The Order of Marriage

It seems obvious once you think about it, so why did it take so long to occur to me? Here it is: married couples are supposed to have sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. As much sex as monks and nuns have prayer. Okay, maybe not that much (the Divine Office takes hours a day, after all), but why not? Because sex is "dirty"? Because marriage is only one notch up from burning? Because sex really "should" be only about making babies and anything else is simply self-indulgent, probably sinful excess?

Wrong! Sex is none of these things, at least, not sex in marriage. Sex in marriage is holy and sanctified. It is the reason that marriage is a sacrament. Far from insisting that it would have been better for them to call the whole thing off and vow themselves to perpetual celibacy, Jesus made wine for the couple getting married at Cana. Sex in marriage is right and pure. It is also, I have finally realized, a form of worship as well as an expression of love.

I certainly hope you all are grinning about now. "My, oh, my, Fencing Bear, what have you been up to these past couple of weeks? We knew it was something because you weren't writing to us anymore." Well, I'm not going to tell you; not all of it. But I do want to tell you this. Wives, love your husbands. Do not be afraid of lusting after them, desiring them with every fiber of your being (sorry, I don't have enough practice writing about love in this way; cliches are bound to creep in--so be it! There's a reason they're cliches; sometimes it's the only words that we have to describe the way that we feel). Husbands, desire your wives, don't put them on a pedestal just because you are married now and think that the only way you are going to have the kind of sex that you had before getting married (if you did) is to look for someone else with whom you can be "naughty." Be naughty together because in marriage there are no limits to what you are allowed to do, so long as it is in love.

But not just in love. This is not an exhortation to go have sex with anyone you please just because you say you love each other. The point is marriage and the promises that you have made to be faithful to each other, through sickness and health, poverty and wealth, the bad times as well as the good. That's why marriage is not only a sacrament but also, to use the old medieval terminology, an "order." It's what I've been searching for all these years and didn't know it. Or maybe I knew it but was afraid to admit it, I'm not sure. Here I've been, worrying about why I couldn't seem to learn how to pray, thinking that it was somehow a matter of becoming a monk (or a nun), when all along it was staring me in the face: love your husband. And through your husband, learn to love Christ.

Let me be clear if I haven't already been: married couples are supposed to have sex. But isn't sex dirty? Isn't marriage rather second-best to a life of celibacy and prayer? Possibly, but then I lost my virginity (or found my womanhood) some time ago, so I don't really know what a life of sanctified celibacy would be like. What I do know is how deadening accidental celibacy in marriage can be. Accidental because you get "too busy" to spend time with each other. Accidental because you "really need to finish this now." Accidental because somehow everything other than each other has gradually, insidiously been allowed to become more important than simply being together in love. That's what I mean when I say that married couples are supposed to have sex: not that they are obliged to (the dreaded "payment of the marriage debt," God help us), but that being together in love is supposed to be their focus, not simply something they do when they happen to have time.

But there's more. Married couples are supposed to have sex in any way that they find mutually pleasurable. Listen to me; this is really, really important. There is not "married sex" and "fun sex," as if the two were somehow distinct from each other, the wife or husband in one bed, the lover or whore in the other. No, I did not manage to save my virginity for even my first husband; I had certainly lost it by the time I got together with my second (and present) one. Again, that isn't my point, although maybe it should be. My point is the stories that we in our culture tell ourselves about what makes sex exciting, going all the way back to the mythology that we have created around something that sometimes travels under the label "courtly love." You all know the paradigm: one spouse falls in love with somebody other than the one he or she is married to, and their adulterous passion is somehow more authentic and real than the love that they (are supposed to) have for their spouses.

Okay, full disclosure: been there, done that. It's why I have a second husband and not just a first. Again, not my point. My point is about not letting the passion die simply because that's what everyone says is "supposed" to happen after you get married, thus most of the drama we watch on tv. And why does it die? Laziness. Selfishness. Lack of generosity. Meanness. Lack of attention to God. "Excuse me," I can hear you asking. "Did you just say 'lack of attention to God'?" But of course. "But what can God possibly have to do with sex? Isn't sex just about bodies and lust?" NO! That's where we've gotten it wrong, that's where (I now realize) our whole culture really has gone astray. We've made sex dirty; God never did. God made us male and female to love each other, be fruitful and multiply--and He gave us sex with all of its pleasures to ensure that we did.

The problem is not the sex in itself, but the use that we make of it. How do we know that the use that we're making of it is wrong? It feels dirty. And how do we know when the use that we are making of it is right? It feels precious and joyful and clean. Isn't it sad how hard it is for so many of us to come to this realization? (As, by the by, I absolutely refuse to believe that I am the only one who has been laboring under this burden; I would be happy to be proved wrong.) We spend our lives so anxious, wanting something that we tell ourselves is really forbidden, embarrassed to admit our desires even to ourselves, never mind to the one with whom we should share them, body and soul. How many of you have surreptitiously spent hours reading erotica*, possibly even online, without telling your spouse? How many of you have wondered what you would look like in that sexy nightgown that you never dared buy? How many of you have spent hours reading Jean Auel instead of talking with your husbands or wives?* Not me. Not, at least, anymore.

It's ironic, really. I've spent years studying the Song of Songs as the love song of God for the soul. What a wonder that it took nearly sixteen years of marriage for me to come to my senses and realize that the song was already about me and my love for my spouse--and thereby about God.

"As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention towards me was love.
Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!" (2:3-6)

Come, my beloved, my husband. Come into your garden, this is the song that we are supposed to sing. Let us sing it now!

*Okay, so maybe Sabrina On-line doesn't quite count as erotica, but those raccoons are definitely having sex.
**Really, those mammoths were hot.***
***Right, so all of my examples of erotica include fur. I am a bear, after all!

Images: Eric Gill, Song of Songs (1925)


  1. Your reflections made me think of a wonderful essay by Rowan Williams on this very topic - The Body's Grace. It's well worth reading if you haven't already. (This appears to be the only version available on the web - it's filled with typos, but you'll get the gist.)

    I'm new to your blog, but I have read a number of your posts and plan on visiting regularly!

  2. Pete, thank you so much for this reference. And welcome! I hope you continue to visit Fencing Bear!

  3. Ok...Mrs. Brown...this should be included in the top 10 marriage list above!


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