Monkish Secrets

I went to the monastery to find out how, not why. I already knew that the monk's vow of chastity was the brainchild of the same body-hating dualists who brought you the virgin birth. I wanted to hear about the methods and tricks: hair shirts and self-flagellation and monk-to-monk pep talks. Brother John spoke openly with me about his celibacy, but the closest he came to a purity tip was the revelation that the monks generally wear underwear and long pants under their brown robes. What he did reveal is that his "how" can't be extricated from his "why." His why is his how.

Brother John has internalized the church's teaching about sex so completely that his lust ebbed to almost nothing over the years. He's like a vegetarian who gets sick if he eats meat. He says he last masturbated when he was 14, and he has never had sex with another person. I believe him. A greater challenge than conquering lust, he says, is to provide humane counseling, part of the order's mission, to people whose problems include the carnal. At 38, Brother John is the youngest of the 30 or so brothers living there, and he sees all kinds of couples, including some gay men and at least one pair of S/M practitioners. (Brother John is not his real name, and he asked that the order and monastery not be identified either.)

On the hot Saturday of our interview, the formal gardens around the monastery are silent except for the bees cruising the huge red, purple and yellow blossoms. It's even quieter inside the high-ceilinged, un-air-conditioned building, and 20 degrees colder. Brother John escorts me to a plain, square parlor dominated by a portrait of the Virgin Mary where he's set up a tray of vending machine snacks.

He tells me I'm lucky I stumbled upon him on my first visit. "Most of the brothers wouldn't even be in a room alone with you, you know," he says, mock-confidentially lowering his voice. Brother John loves dishing to reporters; he recently was profiled in a local magazine as the wired monk. (It only takes a cell phone and Internet access to put a monk at the technical vanguard of his broom-and-wooden-bowl brethren.) "I found the article on Salon about your, um, experiment, " he continues casually. He pauses dramatically, milking my discomfort before intoning with some glee: "I pray for your boyfriend."

Brother John likes to tease and to shock. He says his boyhood was chaste but heterosexual, though I would have pegged him as gay. He reminds me of Dana Carvey's Church Lady when he buries something catty in "who, me?" disingenuousness. On the general topic of how monks and priests master their desire, for example, Brother John says, "I've heard professors say that the religious people with the most degrees have the highest sexual urges." He adds quickly, "Now, I have no way of knowing that, of course."

He says his own torment-free chastity is rooted in his upbringing in a small Illinois town. His description of it makes the no-dancing town in "Footloose" look like Bangkok: Nobody smoke, drank or had sex because of "positive peer pressure." The kids sound like some do-gooder Mafia in Brother John's example: "Someone in my sister's class was dating a boy from another town who was bad and we feared they would have sex. The popular girls of the school would surround her and get her to appreciate herself more and get her involved in other activities."

Brother John says he fell in love with several girls in high school but never moved passed kissing, because touching a girl's breast, he explains, "would be a trespass." He and the other boys did their kissing in their cars. Did your feelings ever manifest themselves, uh, physically, I ask delicately. "You mean popping woodies?" Brother John barks in his cut-to-the-chase voice. "Oh sure. But that would be a sign that you needed to step back from the relationship."

Brother John says his father made him feel guiltier about masturbation than his priest, though both warned him it could become a habit. He stopped when he was 14, "once I understood it was a sin. Remember, God hears all and sees all, and that's enough for teenagers in a little town." His erections dwindled over the years to less than once a month.

The little town sold no pornographic magazines, books or movies, he says. He came to seminary in the big city when he was 19 and was shocked to see naked women splayed on video boxes and magazines in the stores. His distaste for such displays and what he's heard in counseling sessions have shaped his philosophy of what he calls "dog."

"Dog," Brother John explains, drawing out the word contemptuously, is his word for sex without love. "Dog is very shallow, short-lived, it's akin to the drug addict needing that shot of heroin." He believes that dog is always exploitative, and it's generally the woman who gets abused. "The women who come in here say, 'That's it? That's all? Just slam, bam thank you ma'am?' They want more than temporal feelings. After their heart rate goes back down, they think, 'What is this relationship?'"

Brother John brings up his cousin with the bisexual girlfriend several times in disgust. The affair does sound crazy enough to be featured on Jerry Springer, but Brother John is most angered by how quickly they hopped in bed. "He knew what the inside of her vagina looked like before he knew her last name," he hisses. "That's sad. That's just dog sex. That's just release. That's just using each other and that's disrespectful of both parties."

When I ask if masturbation is dog, he pauses, seeming to be stumped. "No," he concludes, "because that's not using someone. Dog is you don't care how that person feels." He says he doesn't fantasize because that's a sin of thought and that he sees representations of naked people soul-first, not through the fog of sex. "As people get older, they can appreciate a beautiful form without that dog, they can see to the core of someone." Brother John offers the unexpected example of the nude photo of JFK Jr. that ran in George in 1997. "It had a spiritual dimension to it that far outplayed the physical. It had an innocence."

Brother John doesn't object to sex as part of a loving relationship, but he's clearly more enthusiastic about those who can love on a higher plane. "I love to see old people, like my mom and dad's age, come together and get married. They're fat and flabby, but they're human, they love each other. And the sex is nil!" he assumes happily. "It's beautiful and pure and as innocent as a child."

But even romantic, committed love can lead to low self-esteem. "I believe there's an integrity and dignity right there next to your heart," Brother John says, pointing distractingly at my chest, "and that was given to you by God. A lot of us turn that over to someone that we love and then when they tell us we're a piece of shit, we believe them. We need to take that back, because it's not theirs, it's God's. Some people, usually women, come to counseling saying, 'I can't live without him.' I say, 'Yes you can. Needing him makes you dependent, not independent.'"

That need seems almost as distasteful to Brother John as dog. "Being a married person wouldn't allow me to touch as many lives as I have," he says, echoing not only the church, but Karl Marx and all the others who blame nuclear families for draining away what people could give to the world. I ask if he feels married to God, and he looks shocked. "Well, no, for one thing, that would be being married to a man." He clearly prefers the light bonds of obligation to his flock and his strong tie to God over the snarled net of family.

The monks' three basic vows are poverty, chastity and obedience. Most of us out here in the worldly world (including the ones who gaped at that picture of JFK Jr. with dog appreciation) assume those must be onerous restrictions. But at least one of the brothers is laughing back at us through the looking glass. "Celibacy is very freeing," says Brother John, "the most liberating thing I can think of."

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