No, really. Can we?
A few months ago, my husband and I were invited to give a talk on sex and marriage at a retreat for engaged couples. Now and then , we observe how sometimes, there can be a lot of theological talking around issues of sexuality, yet not a whole lot of actually diving into them. We decided to structure our talk around misconceptions of the Church’s teachings, the Church’s actual teachings, and addressing practicals for engagement and marriage like chastity, pornography, and, well, unselfish lovin’.
We high-fived at home afterwards. Then, a week later, we read the couples’ feedback. “If I’d known all we’d talk about was orgasms,” said one comment, “I wouldn’t have come.” Ouch. Humbled.
Admittedly, maybe we could’ve been a little more delicate, a little more articulate, a little more…something. My imperfections aside, though, I’d stand by my opinion that vagueness or shyness aren’t the best ways to approach, discuss, and revere sex. We’re created male and female, and our sexuality is who we are. We all experience longing and desire, both physical and spiritual. That’s good, and even holy.
Christopher West’s new book Fill These Hearts looks at desire up close and encourages just being present in our aches, instead of suppressing them. Longing, he says, shows us we’re made for more than this life. ”What’s needed to progress in the journey of the Christian Life,” he writes, “is depth of desire, not death of desire.” No truer words, in my opinion.
What, then, does that have to do with talking about sex? I’ve found that embracing desire and embracing vulnerability opens up genuine, sincere conversation in a way that tiptoeing around the matter can’t. I’ve occasionally embarrassed myself along the way, but here’s what I learned:
I need to be honest. I spent a year after college as a chastity speaker. In the beginning, I was scared to touch on how tough it can be to live chastely, fearing that it’d weaken my case. But you know what? Chastity is hard, and the alternative can look pretty appealing sometimes. I found once I admitted to that, walls came down between me and my audience. It erased notions of me as perfectly wise, which I’m certainly not, and never having made a mistake, which I certainly have.
That same year, I struggled constantly with my own purity. I think temptation and struggle can, understandably, be so intimidating sometimes–who freely wants to admit to their weaknesses? What I’ve figured out, though, that no one’s perfect, no matter what his or her exterior suggests. Honesty looks awkwardness in the face and kicks it to the door. I slowly became less afraid to show my scars and ask for prayers. Sin, shame; they thrive in darkness. Let in the light.
Sex doesn’t belong on a pedestal. I used to think a sort of hushed reverence was the only appropriate attitude towards sex, but in the past few years, I’ve observed that an excess of piety can create significant distance when it comes to evangelization, and even when it comes to talking with friends. Yes, sex is good, and yes, it images the Father’s love. But the thing I realized was that I couldn’t elevate sex and just leave it up there. Like the prophets experienced at the Transfiguration, it’s easy and pleasant to stay on the mountain in Christ’s presence. The thing is, staying on the mountain isn’t the point. The point, I’d argue, is to bring the Gospel back down to a world so desperately hungry for the truth about chastity, sexuality, and authentic love.
What does that look like? In my experience of approaching strangers on the boardwalk and talking to them about sex (this was part of my chastity gig), it might mean speaking more frankly about sex than you would otherwise–if I was going to call out the culture, I needed to meet it with a relevant response, not a lofty one. It might mean talking in terms of logic and natural law instead of religion. Without compromising truth or virtue, it means, to me, meeting people where they are.
But, I have to stay reverent. My husband and I teach Natural Family Planning, and it’s a daily part of our marriage. To us, things like cervical mucus are normal topics of conversation. It wasn’t until I read the surprising feedback from our retreat talk that I understood specifics like that aren’t everyone else’s bread and butter. Reverence for intimate subjects, I think, doesn’t necessarily require shying away from the nitty gritty, yet it does require speaking in a way that takes the subject seriously and inspires awe.
When you think about it, God’s plan for sexuality really is awe-inducing, isn’t it? All our earthly desires point to our heavenly ones, and that’s no small matter.
Be not afraid.