On Monks and Mothers and the Mystery of Life

If we reject the truth that sex is about babies, then it is not likely that we shall survive, or that we deserve to.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus (detail),” 1485
Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus (detail),” 1485

A number of years ago I was invited to give a series of conferences to a community of Cistercian monks living in Utah. It was the dead of winter and the monastery, situated high in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, was surrounded by snow, ice and the occasional meandering moose.

A harsh assignment, let me tell you, despite a well-functioning furnace and the great kindness of the monks, of whom there were only about 20 or so left, the youngest being in his early 70s. Naturally, he was the Abbot, it having fallen on him to preside over a community most of whose members were already dead. It had been, I was told, more than 20 years since anyone had actually been there to try their vocation. The poor fellow hadn’t stayed very long, it was ruefully reported, and on finding the severity of the life more than he’d bargained for he returned at once to the airport.

Meanwhile, my chief worry that week was whether or not the monks would actually live long enough to justify the stipend I’d been paid to give the talks. They did manage to survive, however, even if a number of them failed to stay awake. The Abbot, as I recall, had been most emphatic about that, warning me to keep the talks well under a half-hour, lest the added strain leave them prostrate from exhaustion.  Not too long thereafter, I would later learn, the mortality rate rose so sharply that the monastery was forced to close, thus ending the life of a community that had flourished for decades, beginning right after World War II when among returning servicemen — especially vocations to the contemplative life — mushroomed.

So, why did it happen? The answer is not complicated. It is because the future belongs to those who show up. And whether it’s a monastery where no one’s showing up to give everything to God, or a marriage in which the mentality is that of not wanting life, the results are eventually the same — to wit, extinction.

This is not rocket science, by the way. When couples, moved by considerations other than generosity, decide to limit the children they wish to welcome into the world, it follows that the number of people available for choosing the religious life when they grow up will accordingly diminish. In other words, if heroism is no longer perceived as an ideal worth every effort to practice, then other, far less austere attractions will take its place. Sanctity will inevitably give way to success.

All of which raises an interesting question — what is sex really for? I mean, does it signify anything more than so many fleeting exchanges of pleasure? If not, then the whole point of living as a sexual being is to maximize occasions for that pleasure. On the other hand, if there is more to it than, say, aimless copulation, then it would be useful to know what that purpose is and thus try and persuade people of its importance. And, once again, it is not rocket science. Because the answer is really quite simple: Sex, among other things, is about babies.

Here is a datum the truth of which, by the way, survives even when we deny it. Saying no to life — then, to the little children we will not suffer to come unto us — is tantamount to saying no to sex, since the full meaning of the sexual act includes an openness to having children. Being a mother, therefore, is at the heart of the mystery of life. Where else should babies come from? Petri dishes? Department stores? The internet?

Let me put it as provocatively as I know how: To countenance any disconnect between the pleasures of intercourse and the meaning and purpose of the act is to insult God, who is Lord of life. It also neglects the truth represented by the pagan goddess Venus, who in the great mythos of the ancient world represents the fruitfulness of the rain-giving sky and the fecundity of the earth. Hence her claim to being the universal figure for the feminine, symbol of the cry of women everywhere for love and life. Why else has she been depicted as emerging miraculously, as it were, from the mysterious sea, to recall the artist Sandro Botticelli’s famous rendering, standing atop a scallop-shell, the Greek and Latin names for which bespeak the deep mystery of female reproduction?

If we reject this truth, this binding immemorial axiom on which human flourishing depends, then it is not likely that we shall survive, or that we deserve to. A moot point, to be sure, since the consequence of our failure to reproduce will soon enough deplete, not only monasteries in Utah, but most of the planet as well. The life force (Eros) will have thoroughly spent itself, leaving a bored and weary race to collapse beneath the weight of its own ennui. Not a pretty prospect but, then again, who’s going to be around to document the implosion?