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Christ’s Bosom

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS









Christ's Bosom by Enrique Fernández  


I never desired nuns. Sometimes I affect that kinky religious eroticism, so prevalent among those of us who were raised Roman Catholic. But it’s just that, an affectation, one I picked up after my Catholicism had lapsed, sometime in graduate school when I was writing a thesis on filmmaker Luis Buñuel. During my academic career the Spanish director was my role model and, predictably, I tried to adopt some of his delicious

perversity. But a real taste for convent flesh is acquired early on, during a childhood spent under the lurid spell of a Catholic education.


    

God knows my own Catholic schooling was lurid. Nothing but sex. Or rather the repression of sex years before the child, this child, knew what sex was. A Catholic education constructs a souped-up erotic imagination in which the spirit and the flesh engage in a lifelong mudwrestling match.


    

Still, no nuns. I went to a Christian Brothers school, which is to say that my mind was formed by celibate men. Like priests, the brothers had taken vows of chastity, which accounted, I think, for their obsession with sexual sins and, among a handful of the brothers, for the way they eyed, and tried to feel, us tender boys. Like prison, all-boys schools run by celibate males are where you

learn about homoeroticism and how to evade it, if you so wish.


    

The only time I saw nuns was when they escorted girls from a nearby all-girls school to our chapel. And then I only had eyes for the girls.


    

Truth is I never saw a desirable nun. Not that there was anything to see and desire save a face framed in black and white — in my childhood nuns still wore their traditional long habits. And those faces looked stern, pained, and, quite frankly, unpleasant. Try as I might while writing my dissertation chapter on Buñuel’s Viridiana — a film with a plot that hinges on the appeal of a woman in a habit — I couldn’t summon any longings for the brides of Christ.


    

More than aping the Buñuelian penchant for sacrilege I was hoping that some sexy memories would help me through the tedious task of dissertation writing. Besides, what’s the fun in having been put through the harrowing experience of a Catholic education, replete with disgusting visions of Hell, horror-film descriptions of martyrdom and a sorrowful attention to sin and guilt, if one can’t put it all to good use later? In other words, what’s the use of growing up Catholic except for the wickedness of living as a lapsed Catholic adult?


    

I got my answer one sunny afternoon walking up Broadway, somewhere around Columbia University.


    

It was summer. I was living on West 108th Street, at the lower end of the Columbia University academic ghetto. From there up to West 135th Street New York is not New York but a college town, not much different from, say, Bloomington, Indiana, where I first contemplated how a lapsed Catholic filmmaker might delight in the desire for a nun’s flesh. I had been living in New York for a few years after a decade and a half of exile in

college towns, and took great pleasure in reviving an urban pastime I had learned as a child: looking at women.


    

Men look at women with desire in towns as well as in cities, in pastures and forests too I’m sure. But in big cities standing on the corner watching all the girls go by is sophisticated entertainment, and in my hometown, Havana, it was, and is, an art. Looking is not all. In Havana, the Spanish tradition of the piropo has always been quite refined. Not to be mistaken with, but certainly very close to, sexual harassment, the piropo is a remark made by the gazing man to the passing woman. What differentiates it from harassment is, in a word, wit. Say something inappropriate, flat, dull, clumsy, silly or — the horror! — gross, and you’re a jerk, a loser, a schlemiel. You might as well go jump off a roof. Or take a vow of celibacy, which is probably how those guys who taught me about sin and Hell wound up in a religious order: they were piropo losers.


    

Theoretically, the ultimate point of the piropo is seduction, but no one actually believes that will come to pass; all enunciators of piropos are sexual agnostics. The real point of the piropo is to make the woman smile, even if only inwardly. And, who knows? Next time you meet she may remember you as

the man who made her smile, even if only inwardly. As good a beginning as any.


    

I was too young in that piropo-crazy city to participate in such an activity. But I was not too young to gaze and desire. In Latin countries desire is born with consciousness, perhaps earlier, certainly way before knowing what exactly is desired. Eventually I would not be too young to know that, but by then I was living in the U.S., an anti-piropo culture. One of the first things I remember hearing immigrant Latin men talk about was how in the U.S. you couldn’t say things to women on the street because they might call the cops and get you arrested. Imagine.


    

I might as well admit that I could never pull it off. The very idea of improvising a clever come-on to an unknown attractive woman on the street choked me with fear. I would probably say something really stupid and then
. . . go jump off a roof. Or take a vow of celibacy.


    

Ah, but inside I was a rake. What seductions I could craft within the privacy of my thoughts as I watched the lovely women stroll by! In New York, such private, secret seductions are plentiful; essayist Phillip Lopate once called these one-sided imaginary affairs “Platonics” because they are never consummated, but I think the activity is far hotter than anything Plato dreamed of. Well, anything heterosexual.


    

The Columbia University ghetto is not good for “Platonics,” of either gender, I suppose, though I’ve paid more attention to the women. This is serious turf for the life of the mind, and, alas, the life, or at least the beauty, of the

body suffers. To put it plainly, there aren’t a lot of pretty people to look at. Still, it was my neighborhood and when I walked around it I still gazed.


    

Gazed casually, as I was doing that afternoon when I saw her. She was a priest — that I could tell by her clerical collar — an Anglican priest, or, as they’re called in this country, an Episcopalian. To aspirational Catholics, that’s the people like us except with good taste and great church music. To old-fashioned Catholics, that’s the people like us, except the priests marry. And to uppity Catholics, that’s the people like us, except they’re English, les pauvres.


    

Now, most American Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry if they want to. Most American Catholics practice birth control, don’t confess their sins to some priest if they don’t feel like it, and, in general, follow their conscience more than the rules, like the good burghers who launched the Protestant Reformation. Still, the Episcopalians’ seat of privilege at the banquet of culture and education has put them ahead of the Catholics in such progressive matters as letting women be priests. The woman I ran into on upper Broadway was an Episcopalian priest, newly minted.


    

It was a hot summer. We all wore light clothes. So did the priest. (Is “priestess” wrong, sexist even?) I forget what I was wearing, possibly shorts and a T-shirt. What she wore I remember well. Below her clerical collar, the good woman of God wore a white summer blouse, buttoned up but short sleeved, and — ¡ay, ay, ay! — so light it was sheer.


    

Nipples. Some are surrounded by big, broad aureoli; some occupy a tiny place on a woman’s chest. Some are dark, some pink. Some retract in modesty. Some protrude, bulge, stick out, push out, shove out, ram the air boldly. Hers did. Of course, the woman of God wore a bra, but it was of no use. She had

aggressive nipples that could stretch their shape into any brassiere. Needless to say, I was staring at them.


    

Not that I had managed to objectify those twin zones of her anatomy to the point of obliterating the rest. She was beautiful bordering on handsome, or vice versa. That is, her face was strong and angular enough that, without make-up, as befits a woman of the cloth, she did not suggest an obvious prettiness. But she couldn?t hide it either. Nor could she hide the supple curves of a shapely though athletic body. She was the kind of woman who looks great playing tennis and who, later that evening, wearing a dress and high heels, would knock you flat on your back.


    

But she was a priest! Not exactly a bride of Christ, but definitely a disciple devoted to His teachings, engaged in His works. No, I had never desired a nun, but this Anglican belle in a clerical collar did the trick, the Buñuelian trick of fusing spirit and flesh, awe of the sacred with lust for the profane. It made me giggle. Until . . .


    

Holy logic. That’s what I learned in Catholic school. The art of reason (I think the Church got it from Aristotle via some brainy Spanish Arabs) applied to the unreasonable. Deconstructing matters that concern the soul.


    

It was the perfect logic of the Roman Catholic Church that was coursing through my brain as I stood on upper Broadway on that hot afternoon staring at the erect, dark nipples of a newly minted Episcopalian female priest. That we Roman Catholics did not allow women into the priesthood was not to say that a

woman could not be a priest, merely that Roman Catholic bishops would not ordain them. A priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, all the way back to the first bishop, Peter, the rock on which the Church was built according to the self-ordained priest who ordained him, Jesus Christ. When the English, led by Henry VIII, defected from the Roman Church, they had their share of bishops, perfectly legit ones, and their defections did not de-bishop them, any more than a priest’s sins make him less spiritually endowed to perform the sacraments. The Church’s hierarchy is based on spiritual credentials and the English priests had them; after their break with Rome they were no less bishops, no less capable of ordaining priests. Therefore, as far as Catholics are concerned, an Episcopalian priest is a priest — albeit one that embraces an improper tradition. Like the Catholic cleric, an Episcopalian priest traces his or her spiritual powers all the way back to Peter, all the way back to Jesus.


    

I was staring at the nipples of a vicar of Christ.


    

Oh, I had long ago given up belief in old-fashioned Catholic notions of sin. Most Catholics do when they discover sex. But the Christian Brothers taught me other things besides Catechism. Like history. There is something awesome about historical continuity and I cannot help being in awe of the fact that there was a man called Jesus who put his confidence in a man called Peter who put his confidence in other men and that one of those men charged by a long line that goes all the way back to Jesus had put his confidence in this woman. And that what I’m calling “awe” and “confidence” adds up to something called faith.


    

But Episcopalian priests marry. Could this woman? Could I court her, marry her, fuck her? I was already married, so could I commit adultery with a priest? Would that be a more serious sin than doing it with any old gal? Did she look at men the way I was looking at her? Did she know her nipples showed provocatively? What would it be like for her if she lived in my native tropics where the heat would force her to (un)dress like this every day and where men are more aggressive toward women? Has anyone told a piropo to a priest?


    

If thine eyes offend thee . . . I was looking, I was staring, I could not take my eyes off her nipples, those dark eyes that stared back in blind defiance.


    

The moment passed. She moved on.


    

On a hot city street God had spoken to me through the flesh, leaving me in a daze, a maze of morals and faith.


    

Jesus had nipples, had a penis, must have felt desire; I must believe that to believe He was a man, whatever else He was. His vicar appeared before me and let me see a woman, the pleasure a man most cherishes, shining through the cloth. Is everything that shines a reflection of God’s grace? If desire is sin, why does it rivet the spirit as well as the flesh? If the sight of a woman’s nipples, dark and erect on a hot afternoon, is not holy, why, then, does it feel like the sweet kiss of salvation?





©1999 Enrique Fernández By permission of Susan Bergholz
Literary Services, New York. All rights reserved.