I came here to read St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney and to read Bishop Robert Barron and to drink coffee. After I get my coffee, I bring my backpack to the chair that’s awkwardly behind one already occupied by a woman in her late 30s, her face decorated with some layers of makeup. She gets up as I try to maneuver my way to the chair, so we have that awkward moment of “No you go ahead” and “Excuse me, pardon me”, as there’s only enough room for one of us to pass.
“You look pretty young,” she says, after I get into my chair and she gets around her table.
Thanks? I think to myself.
She asks, “How old are you?”
I’m kind of taken aback by the question, but I guess this is technically a way to begin a conversation, so I indulge her. “Twenty-nine,” I say, with a welcoming smile.
“That’s not too young,” she says, making it sound like a compliment. “Are you a student?” she asks me.
“No, I graduated five years ago,” I say, plugging in my laptop, getting myself ready to be a hipster writer in a local coffee shop.
“What did you study?”
“Me too!” She gets excited. I smile. She reaches out her hand, and I shake it. She offers me her name.
“So do you use your degree in a career?” she asked.
“Yes, I do marketing.”
“Congratulations!” she says. Truly, it is hard to find use of an English degree. She continues, “I used to model for Playboy back in 1999. Now I’m a lawyer, but I really appreciate marketing, because I do my own marketing. Do you want to see my business card? It’s a way of marketing.”
“It is,” I agree, without breaking my smile. Flipping through her purse and through a variety of business cards, she pulls out a black one from her collection. Outer Space Law, it reads, which matches the title on the cover of the book laying on her table. It has the playboy bunny icon in the center, and is a very simple card.
“I have a friend who just graduated with a degree in English, who is just starting out in law,” I say. “He’s got quite a way to go, though, just starting out.” Trying to avoid the elephant in the room (or in this case, the rabbit).
She begins packing her things. “Yeah, I really enjoy it.” She pauses as she packs up her stuff. “Wait, I didn’t mean to take my business card back. You can keep it,” she says, handing it back to me.
“Thanks!” I say, not unenthusiastically.
“Well, it was nice meeting you! See you later!” she says as she walks out, waving.
“Yep!” I say, taking out my well-worn copy of The Curé d’Ars. “Take care!”
And now I process thoughts. what. just. happened.
She made it a point to let me know one of the first things about her was her pornographic modeling done nearly sixteen years ago. I think about how difficult it must be for her to get freedom and independence from the need of masculine affection that she must have been addicted to all these years. Does she still need male affirmation to find meaning in herself? Even now, the thing she notices first is youth, and she compliments it and affirms it in a stranger before saying anything else. Would that the users of pornography could meet the souls and the hearts involved in its production, and how joyful they could be if given an identity that outlives their youth. I’m going to try not to read into her too much—I have probably gone too far already—but I am reminded of the First Things article that was retweeted earlier this morning. Originally written by Carl Trueman last year, he immediately says about pornography in his first sentence, “Pornography degrades women (those cocksure feminists who claim otherwise have fallen for the biggest male confidence trick of all time).” In no uncertain terms he very plainly deconstructs our cultural infatuation with pornography, concluding with, “whatever the aesthetics, sexual activity as a means for preserving the myth of eternal youth is always going to involve the law of diminishing returns and thus ironically prove a powerful witness to its own falsehood. It really does not matter how many orgasms you have, or how intense they are, you are still going to die.”
These words could not come from a man unfamiliar with the words of the Qoheleth (teacher). This was my late grandfather’s favorite book, and I used to think it somewhat melancholy—especially coming from a Baptist—but more and more I’m learning why Ecclesiastes is perhaps one of the more pertinent biblical texts our culture could learn to read.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity.
I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 8-11)
Carl Trueman is onto something. Our culture’s obsession with pornography is an obsession with youth—youth that is valued and proclaimed in popular entertainment (music videos, Hollywood, television) and even, to some noteworthy extent, in politics. We are afraid of death, and aging is a reminder that each of us is going to die. On the other hand, sexual behavior is an expression of youthfulness. In its proper state, sexuality should be for the creation of life, not the avoidance of death. A proper perspective of our impending death (proper with the hope that is fitting of a Christian) dispels the false promise of eternal youth in this life.
But how do we adopt a daily perspective of our own death? We must stop living with the fantasy that we will (or we ought to) be young forever. Embrace aging. Embrace our own death.
In the Catholic tradition, we have a rich treasury of writings from which to draw inspiration. Mortification is the act of fasting with the sense of our own death in mind—the sense that we will not be young for very long, and that we need to live with our own death always before us. St. Robert Bellarmine and St. John of the Cross speak very well of this, and St. John Vianney lived this daily.
St. John Vianney led a great example for us to follow in this regard. By way of fasting, he held no presumption that he should live, or that he deserved to live, in a prolonged youth. Fasting, you see, breaks the holds of this flesh on our minds—the desires of the flesh to stay young, to do the things young people do, to eat the things younger people eat and to play the games they play. But by way of letting go of pleasures, we let go of the lie that we will be 18 forever. Vianney was never concerned with his own youth, with lost years or wasted potential—in fact, he entered the seminary rather late, and was ordained a priest later than his confreres, and he had good reason to be concerned with youthfulness. But he lived in the present moment at every moment, concerned only with what matters are at hand. I think this, among other things, is what made him a good confessor.
And when we have a mind and an act proper to our own age and proper to our Christian beliefs (that of an ageless eternal life, not an eternal youth), we can actually live out the role of mentoring and teaching that we are blessed in increase in each passing year. The lure of illicit sexual behavior seems an awfully shallow draw when one is faced with his own death, and faced with finding real meaning and purpose for his own life (who, when facing imminent death, thinks of their sexual exploits or their hours of sleeping in, or the amount of television shows they’ve watched, and counts that as a good life? Rather, when faced with imminent death, the person considers whether they’ve had a positive effect on humanity—whether they’ve been selfless and changed others’ lives and been good and kind to others). The pursuit of pleasure and youth blind us to our real humanity—wherein lies our real purpose. Mortification, on the other hand—the practice of the awareness of our own death—frees us to live purposefully. It is the practice of our Lord’s commandment to take up your cross and carry it daily.
For those of you who are Christian: if you were to die tomorrow, would you look back to today and say that you honored God with the blessing of your age?
For those of you who aren’t Christian: if you were to die tomorrow, would you look back to today and say that you accomplished something meaningful with your life through the privilege of your age?