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Saints, Sex, and Confessions: A Ramble

I long held the mistaken idea that saints always abstained from sex. I did know that St. Augustine had written his relatively steamy Confessions. But did not take in that he’d had a lover for 13 years, until I saw publication of a new novel The Confessions of X, written from the viewpoint of that woman, the mother of his child.

There is much going on to get me to thinking about saints (more than just the unsaintly tumult of the current political season):
*St. Patrick’s Day lingers — inspiring pinching and green clothing and the hoisting of pints.
*I’ve just come from a visit to the remote ruins of St. Kevin’s monastery, Glendalough, Ireland, where the 6th century hermit’s cave in a high cliff is referred to as Kevin’s Bed.
*Mother Teresa was scheduled for sainthood on Sept. 4. (That this could happen on a particular weekend seems so far from ethereal.)


Without these news pegs, my religious experience and background don’t set me up for studying the lives of the saints — I’m Protestant-born, pagan-tilted, New Age-y, with Hindu features, Jewish sympathies, and a love of high-church formality and ceremony. The technical term is syncretic: I’m a mixer of religions, or in the terms of those who criticize: a cherry-picker. I also trust my own experience.

However, I’ve started to wonder in these recent days what a saint is, though not so much what qualifies a person by Catholic Church standards, number of miracles, etc.

People wanting to excuse their excesses often say, “Well, I’m no saint ….”

What does it mean when someone is a Saint or a saint?

Did You Ever Want to Be One?

Once in my twenties, I thought I wanted to be one, a lower-case saint, no miracles or martyrdom. And certainly no celibacy. I was reading Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s Seven-Storey Mountain, newly moved to a home in the woods, watching nature a la Annie Dillard, enjoying fires in the fireplace, and baking lots of Raisin Bran muffins, which put me in mind of Communion. Reading Merton, living a faux-simple life (I was also coming into town to cover the Legislature as a reporter), I was taken with the idea of goodness.


I asked myself: why would anyone want to be anything else? I didn’t want to be martyred or to abstain from any pleasures or do a whole lot in the way of service to others. I wanted to be and feel good. This was complicated by a pathological need to do no harm, a case of what Catholics call scrupulosity. None of us can avoid doing harm. Even vegans are hard on carrots. What I wanted in the way of saintly life was to be positive — not an avoidance of anything.

(I’m sitting here trying to write myself to some conclusion or understanding on this subject. Please bear with me.)

Glendalough, church ruins

Glendalough, church ruins

One way and another — medication and psychotherapy and aerobics — I’ve mostly shaken, or controlled, the scrupulosity, also called OCD. Still wouldn’t mind being, not prudish or pious, but good. However, I’m impressively self-centered — the world must must must read my books! and subscribe to this blog! I’m no volunteer (though I did co-author a book on the subject, The Healing Power of Doing Good). Ambition toward goodness, writing about spirituality, maintaining reasonably good manners, and remembering birthdays may be about as good as I’m going to get.

Christian People : Saints

Saints and Sex

I did learn this morning that there have been dozens — even hundreds of married saints, according to I’m assuming at least some of these marriages were regularly consummated. I was glad to find this out. And I think that these relationships may well help to build the saintly muscles.

My belief is that sex itself can provide a glimpse of timeless eternal Good and that navigating an intimate passionate love relationship is (and now I really struggle over what I’m saying) good practice for? a sample of? a door to? the larger, wider, deeper everlasting human-divine connection.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, USA.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, USA.

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  • March 16, 2016 at 10:51 pm Reply

    I hope when you came here to cover the legislature that you didn’t confuse goodness with their behavior! I thought celibacy was one of the qualifications for sainthood – he wrong I was! LOL Good… maybe I have a slim chance, although I doubt it.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 17, 2016 at 1:37 am Reply

      Seems like it’s never too late, kenju!

  • March 16, 2016 at 10:52 pm Reply

    “how wrong…”

  • Lee Grohse
    March 17, 2016 at 1:19 am Reply

    If you are at present interested in saints let me suggest a book you may enjoy: My Life With the Saints by James Martin. He’s someone you will like if you don’t know him already. (You may have seen him on The Colbert Report-He was dubbed the show’s “official chaplain”). He was raised a pretty secular style Catholic—no tradition of revering saints–and became a Jesuit after a business career. So “met” the saints as an adult. The book is about what he finds in the lives of some particular saints that speak to him in the modern world. You’ll like it even though, if I recall correctly, there is no sex.

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