the argument when you can imaginatively see how the consequences play out.

texasmama said...

I just came over here from Betty Duffy's blog, and wanted to let you all know that this is and excellent blog. Re: using this book for helping teen daughters, I have often thought that I would read the trilogy with my daughters (only 12 and 11 now) in their later teen years.
I wonder what you thoughtful ladies will be reading next?