As I said in my last post, my baby daughter was born on March 29th. As I write this (one-handed, with my laptop balancing on the armrest of my recliner), I am experiencing what is perhaps the best moment of my life. She is sighing as she sleeps on my chest, her tiny fingers pressing gently against my shirt. Her head smells new, fresh, like the recently-bloomed lilac bush in our backyard. Her mother is sleeping on the couch next to us, breathing slowly and evenly. She is beautiful. All of this is beautiful.
This moment would not be possible without the kind of little deaths I talked about in previous posts. This life, the one resting peacefully, warm over my heart, is the result of deaths. This little girl is the sprout from the grain of wheat that fell.
There are three main deaths that I want to talk about that helped make this moment: the Death of Sex, the Death of My Plans, and the Death of Sleep.
This post is about the Death of Sex.
My coming to understand the Church’s teachings on sex is actually what really led to the deepening of my faith life, because my misunderstandings of Her doctrines on sex were a microcosm of my misunderstandings of Her doctrines on everything else. My perception of the Catholic attitude regarding human sexuality (and most everything else) used to be summed up in one word: No. No, you can’t have sex before marriage. No, you can’t masturbate. No, you can’t even think about sex without committing a sin. You must say no to your penis forever if you want to get to Heaven.
Not the most attractive belief system.
My understanding of Her teachings on sex now can be summed up in one word as well, although it’s a very different word: And.
Here is what I know now. The Church says sex is good, AND it is actually virtuous of me as a husband to have good and pleasing sex frequently. The Church says that sex is holy, AND as a matter of fact, it is perhaps the closest thing (outside of the Sacraments) that we as humans have to a real encounter with the divine. The Church tells you that sex is meant to be in a certain context, AND if you but listen to Her, you will find your heart and mind freed from the weight of sin, AND you will feel a sense of self-mastery yet before unknown, AND your sex life will be exponentially better when the time comes to give yourself to another.
I get why people don’t like the Church’s teachings on sex. I didn’t like them either. But most of the reason I didn’t like them was because She was telling me not to do a lot of things that I thought sounded like a whole mess of fun. Luckily, I was awkward and ugly during my high school and college years, which rendered me incapable of doing most of those things; but still, I wanted the option. It wasn’t until I dove into Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that I really understood what was happening with sex.
A guy named Christopher West has dumbed down JP II’s ideas so that guys like me can understand them more easily, and an analogy that he uses frequently is referring to sex as a banquet. I’m going to modify his version a bit here: I think sex is more like a rehearsal dinner.
Jesus Christ has promised all of those who bear their crosses, all of those who die for Him, a share in the Heavenly Wedding Feast. He is the Bridegroom waiting for the Church, His Bride, to come and dwell in His home and eat at His table. Sex is but the rehearsal dinner before the Heavenly nuptials. We are called to share in a taste of the celebration to come, to rejoice in anticipation of the festival, when we have sex. We know there is something better waiting for us, but we are allowing the excitement of our hearts for that future supper to bubble over inside of us. We gather in His name, knowing that What Is To Come is but a short sleep away.
Marriage is the invitation to that rehearsal dinner. It is a call to celebrate in that joy before the real joy of Heaven happens. It mirrors the complete self-giving of our Trinitarian God, the love of Two Persons that is so powerful that it creates a Third Person. It gives us an image of our incomprehensible Creator, and it allows us to bathe in the mirth awaiting us in the new day.
Where my metaphor falls quite short is that a wedding rehearsal dinner nowadays is typically reserved for the honored guests, the people with the most important roles. The Church’s understanding of vocations is quite the opposite. The married are, as St. Josemaria Escriva puts it, “the rank and file” of the faithful. It is the celibate, in all their forms, who are the honored guests at the Lord’s table.
Priests, nuns, sisters, monks, and consecrated singles are called to await the feast with such anticipation that they forgo the first party to prepare themselves for the True Meal. It is a higher calling. True, they are not invited to the rehearsal dinner; but that’s because they already have one foot in the reception hall; they are that much closer to The Dance; they will soon be called to the head table. The Church will never change its teaching on the celibacy of the clergy, not because She looks down on them and thinks them unworthy of sex, but because God has deemed them too worthy. He has called them to wait for the Wedding because the Groom should not see His Bride beforehand; He calls men like me to the rehearsal because he knows I am too hungry to fast the night through. He calls me to marriage so that I might not be overcome by my impurity, so that I might not degrade the feast or the rehearsal by snacking beforehand.
That is really what the Church is saying. They are not condemning sexual activity outside of a marriage as an unthinkable outrage, but as an irrational dampening of the joy which could be. No one stops at McDonald’s on the way to a wedding dinner, or even on the way to the rehearsal dinner, because they know the meal awaiting them is far superior than what they could get otherwise. Why stop for some fries, tasty as they might be, when there is a mouth-watering filet waiting for you in the future? Not only do you ruin your appetite, but you also disrespect the bride and groom who have invited you to share in their celebration. No one who loves the couple to be wed would think of taking away from their day in that way.
We are all called to refrain from ruining our appetite for the banquet awaiting us. Some are tempted to stop at McDonald’s: premarital sex is a tasty meal, to be sure, but it is not good for our health, and it ruins our appetite for what is to come. Others are tempted to even eat out of the trashcan: their hunger has such control over them that they dive into pornography just to have something, anything, to eat. Some probably are “eating” in ways for which I can’t think of clever analogies. But regardless of where you are, regardless of how many times you’ve lost control of your appetite, Jesus is asking you to begin fasting now. Don’t eat another bite. You are not ruined: you can still come to His table. But the sooner you stop eating of the filth, the better His feast will taste.
The sexual revolution claimed that the Church told people to suppress their sexuality. Nope. It was far more radical than that. She asked, rather, Christ asked, each of us to let our sexuality die. Not repression; death. I was called to take all of that desire in my hormonal body, nail it to the Cross of my Christ, and let it breathe its last. I must not ignore my sexuality, but make a conscious choice to let it go. I gave it to my God. And now the beast of my sexuality has been slaughtered and prepared for me. Alive, my sexual desire was wild and dangerous; dead, it was served to me at the table of the Lord, and I found it to be the taste my palette wanted in the first place.
I am not perfect. Purity has never been an easy thing for me. But I am also, right now, relishing in the fulfillment of the rehearsal meal. I am full; I am content. And it is wonderful. Every moment of fasting from my unchastity was worth it, and I regret every bite I ever took before my wedding day, because perhaps there would be more room in my belly for this meal. It is so good, so savory, so delightful; I can only imagine what food and wine and dance await us in the dawning of the New Life.