Pious Catholics often speak of various spiritualities — the spirituality of the priesthood, the spirituality of the religious life, the spirituality of marriage.
But spirituality is at best a pre-Christian notion and possibly even a non-Christian notion. Jesus Christ did not come into this world as a spirit — he was not an angel, or a ghost or an apparition. Jesus came into this world as flesh and blood. And it was through his flesh and blood, through his life-centered parables, his physical healings, his street interactions, his crowd feedings, his physical death on Good Friday and bodily resurrection on Easter Sunday that he revealed to mankind the truth about God. It was through what author Christopher West calls “the language of the body” that Jesus revealed his Father’s plan for mankind. The authentic Christian, then, is not so much concerned with spirituality as with incarnality, if there is such a word. The genuine Christian will, like the incarnate Christ, attempt to reveal God to the world through his body language. The true Christian will take the Gospel message of faith, charity and obedience and make it real by living it out, body and soul, in his daily life.
Nowhere is this theology of the body more central and more critical than within a Christian marriage and especially within the marriage act itself. A husband and wife, by their fidelity, by their enduring commitment to one another, by the giving of their bodies exclusively to one another, reveal the permanent and personal love of God for each believer. Marital fidelity is a daily, bodily reminder of God’s unfailing love for each of his children. As the spouses are always there for each other, so God is always there for each creature. Similarly, although sadly and universally ignored nowadays, God has a message for the world to be revealed through marital fruitfulness. The complementarity of the male and female bodies holds a divine message that discloses God’s wise design of love to the attentive world.
The male body from the teenage years onward is readily fertile. The female body, in contrast, is periodically infertile on a monthly cycle. This distinction between male fertility and periodic female infertility allows a dialogue between an earnest couple who want to be “open to the transmission of life” and yet also responsible toward that new life. The language of the two bodies — his permanent fertility and her periodic infertility — should provoke a discussion, a conversation, an exchange about fertility that will draw the couple together into deeper understanding, consideration and patience. This openness of the couple to one another’s bodily differences during sexual relations symbolizes and highlights the openness needed in all areas of life.
Honestly acknowledging the differences between the male body and the female body will necessitate self-discipline and, let’s face it, sacrifice. Self-denial is not something that is ordinarily associated with sexual intercourse. The media portrays sex as spontaneous pleasure and perhaps the individual expects sex to be always and instantly satisfying. On the contrary, the believing couple who are open to the transmission of life will have to consider the man’s constant fertility and the woman’s cyclical infertility. There will be times when the life-affirming couple may have to forego full intercourse for more subtle signs of affection. This temporary abstinence should actually increase the desire of the couple for full sexual relations later when practical. These periodic returns to the chastity of courtship, so to speak, should lead to periodic honeymoons afterwards in which the couple appreciates their delayed sexual union all the more. Periodic abstinence according to God’s plan also reminds the couple that no matter how satisfying sex might be in this world there is an even greater satisfaction awaiting them in the next world. Sacrifice during sex signals a willingness to sacrifice in other aspects of spousal life as well. And even more importantly, periodic abstinence is a reminder that the cross, the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is the very fabric of the Christian life. Today, artificial contraception, sterilization, and same-sex unions serve to “scramble the language of the body,” as one writer observes, obscuring and frustrating God’s message.
The Christian couple, rather, will gladly heed the language of their bodies, finding in each other a revelation from God himself.