Coming Down to Earth: Dear Bishop

Patheos Blog  

Dear Bishop

Published by Michael Novak at on January 20, 2015


Dear Bishop: 

This letter has been building up in me ever since the first session of the Synod on the Family last October (October 5-19, 2014). The tone of clerical discourse on such a subject seems woefully abstract and remote, as is no doubt fitting for bishops. But that leaves the language far out of touch with the realities of marital sexuality experienced in the lives of ordinary Catholic spouses. 

I certainly discovered this disconnect in my own life. 

As you well know, for a little more than twelve years I studied to become a priest of Holy Cross, the congregation I found to be among the very best in the world. I prayed a lot. I studied like a demon. Having lots of unused testosterone, I played very hard, especially football. I thought a lot about celibacy. I tried also to prepare myself for counselling young people, and especially couples preparing for marriage. I learned as much as I could about degrees and types of love. 

Nonetheless, when I was in the seminary, my writings on marriage and family had a streak of unreality in them – and how could they not? For me, thoughts of women and sexual activities needed to be dismissed quickly and successfully (a not always easy battle). When I re-entered the lay world, just the experiences of dating taught me how remote my former ways of thinking were from concrete decision-making about sex. 

Then, some three years later, after Karen and I were married in 1963, I edited a book with the unsigned, anonymous testimonies of 13 couples, writing about sex in marriage as they had experienced it, in the light of Catholic teaching in pre-Vatican II times. It was called The Experience of Marriage, and some of its stories were heart-rending, some beautiful, but all showing a disconnect between their own experience of sex and the way sex was talked of in official Church teaching. 

I thought it might be useful to you if I mention eight or nine things that Karen and I learned about sex in marriage, which we hadn’t quite grasped before. Or, actually, about key habits to cultivate in a marriage if you want it to grow deeper and fuller every year. 

(1) Marriage is essentially a lifetime project that only begins on the wedding day. It takes two persons both committed to the hard work of making a marriage better month by month, over a full span of years. Marriage is something to be achieved, not simply given on day one. 

(2) One of its great assists is a self-deprecating sense of humor on the part of each spouse, about the faults each has, and how neither one is god or goddess, but a faulty human being. Both need to be able to laugh at their own missteps and habitual faults. There are a lot of occasions to do so. 

(3) Another is the daily habit of asking each other’s forgiveness, when hurts are given even unintentionally. Each human is so faulty. It is no disgrace to admit to insensitivities and outright wrongs, flarings of temper, cruel words, not paying attention, and many other wounds inflicted. It is a grace to be able to do so quickly. . . . Even though one sometimes has to be asking forgiveness for the same fault over and over, and it is not clear just how sincere such a repetitive apology can be, each must learn to voice it. 

(4) Happy sexual love over many years is not easy to maintain. Familiarity dulls the novelty. Besides, many layers of consciousness, need, fear, anxiety, and new unsettling emotions are stirred in one or the other. It takes a lot of time and experience to learn what the other is feeling, or troubled by, or pleased by (often not at all what one imagines). There is a kind of asceticism involved in learning to feel what the other feels. 

Male and female, to put it generally, are not naturally attuned to each other. But since each one’s history, temperament, past hurts, and expectations are unique, the achievement of attunement is a lifelong quest. It is not easy to “find” each other. It is not easy to talk about something so intimate and so incomprehensible in itself. Each of us is left searching in the darkness that is part of our human condition. It is stunning how inarticulate one or the other, or both, can suddenly become. It needs to be said, but can’t. 

Trying to look into another’s soul is often blocked. Often the guy is not clear about his own feelings, nor the gal about hers. We are each a bit of a mystery to ourselves, and so in marrying we add even more mystery into our lives. Also, we add many more not-quite-understandings – not quite understanding the other, not understanding ourselves. 

(5) It is also hard to describe to the unmarried how much a sweet act of love can flow over into every other moment of the day. How it releases a tension, brings a peace, emanates a sweetness – or even an anxiety, a fear, an incompleteness, into the whole day. (And how irritable a couple can become if over several days they do not feel intimate.) Thus, lovemaking is a project of a lifelong coming-closer-together. It means fighting through mutual incompatibilities. No two are perfect for each other. Some approach the dream more closely than others, but no one quite gets there. . . . 

Here Karen and I loved Chesterton’s quip: “I learned that in America incompatibility is accepted as a reason for divorce. I would have thought incompatibility is the reason for marriage.” 

(6) The individual psyche is so unique to each person that advice that works for one couple may not begin to bring another to happiness. Love of body and soul is such an art, requires so much care and attention as almost to constitute an asceticism, a constant, softly practiced self-discipline. In so much putting up with the other – and oneself – there is great joy just in making some progress. 

Here it is best for the two not to spend too much time looking into each other’s eyes – although that can be quite marvelous, and also at times quite upsetting. Better is looking outward together, toward the goal up ahead, and to keep moving toward that goal, through many setbacks. 

(7) Most clergy hint that men are the aggressors in sex. They need to know that women are often the ones to take the initiative. At times a woman wants lovemaking even more than, and before, the man does.

(8) Lovemaking is not an act of the body only. In making love one loves the personality of the other, the other’s spirited being, the interior life that infuses the other’s body. The “theology of the body” that Pope John Paul II called for leaves enormous horizons yet to be explored. The church does not yet speak well about sex in marriage. It is too preoccupied with “don’ts.” 

Not sure this helps a lot, dear friend, but it has been nagging at my mind since the Extraordinary Synod last fall.