This piece was originally published at Spiritual Friendship on February 17, 2014.
A priest I know—we’ll call him Thomas—had studied in Rome as a seminarian some years ago. While there, he had become good friends with an English seminarian, Joseph, and the two would regularly spend hours walking through the Eternal City and talking. One day, they were walking through a Roman garden, and Joseph slipped his arm into Thomas’, drawing close as they walked. Instantly, Thomas tensed up, caught off-guard and uneasy.
Joseph turned to him and laughed: “Tom, you’re such an American. Relax. I just want to be close to you.”
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We tend to think that touch and sight are things we simply do. We rarely contemplate how these senses are learned, how we not only touch and see, but also touch and see well or badly.
A friend recently told me about an art student who was working with nude models in a form drawing class. The student, a Catholic, exclaimed to my friend, “Every man should take a form drawing class! You’re forced to see the human body so differently!”
Catholicism has always stressed the importance of contemplating the naked body. Catholic churches are full of nudity—on statues, in paintings, on crucifixes. Of course, these bodies are placed and contextualized so as to teach. They instruct and remind believers of such teachings and stories as Christ’s Passion. But these bodies are not merely doctrinal; they are also sensual. They are meant to arouse our senses and to form them. They teach us both what to see and how to see.
It seems to me that such nudity is one remedy to a pornographic culture, a culture which is anything but negligible. The average high school boy spends two hours watching pornography per week. Thirty percent of all data transferred across the internet is pornography. The average age at which a child first sees pornography online is 11.
Studies have found that the things which we focus our attention upon reshape our brains and the way we perceive reality. Even prayer can create measurable differences in how we view the world. Thus, what we contemplate, what we spend time thinking and viewing and touching, can change our entire relation to reality.
In short, we learn what we often take to be innate. If we spend hours contemplating pornography, we learn to view our world with pornographic eyes, often viewing others as objects of sexual gratification, our eyes regularly drawn towards what we have learned to draw them towards on the computer screen. In contrast, if we spend hours contemplating Christ’s body on the cross, we develop a very different relationship to all the other bodies that surround us. Sight, just like doctrine, is something learned through practice and repetition.
The same can be said of touch. Some good friends told me about a couple who had adopted a child from another country. Before the adoption, the little girl had lived in an orphanage with many other children who received minimal care and almost no human contact. When the parents adopted the child, she would cry and scream when they held her. The physical intimacy was overwhelming, because she had never learned how to respond to such contact. The family had to take the little girl, only an infant, with them to counseling, and it took a long time before she was able to develop healthy responses to human touch.
Unfortunately, American adults today are also averse to such contact. We, especially men, have never learned to be Tom arm-in-arm with Joseph, have never learned to be John reclining upon Christ’s breast. We’ve never learned to be at ease in intimacy with others of the same sex. We’ve never been told that it’s ok to touch another man or that we shouldcontemplate the naked bodies in our churches. We’ve only learned to play football, to wrestle, to masturbate, and to have sex.
* * *
For me, learning to form my sexuality has been intimately tied up with learning to see and to touch and to love my friends. It hasn’t all been easy, and it’s been far from perfect, but it’s been a continuous life-giving process of growth.
Imagine if, rather than spending two hours viewing pornography per week, the average high school boy spent thirty minutes per week in front of the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Cathedral of St. Paul. There, he would contemplate the death of Christ, held by Our Lady. But not only this. Michelangelo intended the sculpture as a Eucharistic image, to be used as an altarpiece in which Christ’s body is placed such that it is falling out of Mary’s lap onto the altar.
This is obscured by its location in the Vatican, but the replica in the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota maintains this effect for the man or woman kneeling before the statue. Christ’s body is angled in such a way that, if the marble melted away to reveal flesh-and-blood, Christ would quickly fall from His Mother’s lap into your arms. So, as you contemplate the image of Christ’s body, you are also forced to contemplate yourself holding Him and perhaps, like Thomas, placing your fingers into His wounds and believing. You learn to see, you learn to touch, and you are never the same.