If I had been 24 and my former atheist self, I would have thought I had achieved pure bliss. I would have never gone home.
But I'm not 24 anymore, and I'm Catholic. And I had just been asked to spend three hours taking pictures of beautiful women in bikinis -- and get paid for it.
I tried to pray to my favorite saint, St. Teresa of Avila, for guidance. Teresa understood the link between eros and agape (erotic love and divine love), and compared God's desire for us to that of a relentless lover. And what was wrong with with spending a sunny afternoon at a pool party photographing hot women and getting a check at the end? It would be insane not to!
What happened: I am a summer teacher at a university in Washington, D.C. The program is more like a camp, where the kids, who are from all over the country and the world, get to stay for a few weeks and earn college credit. We take them on field trips and try to give them other fun things to do while they are here. One of the most fun spots in D.C. over the summer is the Capitol Skyline Hotel pool, which is huge and had lots of room to accommodate kids (my class alone is 120 kids, and there are thousands on campus all summer). I went drove down there one Sunday after Mass to check out the size, scope, and take a couple pictures for reference in case we wanted to give them a place to swim.
When I got there, I walked right into the middle of a pool party. The weekly "D.C. Pool Party" has become a well-known bash in Washington. It's a gathering spot for young people, who go to dance, meet, drink, and just generally have a good time.
It's also filled with very, very attractive women. Dancing. In sexy bathing suits. And drinking cocktails.
And lest anyone get the wrong idea, the DC pool party is a good time, not a sleazy one. The people who run it, both the hotel manager and the party organizers, are friendly and professional, as are the guests. It's a multicultural rave a mile from Capitol Hill that has nothing to do with lawyers, politics, or the election. It's the kind of thing you'd come across in Brazil. It's not the grotto at the Playboy mansion.
I had been there for about an hour and was getting ready to leave when Eric, one of the party organizers saw my camera bag. "Are you a photographer?" he said.
Why, yes I am.
"Listen, our photographer didn't make it today. Can you take some pictures for the next three hours? You know, people having fun, pretty girls." He then named a price -- a fair price.
I looked around. Dancing, hula-hooping, champaign on ice. My every Motley Crue fantasy come to life, twenty years too late.
We shook on it.
Was I sinning? I honestly wasn't sure, and still aren't.
As I Catholic and author of a book about John Paul II's Theology of the Body, I knew that it is immoral to look at another with lust. Yet that same Catholicism, the religion of Michelangelo, the "Song of Songs," and Walker Percy, had taught me that the human form, particularly the female form, is a divine work of art that offers us a chance to love how God loves. I thought about how crucial small things are, that what the secular world considers a silly obsession among Christians with the degrees of things was actually pure wisdom.
A recent article explored how men prefer regular bathing suits to string bikinis; they like something to be left up to the imagination. I think a Christ-centered man with a healthy appreciation of women can admire the female form, and express that admiration in a sacramental way, if the form is respect by him and the woman who owns it.
The liberal theologian Gary Wills once mocked John Paul II when the pope wrote that there was a proper and improper way to make love. The Pope says you have to do it exactly right! Wills howled in derision. But the Pope was right; as the great Catholic philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand once noted, sex can turn from very loving and mutual to degrading and using with very few minor adjustments.
There really is quite a difference between a string bikini and a one-piece. And someone who has mastered his passions can appreciate the form without it degrading into lust. I think.
As I made the rounds taking my pictures and prayed to Saint Teresa to keep my thoughts pure (getting out of there will keep them pure, came the response), some Walt Whitman from my days at Catholic University came back to me:
This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear'd of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching
That night, I uploaded the pictures and sent them to Eric, the party organizer who hired me. "Hey, these look great!" he emailed back.
"Thanks," I replied. "Hey -- any chance your guy won't make it next week?"