By Leon Suprenant | August 26, 2008
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25). The problem is, most of us can’t just flip a switch and love our wives “as Christ loved the Church,” even if–especially if–we understand the depth of St. Paul’s words. Nonetheless, we realize that the Apostle to the Gentiles is trying to give us a blueprint for success as husbands and fathers.
The key for us as Christian men is to realize that implementing St. Paul’s instruction requires training and hard work. We need to build virtues, which not only are godly habits, but spiritual muscles that will help us attain “the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:23).
We all know that the world gives us a different blueprint for success. The secular model of a successful man is a rich, powerful womanizer. As an alternative, I’d like to offer three virtues, which also are fruits of the Holy Spirit, to help us dismantle this model and rebuild our image of manhood on more solid ground.
One virtue is generosity. What does this virtue say about our attitude toward possessions and wealth, as well as our priorities in life? Another crucial virtue for men is meekness. What does this virtue teach us about manly strength? And the third virtue is chastity. What does this virtue teach us about the gift of our male sexuality?
By cultivating these virtues in our role as husbands and fathers, we can better imitate Christ’s self-giving love for His Body, the Church.
Chastity pertains to everybody. Many men focus on sex as the “bottom line,” and so once they’re married, sex is “legal” and thus chastity is no longer needed. This is an erroneous and immature way of looking at it. Loving our wives as Christ loves His Church is much deeper and richer than that.
All Christians are called to chastity throughout their lives. Some embrace virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a singularly beautiful manner. The rest of us are called to live chastely whether we are married or single.
Chastity is a virtue, or spiritual muscle, just like prudence, justice, faithfulness, sobriety, courage, and a host of other virtues that are meant for every generation. As St. Paul writes:
“As for yourself, you must say what is consistent with sound doctrine, namely, that older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance. Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, under the control of their husbands, so that the work of God may not be discredited.
“Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves, showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect, with integrity in your teaching, dignity. . .” (Tit. 2:1-7).
But what is chastity? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “the moral virtue which, under the cardinal virtue of temperance, provides for the successful integration of sexuality within the person leading to the inner unity of the bodily and spiritual being” (no. 2337).
The “successful integration” of our sexuality literally makes us men of integrity, men of wholeness, which is the foundation of purity of heart.
Conversely, a lack of such integrity or wholeness means, in a sense, that we’re disintegrated, that we’re scattered, dissipated, dissolute. A lack of chastity, then, is ordered to a lack of personal integrity. We are then open to sins of lust—especially pornography—that disintegrate our sexuality and cause us to lead a “double life.”
Our Catholic tradition has understood the 6th Commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality, and not just adultery. Thus we say that a sexual sin is a sin against the Sixth Commandment. But we need to understand this rightly. To do so, let’s briefly look at the 5th Commandment “Thou shall not kill.” That Commandment entails a lot of “no’s” or “don’ts.” For example, “don’t murder,” “don’t lynch,” “don’t maim,” “don’t dismember,” “don’t abort your children,” “don’t engage in unjust war.” Of course the list could go on and on.
Even more profoundly, though, we’re pro-life, which isn’t merely about opposing of all these evils, but rather about upholding a fundamental respect for the dignity of all human persons created in the image and likeness of God, leading us to strive to create a culture and world that shares this core value.
The Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not commit adultery”) has its own share of “no’s” or “don’ts.” For example, “no premarital sex,” “no extramarital sex,” “no pornography,” “no masturbation,” “no homosexual activity,” “no prostitution.” Of course this list also goes on and on.
But even more profoundly and positively, we are “pro-love” in the sense of laying down our lives for our beloved, which is a sign of contradiction for those who think love is merely about self-gratification. Love is the greatest of the virtues, the greatest of the Commandments, and it consists in giving of ourselves for God and neighbor.
In this light, we should see chastity the virtue or power to give of ourselves—the more chaste and pure we are, the greater our capacity for love, which usually expresses itself in friendship.
Even more, friendship is taken up a notch in Christian marriage, where we are called to give completely of ourselves in a lifelong, faithful commitment to our spouse in a unity of life and love. Chastity enables us to make this mutual gift in a full and authentic way. When we do this, we image Christ and His Church.
Married couples truly are “made for each other.” Supernatural grace that comes with Christian marriage builds on the natural complementarity of man and woman. Through their mutual gift, the two really do become one flesh (Eph. 5:31), just as Christ completely indentifies Himself with His Bride, the Church (cf. Acts 9:4). This two-becoming-one of husband and wife is brought about, symbolized, and recalled in the marriage act.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical God is Love, calls us not to settle for a self-seeking erotic love, but to strive for a God-like, self-giving love that builds on and perfects all the lower forms of love. In this context, chastity gives us the strength not to be reactive or controlled by our passions and lusts, but rather the freedom that comes with self-mastery—the freedom to love as Christ loved the Church. This strength is the fruit of a lifelong battle in which we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as we strive to imitate the purity of Christ.
At first glance, meekness may be the most unattractive Christian virtue to modern man. Today, many people think of “meekness as weakness,” the antithesis of the “holy” self-assertion that enables us to get our own way. We picture a meek person as a wimp or doormat, not as a virile, Christian man.
Yet, those of us who are serious about following the Lord and growing in Christian virtue know that the Bible presents a different image of meekness. Our faith extols meekness not only as a desirable virtue and fruit of the Holy Spirit, but also as a Beatitude. Moses, who boldly delivered an entire nation from bondage, is described in Scripture as the meekest of men (Num. 12:3).
Surely Jesus Himself embodied all the virtues, but when it comes to meekness, there can be no doubt. He says, “Learn from me; for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29). Not only is Our Lord meek, but He also expects us to imitate His meekness. This message is for everybody, but in a special way it goes out to today’s men, for whom meekness sadly is a rare commodity.
Meekness, sometimes used interchangeably with “gentleness” in biblical translations, comes from a Greek word meaning “not easily provoked,” which in turn comes from the word for a highly spirited trained horse. Such a horse has become so gentle and mild that a child may pet it or ride on its back. But the more important thing is that the horse no longer thrashes about wildly, but rather has been trained to take direction. The strength of the noble animal has been harnessed for good, not forfeited, not dissipated. Similarly, a harnessed or “meeked” river can generate power, and a harnessed or “meeked” fire can heat a campsite. Meekness, like chastity, has always implied harnessed strength, not weakness.
Meekness implies an openness to God that allows Him to act through us, particularly at those times when our fallen nature might lead us to thrash about wildly. It surely involves a certain gentleness toward our neighbor, but it primarily applies to our relationship with God, as we daringly acquiesce to His harnessing of our gifts and talents for our own good, the good of our family, and the good of His Church.
Meekness invites God’s presence, enabling us to do good in response to evil. Meekness moderates anger according to right reason. Therefore, meekness is opposed to the vice of anger, which involves excess in the passion of anger–in other words, what we might call “unbridled” anger.
While a blind rage prevents us from seeing things rightly and responding appropriately, meekness allows us to remain in control. An example from the world of sports might help illustrate this point.
When a professional athlete is provoked and allows the provocation to “get in his head,” he commits a foolish foul or penalty by blindly retaliating. Such retaliation does not demonstrate strength, but rather foolishness and a lack of virtue. His action hurts himself and his team. Conversely, the player who keeps his head in the game proves himself coachable, and he likely raises his game a notch under pressure, like Peyton Manning or Tim Duncan.
When it comes to living as Christians today, meekness prevents us from “going ballistic” and allowing our anger to consume us. But not foolishly making things worse is only part of the equation. Meekness also allows us to remain focused on the prize–Our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal communion with Him. This may seem obvious, but we all have experienced the blinding effects of our emotions at one time or another. Meekness keeps us focused during crunch time, when things don’t seem to be going our way.
St. Francis de Sales counsels us not only to “seek the sweetness of aromatic honey in courtesy and suavity with strangers, but also the sweetness of milk among those of our household and our neighbors; a sweetness terribly lacking to some who are as angels abroad and devils at home.” This counsel challenges us to examine how we are able to restrain our anger at home, at work, and also within the Church, which is our true home in the Family of God.
Our Lord says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5). The meek are not patsies to be trampled underfoot, but are the big winners in God’s eyes.
We know that Christ was perfect in His humanity. We also know that the sin and violence inflicted upon Him did not deter Him from fulfilling His Father’s will. He teaches us that meekness isn’t for wimps, but rather is tough as nails–the nails of the Cross. We will return to this thought momentarily.
Generosity literally means “full of giving life,” yet we also know that generosity entails “freely giving something of value away.” These distinct meanings come together in marriage. After all, marital love consists in a total gift of ourselves to our wives, and from the very etymology of “generosity,” we know that this gift of self is inherently life-giving.
Generosity in any context does not come easily. It’s a paradoxical, counter-intuitive virtue, as our natural instinct is to try to make ourselves happy through acquisition, not self-donation. Yet the Gospel is crystal-clear on this point. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:24-25).
Or as St. Francis of Assisi aptly summarized, “It is in giving that we receive.”
I want to focus on two areas where families are especially called to be generous: tithing and openness to children. There may be others, but in my experience those are two of the biggest drains on the pocketbook I’ve come across as a married man. The challenge for us is to step out in faith in these areas and really trust Christ.
Each year my growing family is stretched a little thinner as we support more and more “good causes.” With a modest income and several school-aged children, why do we do this? We see it as looking out for number one, except our “number one” is not ourselves, but Our Lord.
The biblical concept is tithing. In the Old Testament, tithing was a moral and spiritual obligation to make an offering to God of ten percent off the top of all the fruits of one’s labors (cf. Lv. 27:30). In fact, if one didn’t tithe, it was considered stealing from God! (Mal 3:7-8).
Even more fundamental than the mere “accounting” aspect is the sense of generosity and piety that goes along with tithing. It’s all about making the Lord the priority in one’s life, as brought home so clearly in the story of the widow’s mite (Lk. 21:1-4). The poor widow was not a major Temple benefactor by earthly standards, but her gift was singled out for praise by the Lord because of the great love she showed in giving the little she had.
Maybe that’s why my favorite birthday or Father’s Day gifts tend to be the ones my children make themselves. These artistic treasures, often saved for posterity on our refrigerator or my office’s walls, serve absolutely no practical purpose. What makes them valuable to me is that they represent a loving sacrifice on the part of my children, which means infinitely more than any monetary value other gifts might have.
We are called to support the Church through the generous use of our own time, talent, and treasure. The exact amount isn’t as important as the priority and generosity that accompany the giving. The traditional 10% is a helpful, biblical measuring rod, but there’s nothing preventing us from giving 15 or 20%! At any rate, I can say from personal experience, despite many financial obligations and the fact that over a decade ago I left my law practice to work for a non-profit ministry, that the more our family has tithed, the more Our Lord has provided for our every need. I shouldn’t be surprised at this, because He pretty much tells us that this would be the case (cf. Mt 6:33). Yet, I still truly marvel at this reality.
Perhaps God multiplies our offerings like Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Maybe tithing instills a right order and priority that shape all of our spending. Perhaps tithing encourages us to do without things that really aren’t necessary. Or, more likely, it’s a combination of all of the above.
Generosity involves much more than writing a check–but my wife and I have decided that that’s not a bad place to start. I guess we’re just putting our money where our hearts are.
But what about our fertility? Understanding generosity as meaning full of giving life, we can’t address the issue of generosity in a marital context without talking about openness to the gift of children.
According to the Psalmist (Ps. 127:4-5; 128:3-4) and the Catechism (no. 2373), large families are a sign of God’s blessing. And what does Our Lord say when the disciples complain about all the children who were being brought to Him? “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:14). Yet, we well know that children are not always seen by contemporary couples as a blessing. So where do we stand?
As chaste men, we strive to be love-giving men of integrity who give ourselves totally and completely to our wives, especially in the marriage act. As meek men after the example of Moses and Our Lord Himself, we are committed to living how God wants us to live, even when the going gets tough. And like the seed that falls to the ground and dies, our generous gift of self to our spouse is life-giving on many levels, but most obviously in the sense of bringing into the world children made in the image and likeness of God.
The Catholic Church has always taught and continues to affirm that contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity. It attempts to separate the love-giving dimension from the life-giving dimension of the marital act, and in so doing both dimensions are lost. Contracepted sex is neither generous nor objectively loving. The inherent selfishness of contraception mars the integrity of the marital act, as its ends become dis-integrated. Once we open the door to contraception, any sexual activity among “consenting adults” can be rationalized.
But the point here isn’t to drive home the sinfulness of contraception, the binding nature of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception, or even to advocate for natural family planning (NFP) as a morally licit, marriage-building alternative to contraception. I’m assuming all of these things. Rather, I’m asserting that if we live marital chastity in a way that exludes recourse to contraception, then we have in our grasp a recipe for loving our wives as Christ loved His Church. Indeed, therein is a recipe for a happy, successful marriage. This has certainly been true in my own experience.
The union of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church, is fruitful. The essence of the Church is evangelization, to bear fruit that lasts, so that in the words of St. Paul Christ may be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters (cf. Rom. 8:29).
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved His Church. The Church refers to the family as the Domestic Church, the basic building block of the Body of Christ. Through our fidelity and fruitfulness–not merely in terms of having children but in terms of leading each other, our children and others who touch our lives to Christ–we truly imitate the “great mystery” of Christ and His Church.
Do we consider “one more child” a blessing or a curse? What would Jesus say? As the youngest of 14 myself, I’m eternally grateful that my parents didn’t have the “good sense” to stop at 13.
There’s more to Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” Giving up ourself for our spouse is a call to heroic chastity, meekness, and generosity and, as with Christ on the Cross, this entails sacrifice. Paradoxically, through such sacrifice, through being the grain of wheat that falls to the ground, we find true joy and happiness—in this life and in the glory of heaven.
This article originally appeared in the July-August 2008 issue of This Rock, and is based on a talk delivered earlier this year at a regional conference sponsored by the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families.