Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Abstinence and marriage, Part II: Bueno!

I've read some exquisitely thoughtful and transparent comments from yesterday's post, Abstinence and marriage: ¿Que pasa? The only worthy response would be to continue with a few more thoughts.

Jen wrote that she finds an inherent difference between priestly (or monastic) celibacy and periodic (or permanent) abstinence in marriage. I think she's right on this: Celibates (priests and religious) have freely vowed not only to live a life without sexual intercourse but also detached from the particular, one-on-one friendship that the marriage vows demand. Very few men and women get married expecting years and years of sexual abstinence. One anonymous commentator wrote that "the single person and the religious are both called to live chastity for many years. What makes it possible for them is fidelity to the spiritual life and the life of prayer. What is four weeks in comparison?

My response would be that four weeks living in the same, close quarters after years of a shared bed, shared sleeplessness, shared affection, and shared tears can make the shift from "sexual active married couple" to "sexless married couple" very different from life in a cell or large, lonely rectory. I'm not denigrating either sacrifice, I just think it might seem callous to compare (much like comparing the struggle of an infertile couple to my struggle).

The same anonymous commentator makes, however, an excellent point about the nature of human life: The great equalizer for all vocations and states of life is the call to sacrificial love. It's a difficult teaching, but, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

Anonymous: "My recommendations to you aren't rocket science— daily Mass, weekly confession, weekly adoration, weekly fasting. Fasting, in particular is key to taming one's desire to engage in the marital act. I know that this sacrifice isn't easy— but it's part of what the marital vocation calls on you to do— but in a marriage— every step of the way is paved by sacrifice..."

April puts a positive slant on it: "God is making us into saints and THAT is beautiful. That is life-giving." She's put her finger on a truth we hold dear: All suffering can give life. It is all able to bear fruit.

I was listening to Abbot Tryphon this afternoon. He said, "When we are free, there are no battles. Life is a constant battle with the material world." As we battle in our desire to have it all--sex, health, avoid pregnancy, achieve pregnancy, Brownie Sundaes, a slim figure, plenty of sleep, completion of all projects--we inevitably feel the pull of the "flesh" (as in, the things that are transitory) to compromise. "If I just used a Pill, I could have sex and avoid pregnancy." "If I just made myself throw it all back up, I could eat Brownie Sundaes and be slim!" The killer argument comes from the psychologist: "You will go crazy if you don't have it all!"

But new life is not born of these compromises. It is born of becoming free of the desire to compromise. I think anonymous #2 gives good suggestions for training our souls and bodies to become free: fasting, prayer, the sacraments. It is only if we live in the very life of Christ himself that we can be free as he is free.

The Abbot also said that--as he was feeling miserable one day in all his accumulated wealth--he realized suddenly that this life was given him only as a time to prepare for eternity. The married life is only a sign of that real life: eternal consummation of our union with God. It is a means, not an end, to bring us to our true end.

In a sacramental and faithful marriage, abstinence is going to happen. For various reasons--voluntarily or involuntarily--we cannot always come together physically. Another friend pointed out to me the many examples of saints and blesseds who have chosen abstinence within their marriages either permanently or for a short period of time. We can join secular culture and psychoanalyze these men and women to pieces, or blame the Church for bashing sex in honoring them, or we can assume the best: They were seeking freedom, total freedom for the things of God. Their joy and final victory doesn't denigrate large families or sexually active marriages: It uplifts "those who are bowed down" under a battle they did not originally anticipate.

I am grateful for your company and witness.

Image Source: Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Blessed Maria Corsini


Lizann said...

Erica, I agree that it is difficult to compare abstinence in marriage to abstinence accepted with the vow of chastity. To some extent, you can't miss what you have never had. I was a virgin for 25 years until I was married, and it wasn't very difficult. But now that week or more of abstinence each month is a huge challenge and stressor for us both! But I have also experienced abstinence during deployments, which are 7 months long. It is lonely, to be sure, but not nearly as difficult as some people expect. My beloved is not here, so I miss him, but sex isn't an option. It is much harder when he is here and we experience longing and desire, and sex IS an option, but one we are not accepting, for whatever reason. Prayer helps, as do honest discussions about our reasons and plans for the future. Other than that, we mostly just suffer through it. I appreciate you bringing up the topic. My nfp training was 4 years ago, and not very helpful. I am now learning the Creighton system, and have good hope for it!

Susan Orlowski said...

Lizann, I agree with you 100%. The periods where my husband is away are actually easier, and cuddle times are frought with the struggle between reason and passion. But would I ever be able to *not* cuddle in order to keep my passions calm? That would require some kind of virtue I can only hope for at this point. After all, according to the Angelic Doctor, mutual comfort is one of the excuses for the marriage act. But I also have come to realize that I'm not going to ever achieve mastery of self or a more pure love of God as long as I'm focused on earthly things. Not that I think there's anything wrong with the marital act; only that there is in fact, something and someone higher. I'm adding all us abstinate-marrieds to my prayer list. God Bless us all, and may those in heaven who've already trod this path pray for us!

Nayhee said...

I was glad to see you brought up the issue of compromise in this second post. The choices are not to abstain or not to abstain, but the third choice: to contracept. That is always and option and it is one that we must always reject. When we don't, we are miserable. Much, much more miserable than we are when we mutually choose to abstain.

Iacobus said...

I was Anonymous #2.

A few considerations-- certainly a religious or priest has the benefit of spiritual formation-- both from seminary training-- and of community life for religious.

A single person cannot and will not have the kind of prayer / community life that sustains priests and religious. This is the difference between life in a lonely rectory and life in a lonely apartment. I hate to say this-- but from what I've seen-- very few single people-- men and women alike really and truly master purity prior to marriage.

Purity is both a gift and a challenge for single persons called to marriage. For it requires one to love his or her spouse-to-be in a completely selfless manner-- to die to oneself and desire nothing-- to want only the supreme good of the other, even if it means the breaking of one's heart.

Very few people in today's society equate marriage with the cross or see it as a more comprehensive carrying of the cross-- but from Day 1, that is what it is.

As Fr. Juan Diego Brunetta put it, marriage is not "exalted, like the Book of Revelation, like the wedding feast of the Lamb."

True sainthood involves taking up our cross and carrying it joyfully, not allowing complaint or unhappiness to seep through.

I realize that this is not easy, having shared a common life for so long. Moreover, I want you to know that you have been in my prayers. But this is the nature of sacrifice. My comment about four weeks is only to remind you that although the sacrifice that you are making is particular-- the merit of sacrifices are not ours to judge. Ultimately, God will put us in a situation where we are forced to make sacrifices to teach us a specific lesson(s). It is tempting to look back and compare ourselves to others and look back-- but no-- we must look forward and set our course for Calvary-- for it is only by way of Calvary that we ccomplete the pilgrimage to holiness.

Erika Ahern said...


I think we are in perfect agreement in every way, except perhaps our tones--which written communication makes so difficult to read!

Basically, here's how we agree:
1. All Christians are called to a life of purity, sacrifice, and holiness.
2. This life--the life of the Cross--is universal and universally life-giving. It is our joy to become one with Christ crucified.
3. We both admire Fr. Juan Diego! (How do you know him? I was at CUA when he was a brother.)

I guess where we are still differing is somewhere in here: "True sainthood involves taking up our cross and carrying it joyfully, not allowing complaint or unhappiness to seep through.... I realize that this is not easy, having shared a common life for so long.... But this is the nature of sacrifice. My comment about four weeks is only to remind you that although the sacrifice that you are making is particular-- the merit of sacrifices are not ours to judge. "

Yes. You speak the truth! True sainthood is to carry the cross joyfully, but I also believe (and I think you do, as well) that we have been given a "cloud of witnesses" and fellow pilgrims in order to help share the yoke of Christ. Which is easy, but only when carried in communion.

My biggest struggle in writing has been to relate suffering, ask for advice, and suffer along with others without complaining. How does one speak about suffering without complaining? Perhaps I have failed in that.

We are not able to gage all the merits of any particular sacrifice, but we are able as human beings to observe and record for ourselves and others the FRUIT of a certain labor or suffering. I do believe that there are untold fruits of which we will learn only in heaven. But here, on our pilgrimage, it does help to speak with others who are farther along the path, to share our sufferings, and thus gain the hope of which St. Paul speaks.

So, I think our friction is more a difference in emphasis than in doctrine or fundamentals. Thank you for your comments and encouragement. You remind me of the fruit of the sacramental life, in particular--thank you for that reminder!

in Christ,
Philosopher Mom

Iacobus said...

Philosopher Mom—

I think we find ourselves largely in agreement.

Father Juan Diego Brunetta is a fabulous priest and canonist— one I respect highly.

The particular quote I cited comes from a fabulous 2004 interview of Father Juan Diego that Tom Hoopes did for Crisis Magazine about faithful Catholics divorcing.

As a young man, it was an article that made a big impression on me— as it showed that even many faithful Catholics lacked the spiritual toughness and commitment to hold fast to a marriage in difficult times. It showed me just how important it was that the woman I marry have the affective and spiritual maturity necessary to carry the cross.

I think especially folks who spend a lot of time in Catholic institutions— go to schools like CUA, Christendom, and Steubenville— exist in a milleu and a culture that on the one hand glorifies marriage as a counter-cultural sign— but does not adequately inform and prepare young men and women of the degree to which marriage involves an embrace of the cross— at every level. I also benefitted from the homilies, preaching of a faithful devout priest, who was something of a rarity in my diocese. I was fortunate to have mentors who told me— if you want to get married, you have to have your act together financially— otherwise your family suffers. Likewise, I was fortunate to be instructed by the priest that marriage is simply a fuller embrace of the cross— but it is made possible by the grace of the sacrament— that is the glue and the explosive agent that makes possible that which is seemingly impossible. Were it not for their counsel, I would be in the position of friends who married too early / too young— before they were capable of supporting a wife and children in the manner that justice demands. But the marital vocation is founded in sacrifice and suffering— no ifs ands or buts about it.

May God bless you abundantly!


Anonymous said...

I do not really understand what is going on here biologically. Typically the only times for long terms of abstinence are right after having a baby while the body adjusts. I have had no luck with the thermal method of NFP. In fact, I conceived more than once on that. My tried and true method is check the cervix to see if it is low and firm and doesn't accept a fingertip inside of it. With this method, the most we have ever had to abstain was 2.5 weeks for the first 4 months after giving birth until my cycles started regularly. I breastfed full time but still had cycles. Nows its just 6 days every month and haven't conceived in 18 months.