Despite roundly panning Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage last week for it’s fundamentally questionable premise, I have to admit that he has a lot of good things to say in response to the historic trend among Christians to look down their noses on marriage—preferring to view it as something that is necessary because of the incontinence of humans, rather than as a means through which people come to know God in deep and profound ways.
As far back as I can remember, I was fully aware of the long-standing tradition of celibacy—monks and nuns who lived out their dedication to God by pledging to abstain from marriage and sex…Most of the Christian classics [on spirituality] were written by monks and nuns for monks and nuns. The married could at best feebly try to simulate a single pursuit of God; the thought of pursuing God through marriage wasn’t really given serious consideration; instead, the emphasis was largely on pursuing God in spite of marriage.”
It is in light of this historical fact, and against the comments of respected theologians like Augustine, who wrote,”Marital intercourse makes something good out of the evil of lust” that Gary Thomas takes up his pen and forges the way forward towards meaningful ways to unite the spiritually devout life with the marriage covenant; two notable forays below the fold.
Marriage and Prayer
Marriage and prayer are inextricably related to one another—at least this is what St. Peter tells us. A heart of love, compassion, and consideration towards one’s wife is necessary for unhindered prayer (1 Peter 3:7). By connecting the husband’s attitude towards his wife with prayer, Peter makes the startling point that having a wife can be an integral part of having a proper prayer life. What is so startling about this is the fact that most books on prayer, contemporary and classical, make little mention of prayer in the context of relationships with other human beings—and especially not with a husband or wife. But if prayer is more than a solitary activity between a single human and God, indeed if it is to be the sort of thing that we continue in and do without ceasing, it must be in some measure combined with the relationships we enjoy with other people. Thomas puts it this way,
I was terrified when I first realized what 1 Peter 3:7 was saying. Now that I was married, my prayer life would have to pass a different test. Iron-will discipline was no longer enough. If I wanted to enjoy unimpeded prayers, I’d have to be considerate of [my wife]. I’d have to respect her, cherish her, and honor her.”
Unhindered prayer is possible only when relationships with other people are developed and fostered as loving, unified, compassionate involvement. The married life allows for particular emphasis and focus to be placed upon just such a relationship. While the single man or woman may have more opportunity for solitary prayer, the married couple can teach us a lot about the ways that relationships with others effects our relationship with God; highlighting the value of loving others as a means to, and result of, loving God.
Sex and Spiritual Development
For many Christians, sex is given little place in the spiritual development of their relationship. It is perhaps seen as an aside, a frivolous or perhaps non-essential practice that doesn’t contribute to real spiritual development—after all, what could be more carnal, more of the flesh, than sex?
It took me awhile to realized how I was inadvertently insulting God by my hesitation to accept the holiness of sex and pleasure. i don’t have any problem imagining someone seeking God by enduring the pain of a fast. But what kind of God am I imagining if I can allow pain but not pleasure to reveal God’s presence in my life? Instead of being suspicious of pleasure and the physical and spiritual intimacy that comes from being with my wife, I need to adopt an attitude of profound gratefulness and awe.”
The issue Thomas addresses is one that includes sex, but also includes any number of activities that are physically or emotionally pleasurable. Other activities generally thought to either be opposed to spiritual development, or at least unrelated to it, include eating, drinking, and engaging in recreative and entertaining activities. The problem, it seems, is that many Christians have adopted a non-Christian view of the world—a view that relegates spirituality to a particular sphere that is mostly disconnected from the physicality of human existence.
This issue (perhaps sometimes described as the Christian struggle against Gnosticism) has been addressed in-depth (ad nauseam?) by articles here at Mere Orthodoxy. However, it is worth pointing out once again that God created us with bodies, and commanded His people to celebrate their lives with Him in very physical ways. The four major feasts mandated in the Mosaic Law are one simple example of the truth that God desires a worship that is expressed in the flesh.
Thomas suggests that married couples contemplate what is being expressed when they have sex. All the glory and wonder of entering into the presence of God is shadowed in sexual union, at least this is the case if we are to take Paul seriously when he describes the Christian body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). He asks Christians to consider the imagery of adultery as improper because a Christian’s body is a holy temple to be drawn into the presence of God through entering into the temple of God in the body of one’s husband or wife. An unfamiliar suggestion to be sure, but perhaps it is also one step towards overcoming the gnostic elements so prevalent in Christianity today.
Marriage, it seems provides a variety of symbols and contexts that allow for spiritual development in ways that are unavailable to the single person. While it may not be for everyone, the rich possibilities for spiritual development in the context of marriage take it a long way from being something that one enters into only as a last resort, and only as a tacit admission of one’s spiritual immaturity characterized by a pursuit of the flesh. The Spirit has taken up his abode in the bodies of His people. Let us then celebrate this indwelling and allow it’s full implications to be felt across the spectrum of God’s people—married and single alike.