Godtalk: Sexuality and Desire


Image of a flame by Wendy at flickr.com

‘The lusts of the flesh reveal the loneliness of the soul’ said Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. And this insight was more than just a theoretical one for Hammarskjold. He knew loneliness and unfulfilled desire.

As more of his journals are being published in English, we are becoming more aware that Dag Hammarskjold was both a man of extraordinary moral integrity and extraordinary spiritual depth.  However, Rolheiser notes that not everything was whole in his life.

‘While in his professional life he dealt with issues of world importance and was taxed for every ounce of his energies, the rest of his life was not nearly so complete. As a young man, he had lost a woman he deeply loved to another man, and this was a wound that never left him. He never dated or pursued marriage again. He longed to be married, but, for all kinds of reasons, as is the case for millions of people, it just never happened.’    

Hammarskjold, in his journals, often reflects on this and upon the lacuna it left in his life. There’s a searing honesty about its pain and about how he tries to grapple with it. On the one hand, he is clear that this is a pain that cannot be denied and which never goes away; on the other hand, he is able to redirect it somewhat, sublimating it into a wider embrace, into a different kind of marriage bed.

‘I feel pain, a longing to share in this embrace [of a husband and wife], to be absorbed, to share in this encounter. A longing like carnal desire, but directed toward earth, water, sky, and returned by the whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the soil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light.’  Was this satisfying? Not quite, but it brought a certain peace: ‘Content? No, no, no – but refreshed, rested, while waiting.’

In this, both in how he experienced the pain of his inconsummation and in how he tried to redirect those longings, his feelings parallel these are those of Thomas Merton. Merton was once asked by a journalist how he felt about celibacy. Merton replied that ‘celibacy was hell’, that it condemned one to live in a loneliness that God himself condemned (It is not good for man to be alone, and that it was in fact a dangerous way to live since it was an abnormal way of living.)

But Merton then went on to say that, just because it was anomalous and dangerous, didn’t mean that it couldn’t be wonderfully generative and life-giving, both for the one living it as well as for those around him or her. And that was no doubt true in Merton’s own case, just as it was true for Hammarskjold. Both infused more oxygen into the planet.

Moreover, Merton tried to sublimate his desire for a marriage bed in much the same way as Hammarskjold did: ‘I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.’

Both Hammarskjold and Merton longed for that deep, highly individualized, intimate and sexual, one-to-one embrace which was denied them by their place in life and which is denied to millions of us by every sort of circumstance and conscription. Merton chose to forego sexual consummation deliberately, to embrace religious vows; Hammarskjold had it chosen for him, by circumstance. At the end of the day the effect was the same. Both then tried to sublimate that need and desire for congenital intimacy by, in their own words, somehow marrying the world and making love in a less-particularized way.

Rolheiser acknowledges that whilst these are extreme examples, ‘Many married persons who enjoy that unique depth of one-to-one intimacy that Hammarskjold and Merton longed for, must, I suspect, also long inchoately to find within their sexual intimacy that wider embrace of which Hammarskjold and Merton speak, knowing that they want that too in their sexual embrace.’

Peter Knott SJ