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