What is your background regarding the topic of sexuality and spiritual life? What inspired you to write a book about it?
Good question. I have taught courses on Christian spirituality for many years now. Often I find that people think that spirituality is only concerned with their inner lives – their prayer life and their relationship with God. But Christian spirituality is broader than that. It is concerned with our response to God in all the circumstances of our lives, and that includes our sexuality.
Through my ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and pastoral counseling, I find that many Catholics have very unhealthy attitudes toward their sexuality, seeing it only as an occasion of guilt and sin. That may be because our Church has not given us a positive theology of sexuality until Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. We have grown up with a dualism that put grace over against nature, spirit over against body, the Church over against the world, men over against women. The body and our sexuality were viewed with suspicion as obstacles to our relationship with God. The tragedy is that when an energy as powerful as our sexual drive is not given constructive outlets or guidelines, it tends to go underground and emerge in ways that are hurtful to us, to others, and to our relationship with God. Just take a look around us: the hook-up culture, sex trafficking, rape, sexual abuse, abortion, pornography etc.
Our attitudes toward sexuality can either hinder or facilitate our growth toward a healthy spirituality. It can be a blessing – a source of connection, intimacy, or love – or it can cause tremendous hurt, pain, disappointment, guilt. So, I use every opportunity I can to share with others a healthy way of viewing our sexuality within the context of our spiritual lives. After all, God created us as sexual beings - our sexual drive, our passions, our feelings, sexual pleasure are all GOOD.
The motivation for writing this book came from Heidi Hess Saxon, an editor for Ave Maria Press. She had been a student at Sacred Heart Seminary many years ago, and she knew my interest in this area. Given the sexual abuse crisis and the distorted message of sexuality rampant in our culture, she felt strongly that a book such as this was needed and approached me about writing it.
Why is sexual integration and wholeness important to talk about as a Church?
In its most basic sense, sexuality refers to our way of being in the world as gendered persons. It includes our self-understanding as male or female, our body, feelings, our sexual desires, etc. Our Catholic tradition broadens that meaning. In his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II reminds us that human beings can’t live without love. At its deepest level, sexuality refers to that quest for love, so it is important the Church talk about it! Sexuality refers to the all-encompassing energy inside us that drives us toward connection, friendship, intimacy and communion. The good news is that from a Catholic perspective that very energy that moves us toward intimacy and community with one another is the same energy that moves us toward a relationship with God. In other words, sexuality and spirituality are the opposite side of the same coin. How many of our Catholic men and women view sexuality in this way?
The message of our culture – loud and clear – is that sexuality refers to nothing more than ‘having sex’. It promotes a view of the human person that suggests people exist only for their own personal pleasure and satisfaction. Our tradition promotes a view of sexual integrity that is committed to respecting the dignity and goodness of each person who enters our lives. It describes a self-giving love that wants only the flourishing and well being of another human being. We need to get this message out!
Why might people struggle with the integration of sexuality and spirituality? What are some of the pitfalls in the way we approach those areas of our lives?
People struggle with the integration of sexuality and spirituality because these are areas of our lives we don’t talk about. When most of us look back on our childhoods, we have to admit that our parents did not talk about sex because they weren’t comfortable doing so, other than to warn us, “Don’t do that! Don’t ever do that,” as Fr. Ricardo points out in his preface to the book. It was often “the elephant in the living room,” a topic that made people uncomfortable, embarrassed, and silent.
I did not want to write another book about a theology of sexuality. The Pope has done that. I wanted to demonstrate how a healthy understanding of our sexuality could enhance a person’s spiritual life. That is why I asked men and women from every walk of life, every vocation to speak about what sexuality means to them and what have been the challenges and graces of their efforts to integrate both in their lives. Every chapter ends with discussion questions to help people learn how to talk about this all-encompassing area of their lives.
The most common pitfalls in this area are, 1) people buy into the cultural message: “If it feels good, do it!” only to often end up hurt, disillusioned and very sad; and 2) we don’t know how to talk about sex. It stays underground, hidden. As I stated before, the topic makes people silent.
Does this book talk about practical ways we can work toward wholeness in our sexuality? What are a few ways Catholics can do this?
The unique gift of this book is that each chapter has been written by an individual who shares his or her personal story regarding the challenges and successes of this integration. For example Tim and Karen Hogan provide practical tips for married couples as to how to enhance their relationship. Fr. Riccardo provides practical advice regarding the role of prayer and healthy friendships as a way to foster a healthy sexual life. Professor Tim O’Malley discusses practical ways for parents to talk about sex within the family. Dr. Dan Keating and Sr. Sarah Fairbanks present best practices for men and women called to celibacy within a religious community. In his endorsement of my book, Bishop Michael Byrnes stated that these authors present the truth of Catholic doctrine on sexuality and, most importantly, “they make it real. “
What is the main thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
At a time when so many Catholics are conflicted about the place of sexuality in their spiritual lives, when many no longer look to the Church for guidance in this area, my hope is that these personal testimonies will erase the false dichotomy between sexuality and spirituality by offering a theologically sound and pastorally helpful approach to the integration of both in our lives.
I also hope this book will open the lines of communication, to start a discussion and provide people with the opportunity to talk about their fears, hopes, and desires for truly believing that sexuality is not an obstacle but an avenue to a deep, healthy spiritual life.
Order Sex and the Spiritual Life from Ave Maria Press today!