I spoke in the previous reflection about the true playfulness with which the whole of human existence unfolds in the sight of God. This is not a playfulness that is a superficial flippancy, a fragmentation on the surface of my being, or a preoccupation with surface pleasure and excitement and fun. These, indeed, militate directly against the true spirit of play, of authentic wonder, awe, reverence, gratitude, and love. Rather, authentic play is something radically different: it is the experience of deep integration in the virginal core of my heart through a living contact with the gift of Love that comes to me from the outside, the gift which awakens a reverent awe and humble amazement before the beauty that ravishes and captures my heart, and in doing so, harnesses me as a true and disinterested gift of love to God and to others. And play is born freely only within the womb of filial trust and childlike confidence in the all-enfolding and all-permeating goodness and tenderness of God, in which I can let go of the heaviness which binds me to self-watching, and receive the courage to give myself away, to surrender myself, ravished and drawn by the Mystery of Love that so beautifully touches and takes possession of me. And this Love, gripping me in such a way, draws me into the sweetness of the embrace of authentic communion. Yes, and this is my true vocation and my deepest destiny, the one single, all-enfolding reality that gives meaning to everything else: love and intimacy. And love and intimacy bear the inner form of play, a playful communion that is a participation in the very inner life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their eternal dance of mutual self-donation, tender affirmation, and mutual indwelling.
The distortions that I have spoken about in the preceding reflections are, in a very paradoxical way, the direct contrary of the spirit of authentic play, of the reality of true intimacy. The former fragment and divide and fracture, whereas the latter unifies and integrates and harmonizes. The former flow out to the periphery, to the place of exile, where human persons, even in their very so-called “coming together,” are left alone and isolated and emptied out; the latter draws together, in the magnetism of love, into the center, into the convergence point in which, alone, human persons are made one within the single embrace of God.
If, however, one has engaged in foreplay or in other forms of stimulation in or around the sexual embrace (or even if one has not), and one desires to enter into a more tender and virginal way of living sexual intimacy, how is this to be done? It is necessary to deliberately allow God to “evangelize” those places in which the law of stimulation has been present, rather than the law of true sensitivity. This is the great gift of clarity that the book of Tobit helped to crystallize for us: in order for true intimacy between man and woman to flower, God must be allowed to come, to exorcise the lingering demons of sin (of possessiveness, use, and pleasure-seeking), and to make possible a true mutual self-donation of human persons within the very self-donation of God, who draws us together and makes us one within the shelter of his own divine embrace.
Concretely, this is quite simply expressed in choosing to live the sexual embrace, not as the result of carnal desire or of a building up of sexual excitement, but as a truly sober yet ardent desire to become one with one’s spouse in the sight of God. Thus, it is important to pray, to pray explicitly and together before the sharing of the sexual embrace, to invite God explicitly into this sacred space which he himself has designed, and which he himself alone can protect and unseal in its true meaning and beauty.
Indeed, if one is accustomed to focusing on the parts of the body in order to experience arousal, then it is important that this very focus be healed by the explicit turn from parts to the whole, or rather from parts to the person, and the act of inviting God into the whole context of the living encounter of man and woman. True intimacy, even in the sexual sphere, is a global reality that is meant to harness the whole of man and woman, in the fullness of their spiritual and bodily being, as a gift to one another in the sight of God. And it may be important precisely to seek to “lift up” the parts of the body into the realm of the person, and this can be done through prayer. Praying over the parts of the body, therefore, not as a form of subtle foreplay, but as a true act of cherishing affirmation, can help in this, as it invokes God explicitly into a place that before was severed from him, and allows his healing grace to flow into this space.
During the time of prayer before the consummation of the marital embrace, therefore, both persons can chastely invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “epiclesis,” as the Spirit is invoked on the gifts of bread and wine during the Mass. This could beautifully allow their mutual speaking, with the very act of sexual union, of the words, “This is my body given for you,” to truly express with much greater transparency the very Eucharistic mystery that sexual intimacy is meant to represent, but which, in the spousal love of Christ for the Church, far surpasses the realm of bodily sexuality in the inherently virginal love of the Crucified and Risen One, and in the virginal love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, for the presence of the Holy Spirit, the presence of the Eucharistic and Paschal Christ, alone has the true power to heal and restore human intimacy to what it is meant to be, lifted up into the embrace of the divine intimacy itself, inserted into the life and love of the Trinity in which, in the virginal consummation of eternity, all love and intimacy will be forever fulfilled.
In this sacred space, and in this sacred space alone, can the sacramental symbolism of sexual union truly effect, and be wholly transparent to, the personal dimension that alone gives it meaning. In other words, the marital embrace then truly becomes a pure expression of the union of the masculine “I” and the feminine “you,” of the masculine “you” and the feminine “I”—in other words, of the man and the woman, of person and person—within the enfolding embrace of the divine “Thou.” Indeed, it becomes a union of man and woman within the virginal intimacy of the divine “I” and “Thou” and “We” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it is this coming together of the human “I” and “you” within the divine Intimacy that makes the sexual embrace a truly marital embrace, a truly spousal embrace, for this is the essence of the marital mystery and of spousal love. As John Paul II writes:
In some sense, love makes the “I” of another person one’s own “I”: the wife’s “I,” I would say, becomes through love the husband’s “I.” The body is the expression of this “I” and the foundation of its identity. The union of husband and wife in love expresses itself also through the body. … The Church as Bride, being the object of the redemptive love of Christ, the Bridegroom, becomes his body. The wife, being the object of the spousal love of her husband, becomes “one flesh” with him: in some sense, his “own” flesh. … This is the moral unity conditioned and constituted by love. Love not only unites the two subjects [“I’s”], but allows them to interpenetrate each other, belonging spiritually to one another, to the point that the author of the letter can affirm, “The one who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph 5:28). The “I” becomes in some way the “you,” and the “you” the “I” (in the moral sense, of course). (TOB 92.6-7)
This is the highest expression of the “attunement” of which I have spoken so much in this book, an attunement that is not a sterile “task” or “rule” that places a burdensome limit on the playful spontaneity of love, but which rather alone truly unseals such play—such wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverent tenderness in which I take the beloved into the shelter of my embrace, and, in the same moment, give myself as a gift to them and for them without reserve. Yes, it is in this deep and reverent and loving attunement alone that authentic play flowers, and the authentic intimacy for which our hearts so deeply long.
To truly attune to the other person—the man to the woman and the woman to the man—is a fundamentally spiritual reality, because it is a fundamentally Trinitarian reality. It is the expression of true tenderness as John Paul II defines it: to listen to the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors of the other person, and to always have in mind their authentic good. This attunement can become so deep, so full, that the “I” of the wife in some way becomes the husband’s “I,” not ontologically but through love, through his empathetic entrance into the sphere of her own subjective experience, in which he “feels with” and “feels for” her in her own most intimate feelings and desires, hopes and fears, not only in the sexual sphere but above all in the realm of the whole of her life.
The bodily act is merely meant to incarnate and seal and give a particularly vivid expression to this moral, spiritual, and personal union that permeates the entire life of husband and wife in the sight of God. And in this way, too, the whole of the existence of man and woman, bound together by the express word of God and the grace of the sacrament, becomes a living image of the love and intimacy of Christ and the Church, and impels them both, each individually and yet both together, towards the virginal consummation of intimacy that their human spousal love symbolizes, but which, in surpassing temporal spousal and sexual love, will also bring the love between man and woman to its full and definitive consummation at the end of time.