“You’re sterile,” the urologist had announced to me a few months before Lily left. The vasectomy was supposed to save our marriage, relieve some of the stress. We were raising two girls and hanging together by threads. It was supposed to be good news, but it broke my heart.
Peter Abelard’s passionate trysts with Heloise got him castrated. Like Abelard, I blamed myself for my handicap: “How just … was the judgment of God that had struck in those parts of my body with which I had sinned.” For years quenching my libido had felt beastly, no union of loving souls but a favor from Lily to me, and only on those rare occasions when she felt charitable, or just got tired of pushing me away. My desire was her burden. I had wished I could make it go away, to free her from the duty and myself from the rejection. But I had no more control over my testosterone than a tomcat. Most of the time, I had pretended I didn’t need it, and some of the time she had pretended she did. Vasectomy had solved neither of these problems, but at least it protected us from the babies I both hoped for and feared.
Sensible friends had asked, “Why doesn’t Lily just go on the pill?” And, of course, in a sane home that might have happened. But we did not live in a sane home. If I could somehow have escaped the codependence, my need for acceptance, my need to understand the inner life she couldn’t articulate, my need to make her happy, I might have chosen a maddening abstinence or divorce — the lesser of two evils? — to remedy Lily’s fear of motherhood, her fear of the life we had.
Instead, I had made myself sterile. I had watched friends weep and beg God to heal their infertility, and yet I had chosen it.
I found some healing in the honest worship music of the little postmodern church I’d started attending. Instead of the saccharine praise choruses or doctrinal hymns of my past, we would sing songs of Gospel hope in the midst of the worst human experiences, like Julie Miller’s “Ride the Wind to Me”:
I’ve seen a faithless lover
Take you down to deep water
And I have watched a fragile wing
Tangled up in longings
get broken in the struggle
In my heart I see you run free
Like a river down to the sea
All the chains that held you down
Will be in pieces on the ground
You’ll drink the rain and ride the wind to me
In marriage, Lily had made me beg for intimacy in all its forms, and that made for a certain sort of loneliness. Now my bed was literally empty of anyone but me. And into this sexual solitude, the Lord spoke through the Psalmist: “Stand in awe and sin not. Commune with thyself upon thy bed and be still.”
My Trinitarian theology had surely construed the marriage bed as a place of Communion, the love between man and wife as a throne for the Spirit, a sacrament enfleshing God’s interdependent, Triune love in human bodies. But in what sense could I commune with myself? After a bit of reflection, I decided the Psalmist was not urging me toward masturbation.
Still, I didn’t want to run from the sexual analogy. I’d read St. Teresa of Avila and seen photos of Bernini’s sculpture of her, in ecstasy, ravished by an angel of God. Teresa wrote of her “ecstatic raptures” in orgasmic language: “She finds herself slipping into a kind of swoon. With a rush of gentle joy, she feels everything begin to fade away. The breath and bodily powers progressively dwindle. … The eyes close of their own accord.” If Teresa could experience God as a sexual partner, why couldn’t I, as a man, do the same? The image of the angel addressing her with a spear didn’t help me, not exactly. But what if I could imagine God as my Beloved, beckoning, waiting to envelop me in Her love? What if the Celtic Christians were right, and God’s Spirit is a “wild goose”? What if I’m to hunt Her like I pursue a woman?
I wrote song lyrics; they come as close as I can to describing the Feminine Spirit, the image of God, male and especially female, beloved by men:
I reach out to touch her, my fingers clutch the air
Apparition, holy ghost, she’s never far, like when she’s close
I look deep inside, to the depths of my own heart
And there my lover lies, singing, ‘Never shall we part’
I look deep inside, in the stillness of the night
And there my lover lies, singing, ‘Lie with me tonight’
Sex means different things to different people. To some, it’s power: conquest, seduction, worldly success. To others, it’s procreation: the unconditional love of a child, a biological imperative, immortality. There might be some pure lovers out there somewhere who do it for the simple joy of the other, but most of us use sex to get particular psychological needs met. For me, sex meant acceptance. It meant my wife trusted and loved me enough to open herself to me. It meant I was worthy of a beautiful woman that other men lusted for. It meant, despite evidence to the contrary, that she wanted me. The more I felt she was hiding her soul from me, the more I wanted her body to tell me she was mine.
Now she was gone, and I had to find my acceptance elsewhere. “Be still,” David’s poem said to me. With this, I heard an implicit promise: “I AM with you.”
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician living in Durham, N.C.. This post is adapted from his memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World, Cascade Books, 2013. He’s releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with songs that help to narrate his journey with God. SALT readers can use discount code LIGHT to purchase the book at 40 percent off through Cascade. The Kindle edition is also on sale for $2.99.