Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Contraception and the Divine Poverty

Sic Deus dilexit mundum.
For God so loved the world.
My apologies on not having written anything in due time, I have had a lot of time to spend at work this summer, and though that is not a full excuse I have spent some time reading up. I hope to blog a bit about what I read in Orthodox readings of  Augustine, that is a volume based on a 2007 conference regarding the Eastern Orthodox reception of St. Augustine the blessed Father of the West. However, this post regards a controversial topic for Christians in modern industrialized societies regarding the usage and acceptance of contraception as a means to postponing pregnancy. The focus of this essay will aim to discuss why the Catholic Church in her wisdom has provided that contraception is against the Divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply, as well as the notion of the man and woman becoming one flesh as Christ chose Himself to become one with His holy Church. Human sexuality is inevitably tied to Christ and His mission through His Incarnation and Holy Life. Marriage is the image and icon of Christ’s loving union and communion with the Church, which is without reserve and is of a totally self-giving, self-sacrificial love. The use of contraceptives shatters the total self-giving of love present in the marital life and so ruins and distorts that which marital life is aimed to imitate, the beauty of the unity between Christ and His Bride the Church. May Christian spouses love each other in Christ, be united to Him, and love each other in the image and likeness of Christ's sacrificial Incarnation, Life, and Passion, for the sake of His Beloved Bride, the Church.

I apologize if any of these paragraphs are too mature for the reader, but I will try to avoid the usage of words that do not aim at modesty, since even subtle words can be an occasion for sin for those of us who are spiritually ill (myself included).

As my poor mind understands, some contraceptives aim to stop conception from occurring, other contraceptives prevent pregnancy (like the Pill), and the distinction lies in that in conception a fully formed individual is formed through the union of egg and sperm, while a pregnancy is the movement of that conceived individual human being into the uterus of the woman. Allowing for the conception of a child to occur but actively altering one’s fertility so as to prevent implantation (pregnancy) is in a sense an abortion of the child. This is the difficult reality that is so unseen in so many young persons’ lives, and it is a grave thing to grieve about.

The Mystery of Marriage in Christ

St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus the following:

Ephesians 5:22-33

22 Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: 23 Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject to Christ: so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it: 26 That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: 27 That he might present it to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as also Christ does the church: 30 Because we are members of him, body, of his flesh and of his bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother: and shall cleave to his wife. And they shall be two in one flesh. 32 This is a great sacrament: but I speak in Christ and in the church. 33 Nevertheless, let every one of you in particular love for his wife as himself: And let the wife fear her husband.

There is a mystery of the relations of wife to husband as the Holy Spirit has provided us here in the inspired words of St. Paul. He relates to us that the wife is subject to the husband as to relate to him in steadfast obedience, faith, hope, love, care, and reverence. And so then the husband is to relate to the wife in tenderness, care, guardianship, love, and with the total investment as if he were caring for his own very body. The archetype given by St. Paul is that wives cleave to their husbands as the rock and foundation of the family, in much the same way that the Church must and does cleave to Christ the Rock and Foundation of the Faith. But let us be careful here to understand that Christ the King does not rule as the Gentiles do, what scurrilous thought one must have to suggest that Christ rules as a tyrant, but rather He is the suffering Servant Who washes His own disciples feet in the fullness of humility and love. For He Himself is Love. And again then let us understand that when St. Paul states that husbands are the head of their wives it is that they are the servants of their wives, though authoritative on the due part of the masculine nature of the relationship are servants of their wives as Christ was servant to His disciples and to the entire Church. Christ gave everything for the Church, His Body. This is the significance of St. Paul writing that Christ is the Savior of His Body, He is the Guardian and Life of His Bride, the Church, and so too must the husband be the very guardian and animating principle to his wife. He must not let her languish in housekeeping or child-care or in paying the bills or in shoveling the snow, etc. but must bear the burden of being like Christ, suffering lovingly, patiently, and abundantly in the tender care of his wife. This then is the meaning of verses 22 to 25.

This love between the husband and the wife must be pure says St. Paul, and the care to which the husband is entrusted to the wife is to be sincere, just as St. Joseph who felt unworthy of our Lady, Mary (see Fr.Erlenbush’s essay and defense of this) but was sincere in his love, such that he was clear in determination at the angel’s words to love and cherish her with all that he had in his holy heart. It was St. Joseph and Blessed Mary who then fulfilled perfectly Christ’s and St. Paul’s call to love each other as if they were merely loving themselves. Later in this essay we will briefly discuss images and icons and how marriages are to resemble Christ’s giving Himself up for us, the Church, but here we can see that blessed marital love between Mary and St. Joseph that simply has no equal on Earth. The truest model of marriage is Christ to the Church, but because Mary is the strongest image of the Church her marriage is the strongest marriage and the strongest reflection of Christ pouring Himself out for the Church and the reciprocity of that relationship between Church and God. That is how Mary and St. Joseph were practically of one flesh, living and loving each other as well as their Son, the Son of God.

So then, just as the Church so harmoniously and ineffably joins to Christ in the spotless and pure sacrifice of His Passion and Resurrection through the Blessed Sacrament, so too then must the relation between husband and wife be unconditional self-offering. This is why St. John the Theologian in Revelations wrote from the angel, “Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” (Revelations 19: 9) and “7 Let us be glad and rejoice and give glory to him. For the marriage of the Lamb has come: and his wife has prepared herself. 8 And it is granted to her that she should clothe herself with fine linen, glittering and white. For the fine linen are the justifications of saints.” (Revelations 19:7-8) What is here demonstrated by St. John when he prophecies about the end of the world is that the entire history and life of the Church is the preparation for the consummation and wedding feast of her betrothal to Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ and in the timelessness of the liturgy and offering of Himself for her, the Church is at one both participating in her marriage to Christ and paradoxically still waiting for Him to return. Spiritually we receive the love of God which is so singular and unique that it is as if God would love only us and only us, much as a husband and wife receive each other on their wedding day. Yet there is always the yearning, and the knowledge that figures and the smallness of our experience with Christ is yet to come. Blessed then are those called to the marriage supper of the Lamb, those called to the consummation of their faith, the total reception of Christ in Communion where flesh is united to flesh, and we become fashioned as one to Christ. This is why St. John previously spoke of the glittering glory and beautiful garments that the Lamb’s wife, the Church, has. Christ speaks in the Gospels that those who do not bring the proper wedding garments though invited to the marital banquet will be kicked out. It is only those in the Church who have full access to the marital banquet and to the beautiful garments of faith, hope, and charity bestowed in Baptism (the laver of water in the Word of Life in St. Paul) and increased in justification (that is cleaving to God and living in Him) through the sacraments which make the linens sparkle all the more. Let it be thus known that the Communion we receive is the prototype and exemplar from which marriage is only an icon, an image, a mirror, a reflection of in human love for neighbor. Marriage is transfigured in Christ and conforms totally into Him and Who He Is.

Hence, marriage is the very icon of Christ being received in the Blessed Sacrament to the Church. An icon is something which reflects the subject portrayed, and in a sense the icon of a thing in Christianity in bearing the likeness of its prototype (subject) deserves rightful honor and veneration. So when we see images of our Lady and of Jesus, we are to be moved to tenderness by the sight of their likeness, of their image, and so move our hearts to honor Christ and Mary as they deserve. So then if marriage is the likeness and image of the reception of Holy Sacrament, then we must understand that Christ holds nothing back in giving Himself over to us. He not only gives Himself totally in the Sacrament, but gives Himself in a manner worthy to our nourishment and growth. So then marriage must be the total perilous openness given over to our spouse, not only as a total lover, but also with due consideration to what is worthy and good for the spouses spiritual and physical health. Hence, within the sexual act there must be present a love so sincere that it must be willing to give the entire soul and body in the communion of husband and wife, because the conjugal relation of husband to wife must mirror that of Christ and the Church in the ideal, and the conjugal relation is seen most purely, for most, in the intimate love of husband and wife through the sexual act. For the sexual act to accept intermediaries and artificial boundaries between the total acceptation and love of the spouses is to blur the intentional image of God’s own self-giving to mankind. It is understandable that in our human weakness we cannot readily accept the giving of our full heart, soul, and body to another because it leaves us to so many vulnerabilities, not only physically (for pregnancy is debilitating and fearful to almost all women) but emotionally and psychologically (this is clear in any relationship that to trust too willingly can lead in feelings of betrayal or fear of not receiving a certain level of reciprocity in trust), but we must understand that Christ did not raise us up to fall again, but rather to cleave to Him and receive a transforming strength in Him. For this manner, the Gospel is clear that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Few of us are afraid to give ourselves over to our own thoughts, to trust ourselves easily, to move with ease with ourselves in our thoughts, but this fear to attend the heart and give it totally to the service of another is one stumbling block that need be overcome if we are to live in the grace of the New Testament in Christ. This is why St. Paul added that husbands and wives love each other as their own selves, it is simply part of the Gospel message of love.

Simply then, that contraceptives are contrary to the Divine Source of marriage which is simply the image and likeness of Christ’s own self-giving, humility, self-emptying, self-sacrificing love. If husbands and wives cannot dedicate themselves to love each other totally then they dishonor Christ’s unconditional offering of Himself for the Church on which the entirety of the husband and wife’s relationship is to mirror and be founded upon. We will continue to explore this theme of Christ’s kenosis (willful self-emptying) to the Church by looking briefly at His Incarnation, His Humble Life, and His Passion.

The Divine Poverty (Christ’s Kenosis) as Model and Exemplar for Marital Life

Because Christian marriage is the imitation of the image of Christ’s love for the Church we must fully explore the quality of Christ’s love for the Church, a mystery that is unable to be put to words as St. Paul says, but nonetheless an essential teaching to the Church Militant. St. Augustine is one of the most passionate speakers regarding Christ’s kenosis, or His willful self-emptying. St. Paul writes:

Philippians 2:5-8
5 For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. 8 He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.

This then is the teaching of the Holy Spirit. That we be of that mind which Christ Himself undertook in that He reigned in Heaven as the Absolute. Infinite above Infinite, the Word Is simply, I Am Who I Am, the ineffable God who cannot be explained by any other concept, rationality, observation, idea, notion, or any human thought. We cannot box God into any category, no one can know God as He Is, and we cannot even call Him a being because He simply Is Who He Is. To call Him a being is to misunderstand that God is infinitely incomprehensible to the human mind. And this is then why St. Paul writes, He, that Absolute God Who dwelled from eternity in the Holy, Holy, Holy, secret Divine Life of Love in the unity of the Holy Trinity, chose as the Word of God to condescend infinitely below Him to become a servant. The fullness of His humility and desire of love for us was though being God not to consider taking advantage of Him being God, but rather emptying Himself, making Himself into practically nothing, joining Himself to the flesh of the Virgin from which He was conceived as a man, but not only as a man, but in the form of God and the form of man. This grand event is the Incarnation, an event so humbling that we bow (kneel in the old Latin rite) before such a grand love. It is unexplainable, He who dwelled in the Infinite beyond any creature, neither time, nor space, nor angel, nor concept, chose to lower Himself to the level of man, but not simply any man, but the Suffering Servant. There is no love greater than this love for which God gave His only Son, He gave Himself over to us, for our sake. His entire life was obedience to the Law, as a man, an obedience that He did not owe by any form of justice or internal need, for He is God! If we could only fully contemplate, for a brief moment, the extent of this moment of His humbling, and the depth of this love, no doubt then that we would be all the richer souls. Who can put words to it?

And so He became man that we might travel in Him who is the Way, unto His Divinity whereby we find the Truth and the Life says St. Augustine (per Christum hominem ad Christum divinum). The Lord of Heaven and Earth, of the Universe itself, owed no debt to mankind other than His own promise taken upon Himself in the fullness of His love to send us a Redeemer. Not simply a man, but Himself in the flesh, emptied out into the form of a servant to toil with us. He gave of Himself to be the Mediator and the one Mediated to, in the self-same flesh and soul. If the extent to which He made Himself small does not amaze, then we must remember that this God died for us, was crucified the most humbling way. Examine then the way of His humility for mankind, for the Church. To descend from a place that no creature could ever fully enter (the full communion and unity expressed in the Trinitarian love which though seen in the next life can never be totally contemplated by creatures) in the humble refashioning into human flesh where He would suffer, genuinely suffer, but not count it as loss for He has revealed Himself as the Good Shepard. Why this wondrous love? If not to demonstrate the entire love of God the Trinity, in the Incarnation and humility of God to enter into anything simply to love us as His precious sons and daughters. This Christ made Himself like us in every way except sin wrote St. Paul. What smallness He entered to suffer our daily toils, though always working in righteousness.

The smallness of His Incarnation is His Divine Poverty. The Incarnation shows the full character of God Who Is Love. He is a Love that cannot be explained, only experienced, and One unlike any other sort of love capable of being experienced outside of Him. He gave up His entire self in the Cross and suffering of this life, simply to bring us nearer to His love. He had nothing in the Incarnation, He was born poor, without riches, without comforts, without the material goods we each have. He placed Himself into Poverty, not only human poverty, but an inexpressible Poverty in which God Himself made Himself One with finite Creation which is so shockingly far from Him. Who can of His own will make God come down to Earth? None. We are as nothing compared to God’s self, but He condescended to us. His humility is shown in His willingness to suffer anything to love us, even death on a Cross, even to suffer emotionally the grief of every of our sins as a propitiation to God in atonement. This self-emptying becomes even more radical and unimaginable in the manner in which Christ grants Himself to the Christian at every mass, fully waiting, fully offering, saying Come unto Me all you who labor and I will refresh you. His entire self is totally consumed in His self-giving, self-emptying actions. This is the Divine Mercy.

But why is this self-emptying, this humbling self-sacrificial love important to the marital life? It is completely pertinent because Christ in His Incarnation and life is the complete exemplar of how mankind should live their lives and in what manner they must live it in Him to reach God. If we are call ourselves Christians we must become like Christ. To imitate Him we must become humble servants, slaves even, to God, and empty ourselves of pride, of temptation, and so forth. We must embrace Christ’s self-emptying in our own life, and only in this way can we fully embrace the self-giving life of Christ. This is the paradox of Christian living in that self-emptying redounds completely to become living fully in the grace of Jesus. Similarly it must be so for Christian spouses who are to enter entirely into the Gospel of the Lord. Their life style must be an imitation of Christ’s self-giving and self-emptying Identity. All of the spouse’s life as a spouse is to give themselves over to their spouse, self-giving through total-giving of the self to the other. This is not only a sexual act, but a spiritual exercise to which God calls all people to learn to give indefinitely. This self-giving is what St. Paul means when the man and woman become one flesh. This is the manner in which Christ took unto Himself a human body and nature, through a sort of humbling, a self-giving, a limitation of Himself wherein though He was still God, He was now man, and lived through the troubles and toils of creaturely life. This is the manner in which He gave Himself to the Church in His throne, the Cross. There was no doubt, no holding back, even when He was sorrowful unto death in the Garden of Gethsemane He gave Himself totally. Any Christian marriage that intends to follow Christ and to follow the manner in which Christ gave Himself to the Church and the Church to Christ, must understand that boundaries, barriers, artificial contraceptives are not benefits, but the most profoundest acts of spiritual poverty.

Setting up a boundary between spouse and spouse, is a pretension, it is a false act, it misunderstands the unity that must take place because it is the character, the nature, of the marital life to follow closely the example of Christ in self-giving, self-sacrifice, and total love. Contraceptives are the barriers that keep the mind, the heart, the body, the soul, from realizing and entering into the mystery of communion and union between man and woman, between Church and Christ. Imagine if Christ in His Holy Sacrament refused Himself of totally giving Himself to us. He would be in His right to do so as God, but He has promised Himself completely over to us, to be abused, to be loved, to be cherished, to be ignored, and He willfully does it. What great love! And what failure the human heart has when it does not realize the value of the marital sacrament, to love totally. No contraceptive can permit this total self-giving trust and love. It is the very nature of contraceptives to divide, to separate, to say, “I love you, but--!”

It is the distinctly anti-Christian nature of contraceptives that provide the ban on them. We may discuss the nature and natural act of sex perhaps in the Thomistic sense of which the sexual act is aimed at a specific goal or aim, that is, procreation. But not all couples are capable of procreation, and the Church permits these marriages to occur so long as the couples are willing and open to any child that may be brought forth in their marriage. It is truly and more convincingly the nature with which Christ gives Himself over to us without reserve that we must understand the mission, the vocation, of marriage. To misunderstand this mission is a grave fault. Until Catholics can begin to see the drive against contraception as not only contrary to the nature of sexual acts, but as contrary to the Gospel and to the revealed nature of God Himself as He gives Himself in condescending and unmerited self-giving which we are to imitate totally then we may never avoid the failure of this teaching of the Church to settle firmly in the soil of the Christian heart, to be raised up by the Holy Spirit into a fruitful and holy way of life.

1 comment:

  1. I should note here that condescending here is not meant as if God were belittling us, but rather in His descending to us out of love.

    This is the intended definition I am using from

    "To put aside one's dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior"

    I apologize for any confusion. I mean to update this essay one day.