Mr. Wallace

Mr. Wallace, me. picdn.net

[Re-post from 2017]

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

People who have inspired me in life, as I reflect, all have one characteristic that really stands out: they are encouraging. Meaning, they fill you with courage to be who you were made to be.

When you’re with such people, it’s like you are drawn out of yourself as their interest in you, and what you have to offer, has such power. I find that such people are rare. The world doesn’t fold back in on them, but theirs unfolds out toward you. It’s what you might call magnanimity, “great-souledness.”

As my grandfather loved to say, great men, when you meet them, are those who leave you thinking, not that they are great, but that you are. When you walk away from them, you feel lifted, kindled, determined, resolved to press on, come what may, to employ every ounce of your energy and gifts, never ceasing to dream of a future full of hope — even when the space around you is narrow, or the skies above you are grey and low.

Mr. Wallace, my 7th-9th grade tutor, was such a man. I had flunked all of my 7th grade classes and had to transfer to another school and repeat the grade. Dispirited, despondent, depressed, despairing, humiliated. That was me. We would meet several times a week to review my subjects, especially math and English. His attentiveness, patience, and pedagogical skill all lifted me out of my academic confusion, and gave me confidence to ask questions, to learn.

But more than anything, it was the question he would ask me at the end of every session, “How are you doing?”, that broke open my thick shell. Nuclear, really. At first I remained on the surface with my responses, but eventually I trusted he was serious and began to talk. About anything. And he would listen, nod, wonder, laugh and respond specifically to whatever I said. In other words, I knew he was interested in me and saw in me something I didn’t. In the truest sense he was an educator, ex-ducere, he “drew me out.”

At our last meeting, after three years with him, we talked the whole time about my future. He wanted to know which language I would study, how I would handle a new school, what career I hoped to pursue. He asked me what the most important things were that I had learned with him. I said, “confidence.”

I was very emotional saying goodbye to him, but carried with me in the years ahead the image of his kind face and the sound of his voice. His last words to me are especially vivid. He knew I loved the band Aerosmith, and so for that last session brought in a cassette player and played, “Dream On.” He said, “never stop dreaming. Your future depends on dreams.”

Back in 2010, 28 years later, I searched for and found him. I wrote him a thank you email, and he wrote back, “Tom, I am appreciative for your kindness in making the effort to tell me this. I vaguely remember you. I’m old now. I am happy for your successes and am glad to know I played a small part. Those are the things make the hard times along the way worthwhile.”

Each of us is called, gifted and sent by God to someone. Sent to inspire, encourage, lift up, lend a hand. Awaken a dream. It’s what makes life beautiful.

Loving the expanse between them

pngtree.com

[re-post from 2013]

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

I said to my wife the other day how grateful I am that she knows when I need to be alone, or respects when I am not ready to speak about or deal with something. And vice versa. We then discussed the artful balance in marriage between togetherness and, for lack of a better word, ‘otherness.’ That marriage is unity, not uniformity — is the intertwining of identities to mutual gain, and not the fusion of identities to mutual loss. Love augments good in the other, and it does not diminish or steal from a person’s uniqueness.

The real power of marriage as a path to holiness, for me, is that balance — especially when it involves children — which is truly the ascetic art of love. Two freedoms, two personalities freighted with so much baggage, so many other people and so much history, come together to enter into a common quest of loving a new world into being. The family. It’s a gigantic adventure, soaring and humble, fraught with thrill and danger, haunted by the impending uncertainties of life lived trustingly beneath the wings of Providence.

Once when I was in Omaha, praying in front of the icon of Christ the Teacher, I saw in His eyes that our marriage was an entry into the the inner mystery of His divine-human love, especially His agonizing love in Gethsemane. There His two freedoms — human and divine — struggled mightily, sweat drops of blood beneath the looming shadow of the Cross in order to forge a new creation, founded on the costly unity born of obedient love offered on High as a living sacrifice.

Since we met in 1988, thousands of times our wills have cut cross-grain, sometimes very painfully, when we have found ourselves at odds and had to find a way forward together to achieve a new unity of mind and heart. Now it is so clear to us that all of these cross-cuts have been grace drenched opportunities to enter more deeply into Christ, into the mystery of His divine love that ceaseless labors to create unity with our human love; though only at great cost to both God and Man.

Which is why our marital practice of always stopping to pray when we find ourselves facing a painful disagreement has been life and marriage-saving. Praying breaks the impasse and brings our struggle immediately into Jesus, with confidence that He has already been victorious in that combat of love. His struggle is ours, and ours His.

Deo gratias.

Yet amid all of the various areas of unity we have achieved, our differences abound and remain. Some will hopefully one day be overcome, while others will never be overcome (nor should some of them ever be). Belles différences! All of them, though, as they create tensions, give us fresh opportunity daily to choose love again, to opt for a restless oneness that opens up new and far more interesting spaces with fresh possibilities to create.

But through it all — and this is the greatest grace of all to me — we know one lives for the other, exists for the other, is for the other. My wife is all at once a garden of challenge and of rest, a garden guarded by impregnable trust. Our marriage is fueled by a sacramental fire that burns deep in me for her, and deep in her for me — a fire of éros that drives me out of myself to live in her as lover; a fire of philía that drives me out of myself to walk beside her as friend; a fire of agápe that drives me out of myself to die for her as sacrifice.

This fire is our only hope. Amen.

Sheer grace

deviantart.net

[This post from 2013 came to mind as I showed the video below to a friend last week]

“There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering.”— St. Ambrose

I met a woman recently who shared with me the story of her husband’s infidelity, and their subsequent journey of reconciliation. It was breathtaking. I asked her if I could share the insights from the story with my readers and she graciously agreed. Here is what I later wrote down, written in her voice.

+ + +

It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a slow drift, years. We had just grown apart, gotten busy, had developed other interests. We got comfortable is the best way to say it. Nothing ever bad or hurtful, he was kind to me and I to him. And I just thought, okay, maybe this is just what happens for some couples. I had the kids and friends and church, and I found ways to deal with no intimacy. But I can see now that we both just stopped fighting for each other, for what our marriage was. And then he did that and it shattered my entire world.

After all of this happened, and he left the other woman, I found out I had cancer and then he lost his job. It seemed like everything we had relied on, the comforts and securities of life, had been ripped out of our hands. And suddenly everything we had once thought important and safe just fell away. What we did have was each other, and we had our children, family, friends, faith. I know its sounds so cliche, but only when everything collapses do you really see life is so damned fragile, teetering on the edge of a cliff. Clearly it took that to shake us awake. Thanks be to God it didn’t tear us apart in the end. That’s sheer grace, let me tell you.

During the time of my health crisis, I could see so clearly that our priorities before all this happened were totally out of whack. The frenetic press of life we kept up to acquire material comforts, our compulsive busyness (which was really distracting us from our misery), taking each other for granted, all of this had made it so easy for anything to pull the rug out from under us. We had lost each other over the years and he fell. But really, we fell. I can see both of our responsibility for it now. Never could have then.

After I found out about his cheating, I was so angry and bitter. I wanted to punish him bad. I wanted to spend all of his money, ruin his reputation and leave him impoverished. Even after he came back and begged my forgiveness when he’d left her. But then the cancer struck, and he lost his job. And everything just looked so different.

I remember one time we sat alone in the oncologist’s office waiting forever for the doctor to come, and we were just silent. I know he was guilt ridden, and I was angry, felt alone and terrified. You could have cut the air with a knife. And then he just broke down, and then I broke down, and we embraced and sobbed. I forgave him, and he received that through his tears. We knew all we had was each other. Again, sheer grace.

For me, now, that’s where God is most present — between two people who having nothing left but love. But each other.

When you share this, my message to everyone is, check your priorities. If everything was taken away from you, but you could keep just one thing, what would be left? What would it be? Then ask yourself, is your life built around that one thing, or something else? Fight for it. Don’t wait. And ask God to help before it’s too late.

Frittered away by detail

thelaratouch.com

[this is the post I mistakenly posted the other day before it was edited. I had been cobbling it together over a month’s time. Hope it is useful.]

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint, perseverance.

Early last Fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these 9 categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spread sheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life, as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e. living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues. Which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was 4 years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life, “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills — which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these ’emo-gnostics,’ more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really really well ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it…

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. — Psalm 39:5

My Advent Back-Flip

phonedog.com

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.

God is thanksgiving

Luke 7:36-50

A bit of a ramble of thoughts today…

God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence for all those he has created. God cares for each of us individually, watches over us, provides for us. The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by him. [This] means that every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may seem in itself, has a dignity and worth beyond human understanding. No man’s life is insignificant in God’s sight. – Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.

Everyone has a vocation.

Every single person was created by God with an intention that precedes creation itself. Regardless of the circumstances of one’s conception or of one’s parents’ reception/rejection of your coming-to-be, God unconditionally willed that each person exist. As Pope Benedict XVI said it, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary.” And that intention, will, thought, love and necessity continues in every subsequent moment of life into eternity. Our first vocation is to be “called into existence,” by God’s eternal decree, as human be-ings. Your first vocation is to receive existence, to receive God’s desire that you exist, and thereby receive His inscrutable love.

Revel and rejoice in that gift! If you begin and remain there, every other sense of vocation in life will be an overflow and never seem a burden.

Every other meaning of vocation flows from this first. It grounds our dignity not in what we can or cannot do, or in what we do or do not do, but in who we are. Pre-born and newborn babies, in their fragility and helplessness, are radical signs to us of this inviolable dignity that under-girds and supersedes our evolving ability to actualize various gifts, to care for ourselves and others, or to contribute to the good of humanity. Babies are screaming sacraments of the gratuitousness of existence, are the voice of God crying out, “Worthy, because loved!”

To love and care for children from the moment they come into existence in the womb — or to love any who are fragile or helpless — is to confess and express radical gratitude for our own unsolicited creation. Any good I do for others, any love or mercy or kindness I show them, is simply a just act of thanksgiving to God; an imitation of His lavish generosity in loving me into existence at every moment. My every vocational response, then, flows from this first act of gratitude. I write, love, teach, remain faithful, encourage, suffer and do all things to make of my life thanksgiving.

The Holy Eucharist, the thanksgiving of God and man — ! — makes present to us the God who gave His life away to us first by giving us life, and then by redeeming the life we wantonly threw away. In the Eucharist, God makes present to us our terrifying ingratitude as we savagely “put to death the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). And in the Eucharist, when the words of a broken body and bloodshed are spoken over bread and wine, I tremble knowing they are spoken about me, with intention, by the “Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Who loved me, gave Himself for me. The Son is grateful to the Father in the Mass for handing Him over into our hands so that He might bring us back to life again with Him to share His supernal joy. The Father is grateful to the Son for saying Yes to this mission of love, and the Spirit is the exchange of thanksgiving between Father and Son (Luke 10:21).

St. Thomas Aquinas, when he was 5 years old, asked his teacher, “What is God?” Today I conclude, God is thanksgiving.

Is Eucharist, which just happens to be the supreme nexus of God and creation in the universe.

And thanksgiving’s source and summit, its taproot and sweetest fruit, is love.

“The sacrament of charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman.” — Pope Benedict XVI

“Theos agapē estin.” — 1 John 4:8

So my real vocation is to gratefully place all that I am and have in the service of the God-Neighbor, Jesus Christ, which is another way of saying that my vocation is to love God by loving our neighbor and to love neighbor by loving God. Everything else is a secondary detail. Those who fret over their vocations to this or that way of life, this or that career, this or that location, this or that person, etc. need to transfer their angst-energy from those secondary specifics to the primary wholehearted commitment to “love in place” in the most radical way possible. If you strive to be faithful to loving in place, with the people and circumstances and health and opportunities and challenges you have right now and right here, the path ahead as to where God is leading you to expend yourself most fittingly will peacefully come. And whatever that is will, or at least should not, look any different from what you are already doing right now.

The only path to fidelity to God in the future is fidelity to God in the present.

So, simply share with God right now, in gratitude, your desire to do His will in all things. Then relax, do what you do well, trusting Him in the present to unfold your future with you. Remember what Bl. John Henry Newman said,

I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Whatever, wherever I am I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still He knows what He is about. Therefore I will trust Him.

So bloody relax, please, and love as best you can, repenting the rest into His fathomless mercy. Then, press on.

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Phil. 4:6-7

You are so loved, in every moment God explodes in joy that you are. Drink that in, give thanks and be at peace.

There’s a light
A certain kind of light
That never shone on me
I want my life to be lived with you
Lived with you
There’s a way everybody say
To do each and every little thing
But what does it bring
If I ain’t got you, ain’t got? Hey babe

You don’t know what it’s like, baby
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you

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