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Linking the spiritual and sexual

by Fran Ferder and John Heagle
Crossroad, 224 pages, $16.95


It is with real gratitude that I find a book affirming consistently and with cumulative effect the spiritual potential of human sexuality. It is good to have these authors’ viewpoints on the record. John Heagle, a Catholic priest, and Fran Ferder, a Franciscan sister, write as therapists rather than from their experience as religious professionals.

What struck this reader was their obvious and passionate love for these ideas. They want to make accessible “a spiritual vision that guides our approach to relationships.” When they capture something like this connection between sexuality and fire, it can be exhilarating, a reminder of the best workshops one has ever taken (or given): “When human persons love one another they are stepping into the energy field where little universes of fire are ignited, where chemistry occurs, where something within them will be set aflame. … In so doing they are truly communicating with the divine.”

The key to the book’s use, I think, is found in the evocative quotes at the head of each short chapter, from scripture to the Beatles, from Miguel de Unamuno to Teilhard de Chardin and of course the Velveteen Rabbit and Saint-Exupéry.

Tender Fires could be read productively as notes for meditation. Such treatment might give the repetition cumulative power, and the brevity of the consideration of such large topics might serve the reader rather than infuriate her. I could imagine it being read in conjunction with keeping a journal, to encourage questions and the personal adaptation of statements such as: “One of the signs of maturity is the capacity to know when and how much to disclose.”

I arrived near the end of the book, however, with a sense of fast-accelerating disappointment as, again and again, the authors assumed the key tenets to be self-evident, that “anything authentically and deeply human is inherently spiritual.” Persons who are already convinced of the spiritual promise of sexuality and who are looking for appropriate words to wrap around their convictions will find this book a godsend. Perhaps, now that the case has largely been made for the importance of healthy sexuality to human life (spiritually, physically and emotionally), it will be enough for them.

The disappointment became more intense as it became clear that sexuality was not going to be approached in other than a highly intellectualized and personally detached way. The ephemeral “we” is annoying, it begins as a distancer and fades into the generalized we of humanity.

“They” have affirmed clearly that they believe these things to be true. But why are these ideas indispensable for the rest of us? How are we to calculate their consequences in our lives? One extended example, applied with honesty from their own experience, would have been worth many of the book’s abstract lists to make the work inclusive and universally applicable. Mostly the authors describe ideal forms of thought or behavior and then expect the reader to employ conventional spiritual and psychological means to integrate them into their lives (for example, “Both repression and addiction are essentially attempts to escape the tasks of becoming truly incarnate”). That approach is characteristic of workshop education, which values description and testimony and underuses evidence, argument and thorough exposition of a particular viewpoint.

Most people, however, do not need affirmations, even rapturous ones about sexuality, as much as they need reasons, analyses of consequences, and strategies for deconstructing an old view and integrating a new one into their lives. How credible are these words in the real world? How applicable are they to people whose sexuality is as individual as their fingerprint? In a workshop the adjustment and application to individual need and difference would become clearer as real people examine their own lives in memory and imagination. But here, between the covers of a book, we don’t have that crucial ingredient of workshop education. Robert Frost’s dictum could apply: Never say more than the truth; it’s too weak. The experience reminded me of reading a cookbook with no recipes.

As it stands this book belongs to the comforting genre of “spiritual reverie.” Short on sources, contexts and strategies, unrelievedly subjective without being personal, it floats generalizations in an atmosphere of openness and hope. I wonder if the book would not have been more successful, original and persuasive had the authors begun with their “vision statements” of the last chapters, and then developed each statement exhaustively in longer chapters.

There are still miles to go to keep the promise of this excellent title.

Joan H. Timmerman is emeritus professor of theology at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minn. and author of Sexuality and Spiritual Growth (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002