Review of Gordon J. Hilsman, Intimate Spirituality: The Catholic Way of Love & Sex
Gordon Hilsman hopes with Intimate Spirituality to bridge what he calls a chasm that exists between "intimate loving and Catholic practice" (p. xiii) by showing how a "positive, healthy view of sexuality" is a "vital spiritual path for committed couples" (jacket summary). Hilsman, who divides his work into two parts, titled "Eros and Individual Spirituality" and "Eros and Community" respectively, rightly argues in his Introduction that "the natural human mystery of intimate love can shine light on virtually every aspect of Catholic tradition." He states that his book is intended to fill "a significant gap…between [Catholicism's] well-developed individual and communal spiritualities" but is not a work of argumentative theology. Rather, the expressed aim is to provide suggestions for how Catholic culture might experience progress, both as individuals and ecclesiologically, "if intimate love were taken seriously as primary data for theology and ecclesiastical policy" (pp. xiv-xv).
The first part of the book reads quite fluidly, as Hilsman proffers traditional Catholic understandings of grace and sin and applies them to loving and intimate relationships. For example, he examines the Fruits of the Spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control) in light of the reality of day-to-day partnership between paramours. Hilsman writes of the joy that lovers experience when they are together, recalling that many a woman has wistfully explained, when asked why she fell in love with her groom, that he'd made her laugh. He reminds his audience that men's and women's libidos are oftentimes quite different; therefore, in the interest of being generous, women may need to be more open to their lover's advances just as men need to be willing to slow things down rather than race toward climax. In this way, they show their great love for one another by being generous with their bodies. Lovers, Hilsman writes, must indulge themselves in their intimacy. Perhaps the most interesting of these reflections on a couple's united spiritual growth is his application of peace, which he describes as something experienced in the afterglow of love-making when the amorous pair cuddles (indirectly emphasizing the rather culturally interesting irony that romance may be ultimately more pleasing than intercourse). It is noteworthy that the most profound observations are often those that ought to be more apparent to us, and Hilsman does a fine job of employing Catholic sacramentality to offer those insights: "Only a combination of efforts on the level of body and soul together contributes to experiencing this peace even once in a lifetime, let alone with any enduring and fulfilling frequency" (p. 20; emphasis Hilsman's).
Besides the Fruits of the Spirit, Hilsman also employs the hermeneutic of the Gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counseling, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord), the Paschal Mystery (Christ's passion, death, and resurrection), [page 30] the Seven Capital Sins (lust gets its own chapter, with envy, sloth, greed, gluttony, rage, and pride to follow), and the four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude). Perhaps most applicable for this modern age of divorce is the relatively brief chapter that examines love in light of the Paschal Mystery, "Death, Resurrection, and the Ending of Love." While he does spend time discussing the death of a partner, the chapter focuses on failed relationships and how people can learn and grow from them.
Hilsman takes a similar approach to communal spiritualities in the second part of the book, where he moves from the sacraments ("Can Agape Learn from Eros?") to the Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience), and from society ("Eros and Social Spirituality" and "Eros and Catholic Social Teaching") to leadership ("Intimate Love and the Leader's Own Spirituality"). Among the more interesting readings in this section is Hilman's writing on marriage. He quotes a now deceased priest-friend, who always emphasized that marriage is nearly impossible to maintain, humanly-speaking, adding: "So it's a good thing we're not just humanly-speaking" (p. 113). The good reverend's point implied that, according to Catholic sacramental theology, a marriage is a union not just between two people but also God. The unity of matrimony is meant to be a vehicle of grace for the couple and a sacramental sign for the community of God's desire for unity with humanity. Later, Hilsman offers an interesting interpersonal use of the Evangelical Counsel of poverty, making a fine, though not new, point: "Maturing sexual lovers, caring deeply about one another's welfare, are constantly learning to share all they have for the good of them both and any family for whom they may be responsible" (p. 137). In short, the desire to share everything and to place each other above all else—including financial gain—experienced so strongly when romance is young, must continue to be cultivated if love is to last.
While Hilsman's book has its merits, I find it difficult to recommend his work. I agree whole-heartedly with several of his arguments (for example, his statement quoted above that "the natural human mystery of intimate love can shine light on virtually every aspect of Catholic tradition") and his critique that churchmen have sometimes failed to teach properly—or, perhaps even to understand fully—the God-given beauty and meaning of sexual love, both in the past and present. However, as the book progresses, the author strays from offering insight and moves toward complaining about Catholic teachings. Sadly, his digressions often suggest that he has not recently studied his object of scorn. I think especially here of his problems with Humanae Vitae, which, despite Hilsman's arguments, recognizes as a good the pleasure offered by sexual intimacy when experienced as a means toward unity as well as sometimes resulting in procreation. Too, in his arguments against the Church's definition of artificial birth control as immoral, Hilsman neglects to provide at least some small space to the use of fertility awareness to space births, despite its effectiveness being equivalent with the pill. Those who do use this method find themselves living many of the virtues that Hilsman promotes so well in the book's first half, while experiencing almost no divorce. Surely, natural family planning deserves at least some positive mention.
Perhaps most troublesome is the claim that the "spirituality of intimate partnering has not been significantly developed over the past five centuries" and the book's fundamental bent against Pope John Paul II. For example, Eugene Kennedy, [page 31] who writes an introduction to the book, claims that John Paul II cared mainly about his own fame and tried to abrogate Vatican II, while Hilsman, more gently, laments that the Pope failed to implement the Council (pp. ix, xiv, 119). The irony of ignoring the Pope becomes clear when one considers how extensively he addressed the beauty and sacramentality of spousal intimacy, including pleasure. From his philosophical work Love and Responsibility (1960) to biblical, philosophical, and theological reflections in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (preached 1979-1984, and published in English most recently in 2006), from Mulieris Dignitatem (1988)to his Letter to Families (1994) and beyond, a thoroughly positive depiction of human love and sexuality as both an echo and a revelation of Divine Love informs the Pope's understanding of the Trinity, the Church, and social justice. His thought has influenced a myriad of writers, both academic and popular, such as Marc Cardinal Ouellet's Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family (2006) and Christopher West's popularizations of the Theology of the Body.
There are other problems—stylistic, theological, historical, doctrinal—but the above issues are the most glaring. Considering that the good insights Hilsman has to offer can be found elsewhere and that much of the book's second part, and a not insignificant portion of the first, are more focused on railing against (what this reviewer believes to be misrepresentations of) Church teachings than actually applying his hermeneutic, it seems advisable to go elsewhere. For something approximate to what Hilsman offers, I would recommend West's Heaven's Song: Sexual Love As It Was Meant to Be, which discusses the ups and downs of human relationships in the context of John Paul II's teachings on the Bible's Song of Songs and the Book of Tobit. For a slightly more philosophical (and perhaps slightly less spiritual) examination of sexual intimacy in light of the Catholic tradition, see Edward Sri's Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love.