I am thrilled to present a guest “speaker” this week, Sharon Wenger. Below is an adapted version of the talk she wrote and gave during the TOB Speaker Training that I facilitated in Phoenix last week. And if you are a benefactor of the St. JPII Resource Center for Theology of the Body and Culture in the Diocese of Phoenix, please know this talk is the fruit of your generosity.
When it comes to marriage, there’s lots of advice swirling around the Internet. For instance, a 10-year-old boy named Ricky was asked what good advice he would give a married man. His response was: “Tell your wife she looks pretty even if she looks like a truck.”
Or, how about the advice we’ve all heard: “Never go to bed angry.” This requires married couples to resolve their relationship issues before they go to sleep each night. An article from Focus on the Family reminds us, “Taking a break from a heated argument when both spouses are tired, stubborn, irrational, and upset can be one of the healthiest choices you make.” Hopefully, each spouse will wake up refreshed and with more clarity to deal with the problem. Maybe spouses can even wake up and work toward having a healthy, holy, chaste marriage.
Woah. Have you ever thought about chastity as a main component of a healthy and holy marriage? Wait, wait! Don’t tune me out yet. You may not think those words go together, “chastity,” “holy,” and “marriage,” but they do. My hope is to at least get you thinking and maybe wanting to look into this idea more.
First off, let’s look at what chastity is and what it isn’t. Many people’s first thought when they hear the word chastity is “no sex.” In marriage? Hmmm… Bummer…
In actuality, “celibacy” is the word used to describe the state of permanent abstinence from sex. Priests, religious brothers and sisters, and nuns all take a vow of celibacy. They willingly renounce marriage and sexual activity for the sake of something greater – to be a sign of our eschatological perfection. But that’s another topic, so let’s go back to this “marital chastity” thing.
In her book The Body Reveals God, Katrina Zeno describes marital chastity as, and I’ve tweaked her definition a bit, “The integration of body and spirit so that I can freely become a sincere and truthful gift to my spouse.” She continues, “Chastity is the guardian of true love.” Now that’s just beautiful! But what the heck does it mean?
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2337, we read: “The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift.” Let’s break this quote in two:
- “Integrity of the person” means our body and spirit are balanced and “in-sync” with each other.
- “Integrality of the gift” means that “gift” is a foundational part of chastity. And what is the “gift”? It’s YOU! YOU are the gift to your spouse! Your very being, attention, loving gaze, and delight in being fully present with and to each other is a gift!
Married couples have a noble call. Their marriage is created by God to be a sign of Christ’s spousal union with the Church and a means of sanctification to each other. God began revealing his spousal love for mankind in the Old Testament, especially through prophets such as Isaiah and Hosea, but the fullest revelation of God’s spousal love for us is through Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the Divine Bridegroom, made a total gift of Himself to us through His Incarnation, Passion and death on the cross. He fully and freely gave up His body for us, His Bride. And through His Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can tap into the power of the Spirit, especially as we celebrate the Sacraments. The grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony, along with each person’s active participation and assent to God’s most perfect will, helps spouses lead each other to perfection, and, eventually, to heaven! Could there be anything more noble? More challenging? More fulfilling?
Have you ever heard the words Humanae Vitae? What about the words, “The Catholic church doesn’t allow birth control”? Most people are very familiar with the second statement, but few have ever heard of or even read Humanae Vitae.
Humanae Vitae is an encyclical, or, universal letter, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968, in which he reaffirms the Church’s constant and beautiful teachings about love and life in marriage. I have to admit, I used to have a heck of a time understanding – much less trying to explain – why Catholics are “forbidden” to use birth control. This is such a negative way of saying a very positive truth: “Catholic married couples are called to be a sign of the Trinity’s life-giving love.”
In 1 Thessalonians, verses 3 and 4, St. Paul tells us: “This is the will of God, your holiness: that you refrain from immorality; that each of you learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable.”
God created us such that there is an inseparable unity between the procreative and unitive meanings of the conjugal act. In Audience 123 of his Theology of the Body reflections, St. John Paul II tells us: “…the conjugal act ‘means’ not only love, but also potential fruitfulness.” He’s reminding us that each act of conjugal union must have as its goal to more fully unite the couple as one – not only in flesh, but in every way—so as to deepen their love for each other as well as to remain open to the amazing possibility of parenthood.
I wonder how many couples consider that when they use any of the various forms of contraception, they are not being true to the vows they made on their wedding day? As Bride and Groom, they promised to give their whole self freely, faithfully, and fruitfully to their spouse, and ONLY to their spouse. And like the Divine Bridegroom, they promised to make a TOTAL gift of self to each other.
When couples contracept, they hold back part of themselves – their fertility and its potential to make each other parents. A couple learning fertility awareness together (often called Natural Family Planning or NFP) is a beautiful way of loving the whole person of the other! It’s a way of living naturally and in an integrated way – both body and soul, sexuality and spirituality, are intimately connected.
Some may think that fertility awareness, and using it to postpone or avoid having a baby, is the same as using artificial contraception. It is not. Fertility awareness is working with the body and its natural rhythms as created and designed by God. If needing to postpone or avoid having a baby, times of abstinence give couples opportunities to learn other ways to show affection, love, desire, care and concern for each other.
Being disciplined and able to abstain from time to time demonstrates a truer love, a deeper gift of self for the other! It shows that one is not simply reacting to an urge or stimulus, but truly choosing when and where and how to love one’s spouse. Only if we are in control of our appetites for pleasure, then we can be free to truly love. This is what St. John Paul II called being “free with the freedom of the gift.” How noble. How challenging. And yet, how truly fulfilling.
I’d like to end by suggesting how you might talk about chastity with your kids, even very young children. An easy way to begin would be to simply remind them to “tell the truth” – always and in all ways. And then, to teach them that the body speaks a language.
For instance, ask them what it means when someone is jumping up and down with a big smile on their face. Or, what it means when a friend is sitting in the corner of the playground crying. These are truthful expressions of the language of the body because both our words and actions match.
But there’s another way we speak the language of the body. For instance, you could point out how a kid might appear to be hungry, as if they forgot their lunch, but what they really want is the great snack another kid has. Likewise, some kids play “sick” when they don’t want to go to school. Being truthful and honest in our body language is a necessary part of a trusting relationship and authentic friendship. This truthful reflection of our intentions and feelings through the body leads us back to the heart of chastity – to integrate body and spirit so as to make a sincere and truthful gift of self to one’s spouse (and to God!).
Both younger and older kids can easily understand how we speak either a truth or lie with the language of our bodies. Your kids are created in God’s image and likeness, and the language their body speaks, the way they act and behave around their friends and family, should be a reflection of how God treats his children. And someday, God willing, if they receive the gift of marriage, they will already be on the path toward having a healthy, holy, and chaste marriage.
© Sharon Wenger