When I was a college student, the director of the Catholic Student Union at Florida State University, Br. Sam Gunn often had words of wisdom to us college kids and the one that I want to write about today concerns dating and romance. At the end of a weekly gathering, Wednesday Spirit Nites, Bro Sam got up and wrote on a whiteboard three simple words, “Mystery, Modesty, Romance” and said something like, “If you don’t understand what this means, then figure it out.” That’s all he said and the night ended.
This was nearly 20 years ago and I haven’t stopped trying to figure out what he meant. His words were exactly what us college students, stuck in a hook-up culture, needed to hear… when sex becomes cheap and casual, true romance is dead. Basically, in order to have true romance there must be something worthy of pursuing, a great good worth seeking, and a mystery worth discovering. Every person is a mystery and true Eros is the type of love that draws us closer to one particular person with wonder and desire. So, how does one safeguard their mystery from false Eros? Modesty.
Modesty is not synonymous with puritanical prudishness, which purports to cover-up out of fear or because erotic desire is bad. That’s just wrong. Authentic modesty is rooted in a profound understanding of your goodness and knowing that only someone truly worthy has the right to see it. “Don’t throw your pearls before the swine,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, resist the pressure to show off what you got, choose modesty. Without modesty, there is no mystery, and without mystery, there can be no romance. MODESTY IS SEXY! (Yes, you are reading that correctly!) Without it, we perpetuate a culture of cheap and empty encounters that degrade human persons of our dignity nor will ever bring satiation to our everlasting desires.
Here’s a quick Theology of the Body lesson that makes these points clearer. John Paul II stated that the body alone is capable of making the invisible visible. The body reveals the person. The goodness of a person’s soul is revealed through the body. Yes, this is a mystery, but the mystery is part of the reality of who we are as people made in the image and likeness of God. To dedicate one’s life towards the exploration and understanding of another person’s deepest mysteries is called sacramental marriage. Only when I have made a covenantal vow to love you until I die, have I earned the right to your most intimate parts (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). It all works together.
The funny thing is that even though Br. Sam stated those words for college students to encourage modesty, as I continue to reflect on them now as a married man, I find that these are also the keys for continued marital romance. I have a deep disdain for the cultural narrative that states sex and romance die after marriage. It’s just not true! In the book, The Case for Marriage, the authors state that according to research married couples report a higher frequency of sexual encounters and higher satisfaction with those encounters than their non-married counterparts. (Take that hook-up culture!) Still, that narrative exists because there is some truth to the challenge of not losing romance in the midst of the craziness of life, work, and raising kids. We like to compartmentalize tasks in our minds to make things more efficient and so we can swiftly move through our day, checking one box off after another. The problem here is that our spouse (or sex with our spouse) should never just be a mere check off the list of things that need to get done. Counselors have a fancy technical term for when that happens in marriage, it’s called Boredom (which is the opposite of sexy).
In this context, the temptation for married couples is not revealing the mystery too quickly (like lusty college students), but the opposite, feeling that you have solved that mystery. Once you state that you have the other person figured out, that is when romance dies, because there is nothing left to pursue. Eternal mystery means that even after 50 years of marriage, there will still be some truth, goodness, and beauty inside my wife that I would not fully understand. There would be some mystery still worth pursuing. Repeatedly finding that newness is crucial to keeping the romance alive. Because newness is sexy. For married couples, the advice usually given to spice things up is euphemistically couched in the term “novelty items.” I caution that because the high of trying a new product is always temporary. It is a bit misguided to expect consumerism to solve bedroom boredom because novelty is primarily a disposition of the heart, not a new toy.
Married couples, this Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to find new ways of reconnecting. Instead of the same old date night, try something different. Do an adventure together. Start a new project. Do a work of service together. Something that gets you working as a team again and gives you the opportunity to see your spouse’s strengths shine again. Discover something new about who he/she is. And whatever the date is, choose to avoid talking about the duties or checklists of the day, but the hopes and longings for the future. When was the last time you talked about the bigger questions of life? When was the last time you and your spouse wondered together? Reconnect with that sense of wonder for the person you married and use that as fuel for the marital embrace.
Dating and engaged couples, this Valentine’s Day, choose modesty and preserve the goodness of your mystery. Take this as a time to continue learning how to love one another and enjoy this season of discovery in your relationship. Every season is a gift and possesses its own challenges. It is hard to believe that now, but you will understand that in time.
St. Valentine, pray for us!