Friday, January 22, 2010

Keeping one's head

Thomas More wore a hair shirt under his velvet robes. No wonder he is a hero of conservative Catholics. What could be more Catholic than hair shirts and velvet? Better, I suppose, to wear a hair shirt under your velvet than velvet under your hair shirt. We have enough churchmen of every stripe who pretend to ascetic piety and dally in sensuality.

A lunatic tension between lust and asceticism seems to be one of the defining characteristics of Catholic Christianity, although heaven knows it's not confined to Catholics or even Christians. I blush to affirm than in my testosterone-fueled youth I put pebbles in my shoes and sand in my bed. I haven't a clue what I hoped to accomplish by such minor chastisements of the flesh, but ostensibly it had something to do with meriting an eternity of bliss. My asceticism was phony anyway; I put sand only on one side of the sheets and slept on the other. And the pebbles were tiny.

Lust, of course, is never phony. It's a biological given. The biologist Lynn Margulis, who co-wrote a book on the subject, puts it in the context of physics: "We represent, as sexual beings, the cosmos becoming aware of its own tendency to create and destroy. Sex is the beginning and end of that metacycle of carbon chemistry we recognize as an "I"...In experiencing sexual temptation or pleasure, we enact a cosmic breakdown more primordial than life itself, one mandated in the very meaning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics."

Oh dear, what would Thomas More have made of that? His lusty monarch as a living, breathing embodiment of the inexorable Second Law. And sainted Thomas with his hair shirt trying to keep it all in check.

And while we're at it, now is the time to order the perfect gift for your sweetie on Valentine's Day.