Friday, November 21, 2008

The mystery of suffering hides the seed of love
A guest post by THE WIFE OF BATH

Written in response to Thursday's post "Theology of the bawdy."

I've decided that this is a good time to begin a new book. I'm going to title it: "Just Go Home." No more therapy, retreats, enrichment clases, encounters, or lectures; no more galavanting off to the romantic beaches of Cancun -- "Just Go Home." The civilization of Love can be home-grown, but not by so much talking about it, which trivializes without clarifying.

I've got a few insights to throw into this discussion. But I want to begin with the last and go to the first. My husband's long and debilitating cancer led us to a theology of the body of a very different sort than the usual TOB stuff.

For 12 years, but especially for the final three years of his life, he suffered greatly, and I suffered with him. Yet, life went on around this suffering, this exchange of love. Our whole family was refined through it; the grandchildren would come home and go see him, even though he had tubes and stuff in his nose. He took comfort from our company and touch -- our stories, jokes, and exchange. I bathed him and changed his ostomy, every day. That was a wife's exclusive and intimate privilege like nothing else, for it made him feel better and have more dignity so that he could then visit with the family and friends who came by. He died at home, in my arms, and his last audible word was "Love." He was fortified by family, the sacraments and all the gifts of Church as Mother could give;. The sacrament of marriage, and our faith, at this extreme moment was intimate and very holy, yet hardly the symbol of the bridegroom and bride in the unitive act.

This final marital intimacy and the union with God and with each other in that moment -- a very agonizing moment -- was one of the most profound mysteries of my life. And one for which I am unspeakably grateful. But I won't talk nonsense about the actual dying process and the attendant physical symptoms—not even the sybolism of his death on the night of Pentecost and the wound in his side—that were part of our daily life. Everyone who loves will suffer; in the intimacy of marriage, this suffering and this love can be intensely united—but there has never been anything to equal the intimacy of giving the man that I love to the arms of Jesus. To speak about it as freely as the TOB guys talk about sex is to cheapen and to even blaspheme a great, great gift.

To suffer is to love; to love is to suffer -- but we don't have to go out looking for occasions to suffer in order to make a point! The opportunities will come, bidden or unbidden! And this brings me to the TOB, which seems to me to have become -- even if it didn't begin this way -- a shockingly low sort of sex-ed, which is getting more banal all the time. Way away from the nuptial meaning of the body that JPII began in "Love and Responsibility" and the very simple message at the heart of the TOB: the body is made to express love according to the appropriateness of the relationship -- chaste embrace between friends, warm handshake with strangers, loving care of the sick, bearing and nursing of infants, sexual union with spouse -- according to the Church's teachings on sexuality. Much of the current talk about the TOB is confusing and complicated, unnecessarily.

Dawn highlighted an article by a priest who, in claiming to discuss Theology of the Body, takes liberties that Pope John Paul II never intended. It made me wonder: What is the effect of this? All of this open-as-apple-pie talk, talk, talk about great Catholic sex may be creating a really big problem: dissatisfaction, doubt, and discontent. What is to stop the secret doubt of "what's wrong with me/spouse" if we have no "religious experience" in marital relations? Why, spouses are bound to wonder, is it so ordinary, so companionably comforting, but—by all means, let's get some much-needed sleep!

What I'm concerned about with regard to the article in question is the bad theology and the very bad vulgarity. The disgusting comparisons (and it is a gross misrepresentation of the symbolic) are, in fact, pornographic and will be very hard to get out of the memory banks of the women, or men, who heard such talk.

Whatever happened to the laughter (not ridicule) that attends many acts -- or attempted acts of married love? Children have been known to curb amorous moments by arriving just in time to throw up on their parents! But it is an act of love, too, to help that poor, sick child who will not receive comfort if there were no "loving parents" -- and to laugh later with your spouse about the event, before you both go to sleep, exhausted but comforted, in the other's trusted/trusting presence.

The marital act is like any other exchange between husband and wife -- a covenant of trust and in the name of God; it is always a very delicate balance b/n domination and dismissal. The very ordinariness of marital relations is what is comforting to married folk -- Nothing to prove. No posh hotels. Intimacy with God and intimacy with each other. That's what it's all about.

For a truer account of the Theology of the Body and Church teachings on sexuality in general, here are some recommendations:

  • Fulton J. Sheen's Three to Get Married is still timely, despite its 1950s landscape.

  • Genevieve Kineke's The Authentic Catholic Woman is very good and a good place to start thinking about TOB. Christopher West wrote the introduction.

  • Margaret Visser's Geometry of Love is unequalled in talking about the body, the classical understanding of virginity/motherhood, and the structure of a church and its symbolism. There is nothing vulgar about it. Highest recommendation.

  • Dorothy L. Sayers's final novels, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon have artistically created two characters who are able to come to healing and wholeness and, finally, a healthy, profound, funny, and fruitful marriage.

  • Anne Rice's most recent novel of her trilogy Christ the LordThe Road to Cana, cannot receive enough praise in the treatment of sexuality. This book is faithful to the Gospels and the teachings of the Church, but it has the most beautiful treatment of human love and marriage that I've read in modern writing. It stands in sharp contrast to Nikos Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ, which was ugly and shocking.

  • Karol Wojtyla's Love and Responsibility, an excellent and noble call/recall to loyalty and friendship in love & marriage.
And, this may sound strange, but I believe that everyone would do well to get a copy of The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and pray it/read it. I cannot say why, but can give testimony to the hope that was awakened in simply reading and repeating, day after day, the paradoxes of the Incarnation: "Thou wast the Mother of Him who made thee and thou remainest a Virgin forever." And "Thou art fair and comely, terrible as an army set in array..." "The young maidens have loved thee exceedingly ..." "Blessed womb that bore the son of the Eternal Father and blessed breasts that nursed Christ the Lord." Similarly, I would recommend the Litany of St. Joseph (and, of course, the Litany of the BVM) because it has such praise of noble manhood.