The bodily elements of the sexual embrace were ordained by God, not to become an explicit focus in themselves, but rather to be an accompanying dimension, and a particular “sealing,” of the chaste and personal intimacy between man and woman in the sight of God. Therefore, even and especially in the sacred sphere of the sexual embrace, the same inner law of love that permeates the whole of creation is also operative. Indeed, it is operative in a particularly intense way, since the marital embrace was designed by God to be a profound “distillation” of the nature of all love into an act that makes visible, in the very body, the inner spiritual reality of all being, and, in a real way, of the divine life of the Trinity itself.

And yet the sexual act itself is not necessarily an act of love, but can in fact be an act of use, even in the very space of the relationship of husband and wife. As John Paul II said, it is possible to commit an act of anti-love in the very name of love. Indeed, because of original sin and the rupture between body and spirit, between man and woman, and between the human person and God, a deliberate effort must be made to “lift up” the sexual experience once again, so that it may be, not a form of taking the other person—even a mutual taking—but rather a form of radical and total reciprocal self-donation in disinterested and affirming love. I have spoken above about the way in which this occurs, about the way in which the activity of mind, will, and affectivity cooperate in drawing the very body back into harmony with the spirit, so that it loses, as far as possible in this fallen world, its “autonomy,” and begins to obey the inner laws of love that are also proper to it in the intentions of God.

This occurs, not by giving free vent to the impulses of nature and of the body—and it should be clear by now that I mean more than just avoiding lust. It occurs, rather, by a deliberate suppression of the impulse of the fallen flesh, in the sexual embrace, towards a kind of brutality or animality (though not by a repression of the beauty of sexuality itself nor even of the intensity of the sexual experience). This suppression of the tendency toward “submerging,” towards a vigorous forcefulness in sex, is a surrendering of control, of one’s own initiative and activity, such that two persons, even in the very intimate embrace of sexual union, listen tenderly to one another on every level of their being in the receptivity which is also gift.

In this way alone the very experiences of the body can be suffused with tenderness, such that nothing occurs outside of the sheltering embrace of man and woman who are totally attuned to one another on the level of the heart. Indeed, I said that precisely in this lifting up of the body into the realm of the spirit—this lifting up of the whole living of the sexual embrace into the mutual attunement of man and woman in the virginal core of their hearts in the sight of God—precisely in this, the body too can attain harmony with the desires of the heart, and even harmony with the body of the other person. Thus the very sexual climax, by being lifted up, healed, and transfigured by the married love between man and woman and by the prior and abiding surrender of both to God himself, is re-formed from an experience of taking into a true act of self-surrender in affirming love.

I even tried to show how the very physiological constitution of the bodies of man and woman, in their interaction with one another, calls for precisely this suppression of impulse for the sake of liberation in love, this lifting up of the experience of the body that is also a setting free of the “word” that the body was designed to speak, this channeling of physical intensity into the restrained intensity of the heart that is also an unleashing of true surrender in the harmonious union of body and spirit. Thus, only when the sexual dimension never becomes an explicit theme in its own right, but rather just an incarnation of, and an accompanying dimension within, the chaste and heart-to-heart embrace of man and woman, can it also unfold in the spontaneous way that God himself designed. As I said in the last reflection, this will also tend to align the sexual climax of the man and the woman together, since the very movement within the woman’s body will set free the gift of the man (or perhaps vice versa).

I do recognize that despite this gentle and tender way of living the sexual embrace, for any number of reasons the man and woman may still experience the sexual climax at different moments. This may be a result simply of the “autonomy” of the body and of the sexual sphere due to original sin, which will only be fully overcome in the full redemption and virginalization of the body at the end of time. It may also occur from a lack of attunement on the part of one or the other person, or a pulling away from the disposition and experience of mutual resting into a focus on the orgasmic sphere, in which therefore a “dis-joining” occurs, in however subtle a way. It may also occur as a result of the simple difference in bodily constitution or of particular physical dispositions or indispositions.

In this case, the answer is simply to “remain” with the other person, to continue to rest with them in the sexual embrace, until the climax itself comes for them too. However, if the woman does not climax by the time that the man loses the capacity to maintain penetrative intercourse after his own climax, then the sexual act should be brought to a close. It should not, by any means, be maintained by masturbatory or otherwise arousing touch which would stimulate for the woman an orgasmic experience that only finds its meaning, after all, as her own spontaneous “cooperative” surrender with the man in the intimacy of the sexual embrace itself. To use even “virginal” expressions of tenderness to stimulate an orgasm is to inherently change their meaning; and immediately a submerging movement happens by which pleasure and the experience of the orgasm becomes the focus. If this dis-joining of the climax happens, thus, it is simply an indication of the possibility of a deeper attunement the next time the man and the woman share the sexual embrace together, in which the man will know to align his own experience more deeply with that of the woman. And he will do this, not by focusing on the experience either of his own body or of hers, but by the simple recognition that the “curve” of her body towards the sexual surrender is different than his. This requires him to practice restraint and abstinence and a deep restfulness with the woman even in the place where he would be tempted to take control and thus to speed up the whole process in such a way that he leaves her behind.

After all, the man’s experience is usually both more rapid and “peaks” in a different way than the woman’s—like the way that children draw mountains as an upside-down “v.” The woman’s experience, on the other hand, is more like a gradual ascent and descent, like a hill, with in fact a possible number of moments at the peak that are orgasmic. It is beautiful to see that, indeed, the very structure of the woman’s experience of the orgasm mirrors the structure of her body, in that it is wider, more open, with a more prolonged receptivity into which the man can enter. The man’s experience is more like a point, like the physical structure of his own body, which enters into the receptive space of the woman, and by contact with her in this place, is drawn into the fullness of surrender, into the moment of climax, cradled within her own receptive climax that evokes his own. We can, indeed, read even here, in the inherent operation of the man’s body and the woman’s body, the inner intentions of God, by which tenderness alone—a deep and explicit tenderness based in the realm of the spirit and in the embrace of two hearts—can “align” also their very bodies such that the way the woman’s body was designed will truly correspond with, and indeed unseal, the man, and vice versa.

All of this reveals that, if sexual union is truly lived in a way that it is suffused by personal tenderness, then the presupposition that the man is primarily “active” and the woman is primarily “receptive” or even “passive,” gives way to an understanding with much greater nuances. For as long as the man simply forces his way into the woman (even with her permission) and remains vigorously active throughout, the woman indeed is almost totally left behind, and can do nothing but receive what the man gives by his own effort and activity. And this often leads simply to the woman being used and never being able to reciprocally give herself as both her heart and her body were designed to do. But if the sexual embrace occurs with tenderness, then the man must actually first receive from the woman, must feel her coming to climax, in order to be initiated by her into his own climax, such that his gift flows from a primary receptivity, just as, for the woman too, her own gift flows from a primary receptivity, and leads to a yet further receptivity still.

Again, this way of viewing even the physiological expressions of the sexual climax helps to situate them within, and thus to make them more transparent to, precisely the personal dimension, and, indeed, to the presence of the Trinity at the heart of human love. After all, as Dietrich von Hildebrand says so beautifully, one cannot truly enter into the sexual sphere except by an express sanction of God himself. And the whole unfolding of the sexual embrace is meant to occur wholly open to God, wholly bathed in the divine presence, and thus to be an expression, first of all, of a surrender to God himself, in whom my surrender to the human beloved is also made possible. And when this focus on God is primary—indeed all-encompassing—and my true and affirming focus on the other person is cradled within this, then the very biological processes of sex need not be focused upon, need not draw one’s attention, but rather may simply occur spontaneously within the very attunement of two persons to one another in the realm of the spirit.

In particular, the very experience of the climax, which because of original sin bears, at least on the surface, a “hedonistic” character of “taking” another person for one’s own pleasure, is suffused again with an inherent donative meaning—that is, the meaning of a gift of oneself to another, and an evoking of their gift in response. It is quite striking that the usual way of understanding the climax is precisely as an intense experience of pleasure, as a releasing of sexual tension, and thus the very sexual embrace becomes, not a pure mutual donation of two persons to one another, but rather a kind of mutual “masturbation,” even if the natural expressions of intercourse remain in accord with the objective order. But if the meaning of the orgasm is pleasure, then it is inherently selfish and self-centered (for pleasure as a bodily experience is always centered in the self), and thus sex can only be understood as a giving of pleasure to one another, which, indeed, is ultimately just two persons allowing each other to “take” from each other the experience of pleasure.

Thus, if we were to ask the question of why a woman has an orgasm, since it has no inherent meaning for pro-creation, the answer usually given is simply for the sake of the pleasure it affords. In other words, it is for her own sake, so that she too may enjoy sex just as much as the man. But in an answer such as this, we are still very much in the old paradigm of sin, of pride, possessiveness, and use. Rather, a quite striking illumination occurs once the shift is made from a taking, pleasure-oriented understanding of sex, to the radically donative, other-centered understanding. The very climax of the woman, therefore, makes perfect sense, not because it is necessary for pro-creation in the sense that she “gives” something of herself to the man as the man gives something of himself (the semen) to the woman. Rather, her own climax occurs as a gift to the man because it causes her body to contract and pulse in such a way that she draws forth from the man the very gift that he desires to give to her, and which she needs in order to become a mother.i


i. I recognize that, for any number of reasons, things may not always happen this way—in other words, that the woman unleashes the gift from the man by her own gift. But it seems clear to me that to approach the sexual embrace with a wholehearted tender reverence for the person in the sight of God, which is the only adequate attitude in the sexual sphere, is also the best and only way of “recapturing” as deeply as possible God’s original intentions for sexuality even in its bodily unfolding. For here, in the simple mutual donation of man and woman in the personal sphere of affirming love, there is also a lifting up the whole bodily experience into this realm of a fully attuned personal tenderness, within a deep resting of man and woman together in the stillness of an embrace in which the sexual union is enfolded. Such a focus—which essentially means simply to focus on the person and on a deep reverence for the person in every gesture, touch, and expression of tenderness—will spontaneously begin to align the affective, spiritual, and bodily realms into a single movement as well.

If, however, there is not an experience as I mention in the text, it is clear that the problem will ordinarily be that the man climaxes too quickly, and not that the woman’s presence and touch is inadequate to bring the man to such a point. It will not be that the man needs to “take control” and to lose contact with his attunement with the woman’s body in order to climax, but rather that the woman is not able to offer that gift-evoking-gift which it is her privilege to offer. If this happens, and the woman is not able to climax, as I say elsewhere, the desire to lead her also to such a point after the man’s own climax would be a temptation to make the “symbolism” of the sexual union into its own end, and even the experience of sexual release; and yet in this movement the focus on the person and on authentic tenderness is immediately lost.

Thus the symbolism of sex, and even a focus on the “ideal” way in which sexual union should unfold, should not lead to the very opposite of what it intends: namely, that both persons, man and woman, are simply together in the tenderness of love, allowing the sexual intimacy between them to be lifted up into the personal, inherently “virginal” intimacy between them, and there to find its secure place and its spontaneous unfolding.

Two physiological points about all of this: First, the man’s physical constitution has more of a “need” (this is not the best word) for the climax to bring resolution to the sexual experience, whereas the woman does not need to experience it fully in order to feel such a release in the same way. (And in both, of course, the danger is that this “need” becomes a “taking” rather than the bodily inclination itself being lifted up, purified, and transfigured into a true donation of self to the other.) This physiological disposition of the man’s body and the woman’s body clearly mirrors the very importance of the man’s seed for procreation and of the woman’s pulsation simply to cooperate with and to unleash the man. After all, the man has one single climax in which the gift is given all at once; the woman, on the other hand, does not essentially offer a gift of the same kind in any way, but rather comes to a point in which her being is harnessed in pulsing to receive, in her prolonged receptivity, what the man gives in a single moment.

Second, in the way that God designed man and woman, a man’s body responds more quickly to the movement of arousal and also reaches the sexual surrender more quickly than does a woman. What is the significance of this? It is a call for the man to attune to the woman, not merely on the physical level—either hers or his—but rather to be with her in a personal way throughout the entire shared moment of sexual union, and before and after. It is important, in fact, that man and woman both progress together to sexual surrender in the climax primarily through a more affective experience of tenderness and affirming love, through the heartfelt desire to give themselves in this way, rather than in any bodily contact, though the bodily element is also included as an incarnation and an expression of this love. And in this case, if one tries to lead the woman to arousal and climax through stimulation, through various forms of touch, instead of simply ignoring the orgasmic movement and cherishing and affirming her as a person, then much stimulation is necessary in a very disordered and excessive way in which the person and the true restraint of tenderness is entirely lost. And then even the whole physical experience inherently becomes a “taking” of the other person for the sake of a particular experience of release and resolution, and not a disinterested and spontaneous donation of oneself to the other even in and through the body. This shows, even in the physiological realm—though again, this can never be made the focus or the goal in any way—God’s intentions for the rich relationship of tenderness between man and woman in the sexual sphere. Such can only be achieved whenever the focus on the physical realm is actually entirely surpassed, lifted up as it is into the realm of personal and spiritual attunement.

Yes, all forms of foreplay and deliberate stimulation, therefore, inherently contradict this spontaneous movement and cause immediate dis-alignment between the two persons. This is why whenever such alignment on the physical level becomes the end goal, there is a never ending discussion and conflict about how to achieve it—i.e. what kinds of touch, where, and for how long—in which the essence is totally lost and even this secondary, and very relative, desire is almost inevitably lost as well. On the other hand, when the man restrains the drive for intense physical contact and instead focuses on a deep affective, personal, and spiritual attunement to the woman, and when the woman too simply remains attuned to the man in a true contact on the level of the heart, encompassing and being incarnate in the body, then everything else, insofar as possible in this fallen world, becomes aligned as well.

But this is not the final point, after all, but simply the truly pure and chaste beholding of man and woman, who receive each other and mutually surrender to one another in the sight of God who has, from the heart of his own intimacy as Trinity, invited them into a sacred space that reflects his own love, and is meant to impel their hearts ever deeper into his embrace, which is inherently virginal, and in which their union, too, will be finally consummated in the everlasting virginal embrace of eternity.