By now it has probably become radiantly apparent that the sexual embrace was fashioned by God to be, in a way, an “incarnation” of the very nature of all love itself, a sacramental symbol that makes visible the contours of loving relationship between man and woman—and between persons in general—that occurs in the spiritual realm. Indeed, it is a sign of a reality much greater even than humanity, even than creation, as it reflects in some way, however imperfectly, the very intimacy between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Of course, this insight could very easily be taken too far, both because of the fallen nature of our experience of sexuality in this world, which is often far from transparent to God’s original intentions, but also simply because the realm of sexuality as it exists in this temporal world is inherently limited, inherently tied up with the flow of passing time, with birth and death, and also inherently points beyond itself, not only to God beyond human love, but also to the inner core of human love itself, which is fundamentally virginal and not sexual.
But the inner symbolism of the sexual embrace still remains, and can still be authentically spoken and heard. This has been my deep desire in the previous reflections on this topic: to help unseal the authentic word of the sexual embrace and to let it speak anew within, and only as an expression of, the true, interiorly virginal mutual self-donation of man and woman in the sight of God.
And what is it that the sexual embrace symbolizes which manifests the nature of love itself? It reveals precisely that the inner form of all reality is an embrace, a drawing together of persons in affirming and cherishing love. It is a mutual enfolding that is simultaneously complete reciprocal self-donation, by which persons give themselves to one another in an act of total self-disclosure and of unconditional surrender; and the fruit of this surrender, the flower of this self-giving, is precisely the intimacy by which they not only touch one another from without, but truly mutually indwell, in a loving interpenetration by which both persons live in one another in shared belonging, in an intimacy gratuitously desired and received for its own sake, and which, from this very fullness, is also inherently and expansively fruitful.
Of course, here we also see the limitations of sexuality, at least in its physical expression, as the enfolding, the penetration, and welcoming in this case is one-sided. But in the realm of the spirit—whether that be the human spirit created in the image of God as man and woman, or the Persons of the Trinity themselves—this movement of self-donation, of welcoming, and of entering into another, occurs totally and simultaneously in both persons towards one another. The woman receives as the man gives, but the woman’s reception is also a donation, and the man’s gift is also a reception, such that she lives in him as he lives in her, and she gives herself to him, into the inner sanctuary of his heart dilated and opened to receive her, just as he gives himself into the inner sanctuary of her heart opened to welcome him and to hold him in tender and reverent love.
The man must first receive and shelter the woman, must welcome and hold her in her yearning to be seen, known, loved, and desired, before she can open herself to receive the man in turn and to hold him in response to his holding of her. In other words, the man’s gift of himself to the woman is first a receptivity to her before it is the donation of himself—or rather it is the donation of himself in making his whole being a place of sheltering tenderness for her to be cradled with reverence and cherishing love. Only within this prior and enduring sheltering can the man also enter into the woman to be held by her, to be sheltered within her in his very sheltering of her, to be held as he first holds.
The danger for the man is to give himself without first receiving, to be pure donation without reception (which is no donation at all but rather violent intrusion). His love is authentic only when it is reception-blossoming-in-donation, or receptive donation. And the danger for the woman is to take the man to herself, to receive him, while withholding the gift of herself and hiding her true vulnerability, refusing to let herself be held and truly given away into the sheltering receptivity of the man. Her love is authentic only when it is donation-blossoming-in-reception, or donative reception.
In the light of all of this, it is clear that the dynamic flowering of love and intimacy between man and woman reveals very clearly the primacy of the virginal over the sexual. Why? Because the physiological complementarity between man and woman is far inadequate to express all the rich nuances of their spiritual, personal complementarity (even though, in the tender way of living the sexual embrace that I have spoken about above, an even deeper transparency and fullness in reflecting and incarnating this spiritual complementarity occurs, in that both persons become both more donative and more receptive). Nonetheless, the physical complementarity, the sexual union, is only one element, one “moment,” as it were, in the full richness and depth of the communion between man and woman. And, at that, it is an element that, as beautiful as it is, is limited in its temporal expression to the confines of this life, and will pass away at the end of time, even while every “word” that it spoke partially in the flow of passing time will reach its everlasting consummation and radiant fullness in the virginal consummation of eternity.
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Before proceeding anew to the “convergence point” of love and intimacy in the embrace of the Trinity in which I hope to tie together the strands of these reflections and to bring them to a close, let me address a profound theme that has come up a number of times throughout this book, and in a particularly vivid way in Part III. It is the theme of the particular attraction and fascination that God ordained between the sexes, and fascination which, in fact, is an abiding trait of all encounters with goodness and beauty in creation and in relation to God himself. Simply put: beauty touches and attracts the heart, drawing it out of itself in loving surrender oriented towards a total and everlasting intimacy. This is the very “word” that beauty speaks, the very supreme gift that—as the irradiation of goodness and truth and love—beauty bestows upon the receptive and contemplative heart.
In order to understand this, it is, however, tremendously important to recognize the difference between two forms of “fascination,” two forms of beholding and attraction and desire which, while perhaps appearing similar on the surface, are actually poles apart from one another. The first is the distorted, lustful, and even diabolical fascination with what is forbidden, with what is distorted and bizarre. This fascination may be perceived as a longing for closeness and intimacy and contact. This longing for intimacy, indeed, is always, in some degree, present, trying to be set free and to find authentic expression, though it remains, in these cases, hidden underneath an unhealthy expression that actually severs authentic closeness. This distorted fascination, in fact, is precisely the principle that is operative in all of the twisted sexual acts mentioned above. There is a fascination with the body of another person, or with the whole sexual sphere—whether in the realm of sight or touch or experience—and yet this fascination is ultimately centered on the self, an expression of a possessive grasping which would voraciously devour the other and make them my own.
Nonetheless, this same twisted fascination can take much more subtle forms that are in no way explicitly a fascination with what is bizarre or forbidden or unusual. It can be a fascination with what is in itself good and beautiful, and yet still a fascination that objectifies, that severs the appearance from the inner essence, the body from the person, the beauty from the innate meaning and purpose, and thus the experience of contact from the authentic, objective truth of real love and intimacy through disinterested mutual self-donation. Acts or gazes or thoughts fueled by this fascination or desire are, also, acts of use. Studies have been done in which men were shown photographs of women—first wearing clothes, and then in the nude—and monitors watched their eyes and (if I remember correctly) their brain signals. When a man saw a fully clothed woman, his spontaneous response was to see her, to see the whole person in her global beauty and dignity as a living person. When, however, he saw a woman in the nude, his eyes would spontaneously flit from one part of her body to another, “taking her apart,” as it were, to inspect her as an object composed of parts.
This second response is what I mean by the subtly distorted fascination, which is deeply embedded in the human heart due to sin, and which only with great purification and transfiguration can be healed. This is the “ethos of the image” and the “ethos of seeing” that I speak about in the reflections on the portrayal of the naked body in the appendix. Simply put, an objectified beholding is never an adequate response to a person, but only ever a reverent love, which indeed bears traits of amazement and fascination and attraction, but which is fundamentally an act of self-donation, of tender receptivity and cherishing of the person as a living individual, a subject, an “I” who has his or her own world of conscious experience oriented towards loving intimacy.
After all, there is, and should rightly be, a fascination of man for woman and vice versa, as indeed, in differing degrees, everything that God has made bears in it the true capacity to awaken fascination and awe. And yet when this becomes an anonymous objectification, or a “reading” of the parts of the body (or even the psyche) rather than a tender and loving affirmation of the person, then it becomes a disordered taking rather than a truly loving gift of self.
Let me turn now, however, to the final fascination, the fascination of true love and attunement, which is entirely whole and holy. This is indeed nothing but the inner disposition of reverent awe before mystery. It is nothing but the tender and contemplative receptivity to be touched and grasped by beauty, by goodness, by truth, by love…and above all by the inestimable dignity of another person, whether human or divine. This fascination is the very “stuff” of love, the amor complacentiae that gives birth in my heart both to the desire to be united with the beauty of the beloved as well as to give myself totally and disinterestedly to seek their authentic good.
In other words, this fascination, this reverent awe, is nothing but the core attitude of the value-response which is love: the willingness to be affected, to be moved, to be touched by another in such a way that they come to live in me through my tender acceptance, and that I come to live in and for them through my loving self-donation. It is here—in every single sphere of human life and in every form of relationship—that authentic intimacy alone flowers to full maturity and bears the beautiful fruit that it inherently bears.