THIS BLOG POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MY CLIENTS-ONLY NEWSLETTER FROM 2016. I'M DUSTING IT OFF FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION, AND WILL FOLLOW IT WITH SOME OTHER ARCHIVE ARTICLES AS WELL. ENJOY!
I don’t know about you, but I love watching the Olympics. Just knowing that God built the human body to perform such amazing, graceful and grueling tasks is a wonder in itself: that anyone would train so hard and dedicate so much of their life to pushing their bodies to these extremes is totally beyond me. If you’ve been watching in Rio, you’ll know that Michael Phelps has been the center of a lot of attention. At the age of 31 (a total geezer by Olympian standards), he is not only still competing on the world stage, he is better than ever. The secret to his success? Training. Lots of training, coupled with a renewed sense of purpose, something he attributed to the intervention of long-time friend Ray Lewis and a little book called “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
This combination of pure talent, perseverance in training and a reason to persevere all make Michael Phelps arguably the best Olympic athlete of all time.
In the ancient world (the world of the first Olympiad!), athletes were lauded not only as individual victors; they were celebrated as heroes of their entire families and city-states. The honor they won for themselves translated to honor for all. It is no wonder, then, that the warrior (the practical profession for an athlete) was lauded by Homer as the exemplar of virtue: to put it simply, the warrior was the greatest specimen of mankind. This is because the warrior-athlete not only relies on his natural talents, but he commits himself to training--to the cultivation of perfection. This training was called askesis, in the Greek, and was picked up in very interesting ways by the early Christian Church.
In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes:
“Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27)
Here, Paul likens his Christian life to that of an athlete, who not only coaches others (through preaching), but also disciplines his own body so that he can emerge victorious in the test. He uses this metaphor again when he writes to Timothy towards the end of his life, saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Just as the athlete trains and then tests his preparation in a boxing match or in a race, the Christian trains body and soul and then is tested through the practice of the faith.
It is no coincidence that the martyrs, sent to horrific deaths in the Colosseum, were seen as the “athletes of religion” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V), those who sacrificed the most to win the greatest victory for Christ and the Church. This is the origin of the symbolism of the laurel, or crown, for martyrs— it is the same accolade given to the triumphant athlete/warrior. Following the lines of St. Paul, Eusebius, and others, Christians began to see themselves as God’s warriors, and thus their entire life was a practice of training both body and soul to be victorious in the battle for heaven.
This askesis was driven by Christ’s challenge: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24)
Those like Anthony of the Desert (St. Anthony the Great) who lived as hermits were the greatest examples of this askesis, putting their bodies through extreme fasting and abstinence while strengthening their souls through prayer. This is the origin of the word asceticism, which has the unfortunate connotation today of complete austerity.
In reality, asceticism is anything we do which perfects us in Christian virtue, which is simply another way of saying: we become more Christ-like, and consequently more fully ourselves.
One of the main hurdles we encounter as practitioners of NFP, and perhaps the most difficult point to address when we try to explain ourselves to others, is the fact that natural family planning requires abstinence, plain and simple. It requires a mastery of our bodies that few people have any interest in today. Such self-denial seems totally alien in a world that champions sex-on-demand, especially within marriage.
This peculiar form of fasting is even a sticking point for those within the Church, who may see value in other traditional forms of askesis, but can’t see the value in this particular form. What makes NFP so strange and challenging is precisely the fact that it is often explained in the context of “withholding” some good in order to postpone another good. More precisely: we withhold the good of sex, in order to postpone the good of a child--because naturally, these things go together. But if that is the only way that abstinence in NFP is understood, what’s the point? Michael Phelps wouldn’t put himself on a restrictive diet in order to NOT win medals, right?
So if NFP is a true form of askesis, that is--training in perfection (virtue) for the sake of Christ, it has to be something much more than abstaining from a good in order to withhold another good. Rather, it must be abstaining from a good in order to achieve a good. But what “good” is that?
I would like to put forward the idea that NFP is a true form of askesis, not just because it can require the mastery-of-self which is needed to abstain during fertile periods, (or to “hold it” as you dance around the bathroom trying to get that darned test stick unwrapped!) but because regardless of how and why you are using NFP, it trains and perfects us in the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
When we focus our sights on the goal of becoming more Christ-like, NFP can be a powerful source of askesis ̧ training us to be the “athletes of religion” God wants us to be. Let’s see how:
Allows us to judge between what is right and wrong--and do it. It is “right reason applied to practice.” In the case of a couple trying to discern whether now is a good time to have a baby, they must weigh the good of a new baby against the other which may be affected by their decision, e.g., the mother’s health, the needs of current children, dangerous family circumstances. Here is where the idea of “withholding a good in order to postpone another good” breaks down, because now we see that the decision to abstain during fertile periods is a decision to withhold the good of sex not for the potential, future good of a baby, but for the sake of maintaining some current good. The practice of NFP, specifically in the discernment process couples undergo, hones the virtue of prudence.
Trains us to give to each what properly belongs to them. In NFP it is connected with prudence because it requires us to acknowledge and act upon the distinction between current/actual and future/potential goods. As we said before, a baby is a “good,” but in the discerning phase, it is a potential good, not yet actualized (realized). Our spouse and any children we already have are actual goods and justice ensures that we put the needs of our actual family members ahead of the needs of potential family members. It is possible that the needs of all these people could be met, in which case it is probably a good idea to try to have another baby, but it is also possible that they can conflict. When combined with prudence, justice is a powerful virtue strengthened through NFP. Together, they allow us to weigh competing goods, discern what is just concerning those goods, and act upon that reasoning.
Allows us to remain steadfast to our duty in the face of hardship. For most of us, NFP forces us to practice fortitude every time we enter into conversation with a health-care professional. Or we may encounter pushback from family and friends. Perhaps the hardship is the silent suffering of a couple trying to conceive--or those months when the chart simply doesn’t make any sense and you’re ready to throw in the towel. Remaining faithful to the teachings of the Church in regards to family planning is quite frequently an exercise of fortitude. It sucks, but no one will ever tell you that askesis is easy.
Allows us to balance the pursuit of legitimate goods against any inordinate desire for them. As fourth in the list of cardinal virtues, temperance is seen as handmaid to them all. In order for prudence, justice and fortitude to prevail, our own desires must first be moderated. NFP requires the practice of temperance not only in the sense of moderating our sexual appetites, but also fosters modesty of spirit, the humility that is required to wipe out pride and selfishness. Whether we are trying to postpone or trying to achieve pregnancy, temperance allows us not to fall into despair when our carefully- crafted plans are frustrated. It preserves us from corrupted love towards any good we seek: whether potential or actual.
We could also highlight the ways in which NFP strengthens us in the Theological Virtues of faith, hope and love, but since this article is already too long, I will end with the exhortation to embrace this cross, this peculiar form of askesis, with an eye towards allowing all of this hard work to make you more like Christ.
This is one of the many ways in which God invites us into “perfection training,” paving the way for us to “become perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)
No saint was ever called to be a mediocre version of themselves.
It is true that the image of the athlete-warrior is an imperfect metaphor, but I believe we can glean some true insight by heeding the words of the greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps: “If you want to be the best, you have to do things that other people aren’t willing to do.”