The audio file of the October Emmaus Road Initiative session is now online here.
The schedule for the November sessions is here.
Below is an excerpt from my notes for October:
For many sexuality may seem too corporeal and instinctual to be of theological concern, but von Balthasar, celibate through and through, argues otherwise. Speaking of Orthodox and Reformation forms of Christianity – and, as my Protestant friends here will acknowledge, painting with a broad brush – von Balthasar says this about the Catholic position: “The other forms of Christianity are somehow ashamed of God for involving himself so deeply with Adam’s clay, for getting his hands dirty.” [The Fullness of Faith, 111.] And he goes on to argue for the importance, not just of sexuality as such, but of “sexual intercourse,” saying that: “The more insignificant it becomes for the world the more precious it is to Christians.” [Ibid. 113-14]
Let me make two points – one about the Conjugal form of the Nuptial Mystery and one about its Celibate form.
The Celibate life and – though without the solemn vow – the single or virginal life, constitute in a special way an Imitatio Christi, for Christ himself was celibate, Hollywood fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, the consecrated life testifies – in the rarest and clearest way – to the fact that “this life” – on which the “next life” depends – has meaning first and foremost as preparation for the life to come. This is the underlying message to which every roman collar and every nun’s habit testify, to the everlasting stupefaction of the world.
I am dwelling on the Trinitarian mystery at the heart of the Nuptial Mystery. Moreover, I am dwelling on the inherently religious nature of the experience the man and woman share. But there is another Trinitarian dimension to the Nuptial Mystery. In addition to the “Transcendent” Other subtly experienced by the man and woman, there is the Corporeal Other who arrives on the scene with no subtly at all nine months later. And these two “triangles” – so to speak – the sacramental and the domestic – the unitive and the procreative – are indispensable to each other, the openness to Grace in one and the openness to children in the other being two aspects of the same thing.
With the miracle of the Incarnation, the body – with all its instincts and hormonal promptings and spiritual sluggishness – has been requisitioned by the Spirit and made receptive to the grace thanks to which the Body can, thereafter, enter into the sacramental mystery for which we humans were originally made.
FRAGILITY AND FICKLENESS . . .
This inherently transcendent and intrinsically Trinitarian experience is made possible in the first instance by very special emotional circumstances and in the context of very precarious social circumstances – making it almost inevitably transitory.
“Nature” – which is to say “Nature’s God” – provides – via sexual attraction and the physiology of sexual instinct – a bonding force. But its bonding power not only fluctuates with the satisfaction of the instinctual drives by which it is enhanced but the social circumstance in which it occurs is inevitably and unavoidably one corrupted by sinful self-regard and deadening indifference in individuals and by envy, rivalry, jealousy and animosity in the social order. As the original communio succumbs to these gravitational forces, its spiritual and social blessings are lost.
The “at last” moment is an ecstatic one, for it to become spiritually fruitful, it needs to become a covenant – which is – in effect – a something very like the Church itself – namely: the institutional manifestation of a spiritual communio which makes it sustainable over time.
When the natural prompting of sexual attraction is touched by grace, it leads to spiritual, emotional, and domestic blessings of the richest and most meaningful sort. But if this communio is to be preserved and sustained, then culture must intervene to provide the trellis to which its fragile tendrils can cling and mature and eventually become capable of resisting gravity, less by moral submission to the LAW and more by the spiritual acceptance of the grace that writes the Torah on our Hearts.
In the first instance the presence of this “slight companionable ghost” (in the Yeat’s poem) might be occasioned by romantic feelings and surcharged by sexual attraction, but it can and should thereafter become the conscious attention of the couple.
All cultures regulate sexuality in the interest of avoiding violence, but the Church has a special interest in this matter, for she exists not just as a trellis of moral guidelines and heartening admonitions which lead to freedom by the path of obedience and to love by the path of sacrifice. The Church also exists to remind us ever again of the Sacramental privilege which tends always to be lost in the quotidian routine and the practical demands of life. In fulfilling this latter task in our world today She has an opportunity to lead her flock to a renewed appreciation of the Mystery of the Trinity by a better and fuller understanding of the Mystery of Nuptiality.
Even as – at the social level – cultural customs and ecclesial admonitions relieve individuals of the onerous task of adjudicating moral boundaries moment by moment, and in deference to constantly changing social fashion, at the level of the wedded partners, nature – in the form of Eros – sexual attraction – offers itself as a kind of periodic and natural form of absolution, thanks to which the wedded couple can re-solve, dis-solve, or ab-solve one another of the tensions and aggravations that plague all relationships in the fallen world and thereby renew their love.
If “Natural Absolution” is a bit much for you, as it is for me, perhaps the better analogue is the Jubilee Year – though one hopes for a more frequent recurrence than every 50 years!
In the Jubilee Year ancient Israel cancelled debts, relinquished property rights, freed slaves and so on in a gesture of beginning anew. Even as the cultural customs and ecclesial admonitions provide their “external” supports, nature, in the form of physical intimacies of the nuptial relationship, helps periodically to restore the relationship and revive – in subtle but perceptible ways – its central Trinitarian mystery.
. . . .
Again, the schedule for the November Emmaus Road Initiative sessions is here.