Virginia Vitzthum

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."

Flagged for Approval

They suddenly appeared everywhere Friday fluttering from car antennas, filling store windows, tacked up over apartment doorways. And my first thought was, "What's with all the flags? Is this Peoria or is this New York?"

Don't get me wrong. I know we need symbols to go up against the inspired ones that hit us Tuesday. There was a horrible inclusiveness in using our planes to knock our beloved skyline on top of us. It made "us" out of Wall Street traders and pushcart vendors, Joe Sixpack and Anna Absinthe, New York cops and those who generally fear them. New York, aside from scattered incidents of racial scapegoating, is pulling together -- giving too much blood and food and clothing. We're all loving Giuliani, a first for me. The groups I consider "us" agnostic peaceniks, New Yorkers, Americans, human beings generally agree that this is a tragedy, the rescue workers are heroic, and the terrorists should be punished.

But when I saw all the flags in Brooklyn Friday, I felt pushed away from the mourning party. I had just read that Americans polled overwhelmingly wanted war, and was feeling alienated from my country, just as I did during the national cheerleading after "we" bombed Libya and Iraq. To feel less like an alien, I live in New York, specifically in tofu-munching, yoga-happy, pacifist Park Slope. "There goes the neighborhood," I thought when I saw the flags Friday.

I headed to the peace vigil in Union Square that afternoon, my first time into Manhattan since Tuesday. The F-16s roared overhead. A white guy on the sidewalk near my apartment was pointing at the jets and screaming "Ya hear that? You're gonna see what it's like to get bombed, ya piece a shit."

I asked him who he was yelling at. He said eagerly, "the guys who run that store; they're fuckin' Muslims." I waited in vain for some Martin Luther King, Jr.-style eloquence to fill me. I finally said weakly, "THEY didn't fly into the World Trade Center" and walked away, shaking my head.

That guy is who the flag is for, I thought, or at least it is this week. On a peaceful Fourth of July, the flag represents what I do love about the United States the self-evident truths, the Bill of Rights, the beacon for the masses yearning to breathe free, the freedom to burn the flag and push the envelope and hash out our differences.

But this week, with the saber-rattling among our (mostly) elected officials and Arab-Americans being harassed and attacked, the flag is sinister. It says, "Let's bomb the fuckers." Any flag flown since Tuesday signifies an "us" that demands a "them," I thought as I headed to the vigil.

I was packing candles, still the most symbolic bang for the buck after all these centuries. Lighting a flame in New York this week makes emotional sense -- to honor the still-slogging firemen and their dead comrades, to connect with vulnerable neighbors, even to symbolize the hunt for terrorists hiding in the shadows.

Friday was another beautiful early autumn night and the park blazed with candlelight and singing. Friends and strangers lit their candles off each others', and made shrines and mini-shrines out of missing person fliers taped to the sidewalk, plastic-wrapped bouquets, candles, and a constant stream of instant magic marker messaging on rolls of paper.

The outpouring reminded me of the AIDS quilt: art therapy-cum-folk art-cum-potent symbol of tragedy's scale. Besides the scrawled prayers and We Love Yous for people dead and missing were pictures of the Twin Towers, bitten apples, broken I [heart] NY hearts, and eyes dripping tears. The miles of mostly peaceful graffiti murals produced this week are also full of American flags.

To my astonishment, the whole peace vigil was draped in flags. The stars and stripes appeared on signs pleading "Don't Turn a Tragedy Into a War," "Islam is Not the Enemy," and "Justice Not Revenge," and on head scarves, T-shirts, wrapped around shoulders and piled in the shrines. Flags were on doggie sweaters and quickie "America Under Attack" T-shirts. Strangest of all was a slow procession of Tibetan Buddhist monks, the last of whom held his candle in one hand, and in the other, a paperback-sized Old Glory on a stick. The red, white, and blue plastic against his rust-colored robe rang as dissonant as a mink on a PETA protester.

What was this hawkish symbol doing at my peace vigil? I began asking people wearing or carrying the flag "what does this mean to you now?" A 22-year-old in a Yankees cap, a brand new "America Stands Proud" T-shirt and a huge flag as a cape said, "unity." With? "Everybody here. You, them." His eyes welled as he said, "I'm feeling what everybody else is feeling." The words and the sentiment were echoed by many young hipsters shaken out of their cool. The flag was for them, a transmitter of near-telepathic empathy that had little to do with patriotism. I asked the flag-draped guy if the flag meant war and he said no, indiscriminate bombing would be a mistake.

Almost everyone wearing the flag opposed war, not only at the vigil, but on the street in Brooklyn and Manhattan. "Unity" and "freedom" were the two most common answers to my question "what does wearing or carrying the flag mean today?" But when asked "unity with whom?," few said "Americans." They pointed instead to "everyone affected" or "New York" or "the firemen." There was little defiance or anger; nobody talked about the flag showing terrorists that they couldn't scare us.

All in all, the flag seems to be serving New Yorkers not as a call to arms, or not just a call to arms, but as a tentative, politically neutral message of support and kinship. As a college student in a stars and stripes kerchief put it, "If everyone was wearing, like, a yellow hat, I'd be wearing that."

The song choice at the vigil was equally catholic: the Star-Spangled Banner; This Land Is Your Land; New York, New York; Give Peace a Chance; Amazing Grace; Born in the USA; Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The hippies took over and led everyone in We Shall Overcome; Michael Row the Boat Ashore; and yes, oh Lord, Kumbaya.

The symbols are very squishy here in New York, because it's all so unprecedented and confusing. We're still figuring out what happened to us and who we are in relation to it. Are we in a war? The TV news is already experimenting with the rippling flag war graphic in its Patriotism for Dummies series of banners: Attack on America; America Under Attack; America Rising.

We don't even know who the enemy is. Osama Bin Laden and his holy warriors are as hard to grasp as ghosts. And on Tuesday afternoon, I saw the first battle of the war against the ghosts, waged by New York's finest.

It was just before dusk, and a tow truck driver had snuck me through the Battery Park Tunnel to just south of what would soon be called Ground Zero. When we emerged from the tunnel, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, it was darker than in Brooklyn, part September shortening of days, part dome of black smoke overhead. White powder and singed memos swirled down West Street. Everything was muffled, nearly silent.

Dozens of dust-frosted cops huddled uncertainly in groups. Most wore helmets with the face shields pulled down, a sight familiar from demonstrations. But there were no demonstrators, no crowd to control, nobody to fight or protect. A vast riot squad faced down nothing but smoke and dust swirling from the wreckage piled on thousands of bodies. It was the closest I've ever been to a war zone.

The "us" I thought of in that sad, surreal place wasn't America; it was every person who's been bombed. It was innocent victims of wars "we" have funded and abetted and masterminded. It was anyone with the misfortune to be born in, say, Afghanistan, walking to work and being blown to bits. The last thing I wanted was to send a bomb or wave a flag.


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