Good God and Bad Romance

[This is a post that’s been sitting in my inbox, growing in fits and starts over months and months. It’s long, as my posts go, but it’s time to let it go, it seems. St. Benedict, pray for us!]

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. — St. John Paul II

I was talking recently with a gentleman who is a marriage and family therapist about Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. We discussed at length the tendency among some wonderful catechetical initiatives in the U.S. to idealize the ‘wonders of sex’ in a Catholic marriage. Whether it’s the relationship-building power of Natural Family Planning (or ‘fertility awareness’ as I prefer to call it c/o Dr D. Cudihy) or the theo-erotically charged claims found in elements of the Theology of the Body movement (as opposed to St. John Paul’s actual teaching), there can be a “Gospel of Prosperity” feel to some of the promises made to Catholics, e.g. spiritually ecstatic supercharged sex that will leave you feeling more fulfilled in your marriage than any of those secular couples out there who don’t know what we know.

Really?

While it is unquestionably true that data shows couples who internalize a Catholic moral-theological vision of sex and marriage fare better overall in terms of things like marital stability and overall contentment with the goodness of the marriage relationship — along with other very positive effects — there is simply no magic equation between “doing it Catholic” and marital-sexual bliss. Just having right ideas in your head doesn’t mean your whole internal and external world suddenly approximates those ideas. Nor does doing the morally right thing mean it will automatically give rise to pleasure and happiness. The recognition and embracing of any truth is only the beginning of a long journey of integrating that truth into the complex realities of our thinking, feeling, behavior, relationships, commitments, etc. Now, in a culture that has made sexual pleasure into an end-in-itself, that idealizes orgasms as supremely life-fulfilling, or that markets (lucratively) sex with products and techniques that “guarantee” maximal sexual satisfaction without any negative consequences (or children), it can be tempting for evangelizers to mime the illusion and promise that faith offers the same results within its own moral-theological vision. “All that and more (without the bad stuff)!” But, anyone who has actually tried to live either the capitalist-hedonist illusion, or its Catholic mime, knows, if they’re honest, that sex in marriage yields very uneven results.

The simple truth of the matter is that sex is only part of the far more complex reality of marriage, of two different human beings who have chosen to join their very different selves into a shared experience of life. The choice to marry is itself extreme! Just think: a man and woman offering each other a total and exclusive self-gift of lifelong faithful love made for mutual benefit and for the good of those children they hope God will bless them with. So it is natural, it seems, to expect that sex would also in some way be an extreme experience of this enormous gift of love. However, the experience of sex involves and expresses the total real experience of real people in any given moment, itself hemmed in by innumerable limiting realities, i.e. health, psychological state, personal history, temperament, motives, location, time limits, ad infinitum.

Sex is the gift of the real self to a real other, not of the ideal self, and so requires all of the work and struggle and hard virtues that every other aspect of real married life requires to succeed. Sex sweeps up into itself everything else about us, the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly. It does not acquire, by grace or by technique, a miraculous immunity from the larger contextual experience of who each spouse is. And like that larger life, sex is uneven and inconsistent and, in the Catholic vision, must always be about far more than merely personal or relational satisfaction. It’s about, among other things, love, justice, temperance, patience, new life, bonding, communication, reverence for the other, tenderness, trust, boundaries, the capacity to see life through the other’s eyes. It’s about a lot.

And sex, like the emotional life, serves as a loud and insistent primal cry from deep within to attend to other (often ignored) issues — things seemingly unrelated to sex — that require action if the marriage is to grow and flourish. Like emotional intelligence, sexual intelligence is very intuitive and bypasses the remarkable capacity of individuals or couples for rationalizing and self-delusion. While you can try to bypass sex’s insistent voice for a while, using psychological denial or alcohol or diversions or some such thing, eventually the truth your sex life was trying to tell you will surface elsewhere and demand your attention. Or your marriage.

Over the years, a number of men and women — Catholic and non-Catholic — have shared with Patti and me their trials and tribulations with sex in marriage. It is an honor to be allowed into that sacred space, and I tread with fear and trembling in terms of giving advice. Dear God, what can I say? I’m a theologian, not a therapist. Among these people, some struggle with a spouse insisting on using artificial contraception, some struggle with the challenges of using fertility awareness methods, some struggle with infertility, some struggle with each spouse’s very different approach to sex and physical intimacy, some struggle with finding time and space and energy in their very busy work-family lives for physical intimacy, some struggle with fear of another pregnancy (rational or irrational), some struggle with an inability to talk openly about sex with their spouse, some struggle with feeling sexually starved, some struggle with feeling sexually used, some struggle with being sexually apathetic, some struggle with feeling tempted to infidelity, some struggle with impotence or health issues that make sex difficult or impossible, some struggle with being pressured to have sex because it’s ovulation-time (or because it’s not ovulation time), some struggle with the too-fast move from affection to intercourse. I could go on.

Of course, every single honest couple would readily admit their own struggles, their uneven experience of sex, regardless of how prayerful or orthodox or open to life or holy they are. Sex is a participation in the larger reality of marriage’s self-giving, life-giving, grace-giving, co-laboring love — with an emphasis placed on the “part” of participation. Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.

My point is that sexuality in marriage is a fully human experience on every level, and when you marry someone, you marry a fully human, baggage-laden human. Sex is a struggle because life and love are a struggle. Marriage, for Catholics, is a Sacrament which is full of graces meant to aid the couple in allowing their unique experience of full-humanity to become redemptive and sanctifying. Grace builds on nature, heals and elevates nature from within. But, as God’s common practice goes, He does not ordinarily remove our struggles from us. Rather, He saturates our struggles in grace so that the struggle itself becomes no longer enemy, but friend. It becomes the primary means of being redeemed, and of growth in virtues like humility, trust, respect, tenderness, patience, fortitude, temperance and sacrificial love. As the Council of Trent put it, God leaves behind our yucky weaknesses (concupiscence) after Baptism “for the sake of the battle” (cf 2 Cor 12:9). In this case, God invites the couple to fight together to conquer sin, secure the lovely victory of love, and become saints together. St. Paul aptly describes saint-making marriage in Ephesians 5 as a Garden of the Cross, God’s privileged New Eden in which He chooses to (re)plant His sacrificial love in creation. Hence, God has planted the Cross in the middle of sex, making its greatest joy the struggle to love your spouse in body, mind and spirit.

The real joy of Catholic sex is getting a taste of the divine ecstasy of infinitely selfless, faithful, total, life-giving and sacrificial love that became incarnate and fumbled about with us. And that joy, when embraced within the whole of our reality — including God’s amazing grace — is deep, abiding and ecstatic. Ecstatic, I say, as it comes from the Greek contraction ek-statis, “standing outside yourself.” Sexual ecstasy in marriage is about making love. Not the cheap version used to describe an orgasm’s passing oxytocin rush, but really making love. Ecstatic love calls you outside yourself deeper into that one-flesh union you pledged in the beginning. Because in the final analysis, true joy is the fruit of being all about the other, about being into their joy.

“…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

This was certainly the rationale St. John Paul II used when he made this point:

Since in marriage a man and a woman are associated sexually as well as in other respects the good must be sought in this area too. From the point of view of another person, from the altruistic standpoint, it is necessary to insist that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved. This is implicit in the principle which we have already so thoroughly analysed, and which excludes exploitation of the person, and insists on love. In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.

Let me say to bring an end to this overly long and rambling reflection, all married people should have some trusted person (or couple) in your life with whom they can share their struggles. Whether as an individual or as a couple. Don’t keep your trails shrouded in secrecy. Wise friends, confidants and couples have brought me immense strength these years!

One husband once said to me as we talked about his struggles in marital intimacy, “It just shouldn’t be this much work.” I said, “Really? Are you kidding? Yes it should. Sex for us Catholics is about love, and love is damn hard work. If you think it’s just a cheap thrill, an easy fix, a quick path to happiness with her, you’ll be permanently frustrated. This isn’t Disney, it’s reality. So get to work…”

But if I had memorized the words of Pope Benedict, I would have said this instead:

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

Prune us, Lord, that Patti and I might, by our Yes, in sex and in life, become fruitful branches on the vine.

“May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

3 comments on “Good God and Bad Romance

  1. Katy says:

    Tom, thank you so much for writing this. There is such honesty and freedom in your words, and it’s recognized and appreciated. I hope this article brings freedom to many people.

    I was praying with John 15 last week, particularly about pruning. Upon reading “every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes…” I realized the Father only prunes healthy branches. I always thought of pruning as refining what wasn’t needed, cutting back the bad stuff, or simplifying…”Well, Lord, then what is the purpose of pruning? What’s going on here?”

    When a plant is pruned, the ‘guts’ of the plant are made visible and vulnerable. The newly exposed, vulnerable branch learns once again that the ONLY way it grows is because it is literally completely a part of the plant. Because the branch remains in the plant, the vulnerability leads to new life.

    Jesus, the vine, is always vulnerable. Jesus is always giving, always giving to US. When we remain in him, the next spring there will be two (or more) branches from that very spot. No need to move, no need to work for it, no need to cover it up to protect it. The lifeblood comes from below, from within. Pruning is but an experience in being vulnerable, exposed to Him, being in need, and then being assured down to our bones that we ARE remaining in Him and He in us, and without Him we do nothing, but with Him is abundant and never-ending life.

    God Bless you, and your family, and thank you for writing!

    • Katy: A really beautiful reflection on that image — my experience corresponds to yours. May I have the trust and patience to remain thus vulnerable so He can prune unto new growth. God bless you!

  2. DismasDancing says:

    My dear brother in Christ,

    Today, a “Wow!” experience. Sorely needed considering the Enemy’s increasingly aggressive efforts to destroy “any” idea that sex, as created by God, has a purpose other than personal satisfaction. My bride and I met and married a few months short of 50 years ago. We are children of the sixties and all that decade brought to our society—and to us. Among the countless phrases, slogans, and catchphrases coming out of that decade are two that encapsulate the general attitude toward physical relationships that remain quite lively today in our society:

    “if it feels good, do it!” And in even greater homage to bacchanalian experiences of life:

    “If you can’t be with the one you love; love the one you’re with!” And finally:

    “Free Love!”

    My bride and I love each other deeply. More now than when we first married. That, however, hasn’t come without trying our best at times to destroy the “magnificent thing” we gave ourselves when we first committed to the other. It’s not important to narrate specific detail; especially when admitting to being “children of the sixties”. Besides, doing so would only encourage a prurient curiosity about things which long ago have been confessed, forgiven and, amid mighty struggles, mostly forgotten. Praise God!

    Throughout all our struggles, we survived because we came to understand fully what you have so articulately and beautifully discussed herein. We finally realized that our “history” as husband and wife who initially professed fidelity before God and many others was about to be buried by a fatal secular philosophy that espoused, nay, encouraged, the exercise of the phrases offered above. We finally realized the sacredness and beauty of what we had once promised and the depth of despicable desecration of those promises to which we had descended. Perdition was our destination. To us it seemed we couldn’t get there fast enough. Praise God, however, the die was not cast in bronze nor chiseled in granite.

    For, one Sunday after Mass, we found a quiet place to review, undisturbed and in brutal honesty, everything—everything!—and decide what our future was to be. Again, no specifics, but your observation noted below, found in the heart of your post, provides a reasonably accurate description of what we tearfully came to understand if we were to live the rest of our lives in “holy” matrimony.

    “Sex is only a subset, a small portion of the whole of who we are and what we are about as husband and wife. Keeping sex humble and real, though honored, in marriage is a good recipe for peace. And joy.”

    As you so poignantly point out in your piece, it ain’t without struggle. Not at all! That said, our decision going forward was to do everything in our power (and with very special petitions for serious help from Our Lord and Blessed Mother) to heal the vicious wounds to which we had subjected ourselves. That was nearly 30 years ago. While the struggle is no less difficult today in terms of placing sexual intimacy in its place, as my bride and I age, sexual wants and needs more and more often take a huge dive on the “must have, must do” chart of life. No longer on the “bucket list” if you will.

    When folks ask, “how long?” as it applies to our marriage, we answer with a bit of a chuckle, “next year, we will celebrate 50 years; for now, however, we’re day-to-day and pray we’ll make it!” All tongue in cheek, yes; but with a bit of irony because of our earlier struggles. With the help of Almighty God, and the “history” together with which He has graced us, we just might make it to 50!

    One final word: forgive, forgive, forgive. And when you have done that, forgive, forgive, forgive, and forgive again. Jesus told us to do that. For us to have survived, that was a must. To borrow an AA tidbit: “It works if you work it.” We worked it; and here we are!

    Thanks so much, my dear friend. Bless you. AMDG!

    DD

    Many thanks, my friend, for your advice re this reply.

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