Being Present In The Marital Act

marital act

Marital intimacy is easy to take for granted, at least (if you’re like me) married and your spouse and you are in good health–spiritually, physically, emotionally, and sexually. As Christians, however, we recognize that sex in a marriage is more than just mechanics or routine. As the Church teaches, marriage is for the dual purpose of procreation and bonding–both of which the marital act, thankfully, accomplish well in most cases. But even beyond that, the spiritual elements of marital intimacy are so closely tied to the communicative and life-giving nature of the Godhead that they are integral and necessary for a marriage to be considered sacramental. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter – appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values(CCC 1643).”

A Heavy Responsibility – The Grace of the Sacrament

With such a heavy weight of responsibility to uphold these values and participate in the divine nature with integrity, it is the grace of the sacrament that makes possible what may seem to be, in many cases, impossible–lifelong love and fidelity.

“By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequence of the gift of themselves which they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement “until further notice.” The “intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children, demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable union between them.”

The deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church. Through the sacrament of Matrimony the spouses are enabled to represent this fidelity and witness to it. Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage receives a new and deeper meaning.” (CCC 1646, 1647)

For the rich young man Jesus encounters in Matthew 19:16-30 who goes away sad after realizing all he would have to leave behind, our Lord turns to his disciples and tells them in no uncertain terms how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom: “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:23-24). In no certain terms, it is an “impossible” undertaking for men, and only possible with God (Mt 19:26).

The act of adultery is a grievous injustice to the vows of fidelity one undertakes in a marriage, not to mention to one’s spouse.

Another seemingly “impossible” standard is the purity of heart Jesus commands in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, taking the Judaic law to a whole other level: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh. on a woman to lust after her hath committed. adultery with her already in his heart” (Mt 5:28).

The act of adultery is a grievous injustice to the vows of fidelity one undertakes in a marriage, not to mention to one’s spouse. But such acts do not often come “out of nowhere.” Our Lord is an astute knower of human nature; for the ‘first causes’ of such acts emanate a priori to the act itself: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7: 21-22). He also cares for human persons and human souls so deeply that he wants to spare them the hurt of such disfunction that sin causes. If you want to uproot a tree, better and easier to do it when it is a sapling than a full grown one.

Mindfulness in it’s proper Context

The term “mindfulness” gets a bit of a knee-jerk reaction in the negative sense among faithful, spiritual Catholics, as it is often used in the context of near-east, new age spiritualism. But in other ways, it is a neutral endeavor that involves focusing on the task at hand. If one is eating breakfast, one can be “mindful” of what they are eating–savoring the flavors, noticing the textures–if they are doing just that: eating. But often we are multi-tasking: reading the paper or thinking about what we have to do for the day. By the time we are finished our meal, the experience of eating is a kind of afterthought.

Breathing in the Eastern tradition has always been the anchor for existence (after all, if you’re not breathing, you’re dead, and so meditative practices have been tethered to the breath as a way of grounding the consciousness. As human beings, without exception, we all breath, though rarely take note that we are doing so. Mindfulness as I see it in this neutral sense is simply being present to the most fundamental things, and practicing that by focusing on the most essential to our physical life–breathing–is a way to start.

When it comes to the “task” of the marital act, the temptations for men and women can take shape in very different forms. For many women, sex truly can be viewed as a task–sometimes willingly undertaken, and sometimes grudgingly, but a task nonetheless. The stereotypical joke is that during sex women may be making a grocery list or thinking about something else entirely apart from what is taking place in the moment. They may be “somewhere else” entirely.

The Mental Substitution” of Another Actor for One’s Spouse During the Marital Act

For men, sex has the nature of an appetite. However, when that appetite is seen as necessary to be satiated at whatever cost, it is problematic, to say the least. Compounded by the prevalence of online pornography and the rate with which men have or do view it, men themselves may be not only “somewhere else,” but with someone else. This is the adultery of the heart our Lord warned us to avoid–the cataloging of mental images to be referenced and brought up as in a Microfiche at the very times when they should be the most present to their spouse–during the marital act itself.

Although I don’t have data or anecdotes to support it, I have a gut feeling that men “substituting” another actor in this most intimate act is fairly common. It may be a porn star, or a woman on the bus, that they are thinking about or bringing to consciousness willfully (or even unwittingly) while engaging in relations with his wife. Let’s be clear: this is a degradation of the sacred space of the marital bed, even though it has only may only have been occupied by his spouse. It goes beyond the innocuous example of being present while eating a meal to what one is eating–it is a sin, originating in the mind but willfully entertained, and done so without an admission of guilt or even an awareness of the man’s wife.

When I speak to my son about keeping our thoughts pure and maintaining chastity, I try to reassure him that sexual urges and normal and that they may be excited by a fleeting image (an advertisement in public, or even an attractive cartoon character on TV), but that while “the first look is free” (meaning, it can sometimes not be helped when it comes across one’s path), but the second look will cost you. Meaning, our consciousness, like our thoughts, can not always be kept under control (the proverbial “monkey mind”), but we can train the mind in cooperation with grace (especially the grace of the Sacrament in Matrimony) to attain virtues that may seem otherwise unattainable.

This “mental substitution” of another actor for one’s spouse during sex is not only bad training, and carrying with it a degree of moral culpability, but it undermines the enjoyment of sex by counterfiting it with something illusory. It’s a kind of hybrid form of virtual and actual porgnography by way of this mental substitution, and undermines the sacred bond where it is lived out the intimacy of the bedroom. Not to mention–it makes for bad sex, because the man (or woman) is not fully present to their spouse, and so not cognizant of their needs and the subtle physical cues that fully communicative intercourse depends on.

Rather than see this as a condemnation, or an unattainable state of being (chastity of heart and body), perhaps men and women can rise to the challenge of being fully present during the marital act by putting their partner first, deferring their own needs, and engaging all their faculties (including the mind) to the “task at hand.”

Not being perfect, we will fail at times, of course. But it is something worth getting up for again after a fall. Taking custody of the eyes, cutting out things in our lives that lead to unchastity, and self-deferment in the countless daily acts that make up a married life, is a good start. Though it might take a lifetime, spouses may find that as the years and decades go on, a house built on a good foundation of being present to one another inside and outside the bedroom, and turning away from the lure of unchastity of mind and heart, will bear fruit in due season one hundred fold.

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