Summary: Training and exercise in the spiritual life, and self-mastery, are a requirement for sanctity and effectiveness.
“let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” In nomine Patris. . .
Over the last several months, my wife and I have learned a great deal about standing and falling. One seldom thinks about knees until one stops working perfectly. A knee really gets attention when it is in constant pain and needs to be replaced. The CDC tells us that there were 719,000 total knee replacements in 2010, but each one of those surgeries has a story that goes months beyond it. Standing means dozens of muscles and tendons and ligaments and nerves in each knee working together harmoniously to keep your body erect. Every one of these has to be retrained after radical surgery, and controlled carefully by the brain. It often requires extensive professional help, and frequent exercise done with total concentration and self-control. If you don’t, then even the simple act of stepping off a curb can put you back into the hospital, when your unprepared knee tissues collapse and you fall to the pavement. To stand rather than to fall depends on unyielding self-discipline and practice. A day of this kind of training ends in exhaustion and pain. This is true in physical rehab as it is in athletics.
St. Paul became familiar with the self-discipline required of athletes during his many years of residence in and correspondence with the Greek churches. After all, in his day the Olympic games had been celebrated for centuries, in a stadium just down the road from Corinth. Just seven verses earlier he told the Corinthians: “You know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize. So run to win! 25 All those who compete in the games use self-control so they can win a crown. That crown is an earthly thing that lasts only a short time, but our crown will never be destroyed. 26 So I do not run without a goal. I fight like a boxer who is hitting something—not just the air. 27 I treat my body hard and make it my slave so that I myself will not be disqualified after I have preached to others.” He is not writing about a physical foot-race! He is discussing the race to sainthood, the path to union with Our Lord. We cannot win this contest without painful self-discipline and constant exercise of the virtues.
We must also avoid all vice–all vicious habits. In today’s Epistle, St. Paul alludes to an OT story that was also used for the same purpose by St. Jude, St. Peter, and St. John. It’s the story of Balaam bar Beor, the false prophet. You may remember the story of Balaam’s talking jackass, or Balaam’s inability to curse Israel out in the desert. But most people have forgotten the way Balaam did hurt the people of God. He was an early porn merchant. He knew that Israel’s strength was in its single-hearted relationship with the Lord. So while they were at the oasis at Peor, he brought priestesses of Baal from Midian to the men, and encouraged adulterous worship of the false god. That’s what is meant by “they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to play.” The Midianites also brought disease, and thousands of the Israelites died, horribly and rapidly. The way the demon Baal got into their hearts was through perversions of the marital act, which is the best translation of the Greek term “porneia,” which we shorten to “porn.”
The sacrament of marriage is God’s relationship-gift to humans. The extraordinary form sermon in the Marriage Rite refers to marriage as the only divine gift not totally messed up by the Fall of the first humans. We rightly refer to the intimate giving of self in marriage as the “marital act,” but we should also admit two related realities. The act is so pleasurable in itself that perversions of the act retain pleasant sensations, even as they gravely injure those who do them in their bodies, emotions and souls. This is why St. Paul warns the Corinthians elsewhere that every other sin is committed outside the body, but sexual sin injures us inside. The Church has always taught that consciously-willed sexual sin is gravely evil–never of minor seriousness.
The other related reality is that there are other marital acts–actions of husband and wife that also bring them closer together, serve the cause of procreation, and create the intense sense that they are not two people, but one. The list is long, but let me say taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, changing diapers, weeding the garden, giving up the football game to play with the kids, taking the family to church, praying the Rosary. Add your own elements. What builds up your community of faith, hope and love is a marital act. The grace given daily through the sacrament of matrimony will be enough to protect you against any temptation. God is a faithful helper, as we read in the Introit, and his precepts are right and sweet, as we read in the Offertory. God is faithful, Paul tells Timothy, even when we are unfaithful.