The Right Ordering of Marital Intimacy
The marriage bed must be undefiled, as the apostle says, that is to say, kept free from uncleanness and all profane filthiness. Holy wedlock was first instituted in the earthly paradise, where as yet there never had been any disorder of concupiscence or of anything immodest.
There is some resemblance between amorous pleasures and those that are taken in eating. Both of them have relation to the flesh, though the former, by reason of their brutal vehemence, are called carnal without qualification. I will explain what I cannot say of the one by what I shall say of the other.
1. Eating is ordained for our preservation. Hence, just as eating merely in order to nourish and preserve life is a good, holy and obligatory thing, so that which is requisite in marriage for bringing children into the world and increasing mankind is a good and very holy thing, for it is the principal end of marriage.
2. Just as to eat, not for the preservation of life, but to keep up that mutual intercourse and consideration which we owe to each other, is a thing in itself both very just and lawful, so the mutual and lawful compliance of the persons united in holy marriage is called by St. Paul a debt. But it is a debt so great that he allows neither of the parties exemption from it without the free and voluntary consent of the other, not even for the exercises of devotion, as I have already observed in the chapter on Holy Communion. How much less, then, may either party be dispensed from it through a capricious pretense of virtue, or through anger or disdain?
3. They who eat so as to maintain a mutual intercourse of friendship with others should eat freely and not as if compelled to and they should also try to show an appetite for their food. So also the marriage debt should always be paid as faithfully and freely as if it were in hopes of having children, although on some occasions there might be no such expectation.
4. To eat for neither of these reasons, but merely to satisfy the appetite, may indeed be tolerated, but it cannot be commended. The mere pleasure of the sensual appetite cannot be a sufficient object to render an action commendable.
5. To eat not merely for the gratification of the appetite but also with excess and irregularity is a thing more or less blamable as the excess is great or small.
6. Excess in eating consists not only in eating too much but also in the time and manner of eating. It is surprising, dear Philothea, that honey, which is so proper and wholesome a food for bees, may nevertheless become so hurtful to them as sometimes to make them sick, as when they eat too much of it in the springtime. It then disturbs their stomachs and sometimes even causes their death, as when they are overcharged with it in the forepart of their head and on their wings.
In truth, nuptial commerce, which is so holy, just and commendable in itself and most profitable to the commonwealth, is yet in certain cases dangerous to those that exercise it. Sometimes it causes their souls to be seriously ill with venial sin, as in cases of simple excess. Sometimes it kills it effectually by mortal sin, as when the order appointed for the procreation of children is violated and perverted. In this latter case according as one departs more or less from this order, the sins are more or less abominable, but they are always mortal. The procreation of children is the first and principal end of marriage. Hence no one may ever lawfully depart from the due order that that end requires. This holds even at times when conception cannot take place because of some condition or circumstance as happens when sterility or pregnancy prevents it.
In these occurrences corporal commerce does not cease to be just and holy, provided the rules of generation are followed. No accidental condition whatsoever can injure the law that the principal end of marriage has imposed. Certainly the infamous and execrable action done by Onan in his marriage was detestable in God’s sight, as the holy text of the 38th chapter of Genesis testifies.
Certain heretics of our days, a hundred times more blamable than the Cynics of whom St. Jerome speaks in his commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, have been pleased to say it was only the perverse intention of that wicked man which displeased God. The Scripture positively asserts the contrary and assures us that the act itself that he committed was detestable and abominable in the sight of God.
7. It is an infallible mark of a truant, base, infamous and abject spirit to think of food and eating before mealtime. Still more is it such to amuse ourselves afterward with the pleasure which we took in eating, keeping it alive in our words and imagination and delighting to recall the sensual satisfaction we had in swallowing down those morsels. These men do who before dinner have their minds fixed on the spit and after dinner on the dishes, men worthy to be scullions in a kitchen who, as St. Paul says, "make a god of their belly." Persons of honor never think of eating except when they sit down at table. After dinner they wash their hands and their mouth so that they may neither retain the taste nor the scent of what they have been eating.
Although a huge beast, the elephant is yet the most decent and most sensible of all that live upon earth. I will give you an instance of his chastity. Although he never changes his mate and has a tender love for her whom he has chosen, he couples with her only at the end of every three years and then only for the space of five days and so privately that he is never seen in the act. When he makes his appearance again on the sixth day, the first thing he does is to go directly to a river. There he washes his body entirely, for he is unwilling to return to the herd till he is quite purified.
6. These good and modest habits in an animal of this kind serve as lessons to married people. They are not to keep their affections fixed on those sensual pleasures in which, according to their vocation, they have indulged. When they are over, they ought to wash their hearts and their affections and to purify themselves from them as soon as possible, so that afterward they may with undisturbed minds practice other purer and more elevated actions.
In this advice consists the perfect practice of that excellent doctrine which St. Paul gave to the Corinthians: "The time is short," said he, "it remaineth that they also who have wives be as though they have none." According to St. Gregory,' that man has a wife as if he had none, who takes bodily consolation with her in such a manner as not to be diverted from spiritual demands. What is said of the husband is understood likewise of the wife. "Let those that use the world," says the same apostle, "be as though they used it not."
Let everyone use this world according to his calling, but in such manner that he does not engage his affection in it and remains as free and ready to serve God as if he did not use it. "It is the great evil of man," says St. Augustine," "to desire to enjoy the things which he should only use, and to desire to use those which he should only enjoy." We should enjoy spiritual things but only use corporal. When their use is turned into enjoyment, our rational soul is also changed into a brutish and beastly soul.
I think I have said all that I need to say to make myself understood, without saying anything that I do not wish to say.
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