I spoke in the previous reflection about the nature of true surrender of self, not as a submerging of the person in a dynamism which lowers and debases, but rather as a liberation of true freedom through a living contact with a value that awakens and sets free a loving and heartfelt response. I spoke of how, because of original sin, a particular dynamism toward “submerging” exists in the sexual sphere, and that a deliberate effort needs to be made (at least until it becomes habitual) to elevate and integrate the act of sex into the personal dimension in order for it to truly be beautiful and transparent to God’s intentions as a mutual self-donation of persons in affirming love on the model of the love of the Trinity.
I also said that, for Dietrich von Hildebrand, there are four things that bring about this lifting-up movement: marriage, focus on the good of the other, openness to pro-creation, and that these three are enfolded within a primal and abiding surrender to God himself, in which my surrender to the other person also unfolds. Von Hildebrand further adds another insight, in his book In Defense of Purity, into the nature of sexuality in this fallen world which, while very rarely recognized, is tremendously important, and unseals a particular beauty and depth to our vision and understanding of sexuality. (It is along the lines of the “virginal reading” that I am seeking to offer in this book.) This is the recognition that there is a particular “ugliness” that resides in the sexual act as expressed in a world marked by sin; and this ugliness can never be entirely overcome or subsumed into the pure beauty of virginal intimacy (except by virginity itself), but only, insofar as the sexual act still occurs, only “suppressed.” This is absolutely not because sex is somehow dirty or ugly (it is rather tremendously beautiful), but simply because certain elements of it, due to the fracture between body and spirit in original sin, manifest a kind of animality or brutality. But this is getting ahead of ourselves. Let me share von Hildebrand’s words here, and then offer my own interpretation and deepening. This is something, which, I think, may be quite surprising to many, but which I also think is immensely important for us to know, and to live. Hildebrand writes:
Certain features of sex possess from the purely external standpoint an ugliness which represents in this domain the fault which runs through every stratum of fallen humanity. Like the corruption of the body after death, there are many things in life which are visible effects of the Fall. From these sex and the marriage act are not exempt. A certain nucleus of vital brutality which in some way conflicts with the excellence and nobility of the spirit is objectively bound up with certain features of sex. When the marriage act is performed in the highest and purest fashion these features are suppressed. Love then dominates the situation so completely that they are totally unable to find expression. But they are merely unexpressed, not objectively transformed into something else, as are all those other features… The moment the sexual act is not viewed from within, in its divinely ordained function, but appears in its external aspect, the stark vital brutality, the ugliness of certain features, makes itself powerfully felt. It is, moreover, this aspect of sex which inspires a peculiar shrinking from it, a certain withdrawal of the spirit from the brutality of the vital sphere, which in its external aspect, contains an element of animality.i
To speak a little more explicitly than he does: there is in the dynamism of sex a tendency toward a particular violence, a particular forcefulness, which is usually just taken for granted as part of sex itself, whereas actually it is an obscuring of the original transparency that God intended for sex from the beginning. This is the case in the way that the urge to “thrust” the body becomes so strong, and, in the very intensity of this impulse, inherently obscures the true tenderness and delicacy of the word that sexual intimacy is meant to speak.*
This, as far as I understand it, is what von Hildebrand is referring to when he says that this “brutality” cannot be “transformed” in this fallen world, but only “suppressed,” that is, not allowed to express itself. This is not a repression of the goodness of the body, nor of sex, but the simple recognition of the fallen state of the body, a body which will attain its full integration only in the new creation. For the urge toward a kind of “animality,” not in choice or act, but in the very physiological processes of sex, is deeply instinctual in our bodies, and will never leave during this life. Nonetheless, the spiritual person, and the free choice of two persons, has the capacity to refuse to give expression to this tendency, but rather to restrain it insofar as possible in order to suffuse the sexual act with a greater gentleness.
In the terminology of John Paul II, I could complement and deepen this by saying that, through original sin, the sexual drive has been fractured outside of the sphere of tenderness, and now the two tend to occur separate from one another, even at odds with one another. But true purity in the sexual experience resides precisely in bringing these two together. Let me define these terms in order to show how, though in this world they can tend to develop along their own lines, they should really occur together—or rather the whole sexual sphere should be nothing but a particular expression of a deeper and more all-enfolding tenderness.
The sexual drive is the innate tendency in our psycho-physical constitution as human beings toward the union of the sexes in a physical way. It is the “magnetism” that would pull two persons together, not so much in the virginal realm of the heart, but in their physical being. This is so because the sexual drive was given by God for the sake of the perpetuation of the species, and is thus tied up with physical sex itself, even though, of course, this sexual drive itself symbolizes something deeper—in the virginal realm—that occurs without erotic passion (but not without heartfelt intensity) and without the sexual drive.
Tenderness, on the other hand, is defined by John Paul as: “the ability to feel with and for the whole person, to feel even the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors, and always to have in mind the true good of that person.” And this deep interior attitude of tenderness impels the heart to manifest such love to the other person externally, in words, touch, and gesture, etc. Thus, tenderness is nothing but the expression of my deep attunement to the beauty and goodness, to the pain and sorrow, to the whole subjective, interior state of the other person in their uniqueness as God’s beloved, and my desire to express my closeness to them in a tangible way.
Sexual union was originally intended by God to be a particular expression of tenderness, a special gift of tenderness between two persons—the “touch” of love upon the inner heart in disinterested, generous cherishing, and the reverence of mutual holding in chaste intimacy. But because of original sin, the sexual sphere tends towards “autonomy;” it inclines towards following its own independent line of development, apart from tenderness, and indeed apart from all the other realms of the human person’s being. Purity consists, therefore, in inserting the realm of sex into the personal (virginal) realm anew, and in particular into the living space of tenderness: into the deep and chaste attunement of two persons to one another, in which they both listen deeply, with their whole spirit and body, to each other, and affirm one another’s goodness with utmost gentleness and care.
For those who are pure of heart, this should be enough. For reality is in fact very simple, and when this central mystery of affirming tenderness is seen, the heart has the “compass of love” which directs all thoughts, desires, and actions. But because of the woundedness of our nature, and in particular due to the profound obscurity regarding this area in our contemporary world, I would like to speak more concretely and in detail about what all of this entails. This, of course, has deep implications for the way in which sex itself is experienced between two persons. Should we just follow the dynamism of the sexual act itself, the “orgasmic” movement, since it is the spontaneous movement of our nature—in order to avoid “repressing” anything? Or should we rather deliberately channel this sexual energy into the living space of tenderness, and thus, in the same movement, suppress those strong impulses towards brutality or forcefulness which inhere so strongly in the sexual act as expressed in a fallen world? It is clear to me that the second is the right path to follow.
This is not, of course, a repression in the negative sense of the term—a submerging of certain good and healthy aspects of our humanity out of fear or an irrational feeling of guilt. It is, however, the humble recognition that the body has a certain “autonomy” because of sin, and this autonomous movement, insofar as one surrenders oneself to it, submerges the liberty of the person and the true expression of tenderness, which is always gentle, restrained, and controlled. Yes, this is a renunciation which is a super-affirmation, a renunciation of this animal movement inherent in our fallen flesh, in order to super-affirm the virginal core of sexuality itself, liberating and integrating the spiritual person (even in the body!) as a gift to another person. This is a restraint which allows even more, not less, to be communicated.
Concretely speaking, such an experience of sex would require both persons to be aware, both of the cultural images surrounding sex (which are rather brutal) and the same tendencies in our fallen flesh itself. And from this mutual recognition, it would be to deliberately choose together to restrain from giving expression to these tendencies as much as possible, not as a renunciation of the depth of tenderness in the sexual realm, but rather precisely as its unsealing. The space opened up by the particular “tension” of this restraint—the refusal to give free “vent” to the pleasurable/orgasmic movement of the fallen flesh—allows a deeper and more explicit focus on the person to emerge, and a particularly beautiful tenderness and transparency to the spirit to become manifest.
There are a number of things that this could mean. It affects the manifestations of tenderness preceding and accompanying the act of intercourse itself. This is something about which I will speak much more in following reflections, as here, in particular, lies a profound wound in our contemporary culture, sadly including within the Church. I refer again to “foreplay,” which is the deliberate stimulation of the genital faculties by direct or indirect touch, as a kind of accompaniment, preparation for, or enhancement of the so-called “sexual experience.” This, it seems clear to me, is always intrinsically wrong since it focuses on the stimulation of a part of the body rather than on the whole person, and treats the body as a mere organism or as a machine, rather than as a living person. But how is true tenderness to be expressed, then, in preparation for the full embrace of the sexual act? According to the definition of John Paul II, and in light of everything said in this book until now, it seems clear that the word of tenderness is a word of co-experiencing with the other person the beauty of their own bodiliness, and also its vulnerability, and sheltering and affirming their incomparable beauty even and specifically in this place.
Thus we see, as I will say more below, two different movements which go in opposite directions: the first is the “law of stimulation” which cannot but submerge the person and uses another person’s body (either in sight or touch) for the fulfillment of excitement, curiosity, or pleasure; the second is the “law of affirmation” which makes contact with the person in and through the body, and lifts up the body, through tenderness, into a deeper harmony in the realm of the heart. It is not a matter, in the first, of seeing and touching in a use-oriented way, and in the second, of acting like the body doesn’t exist in order to avoid use. Rather the difference lies between an objectifying gaze and an affirming gaze, between a using touch and an affirming touch. Nonetheless, this difference of intention, this radical and total divergence of the deepest dispositions of the heart, is also manifest—and very much manifest—in the gestures, words, and acts that touch on the sphere of sexuality.
What would this mean, concretely? It would mean that in preparation for the full embrace of intercourse, tenderness would not be inherently sexual, but simply personal, virginal, as it is in the entirety of the ordinary relations of husband and wife, and of human persons themselves. But as these kinds of tenderness are not in themselves causes of sexual arousal, which alone makes the full sexual embrace possible, how is the shift to occur into the explicitly sexual realm in the terms of marital consummation? It seems to me that this should occur precisely through choice and desire, a desire born from the heart to enter into this sacred sphere with the other person, a choice made together by two persons in the sight of God and with his invitation. And our bodies have been designed in this way, such that expressions of tenderness which are not inherently arousing at all can cradle in themselves the sexual dimension whenever the heart itself desires to enter into this place, and consents to do so. In other words, the very knowledge of entering into this place is ordinarily enough to begin the physiological movement into natural intercourse.
But is there a gesture, a touch, which is an authentic expression of preparation for intercourse? It seems rather clear that we all innately sense what this would be: it is the act of welcoming another person into one’s nakedness. (Of course, welcoming another person into one’s nakedness is not by any means always sexual, but in this context, with the awareness of both persons that this is precisely the word that they are speaking, it will be so.) It seems fitting therefore that this preparation of heart and body occurs precisely in the movement of unveiling, in the mutual disclosure of persons that they may behold one another in their nakedness, and may affirm one another in this sacred space, as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden before sin. And yet this is not a voyeuristic beholding, a kind of “aestheticism,” but a fully personal beholding. Indeed, it is more than a beholding, it is a co-experiencing, an entering into the experience of the other in order to feel with and for them the slightest reverberations of their own heart, and of their body as the manifestation of the heart. Thus, when man and woman choose, in the sight of God, to enter into the explicitly sexual sphere and to live together the sexual embrace, it is fitting that they undress one another tenderly, thus doing for and with one another what they are accustomed to doing alone. And this mutual unveiling should ordinarily be enough to prepare both of them then to draw one another close in the embrace of full sexual intercourse. And the word of tenderness, of co-experience, leads them, after drawing near to one another in this way, to engage in the full sexual embrace immediately after this, and to remain in this embrace until the end.
In addition, this insertion of the sexual sphere back into authentic tenderness clearly also affects precisely how intercourse occurs—in what position and in what way. There are many ways which are simply not fitting, because they do not do justice to one or the other person, and express a posture of domination, use of power, or pleasure-seeking. Rather, the position should express the equality and dignity of each, and manifest that they are both free persons fully engaged by their own choice in this sacred act. At the risk of being misunderstood or dismissed, and to speak very explicitly, I would say this: it seems to me that the most transparent and beautiful way of expressing the word of tenderness in sex would be something like a mutual “holding” of two persons in a position that manifests clearly their equality of dignity (such as the woman sitting on the man’s lap or him kneeling before her while she sits), in which intercourse occurs in a very gentle way in which movement is reduced to a minimum in a simple mutual resting, in a kind of “breathing together” in which the throbbing of the body itself is harmonized with breath and with the personal attentiveness of each person to the other.
In this way, the very autonomy of the body is, as it were, “bound” by love, and precisely in this binding the authentic language of the body is “released.” For here the body and the spirit join together to speak a single word, a word of cherishing tenderness and mutual beholding, in which husband and wife embrace one another in the most intimate possible embrace in this life. They embrace and hold one another in a reverence that is bathed entirely in the sheltering embrace of the God who holds them both together and who has given them to one another, and by whose express invitation alone they have entered together into the sacred encounter and self-donation of the marital embrace.
*There are other elements also that can obscure the transparency of the sexual embrace, and I will treat of them in later reflections. But these are more rooted in the heart, in the inner disposition of the person in whom eros is not sufficiently evangelized by ethos. Before treating of these, however, I want to speak of the more subtle form of obscuring that lies simply in the fracture of the biological processes of the body from the spirit, and in the intensity of pleasure and its inclination to submerging the person. Also, and most importantly, I desire to express in a tangible way the radiant beauty of the sexual embrace when lived according to God’s intentions, in true transparency both to the authentic communion of human persons and to the love and intimacy of the Trinity.
i. Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, 94-95.