John Paul continues:
The realization of this kingdom must be found along the lines of the authentic development of the image and likeness of God, in its trinitarian meaning, that is, in its meaning precisely “of communion.” When he chooses continence for the kingdom of heaven, man has the awareness that in this way he can realize himself “differently,” and in some sense “more” than in marriage, by becoming “a sincere gift for others” (Gaudium et Spes, 24:3). (TOB 77.2)
Yes, the call to celibacy is not a renunciation of intimacy, of communion with others, but rather unfolds into an ever deeper communion with others on the basis of the very communion of the Trinity, which is the origin and perfection of all love and relationship within creation. To choose celibacy, therefore, is to immerse oneself totally into the wellspring of all communion in the heart of the Trinity, and to live unceasingly from this place in all of one’s existence and human relationships. It is therefore a super-affirmation of all those values which are renounced in their ordinary earthly expression—of the love and union of man and woman, of the fruitfulness of such love, of the Trinity’s Mystery incarnate in human life and flesh. It only realizes all of this in a different way. But different how?
Here the pope’s distinction between the “sacrament of creation” and the “sacrament of redemption” helps provide an answer. Marriage is rooted in, and in a way is, the sacrament of creation. It is the ordinary path of the “image and likeness of God” as long as this earthly life lasts. And yet it is ultimately temporary, bound up with the cycle of birth and death, until the full number of humanity is fulfilled. But when Christ comes again and inaugurates the new creation, marriage and procreation will cease—as all marriages are immersed in the one universal Marriage of God and humanity (and of God and each unique human person). Then all forms of intimacy, with God and with other persons, will be wholly virginal, and in this way they will be even deeper than those within this creation.
For the “word” that sexuality and marriage speak within this temporal creation will be taken up and consummated eternally in the Reality that is only signified, sacramentalized, and communicated within the limitations of human love and the earthly body. In the new creation, all persons, permeated by the Trinity, will love and experience communion virginally as the Persons of the Trinity themselves do. And yet, as I said, this union will not therefore be non-bodily, but even more profoundly bodily, only in a way that is hard for us to imagine. John Paul speaks about this being achieved through the “spiritualization” and “divinization” of the body—i.e. through the permeation of the body by the spirit (by the “inner person”), and the permeation of both by the very self-communication of the Trinity in full and face-to-face contact of love and intimacy.
So the vocation of virginity in this life is founded on the life to come. It is a foretaste, an anticipation (as in, a “living-already-now”) of the virginal intimacy of the new creation. And this is the enduring ground of its being “privileged” and “superior.” It is superior, not in the sense that it denigrates marriage or that it “competes” with it, but that it opens up a space for participation in that superior reality and form of intimacy that awaits us in the new creation. But in this life, as Saint Paul says, “each has his gift from God,” and living one’s unique vocation is what matters most. And indeed, even more deeply, it is living the single mystery of Christian life that surpasses all vocations and fills them with meaning: complete and vulnerable intimacy with God and with other persons.*
One last thing before I close. I want to mention the how of virginity a little here, though I have already spoken a great deal about it, and imagine I will continue to do so. Above all, I want to mention how it “harnesses” bodiliness without repressing or leaving it behind. There are many things that could be said, but I’ll say this: First, virginity simply creates a “space” of deeper and more intimate encounter precisely because of that return to “solitude” which allows one to receive others within the very context of the Trinity’s love. This “movement in” to the sacred space of one’s solitude before God, where one experiences one’s identity as God’s beloved child and the flowering of nuptial intimacy with him, expands one’s heart and “opens it out” to be able to receive and relate to others with a particular depth and transparency to the love of the Trinity to whom one belongs. Second, in this context, virginity also simply allows a greater openness and availability to fostering intimate relationships, friendships, and a true “communion of heart and life,” with persons of both sexes, than can usually be found in marriage. Of course, a marriage in which the inner “virginal core” of all love is lived also manifests this expansive openness to other relationships, but it is usually more rare. Third, the virginal surrender of one’s humanity and one’s gendered embodiment to God channels one’s sexual capacity and energy (the deep aspirations of the human person for “one flesh” union with another on all the levels of being—spiritual, physical, emotional, existential), making it a gift to God and to one’s brothers and sisters in a celibate way. In other words, the very capacity to manifest the “spousal meaning of the body” through natural marital intercourse is “channeled” as an energy that is not repressed, but rather intensifies not only one’s longing, but one’s very capacity for intimacy and for reciprocal self-giving. Perhaps this cannot be explained or proven; but it can certainly be experienced.
Fourth, this path is particularly rooted in the mystery of Christ and his Virgin Mother (as well as in the virgin John, the beloved disciple), since this was the form of life they chose for themselves. And thus it is also a vivid participation in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Passion and Resurrection, with one’s entire bodily and spiritual existence. Thus the very renunciation of spousal/sexual union with another is a fruitful and beautiful sacrifice—not as an empty letting-go, but as a true super-affirmation of the deeper love and intimacy that this sacrifice makes possible (even if, on a certain level, particular capacities and desires remain unfulfilled until heaven, as they do, granted, even in marriage). Fifth, in the light of this, suffering itself, indeed, becomes a particular form of the “gift of self” which mirrors in a profound way the sexual embrace—though not in direct and pleasurable physical contact, but at the heart of the Eucharistic Mystery in which one’s own individual body becomes “one flesh” with Christ, and, in Christ, with others.* One therefore becomes particularly “permeable,” in both virginity and suffering, in order to be united to others in the mystical solidarity and spiritual-corporeal communion made possible within the Crucified and Risen Body of Christ.
*Yes, both vocations do indeed converge on a single point, in which their external differences give way to a unified reality of love and communion that surpasses them and yet is made present within them. When one recognizes this, any competition or comparison falls away, and the naked core of human existence is laid bare—the naked reality of person and intimacy, of our orientation, in solitude, towards communion. Everything else is secondary to this and finds meaning only in relation to this.
*This is what I express, for example, in the poem “A Living Theology of the Body” below. It is also a theme, along with the virginal communion spoken of in this book, in both of my novels (which go together): Unspeakable Beauty and Love Interlacing.