“Fasting is the guardian of chastity.”
Thomas Aquinas

We have a problem with the marital act. Please allow me to speak frankly. Many engage in it who should not. Even for many who are married, intimacy is not what it can and should be. And these two facts only begin to point to the problem.

That ‘sexual advice’ is now common is also indicative of the problem. Implicit in the sexual advice approach is an assumption that undermines the reality. The assumption is this: we should try to maximize pleasure as though this is the focal point of the act.

Herein is a subtle issue of the first significance. While pleasure naturally accompanies this activity, and so always has a natural and important place in it, it is never the ‘point’ of the act. It is not what the marital act is about.

According to the great philosophical tradition, pleasure follows upon a human activity and is closely related to that activity, but it is always distinct from it. Eating brings pleasure, but eating and its pleasure are distinct. That nature has attached pleasure to various acts is truly worthy of wonder, and so also of our reflection and gratitude. For pleasure is a gift, a kind of sign of and completion of the goodness of good activity.

But as philosophy and experience make clear, pleasure can lead us astray—especially the stronger pleasures, which of course are stronger for a good reason. So, one of the cardinal or ‘hinge’ virtues of human life is temperance, which restrains and orders our bodily appetites. And in this amazing virtue is highlighted the astounding and paradoxical truth that acting rightly not only preserves our actions in their integrity; it also makes for greater, truer pleasure.

While the intemperate will not see this, and indeed will deride the very notion, wisdom is justified by her children. The virtuous see clearly what the rest of us strain to discern.

This is where fasting comes in. Yes, fasting from food. By fasting I mean the practice of either abstaining from food altogether, or eating less than a normal portion, for some specified length of time. Here is a surprising means to developing temperance, including its most important subspecies, chastity. Nature has provided for all of us a way to put order into our bodily desires, regardless of our state in life. The wise have always seen a natural connection of the desires for food and sex, and so the providential ramifications of disciplining the former. As such, fasting is a key to making sexual intimacy what it should be—for all of us, married and unmarried.

Why do I say ‘for all of us?’ Because in a sense, sexual intimacy has a place in all our lives. For many, its place is a beautiful action that is not enacted. Perhaps it has been permanently set aside by a promise; perhaps it is set aside only for now, with marriage to come later; perhaps it has been set aside as a gift enacted earlier in life but now no more. In all of these cases, the virtue of temperance, especially cultivated by fasting, empowers us to see sexual intimacy for what it is, and what it is not.

For the married too, as surely as everyone else, the virtue of temperance is an indispensable key. Chastening and restraining bodily desires is a major and oft overlooked factor in fostering true marital intimacy.

What might seem counterintuitive is borne out in real life. The man who learns how to say no to himself, is the man who learns how to say yes to others. When the time has really come. For him and his wife, the marital act can be what by its nature it should be, an act of love, of looking to another person. And saying I love you.

So regarding our day to day practice of eating—already charged with meaning on many levels—we are once again surprised by joy. If we have eyes to see, and the humility and the will to practice it rightly, we have in fasting a door that opens into the ever marvelous feast of life.

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Recommended: Dinner at Home. See the whole series…


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