In this chapter I would like to speak in more depth of the path of healing and maturation in love, to tie together the strands from the last couple chapters and to bring them together. This will hopefully aid in crystallizing some of the previously mentioned themes, as well as help provide guidance and clarity also for those who do not struggle with the repressive tendencies spoken of in the last chapter. In a word, I aim to speak more of the “big picture” of growth in interpersonal love, in which my previous words are fitted. But even here, even though what I say applies to all forms of relationship between persons both of the same gender and opposite gender, the relationships that occur within the perennial complementarity of man and woman must also be spoken of in a particular way. This is due both to their particular depth and richness, as well as to the dangers that inhere in them because of original sin, dangers which threaten to derail the purity of love and relationship into a form of use, but which can also be overcome and healed by the power of grace at work in human hearts and lives.
I have already provided the ingredients of chastity in the previous reflections, by speaking about the movement from self-mastery to self-possession to integration, and also about the different facets of our humanity which need to be affirmed in their God-ordained meaning and lifted up into the holistic living of love and relationship with the whole of reality. I spoke of the heart as the inner sanctuary of personal identity, the inmost “I” incarnate at the core of bodiliness while also being spiritual—and as spiritual, open to the wholeness of being. I spoke of the three spiritual faculties of mind, affectivity, and will which are rooted in the heart, and which express its deepest voice in our conscious existence. Finally, I spoke of the other layers of our experience in the body: the imagination, the emotions, the physiological feelings, and the bodily sensations. How can we proceed from here to a deeper reflection on the experience of love and its maturation? I want to reflect on the way in which these faculties and experiences come together in the mature personal subject, the “I,” in a way that they all manifest and are harnessed within the freedom of the gift—a gift which is always from person to person and establishes a relationship of cherishing love and affirmation between the two.
The philosophical work of John Paul II before his election to the papacy is helpful here. As Karol Wojtyła, he published a book on sexual ethics entitled Love and Responsibility, based on a course he taught at the Catholic University of Lublin. In this book he speaks of three different spheres of our humanity which respond to the presence of another person—particularly of the opposite gender—and which make up, as it were, “ingredients” in the experience and the act of love. He says that these three are sensuality, sensibility, and the will. These correspond almost exactly with what I have termed here the physiological feelings, the emotions, and the will (though my analysis is wider and applies to all of life experience, and not only the relation between persons).
By sensuality, Wojtyła means in particular the expression of the “sexual urge” as our orientation towards a physical, sexual union with a person of the opposite gender. It is the impulse written into our humanity by God to join together as man and woman in reciprocal self-giving according to the most specific significance of the spousal meaning of the body: sexual union and the possibility of procreation that this brings with it. But to speak more clearly, Wojtyła does not mean that sensuality is a movement of the heart in its awareness of the value of sexual intimacy in the sight of God, nor a cognitive awareness of its purpose and dignity. No, it is defined as an “urge” or a “drive” precisely because it is pre-rational and pre-volitional, lying rather on the instinctual and bodily level. It already presents itself to the mind and the will before any thought or choice, precisely as an urge of the body in its orientation towards sexual union. This does not mean, however, that the sexual urge in human beings is identical with that present in animals, though a reading of Wojtyła’s text may seem to indicate this.* Of course, we do have facets of our being in common with animals (vegetation, sensation, locomotion, etc.), but by being human experiences and capacities, they lie on an incomparably higher order than those found in animals. Thus the sexual urge in humans is not the same as the drive for copulation in animals, nor is the sexual embrace in humans the same as animal copulation. Rather, an unbridgeable chasm lies between the two.
This is very important to recognize, because it allows us to affirm that even the sexual drive—rooted in physiology—is not entirely “non-rational,” but has its own end and direction, not only towards the guidance provided by reason and will, but also towards the establishment of a relationship with another human being, another human person. This is the prerequisite for the sexual urge itself to be capable of being taken up into harmony and integration with the higher dimensions of the human mental and emotional life, retaining its own meaning and yet being entirely held within and at the service of the person.* (More on this later.) Nonetheless, the sexual urge itself is incapable of seeing the person, and therefore is not adequate grounds for the establishment of a relationship of love. This is due in part to its woundedness in sin—by which it inclines towards a kind of impulsive drive towards pleasure without bounds, and thus towards an anonymous use of the body of another person for sexual gratification. But it is also due simply to the fact that the sexual urge, as in all the physiological feelings, is incapable of seeing a person—since a person is a spiritual and interior reality, even as incarnate in the body, who can only be seen and affirmed by a corresponding spiritual and interior faculty.
Finally, let me clarify that this is not to say that the sexual urge need be inherently blind, as if it is only awakened by the sexual attractiveness of another person, and can only be controlled and integrated by a force from above that restrains and directs it. This is often the case in human experience, wounded as it is by sin and concupiscence. But the sexual urge and the pull of concupiscence are two different things (and here I think Wojtyła is not as clear as he could be). The urge towards sexual union is not at all identical with the disordered inclination to use another person for sexual gratification. Rather, it is but a healthy expression of our natural orientation towards conjugal union as man and woman, and thus part of the bodily context in which the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity are expressed. If, however, the sexual urge were merely animal, or if it were identical with concupiscent desire, then it could only ever be restrained, resisted, and curtailed by a strict control by the will. There would be no possibility of a deeper and mature spontaneity being born even here in the experience of the explicitly sexual realm. But as we will see, this is precisely the goal of human maturation as it touches this sphere. Yet let me speak about the other dimensions before continuing with this theme.
If the sexual urge is rooted in the body, then the sensibility is rooted in the emotional realm. The term “sensibility,” however, still indicates a movement rooted in our physiological, psychic experience, and not a spiritual faculty.* Hence, it is still sense-based, and thus an expression of emotion, not of affectivity or of any of the other spiritual faculties or the voice of the heart. Wojtyła says that the sensibility responds to the global beauty of the masculinity or femininity of another human being, to the aura or radiance of their being as man or woman. It is thus more interior, more holistic, than the sensuality, but it is still something that is not capable of seeing the person, but only the traits or expression of the genius of man and woman, and the attraction that this awakens. Thus sensibility too is not an adequate grounds for personal love, even as it is a healthy and essential dimension of our humanity: for it is but the expression of that “perennial attraction” of what is masculine and what is feminine, which, because of God’s creative design, exist in a ceaseless dance of fascination that permeates the entire universe.
Often it is the sensibility that a person is referring to when they speak of “falling in love.” This, clearly, is very misleading, for they are not in fact falling in love, but rather falling into fascination, or, at best, experiencing the beautiful radiance of masculinity or femininity as it is uniquely expressed in an individual of the opposite gender. The problem is not with the fascination of the masculine for the feminine or the feminine for the masculine, but rather simply that it is not yet a matter of incomparable persons seeing and affirming one another. A relationship founded on the sensibility, therefore, is built upon sand, not upon rock.
How, then can a relationship be built upon rock, such that it will be a communion of true love, and not of use? This is only the case if the will emerges and makes a choice for the other person, in their unrepeatable uniqueness as an individual in the sight of God. Thus, love is a commitment, a responsibility, a decision to affirm the other, to care for them, and to reverence them in their incomparable dignity. And yet, in the light of our previous reflections, we can say quite easily that love is born not of the will alone, but also by the coordination of the will with the mind and the spiritual affectivity, which all three together speak the deep voice of the heart from my own “I” before the “you” of another person.
Yes, the sensuality speaks of my ordination towards sexual union with a body complementary to mine, and the sensibility speaks of the global complementarity of my gender before the gender of another person; but only the three spiritual faculties have the capacity, given by God, to see, feel, and choose the other as a person, in their incomparable uniqueness and irreplaceable dignity. This is the rock-hard foundation of love, which respects the movements of sensuality and sensibility, and lifts them up, but which also transcends them. The mind has the capacity to truly see, to intuit, to make a mental contact with the other as a unique person—a personhood that is radiating out through their visible, bodily masculinity or femininity, and yet presenting itself to me precisely as you, as another “I,” sacred and inviolable in their interior solitude before God, called forth to be loved and affirmed for their own sake.
The same is true of the affectivity: this faculty, far beyond the ability of the emotions (sensibility), has the capacity to feel—in the kind of mysterious knowing that complements and at times surpasses the knowing of the mind—the unique beauty and dignity of the other person. This, in the truest and most profound sense, is what it means to “fall in love”: it is a movement of the affectivity in union with the mind, in which both are granted a glimpse, a taste, of the incomparable beauty of another person. We are given an experience of the seeing of God himself as he gazes lovingly upon another person, and this experience moves us deeply, moves us with awe and wonder that such a person exists. And our heart spontaneously begins to say: “How good and beautiful you are, beloved! It is very good that you exist. Without you, if you were not here, there would be an irreplaceable hole in the universe that nothing could fill.” This movement of the heart precisely indicates the capacity of mind and affectivity to see, not merely the sexual attraction of the body or the aura of gender, but the very radiance of the interior person made visible through the body.
And yet these two faculties, mind and affectivity, also call for completion by the will, such that love may be fully sanctioned, fully chosen, fully committed to, and thus may grow to maturity. All three spiritual faculties—which, again, express the single voice of the heart in my inner “I”—can gradually harmonize all the other dimensions of my humanity in its relation to another person, lifting them up, pervading them, purifying them, and rendering them transparent to the word of love spoken between person and person. And this is precisely the beautiful path of maturation in love—indeed, of undying fidelity—which persons commit themselves to before one another and before God, insofar as their love is authentic, and precisely so that, in the sight of God, their love may prove authentic, and may show itself to be of ultimate value in the light of eternity.
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So much for the more general, abstract approach to the process of maturation in love. I would like now to try to make all these things more concrete, more tangible, by walking experientially through the way that the process of love unfolds. Of course, the paths of love are manifold, indeed singular, blossoming uniquely in unrepeatable encounters and relationships according to the capacities of individuals and—insofar as truly willed and held by God—according to his mysterious and beautiful intentions. Without in any way taking away from the sacred space of uniqueness, and the trajectory of human love that unfolds, in its own way, in the sight of God, I want to speak about the different facets of which I have spoken, both in their true beauty as well as in dangers inherent in them because of our sinful state.
The beginning of all love starts with encounter. This should be obvious, but in fact it is profoundly significant that we understand what encounter authentically means, and what it does not. In truth, an encounter gives birth to love when it is an encounter between persons, when an “I” and an “I” meet and behold one another in their subjective depth as well as in their God-given dignity. Thus it is an encounter in which one person sees another precisely as a living subject—a subject with his or her own inner world of emotion, experience, desire, and aspiration—his or her own sacred and inviolable “I” before the creative “Thou” of God. As I said, this can come about instantaneously for those who are mature, as the mind, affectivity, and will have been so healed from the blinding effects of concupiscence and the dullness that inhere in them due to original sin that they recapture something of the contemplative gaze of chaste love that was proper to Adam and Eve before sin. A single glance from the pure heart can penetrate to the inner mystery of the other person—not to violate or analyze or comprehend the mystery (which only God can fully know), but rather to bow down in reverence, love, and tender care before it. Yes, the pure heart responds spontaneously to the visible manifestation of the other person (in the body) with an act of affirmation. And the act of affirmation is simply the cry of the heart: “You are beautiful, good, and worthy of being loved and esteemed. I choose to love you in this moment as you deserve, according to the innate dignity that God has given to you as he has given it to no other.”
In my book Loving in the Light of Eternity, I spoke of this act of love as the foundational experience and gift of amor complacentiae, the love of complacence or delight in the beauty and goodness of the other person. It is not something that can be merely willed, though the will stands in readiness for it. Rather, the will cooperates with the mind and the affectivity—which are passive receivers, or better, receptive-responders, to the gift that comes first from the outside. Thus the first act of the will is to listen and to receive, to allow the irradiation of the other person to pierce me and to take up a home in the cherishing tenderness of my own heart. Only in response to this primary passivity can I also become active before the other person in an authentically loving way.
This helps to illuminate in a beautiful way the significance of Christ’s words by which he commands us to “love one another as I have loved you.” He is not telling us that love is an abstract principle that needs to be applied to concrete situations as an ethical imperative, but rather pointing out to us the great value before which love is the only adequate response—indeed, a love that manifests and shares in the very love of God incarnate in Christ. He shows us what it is to love, and, in loving, he shows us the great and inestimable dignity of each human person. Yes, the only adequate attitude before another human person is love, because they have been born from, are sustained by, and are called to everlasting fulfillment in intimacy with Love. Only in joining my own activity of mind, will, and affectivity—and the whole unity of my personal being in its entirety—with the affirming love of God can I do justice to the value of another person. Thus the commandment of God is a pathway for us: it points out the path we are to follow if we are to learn to love authentically, and thus to fulfill the meaning of our being and existence. But as I indicated in Part I, it is not only a pathway, but also a gift: the commandment of Christ comes with the very capacity to love poured into us by the Holy Spirit, such that we love not only by his example, but by his own love alive and active within us.
Let me return to the experience of love. If the first movement of love is the receptive-responsiveness to the innate value of another person, which awakens an attitude of gratuitous affirmation of their goodness (amor complacentiae), this also awakens and sustains my attitudes and actions in relation to the other person, both in the moment and throughout time. The contemplative contact of receptive love and humble awe before the dignity of the other person is the abiding wellspring of love, not only at its point of origin, but continually throughout life, and indeed throughout eternity. Thus we see the primacy of receptivity before activity in the realm of love, and yet we also see how all activity springs forth, and is guided by, the primal receptivity that carries it and brings it to completion. This is just another way of saying that the gift of ourselves cannot come about except as a response to the prior gift of another that we receive—first the gift of God himself, but also of the human other who is entrusted into our care by God.
From this affirmation, this “yes” spoken from my heart to the heart of the other person, spring forth two other fundamental desires which express this “yes” and give it form, while also taking form entirely from the attunement of my heart to the true state of the other person in their objective being and all the realistic contours of their existence. These two desires are: the desire for the good of the beloved person, and the desire for union with them (the benevolent desire and the unitive desire). The first is the desire for the beloved to find happiness and fulfillment for their own sake, because they have been created precisely for this purpose by the gratuitous love of God, and because the innate beauty of their being so moves me that I spontaneously wish for this for them. The second, also born from an experience of being-moved by the other person, awakens in me a kind of “attraction,” not to any one facet or trait of the other person, but rather precisely to the unique beauty and dignity of this incomparable individual. And this attraction is a desire for communion, for intimacy, for the coming together of my being and their being in the embrace of mutual self-giving, such that what is theirs becomes mine and what is mine becomes theirs, in the shared indwelling of love that reflects the inner life of the Trinity. Both of these desires are essential to every form of love, even if, in each singular relationship, they are manifested with an infinite variety of shades and nuances, and also if they only grow to maturity gradually and slowly over a period of time. The more mature a person is, the more quickly, even instantaneously, they enter into the full disposition of affirmation for the other for their own sake, and also experience the benevolent desire and the unitive desire flowering within them (in whatever particular way or degree of intensity the circumstances and state of the other person call for).
But what does all of this have to do with the different facets of our humanity about which I have spoken previously? These dispositions, acts, and experiences all lie in the realm of the spirit—even as manifested, incarnated, and lived in the body—as they are proper to the “voice of the heart.” Everything, indeed, is oriented towards the full emergence of this voice of the heart, that it may express itself as a word or song of love to the beloved person, and may in turn receive the beloved person too. Here the beautiful phrase of John Henry Newman shows its deep beauty: Cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. And yet the communication of two hearts in affirming love does not dismiss the body, nor the other dimensions of our humanity. Rather, it is meant to permeate them, to harness them, to purify them, and to express itself within them. Thus the imagination too is filled with the reverent image of the beloved person who is known with mind, affectivity, and will; and the emotions are moved by them according to truth, allowing me to experience them fully as a true good; and the physiological feelings and sensations of the body are but the substratum of my presence to the other person, and of my receptivity to their presence to me.
This is true even of the sensuality and sensibility of which Karol Wojtyła spoke in Love and Responsibility; they too can be taken up into the voice of the heart and become but a substratum and a dimension of the mutual presence of persons to one another. This is precisely how, in a more simple and perhaps mature way, John Paul spoke of chastity at the very end of his Theology of the Body: in the context of the marital relation of husband and wife, he spoke of chastity as the capacity to guide sensuality and sensibility to the true good of the person and to the establishment of an authentic communion between persons on the basis of mutual affirmation. But rather than using his previous philosophical terms, he speaks specifically of “arousal” and “emotion,” which are, however, particular expressions of the sensuality (sexual urge) and sensibility which respond to the presence of another person of the opposite gender.
But what happens in an encounter between persons in which this affirmation does not occur, but in which, rather, either one or both persons is not capable of seeing and reverencing the other in their true dignity and personal uniqueness (or chooses not to do this)? If they are not capable of seeing the other as a person, in their innate value and in the light of objective reality, they are also not capable of directing their dispositions and actions according to the truth of authentic love. (This shows just how essential is the receptive-responsiveness to the reality of the other person with the voice of the heart, on which the whole fabric of love is built!) If they cannot or do not do this, then they will be inclined instead to relate to the other person on the basis of mere sensuality or sensibility.
In the first case, that of sensuality, they will be drawn to the other person (or repulsed) by their sexual attractiveness or lack thereof. Their interest in the other person will be based in the explicitly sexual sphere—however conscious or subliminal this may be—and will be colored by it from the beginning. Whereas in mature love, the other person is attractive (even sexually), not because of a particular body-type or even their capacity for sexual union, but simply and precisely because of the radiance and beauty of their inner person in and through the body. This person is loved first of all and always in a virginal way, far beyond their sexual appeal, precisely as the unique person whom they are; and only in this context is the sexual dimension held—in whatever way this manifests itself, whether in sexual union or continence—as a gratuitous expression of the love of person and person.
In the second case, that of sensibility, the person will be drawn by the particular masculine or feminine charm of the other, not in their incomparable uniqueness but on the basis of the general traits of their gender that they manifest. This often leads to a great deal of “idealization” or “projection,” in which the primal disposition of receptive-responsiveness is replaced by a (usually unconscious) thrusting of one’s own desires onto the other person. The other person becomes a fulfillment of one’s own emotional fantasies, or an outlet for one’s wishes and aspirations, or a “solution” to deep needs or wounds seeking healing and wholeness, and not another person valuable in his or her own right. This form of emotional use takes many more forms than the more obvious sensual use, and thus is much more difficult to detect. It is also inherently more subtle, and can cling to a person without their being aware of it. They may think, for example, that they are loving the “unique person,” are fascinated by this person in their special beauty, whereas what they are loving is either a reflection of their own self, or the conglomeration of their own desires or ideal hopes, which they have “found” in the other person. In mature love, on the contrary, the richness of masculinity and femininity proper to two persons as they relate to one another is but a living context, a breath of fullness and depth, that touches and permeates their relationship in its God-ordained fullness. And this gendered complementarity–which is much more than sexual, but is manifested in the fullness of their bodily and spiritual being—reflects the very orientation of the masculine and feminine towards one another in the image and likeness of the Persons of the Trinity. And they rejoice in this richness, even as what occupies them is precisely the person, the interrelationship of person and person in the purity and chastity of mutual affirmation, and the joy of true intimacy that is born precisely in this contact of persons.
Usually, the path to mature love passes through many mistakes and projections and missteps into ever greater and more transparent seeing of the person, and thus into a more integral love that truly seeks the good of the beloved in an attuned way, and also receives and cherishes them in disinterested but grateful tenderness. But to understand the goal of love, and indeed its foundation, can help a great deal in setting a relationship on a healthy footing from the beginning. If it has not started out in this way, however, and until it finds it, a relationship will always be, so to speak, “in search of its beginning.” And how sadly true this is of so many marriages in our contemporary world, in which relationships are founded on mutual use in the realm of sensuality and sensibility, and man and woman do not adequately see and reverence one another as incomparable persons, called to be loved for their own sake! This is particularly tragic, whether in marriage or in continence, because we each have a desperate need and desire to be in intimate communion with other persons. This is the very heart of our vocation as human beings, in relation first of all to God, but also to other created persons. This does not mean we need sexual experience to be fulfilled, but rather that we need intimacy, we need true and profound communion with other persons, whom we see with clear and sober vision, and who see us in response. Here, indeed, the vocations of marriage and virginity differ very little: both are paths into deep human intimacy, and both also take up the full richness of our human sexual capacity into the gift of person and person (only the first does so in intercourse and the second does so in continence).
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*I would like to note that I am not seeking to give a strict and literal explanation of Wojtyła’s own thought, but am rather interpreting and developing upon it in my own words. There are, in fact, a few areas where I explicitly try to deepen his insights, and to expand them, such that they may express more adequately the true richness and nuance of human experience. For example, Wojtyła often seems to conflate the sexual urge and the “concupiscence of the flesh” in his book, whereas I firmly distinguish them. I also seek to affirm more explicitly the inner orientation of sensuality and sensibility towards being lifted up into the personal realm and being placed at the service of personal love—indeed, of being permeated, from the inner light radiating from the heart, by the presence of an incomparable person. In this, I don’t think I am in disagreement with Wojtyła, but perhaps simply enunciating more fully insights that are expressed with greater fullness, not in Love and Responsibility itself, but in later writings, such as the Theology of the Body or other minor writings.
*For a mature person, even the sexual urge is totally at the service of the affirmation of the person, such that the experience of sexual desire and arousal is so harmonized with the other faculties of one’s subjectivity that it is awakened, not by the sexual attractiveness of another, but rather by the deep affective movement of love for them and the choice of the will to unite with them in sexual union. It is important to notice also that, in the Eastern tradition of the Church, the sexual sphere is not understood in as biological way as it is in the West. Being more integrated in a number of ways, the Eastern approach to the body is more mystical and sacramental, and thus they also understand, quite spontaneously, a “theology of the body” more than the repressive and rationalistic Western mind. Of course, the truth lies in a harmony between both traditions—or better, between all the facets of reality—in a union of both reason and mysticism, of science subjected to sacramentality, of a wholehearted affirmation of the essence of the created order and yet also its complete transparency to the spiritual and divine order. These are not opposed, but, as I have tried to show throughout this book, profoundly interlaced by the loving intentions of God himself.
*The term sensibility has also been translated as “emotion” or “affectivity,” but for obvious reasons I maintain the word sensibility, as it distinguishes it from the spiritual affectivity, on the one hand, and from the more general realm of the emotions, on the other hand (for there are many emotions besides those specifically awakened by masculinity or femininity). It also helps to illustrate the particularly bodily and incarnate nature of these feelings, which are clearly in the inner domain of the person but also have a specific relation to bodiliness.