What have I been trying to express in all of this? Essentially, what I’ve been trying to express is simply what I have written. But there is one other question present in all of this which I would like to bring more clearly into the open. It is this: If marriage is such a profound gift, and the primordial sacrament, and if it so clearly images and communicates the Trinity’s love between man and woman, then why is virginity a superior value, a higher call? John Paul II’s words on this in the Theology of the Body remain rather abstract, though if one knows how to penetrate them they open up deep insight (particularly in the section on the virginal communion that awaits us in the new creation). But in the section on “continence for the kingdom of heaven” he does not specify how virginity or celibacy actually opens up a greater participation in the Trinitarian life except by saying it is a radical choice for “the kingdom of heaven” and also allows “a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others” (77.2). I suspect that one of the primary causes of the deficit in vocations in our contemporary world (and particularly in the priesthood), as well as the defections from the consecrated state, arise from a lack of true integration and experience of this truth.
Let me therefore quote what the pope says and then try to flesh out the deep awareness and conviction of my heart in this regard (though the essential has already been said above, not in abstract terms, but in the flesh-and-blood intimacy of my personal relationships with the men and women entrusted to me). John Paul says:
When he proclaims continence “for the kingdom of heaven,” Christ fully accepts all that the Creator wrought and instituted from the beginning. Consequently, on the one hand, that continence must demonstrate that man, in his deepest constitution, is not only “dual,” but also (in this duality) “alone” before God and with God. Nevertheless, on the other hand, that which, in the call to continence for the kingdom of heaven, is an invitation to solitude for God, respects at the same time both the “dual nature of humanity” (that is, its masculinity and femininity) and also that dimension of the communion of existence that is proper to the person. (TOB 77.1)
In other words, the choice for celibacy is a particular choice of solitude for God. It is a return to the virginal truth of one’s personal solitude as oriented toward a deep intimacy with the Trinity that surpasses all human relationships. It is a “return to the place of belovedness,” of one’s identity as God’s beloved, in a particularly vulnerable way. And in this place it is also a choice to surrender one’s capacity to be a spouse and parent totally into the hands of God. Yes, it is an espousal with God, a nuptial union with him—a “totally and forever” analogous to that spoken between two human persons in marriage—which delivers one’s being to him in a particularly total way, and also allows one to share in a virginal way in his fruitfulness and maternal-paternity (as well as in the maternity of Mary). So we can say that the central truth of virginity is “vertical,” a choice for God. It is above all a reality of intimate relationship with him—and therefore of prayer, contemplation, and love—of childlike repose and playfulness, and of deep nuptial union. And this is significant because virginity is thus not some “peripheral” thing but an intense living of the heart of Christian and human life itself: truly being child, spouse, and parent in a (spiritually and bodily) virginal way.
And yet this is not the only element of virginity which the pope mentions. He also speaks of the dimension of the communion of existence that is proper to the person. In other words, celibacy manifests and deepens, not only my direct, “vertical” communion with the Trinity, but also my capacity to live “horizontal” relationships with my brothers and sisters that manifest the intimacy of the Trinity’s life in the communion that we share. Virginity is therefore not a renunciation of intimate human relationships, but only a different form of embracing them—and necessarily a “privileged” form. If it was not privileged (in traditional terminology “superior,” though I prefer not to use this, as does the pope), then there would be no reason to choose it.
Why? Because virginity is a renunciation of the greatest value that exists in the whole of the whole creation, and indeed of the literal expression of that deepest and most central element of being human: being made in the “image and likeness of God” and oriented toward a total communion of life with another person of the opposite sex. Nothing else on the human level can compare with the union between man and woman, and so even if, as a virgin, I had many deep relationships with persons of the same sex (or even superficial relationships with persons of the opposite sex), there would always be a “hole,” a “void” left within my existence by the lack of what only the “other” can bring to me, and of the way that I can give myself only to this “other.”
Of course, the renunciation of this capacity for marriage with a human other opens up a particular availability to seek intimacy with God in prayer and contemplation, and in the surrendering of one’s whole bodily, affective, volitional, and intellectual life to him—a true spousal surrender. This always remains primary. But John Paul says more, and the human heart desires more. For we were not created only to be alone with God, but also to incarnate the Trinity’s love in our human relationships, and to let these relationships be taken up into the heart of the Trinity. Here, let me quote the pope again, and then draw the conclusion I have been leading up to:
Christ’s words (Mt 19:11-19) begin with the whole realm of man’s situation and with the same realism they lead him out, toward the call in which, in a new way, though he remains by his nature a “dual” being (that is, directed as a man toward woman, and as a woman toward man), he is able to discover in this solitude of his, which never ceases to be a personal dimension of everyone’s dual nature, a new and even fuller form of intersubjective communion with others. (TOB 77.2)
How beautiful this is! This corresponds exactly with my experience. You called me so powerfully, my God, to choose solitude for you and with you, in order to enter as intensely as possible into a total belonging to you, a profound and enduring intimacy born of prayer, love, and self-surrender—through the Heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ. And yet from the heart of this solitude (which is not “aloneness,” but rather intimate communion with you in the virginal depths of my being), you have opened me wide to welcome, love, and be united to others more deeply than I could have ever imagined.
Virginity, therefore, in renouncing the profound value of marriage and the “one flesh” union of man and woman, does so not only in order to open up a particular availability for God in the context of our fractured and often distracted world, but also to enable a deeper discovery of and encounter with the human other—whether man or woman—from within the context of this intimacy with God, from within the bosom of the Trinity’s embrace.