June 12, 2014

Getting Back Up: A Celibate’s Guide to Marital Intimacy

Gary Thomas — 
Photo: by tiverylucky on freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: by tiverylucky on freedigitalphotos.net

A crippled, unassuming 17th century monk left behind a small collection of letters and a few conversations that eventually became a classic entitled Practicing the Presence of God.  People were drawn to Brother Lawrence’s divine friendship, the way he seemed to dwell in intimate union with his heavenly Father.  Though he was celibate his entire life, his experience has much to teach us about marriage.


I’ve read his little book numerous times, in just about every decade of my life, but what hit me most recently was how difficult the journey was for Brother Lawrence to draw near to God.  After his determination to spend every conscious second in God’s presence, Brother Lawrence confesses, “The next ten years were very hard, and I suffered a great deal.”  He didn’t understand God, he didn’t understand himself, and the reality of what he was experiencing fell far short of his desire.  Brother Lawrence knew this, and it hurt to be less than fully intimate with God when he desired it so much.


“During this period I often fell, yet just as often I rose again.  Sometimes it seemed that all creation, reason and even the Lord Himself were against me.”


At times, Brother Lawrence feared that he was presuming on something that perhaps was unattainable.  Perhaps, he sometimes wondered, he was even delusional.  But he pressed on, and the end result was nothing short of glorious: “Many years have passed since that time.  I have no pain and no doubt in my present state, because I have no will but God’s.”  Elsewhere he wrote, “There is no other life in all the world as sweet and as delightful as the life lived in a continual walk with God.”


Relationships aren’t easy—at points, they will even be excruciating—but the payoff can be enormous.  Any pursuit of intimacy—even intimacy with God—will involve pain, doubt, and frustration.  In our marriages, will we endure a difficult decade to draw near to our spouse?  Will we “suffer a great deal” for an intimacy we know can be achieved, when we finally understand it won’t come easily?


Why is it so hard, so painful to build a lifelong love?  For starters, like Brother Lawrence, we don’t fully understand ourselves—that leads to confusion.  We’re not in full control of ourselves—that leads to further sin, which alienates us from our spouse.  We don’t fully understand our spouse—that leads to frustration.  None of these challenges are small, and none can be dismissed on a honeymoon.  It takes years, maybe decades, to grow through some of them.  And the reality is we never fully rise above any of them.


If we want real intimacy, we have to adopt Brother Lawrence’s process: “During this period I often fell, yet just as often I rose again.”  So many couples simply give up.  It may feel, at times, that we’re the only one who wants true marital intimacy, that perhaps even our spouse and maybe even God aren’t with us: “Sometimes,” Lawrence confessed, “it seemed that all creation, reason and even the Lord Himself were against me.”  But if we don’t stop, if we keep on building toward that glorious end, we may find as “sweet and delightful” a union as anyone has ever known.


Everything in the movies and novels tell us romantic intimacy comes easily.  We know it doesn’t.  Infatuation does but not true, I-really-know-you-and-I-really-know-me-so-I-really- know-us intimacy.


Will you face a difficult decade of earnest effort?  Will you stand strong when you feel like you’re in it alone?  There are no guarantees that your efforts will succeed, but there is a strong likelihood that if we don’t adopt such an attitude, we’ll never know what might have been.


I don’t want to sentimentalize this.  The process of two fallen individuals building a rich marital intimacy can break your heart, break your spirit, and lead you to some dark places during some particularly dark nights.  But marital intimacy is for those who believe in a dawn and are willing to keep their eyes open until the first glimmer of light pierces the horizon.



(Hint: If you know of a couple going through a dark place during a dark night of their relationship, would you please send this post their way?)


When you subscribe to Gary’s blog, you will receive blog posts directly to your e-mail inbox. You will be one of the first to learn about the latest in Gary’s writing.