saddleback saint, by Clay McLeod Chapman

based upon The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila

…An abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex may inadvertently encourage other forms of alternative sex that are at higher risk of STD’s. — The Washington Post, 2005

Paul gave me his promise ring. Ever since he reclaimed his purity last summer, kick-starting his second virginity by taking the vows in front of our whole youth group, I’ve never seen him without that chastity band wrapped around his finger — stainless steel silver with a hand-polished double cross inlay, laced within this brushed background of a crown of thorns. Serves as the perfect constant reminder of his commitment to Christ. He swore before our pastor and God above that he’d never take it off until he felt like he’d found the one. The one.

Flash forward to my basement couch one month later. Paul just presses mute on the remote control and points his ring-finger at me without saying a single word, only to slowly slide the ring off, the band snagging on his knuckle. All I can focus on is the tan-line I find looped along his, this pale halo encircling his skin — a ghost ring, the flesh indented as if he were still wearing it. He brings his ring up to my face, pinched between his index finger and thumb, so that I can see the scripture inscribed along its inner rim:

Blessed are the pure of heart. Matthew 5:8.

I never even knew there was an engraving hidden within it. Nobody did.

Believing that true love is patient, he said, slipping his ring onto my finger. I hereby make a commitment to myself and my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter into holy matrimony.

I didn’t know what to say. I just pushed Paul back against the couch, slipping myself between his legs on the floor. I rested my elbows on his knees, his ring clinking against the teeth of his zipper as I opened up his pants. Taking him into my hands, I watched Paul’s lips part. I heard his breath sharpen with every inhale. I watched his eyes roll up into his head, as if to slip off into a trance — and all I could think of was the saint his parents named him after, Apostle Paul; how he would always slip into these fits of religious ecstasy, leaving his body behind just before tapping into that rapture.

Oh God, he said. Oh god oh god oh god.

I never took my eyes off of Paul through the whole hand-job, baring witness to the moment where I saw divinity enter his earthly body, caught all up in paradise right there on my basement couch.

I believe God has plans for me. Big plans.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the saints. During services, I always end up staring at the stained glass window of St. Giles. I’ll count the scabs scaling his face. The sun will seep through his cheeks, lighting up his leprosy, the colors casting themselves across the floor. I’ll place my hand underneath the beam, the redness of his sores soaking into my skin, make-believing I’ve been afflicted with whatever sickness he had.

Then I imagine what it would be like to have my own stained glass window, my image soldered along with all the apostles. Girls from church would look up to my window and say — That’s Saint Michelle, patron saint of awesomeness. Or abstinence. Whichever works best. When facing the daily temptations of premarital sex becomes too much for these girls, when peer pressure pushes itself in from all around — they’d pray to me.

I made you something — Paul said, handing me a cloth bracelet.

What’s WBJD?

That B’s supposed to be a W. What Would Jesus Do?

What do you think WBJD could stand for?

I dunno. Wanna BJ, Dude?

Paul and I are accountability partners now. We’re pledging together. We haven’t had real sex yet. I’m remaining chaste until we marry, preserving my technical virginity for that magical day when we become one flesh. He keeps saying how ashamed he is in himself about his past, wishing he’d waited to’ve had intercourse with someone special. Not just some girl from summer camp.
God offers us all second chances, I said. His forgiveness is a gift.

I have a gift. I can only give it away once. Then it’s gone for good. There’ll be no getting it back. I want to give it to someone who I know I’m going to be spending the rest of my life with. Someone special.

I believe that person’s Paul.

We know how to control ourselves. We set our romantic parameters way up-front in our relationship, well aware of what’s off-limits and what’s not. My parents have a no bedroom rule here in our house, so Paul and me always end up in the basement. Watching TV. If things ever get too hot-and-heavy between us, I can always call for a — Time out. Hold those horses. Cool down.

Sorry, he said. Must’ve gotten a little carried away there.

There’s a line, Paul. Don’t cross it, please.

I know, I know. It’s just hard sometimes. You feel so good…

Practicing abstinence isn’t such a biggie once you realize there are so many doors into this temple. The only one that needs protection is the front gate, pad-locked with chastity. But nobody ever mentions the exit.

You sure you know where you’re going?

Of course I do, he said.

Don’t get them mixed up, okay?

I turned over onto my stomach. My chin sank into the couch. I bit down on the cushion so hard, there was a ring of my teeth left in the leatherette. I closed my eyes and started listing off all the saints I ever learned about in Sunday school. St. Wolfgang, patron saint against stomach disease. St. Pancras, patron saint against cramps. St. Erasmus, patron saint against appendicitis. St. Polycarp, patron saint against dysentery. St. Fiacre, patron saint against hemorrhoids. St. Osmond, patron saint against stomach ruptures.

Then I had a vision. Suddenly I saw Paul standing before me. He was an angel, his face burning. He had a long spear of gold in his hand. There seemed to be a little fire at the iron’s point. He thrust it into my heart, piercing my very entrails. When he drew the spear out, my entrails went with it, leaving me all on fire. The pain was so great, it made me moan — and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, so deep was the intimacy between us, so beautiful, that I couldn’t wish to be rid of it. I didn’t want him to stop.

My soul was satisfied now with nothing less than God.

I keep waiting for my calling. Nothing so far. Whatever God’s got up His sleeve for me, I’m choosing to commit my body unto Christ as a living sacrifice. To remain pure.

I’ve been fighting off this fever all week. I’m nauseous all the time now. Mom thought it was nerves — what, with the pledging ceremony coming up. I asked her if she’d take me to the doctor, telling him about this persistent itching. This soreness that won’t stop. When he asked me if I was sexually active, I told him — No. Of course not.

When he said these symptoms sure sounded a lot like gonorrhea, I told him flat-out — But that’s impossible. How could I get gonorrhea when I’m still a virgin?

Paul’s family sat next to mine during the pledging ceremony. Every pew was packed with parents, cameras in hand, all of them ready to snap off a shot of their children as they received their purity rings.

Paul squeezed my hand before we walked down the aisle together with the rest of the pledgers. I haven’t told him yet. He looked fine to me. Symptom-free.

Looking up, I found myself surrounded by all the saints, their stained glass windows watching on just above everybody’s head. There’s St. Giles. St. Peter. St. Teresa of Avila.

And from the farthest window, way at the back — I imagined I saw myself. Saint Michelle, patron saint of STD’s. The virgin with the venereal disease. One day, my face will be emblazoned in stained glass along with the rest.

Because God has a plan for my life. Today I commit my body unto Him.

And if I ever break this promise — let no one pray for me.


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