Running out of Mass into the Secular World

[written in one sit without an edit, so pardon any mess ups]

“I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness” ― E.E. Cummings

I gave 2 talks on Saturday at a catechetical conference, one on the spirituality of a catechist, the other on the mission of the Catholic laity in the world. I told attendees if they wanted a copy of my PowerPoint, I would be happy to share. The notes I will keep for myself as I work to turn them into a book this summer. If you want the PPTs, just email me at

As often happens when I write and deliver talks, my view of everything is affected as my insights infest my vision. As I prepared this laity talk, my mind exploded with brand new insights — most of which did not make their way into the talk. Though they did muddle my talk a bit as I had too much going on in my head!

Most of these insights had to do with the God-given beauty, goodness, autonomy and integrity of the “secular world,” by which Catholics mean the nearly infinite panoply of good things that constitute the entirety of this world in its integrity, the created “temporal” order of time and space that we inhabit prior to death; and the culture-civilization that humanity builds in this temporal world to make it into the life-giving “garden” God made it to be. The whole of Scripture is the story of God’s creating and rescuing the secular to free it to be wholly itself, to reveal His Glory in its own integral structures — all being confirmed in Jesus, God-made-secular.

In Catholic Culture, deeply influenced by the hostility of atheistic secularism to theistic secularism, we tend to think of “secular” as a pejorative, i.e. as hopelessly tainted, of less importance than the “spiritual,” as intrinsically alienating from God, or maybe at best as just neutral “stuff” we have to endure or use as we make our way toward the eternity of heaven, which is obviously not secular. So devout Catholics tend to say things like, “I don’t get involved in secular things like I used to,” or “I used to be totally secular but now I am much more spiritual.” So when Vatican II says that “what is peculiar to the laity is their secular genius” and that their path to holiness is found in “secular professions,” it all seems so, well, wrong.

If we re-claim the Catholic sense of secular, we realize that such negative statements are misguided and buy whole-hog into the atheistic framing of the “secular” world as closed to transcendent meaning, cold, violent, directionless, godless, meaningless and wholly inimical to faith.

Okay, so I will stop and leave the rest for my book, God willing.

My simple point here today was to be this.

I went to Mass the next day at the Cathedral in New Orleans, with all this cycling in my imagination. As the Gifts of bread, wine and alms were brought forward at the Offertory, I had a disruptively intense experience of these Gifts as a highly compressed form of the “secular world” that had been cultivated by human labor and consecrated to the Kingdom of God by human love — more specifically, the labor and love of those people in that Church that morning. The Gifts were compressed artifacts of our work of civilization-building brought to the threshold of the Kingdom of God. I know this is not a novel insight, but it was a novel experience of the truth of the insight for me.

When I swallowed the Holy Eucharist at Communion, wow, it was a stunning awareness of all these insights fusing with the reality of the risen Christ in my mouth and my stomach. I at once remembered the above words of Cummings — which I have always loved. I indeed took the Sun into my mouth, Son of God-made-secular, now, in this Mass, made into our secular right there in Jackson Square. The secular offering of all of us baptismal-priests who had brought that morning the whole world with us into Mass, to give it over to heaven — not for desecration, condemning it, but for Consecration, redeeming it.

Then and there I saw the sacred was simply the secular in its most intensely God-imbued, God-inhabited, God-breathed, God-redeemed form, i.e. the in-breaking Kingdom Jesus Christ in His Church spreading like contagion throughout the universe from this Mass.

After Mass, I had to run fast to find a bathroom (the Cathedral has no public bathroom) — giving me a new understanding of the end of Mass words, “Go! Be Sent!” As I ran out into Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, in search of relief, there around me was wild, untamed, teeming humanity in the center of the secular City. There, with the Sun still in my mouth, I ran with me the Kingdom out Alive and leapt into the ripe air to face the darkness with light, eyes closed in trust of the so-Lover of the world.

There, I was missioned by God to run out and co-cultivate, co-civilize, co-redeem all of this with all of them, and with All of Him, Emmanuel, to gather the whole secular world up again (and again) for the next Mass. And the next Mass. Not to progressively eliminate the secular and make everything spiritual, but too knit heaven and earth, God and world, secular and spiritual together in a hypostatic union. Knit in me, in us who are by baptism the Body of our God, Jesus Christ. Forever. World without end. Amen.

“Let them praise his name with dancing” — Psalm 149:3

[I already wrote on this in 2016, but felt strangely moved to write this post anew. So here it goes…]

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance. I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.’ — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope. — Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 219

I am very poor at dancing, my wife is quite good. I didn’t grow up with anyone who loved to dance, or even liked to dance. When I was in college, I would only dance under the influence of alcohol, so I remember very little of that. And let’s just say dancing thus didn’t lend itself to chastity. After my faith conversion experience, I lost all interest in dancing because I couldn’t imagine it being anything but compromising for me. I found my physical outlet in weight lifting, softball, volleyball, jogging and swimming, but dance held no interest for me.

And then I fell in love with my wife in 1994 and all that changed.

One evening, about three months into our dating, she surprised me with a romantic dinner party outside on her apartment’s back deck. I came to the door to pick her up and take her out to dinner, and one of Patti’s neighbors, an 80+ year old salt named Robert E. Lee, startled me by intercepting me at my car door to “escort you to the finest dining experience in all of Tallahassee, with a lovely lady who, I understand, loves you very much.”

Steak was smoking on the grill, flanked by baked potatoes wrapped in foil. There was white wine already poured, set on a beautifully adorned patio table surrounded by tiki torches, bathed in Sinatra-genre music and presided over by a gorgeous woman in an equally gorgeous white dress. I was dazed.

She gave me my first formal dance lesson right then and there as we danced to Nat King Cole singing, When I Fall in Love. And we continued to dance for several hours after dinner. It was truly one of those transcendent life-moments — a kairos — that you never forget, that defines you in some deep and new way. That night completely changed — redeemed — the way I thought of dancing, because it was an expression of chaste and genuine love. It’s one of those memories that brings with it (to this day) all the feelings, smells, sights, sounds and tastes of that evening, as if it ended only hours ago.

Last October on our 22nd wedding anniversary, we relived that night of memories and discussed what was so special about it. We both agreed that it had a sacramental quality to it, as it made present in a crazy-tangible way God’s love for us, between us.

After years of being fed the spiritualized lie that loving God required me to view all other human loves as a mere “means to an end” (uti), the end being God alone, my love for Patti allowed me see how the experience of God’s love enhanced our love for each other, and vice versa — that night, and ever since then. This is the deepest truth of God becoming Man, God’s irrevocable affirmation that love for Him, love for human beings and love for His good creation are all integral to our one destiny of perfect fulfillment (frui). Our fulfillment is not in God alone, but in Jesus Christ, who is not God alone but Word-made-flesh, God-with-us in train (John 1:14). Only sin renders these alien to one another.

I wrote in my journal the next morning, “Divine and human love aren’t competitors, I felt so profoundly last night. How liberating. His Face, her face, one grace. If God’s name is love, then we praised His name mightily all night with our dancing. And if we marry, my love for Him will be her, and my love for her, Him. My God, our love then becomes a grace drenched, God-giving and God-receiving Sacrament…”

And it was, incidentally, on that night that I internally resolved to marry her, and seven months later proposed.

Ever since then, every time we get to dance, I am filled with that same presence that re-binds us together.

But two years ago, I had an amazing experience. Patti and I had not danced in quite a long time, but we found an opportunity to go out together and listen to a live band. And dance. It had been so long since I’d danced that I was feeling a bit ‘off’ and self-conscious. Though she was fully abandoned to the rhythm, as ever, I was not able to really enter into it as freely. But it was still fun. The next morning, I woke up to a voice message from an African American priest friend of mine (who very infrequently calls me) who said, “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”

I immediately wrote in my journal, “Yes, yes! He wants to dance with me in heaven, beginning now with my wife. His dance, her dance, one dance.”


My Advent Back-Flip

This post all about me, so there you have it.

I deactivated my iPhone and have returned to a flip phone for Advent, and from then on.

It’s not a crusade, or some grand protest against smartphones and the like. It was a decision of personal necessity, a recognition of discerned limits.

When my family first got me an iPhone 27 months ago for my birthday, I told them that I had long resisted getting one because I knew myself well enough to know it would be hard for me not to turn it into (1) a portable, total-work-portal and (2) to over-engage my knack for prolixity in communicating with the revolutionary voice-to-text. I give new meaning to the word “hypertext.”

I anticipated I would be tempted, and so it was.

I fought valiantly, devised various schemes for limiting myself, but alas! I was vanquished. I’m intense, and my mind never sleeps. The iPhone, well suited to such a penchant, offered me ever-fresh fodder in steady supply. Good things, indeed, just far too many of them. During our anniversary getaway in October, I realized, after a long and wonderfully deep conversation with my wife, that my mentality — my presence of mind — had become diffused, distracted, doubled by the iPhone. In fact, “doubled” best expressed for me the effect, as the phone had shaped in me a potent bias toward a virtual ‘elsewhere,’ detracting from the concrete world of my immediate daily existence that demands primacy as it contains my primary vocation.

My asceticism in general largely looks like barricade building, as I identify my weaknesses and temptations and then systematically limit their access to preferred suppliers. For me, this works best as, instead of choosing to talk to the devil directly, I just avoid and block my access to his favored haunts. As a friend of mine (who has lived a lot of life) often says, “I can resist everything but temptation.” lol And I usually bring other people into the act, to ensure accountability, as I am too willing to excuse small transgressions until they snowball into sizable ones. I imagine I’m not different than most. My wife is my technology accountability partner, and she has been excellent in keeping me honest, in her typically brutally honest way. Deo gratias.

Yes, I have lost quite a number of wonderful features the iPhone afforded me, which are such gifts; especially group texting, voice-to-text, and easy access to calendar/email. But a week into it, the benefits of flipping have been immediate and wondrous, with some being surprisingly unexpected. If I seem to be exaggerating, I’m not. I’ll name four benefits to give you a taste:

  1. I very quickly experienced a freeing diminishment of those diffusing, distracting and doubling effects, and a rapid re-entry into the slow moving, mundane and concrete world of my immediate daily existence. So much so, that I have had some genuine ‘wow’ moments in seeing my mentality re-center and settle back on the faces and places in front of me. The world has shaded brighter, more colorful, more vivid.
  2. Having lost my GPS, I now have returned to a favorite past-time: reading and memorizing road maps. I found myself this week dazzled at the resurrection of my spacial imagination, realizing I have never really learned Louisiana in my own mind. All I could think of last weekend as I drove to Albany, LA to do a parish mission was Psalm 84:5: “They are happy in whose hearts are the roads to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)!
  3. Now that texting (and emailing limited to my desktop) without voice-to-text is quite an effort, like handwriting, what I text is much more intentional, concise and thought out. I’ve remembered a bit more just how much I appreciate individual words and the labor of writing them. Flip texting (and desktop emailing) also slows down the volume of correspondence massively, which, while I lose out on many good things, has allowed me to re-appreciate simplicity. It has also made me much much more realistic about how many conversations I can (and should) actually sustain.
  4. As the camera-video features are pathetic, I have lost the tendency I had to want to capture, more than simply experience, the world happening around me in real-time. I love taking photos of people and things to treasure and share, but I found the iPhone made me think more and more of life as better captured and shared than experienced raw in the moment without a lens and savored later in conversation and memory.

I share all of this as a personal quest to place digital communications technology in service to my humanity; to my vocation; to my quest to be, as my colleague Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome says so well, “connected toward communion.” I wish to be able to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment at every moment. I wish to conserve my ability to attend with love, before all else, to my neighbor, to my nigh-bor, the nearby inhabitants of my immediate world that command my attention first and foremost. To receive the grace that’s in my face.

My Advent motto is, Simplify, do or die. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with 10 additional reasons I, also, preferred the flip. Hopefully they will make you smile.

Mashley, out of Nowhere

I’m not able to post this week, but (my daughter) Maria and Ashley made time to sneak away to City Park in New Orleans on this Labor Day, with their sisters (who wielded camera and mic), and put out a new Beatles cover. Yeah! Finally! Enjoy…

Trust in an unseen God-made-visible

Each year, thousands of men, women and children are innocent victims of sexual and organ trafficking, and it seems that we are so accustomed to seeing it as a normal thing. This is ugly, it is cruel, it is criminal! I would like to draw on everyone’s commitment to make this aberrant plague, a modern form of slavery, adequately countered. Let us pray together the Virgin Mary to support the victims of trafficking and to convert the hearts of traffickers. — Pope Francis

I spoke with a woman not long ago who has worked with a faith-based outreach to teenage youth victimized by the sex-trafficking industry. I have read articles and listened to presentations on the topic over the years, but every time I meet someone who is personally involved in this kind of work it shakes me to the core. History has demonstrated again and again that there lurks in humanity a dark and perverse drive toward enslaving fellow human beings for pleasure, power and profit.

The Hebrew’s story in Egypt is humanity’s story, and the words God spoke to Moses from the Bush were spoken over all ages:

I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters;
I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them
out of the hand of the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:7-8).

The Hebrew story is also the Christian story, as these “words of God” became flesh and tented among us. Hear in this section of the Nicene Creed striking resonances of the above Exodus text:

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

In Jesus, God “became man” not only “in accordance with the Scriptures,” but in accordance with the the entire human experience — even into bowels of hell, as the Apostles Creed starkly puts it, “He descended into hell.”

This woman I spoke with said something really profound about these young people’s plight in relation to God:

It is difficult to trust in an unseen God when what is visible appears to destroy any chance of redemption.

As she shared with me over an hour and a half’s time the details her faith-based approach to this work, and some of the extraordinary stories of how it brings hope in a hopeless place, I remembered my own experience 25 years ago working with the Missionaries of Charity. Specifically, I remembered this one young woman I came to know who had been sex-trafficked and was dying of HIV-AIDS when I met her. She said that she believed God had brought her to live with the Sisters before she died “to protect me from the men.”

“To protect me.” That phrase burned itself deeply into my memory and convinced me with new force that this was indeed the core mission of the Church in the world, to be God’s rescue made visible and audible. To extend the Incarnation and be Yeshua, “Yah rescues.” And Yah, an abbreviated form of the divine Name, Yahweh, is etymologically derived from the Name revealed to Moses from the Bush, “I Am” (Ex 3:14). The rescuing God is, and He is with us saying to every Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”

1 John 1:1-4 exquisitely captures this mission that flows from the Incarnation of the Word:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship [koinōnia] with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I know a man who had a “near death experience” after suffering a grave cardiac event in his early 30’s, and after he’d recounted to me the remarkable specifics of what he had seen and heard, he said: “I know this probably sounds like wishful thinking, but I am convinced that if everyone had one of these experiences, and saw and heard what I did, there would be no more wars or violence or starvation. When you’re there you realize absolutely nothing matters — and I mean nothing — but love.” Then he said, “But what I realized after this happened was that we already have all of this in our faith. But like Jesus said [Luke 16:31], it’s never that simple.” I added, “Yup, makes me think of G.K. Chesterton’s satirical quip, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.'”

The world is teeming with God’s glory, but sin and ignorance conceal its vision from our eyes, its music from our ears. Faith, hope and love give us the liberated, liberating capacity to see and hear again, and the imperative — “Go!” — to give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, liberty to captives by declaring in word and deed what we have seen and heard. The church is, as I once said here, the manifestation of the eternal God’s irrepressible ‘freaking out’ in our history to build a home for humanity to dwell in with Him; in safety.

This woman I spoke with also said, “And everything we do is soaked in prayer.” Indeed. And so we cry out unsparingly day and night to God in the face of all forms of slavery, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” (Is. 64:1).

Through me.

Let’s try.

You Want It Darker

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his final album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.


Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. It was his Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited — and was inhabited by — his Hebrew faith. Its language, worship, narratives as he grasped for meaning at the very edge of meaning. At the edge of the grave, his grave. This was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death in 2016. It utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and then woke up at 3:00 a.m. to write.

His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you.” Is suffused with the language, and tones, of the Kaddish — Jewish prayers for the dead.

Cohen wants his poetry to find its luminescence beneath the long shadows that arc over the atrocities of history. Especially those perpetrated against Jews. Intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth.

He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in You Want It Darker song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). This is the first, but not last time it appears in Scripture.

Hineni punctuates this song’s dread reckoning with God’s seeming complicity with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. Cohen grapples with the meaning of God’s “permissive will,” allowing evil space in creation. Or is it His ordained will with Abraham? Allowing death such immense power in the world, through the bloodstained hands of Cain, His own image. Man.

Hineni resonates with obedient readiness. It is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called, even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word in the face of such deep darkness. Indeed, he “wants out” if thus is how the Dealer deals. He will not simply submit without protest against death, without shouting of of the dark mystery. He contends with God, like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32), Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14), Job in anguish (Job 31), Jeremiah in terror (Jeremiah 20:7-18; Lamentations), Esther facing genocide, the psalmists crying out from the suffering of catastrophe, exile, slaughter.

Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice and evil, even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern genocidal analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings — prays — this song.

When Cohen says, “Hineni. I’m ready my Lord,” what does he brace himself ready for?


“Vilified, crucified in the human frame.” Easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning. But for a Jew, the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes insufferable dissonance. A shattering paradox, as divine image slays divine image. Genesis 9:5-6. The slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of image-smashing murderers. Permitted o “murder and maim.” Why such horrificly expansive latitude? How does this work in a divine economy? A paradox to blame? But what comes of this paradox’s unresolved tensions? Is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself?

The song is just brilliant. Its raw, shocking honesty, protest in the face of the dark night of evil — spoken before the face of God. It doe snot sound to me as rebellion, but a laying before God the cursed evil without submitting it to an easy resolve. Not cushioned, romanticized, coated, softened, but prayed out of dark faith into God.

Like the absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among all the psalms. The psalmist ends his for God’s place in the chaos in the night, moaning beneath heaven’s dead silence. Or the Book of Lamentations, which makes your heart sweat if you really pray into it. Especially at night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward.

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (Lam. 3:1-14; 17-18)

Such is prayer for those who “descend into hell.” Prayer de profundis “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1). In the abyss, hope shines brightest. Hope blooms fullest only in hopeless spaces, in fathomless ocians requiring infinite anchors.

And God cannot redeem what He does not make His own, what we refuse to surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a depth of redemption that, as St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night, makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed this way from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!

Cohen is voicing prayer for the prayer-less, those paralyzed spirits who sink into the pit, are mired in PTSD, breathe death in the gas chamber, suffer.

Why? Where? How long? Wake up! Act! Save! Come! No facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

Pope Benedict, son of Germany, speaking at Auschwitz:

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible – and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.

David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the 2004 Indian basin Tsunami that claimed more than 230,000 lives across 14 countries:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

…suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead…


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.


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