Friday, June 20, 2014

Test of Faith

by Jean Roberta

I’ve never really experienced religion first-hand. I was raised by parents who joined the local Unitarian Fellowship (this is a community of Unitarians without a resident minister) after leaving more orthodox Protestant churches when they were teenagers. Still, the ethic of denial that they were taught when they were young seemed to stay with them in secular form.

When boys began inviting me out, my parents warned me that boys liked sex. Presumably, this was something I couldn’t understand. Later, my mother advised me to go to a doctor to get medication to “cure” me from wanting “sex with men all the time.” I told her I didn’t want it all the time, just now and then. I said, “You know what that’s like.” Apparently she didn’t.

The message I got from all my grandparents was that sex was immoral except within marriage – and even then, if I were a normal woman, I wouldn’t like it. The message I got from men was that any past sexual experience I might have was much more disgusting than theirs. (And this was from self-defined sexual revolutionaries.)

My parents were threatened with Hell as the ultimate punishment for lust. I was threatened with psychiatric “treatment” and social ostracism. It seemed as if the disapproving God of old times was replaced in the mid-twentieth century by the “mental health” establishment and a general consensus on how women were supposed to behave.

The Puritan streak in North American Protestantism seems to prompt a belief that pleasure in most forms is self-destructive and contrary to God’s will. And that hard work is virtuous, not because of what it can produce, but because it numbs the mind, heart, and libido.

I’ve always wondered if the “wrath of God” that is so feared by so many could be a well-buried internal rebellion against self-denial. If there is a God, and if He/She is angry, the causes might be the opposite of what is usually preached from the pulpit.

Some people join religious communities and accept rigid rules to escape from “temptation,” the supposed corruption of the world. But the kind of spiritual seekers I admire don’t run from chaos, dirt, or human appetites – they work in the world’s worst slums, and try to bring comfort, not judgment or deprivation, to their fellow-beings.

My story, “The Battle Lost and Won” (in my single-author collection of historical erotica, The Princess and the Outlaw) is set in a vaguely medieval world that is dominated by a Church that seeks to control whole populations. Susanna, an innocent maiden from a large family, has entered the local convent as a novice to save herself from the Seven Deadly Sins. After an older nun offers her a shockingly carnal kind of love, and Susanna runs away, she is confronted by a supernatural being. Is her tormenter a demon or an angel?

Susanna is tested in much different ways than she ever expected as a sheltered virgin. She learns that children are sacred, even if conceived outside of wedlock, and that Christian charity can be expressed in a brothel. She learns that love is never an abomination.

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This is the opening scene:

"Sister Mary Agnes."

The creamy, insinuating voice held a hint of mockery as it echoed off the high ceiling of the convent kitchen.

Everything else within the room could be identified and put back in its place. Cups, bowls, tableware, sun-bleached tablecloths, pots, pitchers and candlesticks waited patiently in the cupboards until they could be of service. Like penitent sinners, the dirty dishes from the evening meal were being scrubbed clean, dried and placed safely where they belonged.

Sister Mary Agnes enjoyed washing the dishes alone, when she could focus on her work and not on the presence of another sister. Everything about this humble task was satisfying, from the warmth of the soapy water to the caress of the young nun’s plain habit on the skin of her legs as she moved back and forth.

But someone else was in the room with her, and its voice was too androgynous to be identified clearly as that of a man or a woman. "Do not ignore me, Sister, at the risk of your immortal soul." The voice was not human, yet it reminded her of someone she knew.

The sister, who had been named Susanna by her parents, was armed against temptation. "Then tell me your name. I command you."

A chuckle rumbled and bounced from one stone wall to the one opposite. "'Beseech' would be a better word from your lips, lady. My name is Gabriel."

The sister was unconvinced, and she knew that demons have myriad different names to confuse the gullible. She lifted both hands from her basin of water and sprinkled each corner of the room, as if to cleanse the air. Water ran down the walls, left puddles on the floor, and soaked her habit in spots. "Tell me your true name, hell-spawn!"

"Do not toy with me, wench!" trumpeted the voice. "I am Gabriel, messenger of God. If you do not wish to hear what I have to tell you, I shall leave you at once, and worse visitors will come in my place. Doubt this at your peril."

Sister Mary Agnes was shaken, despite her determination not to show fear, and despite the timbre of the voice, which seemed to lack the masculine thunder of either God or the Devil.

Moved by some instinct she hadn't known she had, the sister looked into the water in the basin, and saw the amazing reflection of a smooth, shining face with delicately arched, cruelly sarcastic eyebrows above terrible dark eyes and full, sensuous lips that wore only the hint of a smile.

She was not convinced that her visitor was an angel, but she knew better than to continue to antagonize him (her?) unnecessarily. "Speak, then. I will listen."

"Susanna, you refuse the gifts that God has set before you. This is neither wise nor virtuous. You wish to be of service to all the other children of your Creator, but goodness requires courage and action, not cowardice and lethargy. You shall be tested three times, and much rests upon the choices you make."

The face in the water dissolved into wavering shapes. A faint hiss, like the sound of steam from a kettle, signaled the departure of the mysterious being from ordinary space and time.

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12 comments:

  1. Jean:
    It's amazing that we survived, isn't it? I'm curious about what medicine would "cure" you of desire. That kind of "cure" for lust plays prominently in my novella, "Bliss".
    I must confirm your observation, the message I received as a boy was all of my sexual desire was selfish and evil.
    But it begs the question, how do you teach children a healthy attitude about sex without giving them a complete green light? I have millennial children but don't ask me. My boys fled in total panic whenever I tried to have conversations about sex. They are 23 and 20 now and neither one has fathered any children out of wedlock. They seem to have healthy attitudes about women.

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    1. I have nephews about the same ages, Spencer. I've never known either of them to be interested in girls. Their parties consist of a bunch of boys hanging around playing video games. Not that they seem gay either, it's like sex has just passed them by. At that age I was all… "Where can I put this?"

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  2. I'm so grateful to have escaped the sort of indoctrination you experienced, Jean. Actually, I'm doubly grateful that you escaped it.

    Lovely excerpt!

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  3. It always freaks me out when something that seems evident to me -- i.e. your "You know what it's like" -- is met with a blank stare. That seems like something most people ought to understand.

    It's frustrating that you were met with disapproval and disgust not only from conservative figures but also from self-described sexual revolutionaries. That's also been my experience. I think there are a lot of beliefs and hostilities towards female sexuality in particular that are so culturally accepted that it takes effort to bring them fully into consciousness (even when I'm on the receiving end, I've sometimes found that I still believe it enough to play into it).

    The Princess and the Outlaw sounds awesome. I loved the way you handled the historical setting of Flight of the Black Swan, and I've definitely got this collection on my list.

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  4. Thanks for the comments, Spencer, Lisabet and Annabeth! Episodes in which young men like Elliot Rodger in California erupt with rage because they're not getting the kind of sex they want with those they want (blonde sorority types) remind me of the contradictions of the "sexual revolution" of my youth. Most of the guys I dated believed that spontaneity was a good thing, and they were against being "manipulated" into marriage, so they claimed to love hippie chicks who weren't too "inhibited" to share pleasure with them outside the bonds of a committed relationship. One basic tenet of the "sexual revolution" seemed to be that sex was a good thing in itself, and therefore it didn't always have to be the physical expression of monogamous commitment. I was often coaxed to share some sexy true stories from my past on grounds that the double standard was dead, and women no longer had to "save themselves" for their husbands. Then, after I had talked about my sexual past, the information was usually used aainst me. (As early as the late 1970s, I read an article about this in a "women's" magazine. Apparently I wasn't the only one who had this experience.) It always amazed me that men who considered themselves sexually radical were really in cahoots with sexually conservative types like my parents. It was a great relief to me to find that lesbians don't stigmatize each other in that exact way, but lesbians in general can still be considered "fallen women" or mental patients in need of a "cure" by conservatives (esp. members of the most orthodox wings of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
    Re teaching sons or daughters how to be sexual in ways that aren't abusive, I think honesty is the key. Those who don't want a committed relationship should say so as clearly as possible, and shouldn't blame anyone else for feeling the same way. (And male-female sex in that context requires birth control.) Commitments should be mutual, and nothing cancels a father's obligation to help care for his children unless he agreed beforehand to be a sperm-donor and nothing else.

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  5. Those religious tenets, often so friggin' off the mark, you'd think a moral dyslexic thought them up. I've know several people who were sent to institutions during their teens, for just the kind of reasons you mention. I can't count one who benefitted. I guess the flip from no sex society to one that was going for sex all the time would come to grips at some point. I guess those long-held traditions are hard to break cleanly.

    And then there was the fact that we only knew what we experienced. Not all youths from the sixties were pacifists, revolutionaries or sexually adventurous. See how my generation is handling things now?

    I really loved the story clip, Jean. Such marvelous use of alliteration.

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  6. People who are absolutely sure their way is right do have tendency to regard any other behavior or belief as either deliberately evil or a mental aberration. I suppose if someone in their own family is involved, mental illness seems like the most charitable interpretation. Personally I think I'd rather be thought evil (probably because I believe in the existence of mental illness more than I believe in the existent of evil.)

    I remember that story, Jean. Beautifully eerie.

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  8. Thank you, Daddy X and Sacchi. True enough, a diagnosis of "mental illness" seems more charitable than defining a relative as bad to the bone, but it also sounds more subject to change, maybe with the right medication). Re how hard it is change old customs, I think this has to do with whose needs are being met. Guys who want to get girls into bed have always said what girls want to hear, whether it's "I love you" and "we don't need a marriage license to know how much we love each other" to "Sex is natural," and "I totally support your need for sexual freedom." Then if the guy wants to ditch the girlfriend of the moment, he has a reason that sounds morally defensible: she's a slut. On an individual level, this is understandable behaviour, though sleazy and dishonest. Guys don't behave this way because they are confused; they have a clear strategy. Victorian morality on a broader social level seems harder to understand, but I think it still boils down to what individuals think is in their own interests. (If someone else is a slut, I must be squeaky-clean in comparison.)



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    1. Maybe I was behind the door when the jealousy/possessive gene was passed out. I've never felt much jealousy because of sex or worldly goods. I always encouraged Momma to experiment, mainly because we married so early, we missed a single life, and both had stuff to do. When she did have other relationships, it was usually people we both knew, and I never felt jealous.

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    2. And I always felt something in common with women who were considered sluts.. Usually more interesting folks. More memorable, anyway :>)

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  9. Daddy, you are one in a million! No wonder you and Momma X have been happy for so long!

    I was raised to think of sex as "the best thing you will ever feel", and "even better than what you do yourself"...and this was from my Mother! Of course she told me I should wait until I got married. When I became the "slut" my Dad used to call me, she was so jealous on the one hand, yet asked me how I'd ever settle down with one man when I was used to having so many. I told her when I found what I wanted, I'd know...since I'd had so many that were disappointing! There's a blues song on my Grana Louise album, that goes, "Your love is like trying to light a fire with a wet match...you won't even get a spark like that!" Yeah, that's what so many guys were like. It could be because they felt no need to "put themselves out" to make me happy, since I was just "a hook-up". Whatever. When I met my husband, I'd have married him after our fist night together. He waited another 2 years until he was ready. I waited. It's been 30 years.

    We raised our 4 kids with honesty. A family anecdote is when the oldest was in what is euphemistically called "sex education" in our town, which consisted of showing impressionable kids pictures of diseased organs with advanced STDs, and telling them their body parts would rot and fall off if they had pre-marital sex. Sigh. So at the dinner table, when the oldest complained they weren't being taught anything useful, I told him to do whatever he had to do to pass the class, as long as he remembered that "whenever Winky comes out to play he needs to wear a raincoat." Our daughter was only about 5 or 6 so she asked, "Who's Winky?" The boys all busted out laughing, and my husband spit his food out he was laughing so hard.

    But when our oldest son brought his live-in girlfriend to our house to meet us, for Thanksgiving a few years ago, we bought a queen-sized blow-up mattress for them to sleep on, in the living room, since we don't have a spare room. My daughter asked us if she brought someone home, would she get to use the mattress, and my husband told her no, she'd be in her room, her boyfriend would be on the couch, and he'd be sitting on the stairway with a gun. She blew him a raspberry-- and I told him, "NFW, dude! I'm NOT having our daughter treated differently because she's a female! You knew what I was like before I met you, and it never mattered to you."

    Yes, it's hard to raise kids to be sensible about sex, in a culture where they're bombarded with images and told they're losers if they're not having sex, yet the girls are reviled and slut-shamed if they are having sex. I always openly discussed with my kids what I was like when I was younger, and when my then-teenaged daughter said, "Boy, Mom, you were a real whore!", I reminded her that I'm her Mom and deserve respect, so "That's MRS. WHORE, to you, young lady!"

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