I have spoken about how, in the most transparent way, the sexual embrace itself can be a truly affirming act. I have pointed out how the common human presupposition, because of original sin and distorted cultural ideas, is that sexual intercourse of necessity occurs in a vigorous and forceful way. If we are truly sensitive to such matters, this spontaneously strikes us as something rather animalistic, rather unattractive, and our immediate response is to wish it were more gentle, that it occurred in greater continuity with the innate gentleness that is the law of love in the rest of human existence. The woman, in particular, is sensitive to this, and it is quite telling that many, if not most, women feel “used,” if they are honest with themselves, in the sexual embrace rather than truly affirmed and cherished and desired.
But if we turn immediately from the sexual sphere to the sphere of the heart, to the rich interaction between persons in the many circumstances of life, we see that precisely the same law applies. The moment of sexual intimacy, after all, was designed by God to be a kind of “distillation,” into the concrete bodies of man and woman, of the nature of their love in the whole of their existence, and indeed of the character of all love itself as a participation in the mutually affirming embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why, if a man is forceful and vigorous throughout his life, if he does not tenderly listen to his wife, attuning to the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors of her heart, truly letting her own inner being unseal within him the gift that she deserves and desires, then he will almost inevitably be forceful and vigorous in the sexual sphere as well.
On the other hand, if a man is deeply tender and authentically affirming in the personal sphere of the living interactions that flower in the soil of everyday life, then when he enters into the sacred space of marital union with his wife in the sight of God, then he will immediately, and quite spontaneously, be disinclined to “take control,” to be forceful (even if the instinctual nature of his fallen flesh inclines in this direction). Rather, he will do all that he can to lift up the intensity of the sexual act into the gentleness of the personal realm—and, as it were, to truly “virginalize” the sexual embrace such that it begins to anticipate the very “virginal intercourse” of utter purity and spiritual beauty that awaits us in the virginal embrace of the Trinity at the end of time.
If the true sanctification of the sexual embrace itself occurs through a “virginalization,” in which the fallen tendencies of sin are suppressed for the sake of unsealing the true gift of the heart in and through the body, then this reveals that there is, in fact, a deeper continuity between the vocation of marriage and the vocation of virginity than most people tend to assume. The inner form of sacrificial renunciation that lies at the basis of true purity in marriage is simply embraced with the most radical intensity and totality in virginity. The “inner virginal form” of love that throbs as the true heartbeat even of marital love in the sexual sphere is unsealed with the most definitive choice in the life of virginity.
As John Paul II says, virginity or celibacy is a renunciation which is a super-affirmation. But this is not a flight from one reality—the concreteness of our gendered humanity oriented towards intimacy—and towards a supposedly dis-incarnate, genderless, even anonymous form of communion in a merely supernatural sphere. No, true super-affirmation, rather, means the lifting up of the very inner core of the reality that is touched by the act of sacrifice, so that this reality itself, healed and renewed and integrated by the magnetic movement of love, may become most fully what it was meant to be.
Thus, the movement of integration both in marriage and in virginity is a renunciation which is a super-affirmation—a movement from the instinctual and carnal nature of temporal sexuality and towards the re-integration of body and spirit in the virginal core of the heart, given as a spousal gift of love to another in total and indissoluble love. Whenever the sexual act itself is founded on such a sacrifice, on the renunciation of the brutal animalism and focus on pleasure, and instead occurs as a simple restrained mutual holding, then it is quite striking, indeed, that this renunciation does not in fact destroy anything, but rather unseals even in the bodies of man and woman the true “word” that God designed them to speak, a word that, in the animalistic and brutal way of intercourse usually propagated, is almost entirely lost.
The danger, due to the twisting of our nature by original sin, is that the very place that was designed by God to be a profound gift of self becomes, in actual fact and concrete experience, a form of taking. The words of many women about their experience of sexual intimacy indeed indicates that this is not a rare occurrence. Unless a man and a woman are willing to truly enter into a contemplative receptivity to the inner “word” that God intended sexuality to speak, willing to truly engage their heart and spirit in discerning the inner form of love meant to be incarnate in sexual union, then they will not be able to live it as God intends. But if they do, it immediately becomes apparent that what may appear to be a “limitation” placed on love is actually but a limitation placed on pleasure, and on something that itself is a result of sin (the ugliness or brutality I mentioned). Such restraint is in no way a renunciation of the authentic beauty and depth and intensity of the sexual experience, but rather its true super-affirmation and unsealing by being lifted up into the authentic mutual tenderness and affirming love between man and woman.
I have said that the act of love—of true affirmation—bears the inner form of sacrifice, since it bears the inner form of gift. That is, it is the “ecstasy” of my heart outside of itself to another, the true expansion of my being beyond its narrowness and limitation, beyond its innate tendency to grasp and control and consume, in order to make a complete donation of myself into the hands and the heart of the other. This is the inner form of the vow of celibacy or virginity, in which a sacrifice of one’s temporal sexual capacity is made into the hands of God through the mediation of the Church, not in order to renounce one’s sexuality itself, but rather to let it find its super-fulfillment within the spousal embrace of the divine Bridegroom, Christ, and, in him, to be made even more radically a welcoming space and a total gift for one’s brothers and sisters. And virginity, in fact, as I hope has been made clear in the earlier parts of this book, also opens up a whole domain of newfound intimacy rooted in the love of the Trinity and born of the Paschal Mystery, which even allows man and woman to discover one another anew in a communion that surpasses the realm of sex and marriage.
In the light cast from this inner sacrificial, virginal form of authentic love, the very authentic beauty of sexuality, also, is unveiled more deeply before us. If the sexual act is based on pleasure, then it cannot but be a form of mutual (or one-sided) taking, of use. This is true, in fact, for marriage and the relationship between man and woman as a whole; if they enter into the indissoluble union of marriage for the sake of what they may receive or get, then in fact their relationship is based on taking, on use, rather than on a true and total donation of themselves to one another. Nonetheless, this true donation of self is not an annihilation of self, a squashing out of one’s own subjectivity and desire to be loved, but rather its dilation, its expansion, its growth and deepening and enrichment, from the heart of a living relationship with another person founded wholly on mutual self-donation, in which lover and beloved come to live in one another through this reciprocal gift that they share.
As I said, if the sexual embrace is engaged in for the sake of pleasure, or even if pleasure becomes an explicit theme focused on in its own right, then it is, however subtly, permeated by an act of taking, of use. This is due to the fact that bodily pleasure is always centered in the self, not in the other. Pleasure cannot become a gift to another person, since it is something that only I experience, in my own body. And even, of course, the “giving of pleasure to one another” is a terribly inadequate way of viewing sexual intimacy. In fact, due to the innate sacredness of the sexual sphere—which may only be entered by the express sanction of God, and which must unfold in a holy atmosphere of reverence and mutual attunement, of surrender, first to God himself, and then, in him and by his word, to one’s spouse—due to this sacredness, any focus on either giving or receiving pleasure is an inherent corruption of the sexual act, a degradation which bears the likeness of a sacrilege.
The sexual embrace is truly sacred, a true donation of oneself to the other and a welcoming of their reciprocal gift, oriented towards the intimacy of mutual belonging between persons—an intimacy that is radically open, from its very fullness, to the fruitfulness of pro-creation. This mystery of personal love and true abiding intimacy—this virginal core!—is what makes the sexual embrace truly sacred, even as this virginal core is incarnate in the language of the body, meant to communicate the gift of heart and life and being, in which man and woman say to one another: “I give you all that I am, and all that I can become, and I welcome you in the same.”
In the light of what I have said above, there arises a very profound way of “gauging” whether the sexual act is being embraced as a form of taking or as a form of giving. It is simply to ask myself: If the sexual embrace was painful rather than pleasant, if it hurt my body rather than caused it pleasure, would I still desire it as I do now? This clearly unveils where my desire lies: is it to disinterestedly give my heart and life and body to the other person, in order to foster their authentic good and to become ever more deeply one with them, or is it, however subtly, to use them for the sake of my own enjoyment, or even for our mutual enjoyment?
If we look with great reverence at the sexual embrace, it becomes apparent that it is precisely the intensity of the pleasure which inclines towards dragging it down from the personal and spiritual sphere into the animal or instinctual. There is an intensity here which, indeed, is meant to signify the intensity of the spirit, and the intensity of all love within creation, but which, because of sin, inclines in the opposite direction. (After all, the love of the Trinity, the eternal dance of their mutual self-donation in the ardent magnetism of cherishing love and tender desire, is the most intense of all things!)
But the intensity of authentic love in this world is a restrained intensity, a tender intensity, an attuned intensity. This becomes apparent immediately if we imagine what the sexual embrace would look like if the pleasure of the body was replaced by the pain of the body. Pain, after all, is also an intense experience. And yet it inclines, at least in a certain way, towards the very opposite of what pleasure inclines towards: it “subdues” the body and humbles it. It pervades one’s experience with a very tangible sobriety. It calls forth a profound gift of myself to another, a dilation out of myself to the one whom I love.
If, therefore, the sexual embrace occurred with pain, man and woman would approach it in a much more “virginal” way, a way oriented wholly towards the person, in which the intensity of the pain is “undergone” for the sake of deepening love and intimacy, and for the sake of the possibility of begetting and conceiving together the great and inestimable gift of a child. After all, would this not simply be a continuity, in the sexual sphere, of the very sacrificial nature of love—of motherhood and childbearing—that pervades all things, not with sadness or heaviness, but with the radiant sobriety of love, which, for the sake of true affirmation and true intimacy, takes all up into itself?
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How can these reflections not direct our gaze immediately towards the convergence-point where sexual and celibate love intersect within the virginal Heart of Jesus Christ, within the virginal intimacy of the eternal Trinity? How can they not direct us to that living space in which the total spousal gift of self—the true nuptial donation of one’s very body to another, and the opening of one’s being to welcome the other’s gift in turn—reaches its deepest and most perfect climax? I am referring to the Paschal Mystery. In Jesus’ Eucharist, Passion, and Resurrection, all of the imperfect language of marriage and sex is super-fulfilled in a virginal way in the reciprocal self-donation and lasting intimacy between Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Here a love that is inherently virginal and inherently sacrificial is also the most total, the most intimate, the most beautiful, since it occurs utterly bathed in the light of the Trinity’s love and unity, and makes this divine unity present at the heart of human intimacy, while taking human intimacy up into the very heart of the divine intimacy, where it is sealed and consummated and sheltered in the embrace of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Here the body of man is unveiled in nakedness before the woman, who abides before him in the attitude of trustful self-opening to receive his gift, to welcome him into herself and to cherish and shelter him here. But she can only open herself in this way because she knows that she is already totally held; she knows that she is seen, understood, and desired in the deep and reverent attunement of the man’s heart. And here the man—harnessed by the desire for the woman’s authentic good, harnessed by the desire to become one with her in the very intimacy of God—gives himself to the very end to her and for her. And she receives him into herself without reserve, and, in receiving him, lets her own reciprocal gift be unsealed in response. And the woman’s reciprocal gift, felt and received and sheltered by the man, unseals in turn the further gift of himself, even unto the total climax of his final donation, his final breath.
Here his suffering gift, the gift of his passionate love become ardent com-passion with the woman (who has taken up into herself and represents the whole of the bridal creation), is fulfilled in the final donation of his death. And the pangs of his suffering and death, this harnessing of his being in total surrender, in a total gift oriented towards total intimacy, truly effects and brings about such intimacy—in the Love that is stronger even than death—and thus springs forth in the radiant beauty and undimmed light of the Resurrection.