Before entering into an in depth discussion of the beauty of an authentically pure and chaste experience of the marital embrace, let me first treat of two topics which will hopefully set the stage for a still deeper understanding of precisely the reality of such an embrace. First, I will speak about the true nature of love and affirmation, not merely as a matter of the will—something chosen as an act out of a sense of duty or in obedience to a principle of reason—but rather as a “harnessing” of the whole person, in mind, will, affectivity, and body, as a sincere and total gift to another, and as a sheltering space of receptivity for them. In the light of this, I will seek to make visible, however imperfectly, the “inner essence” of all being as precisely this receptive and donative love, this tender reception which is also affirming gift, this gift which is also reception, and the intimacy that this ever-flowing current of love makes possible. Finally, after this I will turn from the fullness of the mystery, in its undivided light, and being to speak about particular realities that are illumined by this light. This will lead immediately into the reflections on the sexual embrace in its authentic transparency to the union of the spouses, the union of Christ and the Church, and indeed to the beauty and light of the very intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So first: on true love and affirmation. One of the significant differences between the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II is that the former gives a more central and wider space to the importance of the “heart,” by which he means the affectivity, in the living of human life than does the latter. For John Paul II, on the other hand, there seems to be a tendency to say that emotional and affective responses are always fundamentally impersonal, that they are inherently un-free and irrational, and that they are merely a kind of “substratum” of love; for him, the fabric of love is woven fundamentally by the will, and the act of affirmation itself is fundamentally a willed act, and even an application of a principle of the mind known through reason onto human relationships. (This is, however, more the case for his earlier work, Love and Responsibility, than it is, for example, of his Theology of the Body. Particularly, for example, in his reflections on the Song of Songs, he speaks of a deep intuition and “seeing” of the identity of the other person in and through the visibility of their body.) For von Hildebrand, on the other hand, the act of loving affirmation, the gift of oneself to and for another person in cherishing love, occurs very explicitly already on the level of the heart, of the affectivity, even while calling for (and indeed unsealing and making possible) the sanctioning activity of the will itself.

This is because, for John Paul II, the affectivity is fundamentally blind to the person, to the inner core of the other’s identity as God’s beloved, and instead responds to more peripheral (if authentic) aspects of their being, such as their masculine strength or feminine charm. Now this definition of affectivity is quite different than that given by von Hildebrand. But von Hildebrand himself also recognizes (see his superb book The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity) that there are impersonal and irrational emotional responses in the human person; but he also says that the inner affective life of the human being is much more rich and diversified than we are accustomed to acknowledge. There are indeed merely physiological movements that occur in the body in response to sense stimuli (sensuality or the passions), but there are also psychic responses in the subjective resonance of our being with what we encounter outside of us (emotions); but even more deeply than both of these, there are true spiritual affective responses to values. And these latter are indeed wholly personal acts, acts that cannot be generated by the will but which are nonetheless a true “word” of my inner heart; they are, in other words, truly objective responses to reality as it exists outside of myself .

These spiritual affective responses, indeed, are essential to the full and adequate response of myself to the intrinsic values that exist outside of me, and in particular to the value of another person. If another person feels that I am affirming them only with the will, then they will clearly feel that there is something profoundly lacking in this affirmation. After all, we do not spontaneously say to a person whom we love, “I love you with all of my will,” but, “I love you with all of my heart.” For the heart in a special way speaks the inner disposition of my being, and expresses the true gift, the true surrender, of my being to another. And this is something that cannot be merely willed, merely chosen, but rather which is unsealed within me as a gift awakened by the gratuitous gift that touches me from the outside. And, touched in this way, it is then that my will itself finds its full freedom in cooperation, in sanctioning, in my loving “yes” to this gift that I have received and to which I surrender myself.*

Let me quote Dietrich von Hildebrand at length, in his own treatment of this reality, so as to allow his own words to make this clearer:

We must understand that in the affective sphere there are two levels. The one is inhabited by feelings which rank lower than all those acts which are in the immediate range of our freedom [i.e. the activity of our will cooperating with the intellect]. This is the level of the mere affective states, whether bodily ones, such as tiredness, or psychic ones, such as good humor or depression. It is the level of all passions in the strict sense, and even of many affective responses, such as those not motivated by values (for instance, joy over a financial profit). These experiences range ontologically lower than an act of promise or making a contract, or an action in the strict sense, or any work or deed.

But there is also a higher level in the affective sphere. In certain respects this level is above volitional [i.e. willed] acts, though not above the will itself. And it is this part of the affective sphere which has the character of a gift from above; this part, moreover, has the special character of being the “voice” of the heart in the narrower sense of the term. These affective responses come from the very depth of the person’s soul. This “depth” must be clearly distinguished from the subconscious. It is a mysterious depth. It is not possessed by us in the way in which we “possess” actions or acts in the range of our immediate power.

Typical of man’s createdness is the existence of a depth dimension of his soul which does not fall under his mastery as do his volitional acts. Man is greater and deeper than the range of things he can control with his free will; his being reaches into mysterious depths which go far beyond what he can engender or create. Nothing expresses this fact more adequately perhaps than the truth that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. And this applies not only to the supernatural level, but also analogously to the natural sphere. These affections of the higher level, then, are truly gifts—natural gifts of God which man cannot give himself by his own power. Coming as they do from the very depth of his person, they are in a specific way voices of his true self, voices of his full personal being.

It now becomes more intelligible why in certain domains the heart [i.e. the affectivity] is more the true self than the will. Yet we must add that the full voice of the heart demands the cooperation of the free spiritual center of the person [the will]. … [T]he deepest manifestation of our freedom is to be found in cooperative freedom [rather than mere self-determination]. However great and admirable free will is as lord and master of our actions, nevertheless, the free cooperation with the “gifts” from above, which as such are only indirectly accessible to our free power, is the deepest actualization of our freedom, the highest vocation and mission of our freedom. The great word in which the meaning and nature of cooperative freedom is contained in its most sublime form is the Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.”

The highest manifestation of cooperative freedom is to be found in sanctioning—in the “yes” of our free spiritual center which forms from within our “being affected” by values and, above all, our affective responses to them. In its strictest form it is possible only with affective responses to God… What matters in our context is to understand that these affective experiences which are gifts from above become fully ours, that is to say, they become ultimately valid expressions of our entire personality only when they are sanctioned by our free spiritual center. Our deep love for another person is a gift from above—something we cannot give to ourselves; yet only when we join this love with the “yes” of our free spiritual center does it have the character of a full self-donation. We not only endorse this love, but by this freely spoken “yes” we make it the full and express word of our own. This “yes” of our free center can be spoken only if a high affective experience is granted us. It presupposes the presence of a voice of our heart which is a gift from above.i

It is also beautiful to see, here, the convergence between the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand on the nature of love—which is a fundamentally affective reality awakened in me by a deep, living contact with the intrinsic beauty and goodness of another person, which harnesses also my mind and my will and my whole being as a gift to them—and the thought of the Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars. He speaks about the reality of affirmation as one of the central needs of every human person. The experience of true affirming love, and this experience alone, can truly set free in me the confident awareness of who I am, the free living of my identity as beloved, mediated from God through another person who has seen my true beauty and value, and who has revealed to me this seeing through letting themselves be affectively moved by this beauty such that I see it reflected in their face, in their words, and in their whole manner of being.

But this “affirming” way of being, indeed, is called for not only in relationship to other human persons, but in our attitude towards the whole of creation and towards God himself. In this respect, indeed, living the “affirming life” is ultimately the same as living the “contemplative life,” that is, an existence of tender and loving receptivity, with the whole of my being, to the goodness and beauty of all that I encounter in every moment. This, too, is the attitude of wonder, awe, gratitude, and playfulness that lies, in all truth, at the very heart of human life and of what it means to be human. After all, we were created in the image and likeness of the Trinity, who is the everlasting Intimacy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are bound together in a ceaseless dance of wonder and love and playfulness, bathed in reverent awe and gratitude and cherishing affirmation of each person for the other.

Let me return to the affirming attitude as expressed in human existence. In this tender receptivity, in this attitude of humble and contemplative listening—with my mind, my will, my affectivity, my body—I can give an adequate response to what God has made, and can indeed affirm its existence, its goodness, helping it to be what it is simply by the fullness of my presence to it, and its presence to me. In our contemporary world, submerged as it is in activism, performance, busy-ness, and an excessively task-driven and ought-driven way of being, this attitude of affirming receptivity is precisely what is so threatened. For a living presence such as this requires deep listening, a slowing-down of one’s whole being so that one can be fully and unconditionally present to reality, and in particular to the immense mystery of each person and of God himself.

In my opinion, this insight, this way of being, reveals and corresponds in a profound way to the deepest needs of our world: to rediscover precisely the primacy of contemplation over action, of being over doing, of affectivity over effectivity, of the personal over the institutional, of gratuitous intimacy sought for its own sake over all external tasks or missions. Theologically, this is to recognize the primacy of the “Marian” dimension of the Church—the inner heartbeat of love and intimacy and affirming tenderness, centered wholly in the person—over the “Petrine” dimension of the institutional and structural and ministerial, which, after all, exists only in order to shelter, protect, and serve the living heartbeat of love and intimacy. And it can do so insofar as it itself participates in this heartbeat through a deep contemplative listening and abiding attunement to the very reality that it exists to serve.ii

To conclude this reflection, allow me to quote from Conrad Baars himself, in his own rich words on the reality of affirmation and the “affirming way of being.” I think you will see, here, the deep convergence between him and von Hildebrand, and, I hope, will above all simply see and rejoice and be moved by the beauty of reality itself, of which they both speak. After all, in the end the most important thing is simply to see, to be moved, to be touched and affected by the values that approach me from the outside. It is precisely this gift of being-moved, and this gift alone, coming as it does ultimately from God himself who communicates himself ceaselessly to me in love, that unseals within me the full “yes” of my whole being—in mind, will, affectivity, and body—which constitutes the true gift of myself in response to the gift of love that is first given to me.

I lead the affirming life by being continuously present with the full attention of my whole being to everything that is; by being fully capable of being moved emotionally by all I encounter in the world around me; and by allowing the delight and joy that I experience to be revealed naturally and spontaneously so that the object of my delight can be moved too by his or her own goodness. It is in this way of being present to another, prior to my doing anything, that the other is born psychologically, delivered from the prison of his loneliness and self-centeredness, is strengthened and made firm in the realization that he may be who he is and may become who he is meant to be in his own way and at his own pace. It is in this process that the other is gradually opened to the goodness of all creation and to God Himself.

It is in being affirmed that a person’s psyche is allowed to flower fully in its own unique way, to become open to its own goodness and that of others. Thus affirmation can be said to be truly life-giving, and as such is the source of another’s psychic [psychological] birth. [I compare] the affirming process to the effect water has on something immersed in it. The water respects the object and lets it be. The water surrounds it perfectly and adjusts itself faithfully to the exact contours of the object without destroying it. It allows the object, if a living one, like fish, coral or plant, to grow and develop without hindrance by adjusting its own weight in relation to it. Moreover, it hides its defects from view.iii

We must learn to be simply present to what is good and to be moved by it…but if I’m rushing around, I can’t stand still and be present, for example, to the goodness and beauty of a tree or another person or whatever it may be. If I do take the time and let the goodness of things move me, then I affirm that creation. I become a co-creator with God of what He has created. That’s another way of saying what an affirmer is: a co-creator. … In order for me to live the affirming life, it is necessary that I be present with the full attention of my whole being to all of creation—not just with my thinking, or discursive mind, but also with the attention of my senses, my intuitive or contemplative mind, my spiritual sense, and my emotions [and I would add my spiritual affectivity]. … The discursive mind has to be much less active than the intuitive mind. In our society, the overactivity of our active minds and the overactivity of the utilitarian (assertive) emotions are a tremendous obstacle to leading the authentic human life. The overactivity of our discursive reason and utilitarian emotions also prevents us from being responsive to the other group of emotions that God has given us. We call those the humane emotions, the emotions of love and desire, joy and kindness, affection, compassion, and tenderness. These emotions work directly under the guidance of our intuitive mind. Ennobled by the intuitive mind and guided by reason and will, these humane emotions should be the main source of being present to all of God’s creation. [If we do this, then people] will be able to sense our delight in their goodness. When I am moved by the goodness of what I see around me, I automatically feel that I must protect that goodness. I do not wish to do anything that will interfere with this goodness. That is the source of my developing this love-with-restraint. I do not restrain the love itself; I always let it be and grow. I do restrain myself in the manifestations of my love, however, when I know that those manifestations cannot be received by the other person, when he cannot respond to me, or when I know that those manifestations of my love would be contrary to the moral order. Only in this way of relating do we allow the other person to be who he or she is and allow the other to become what he or she is meant to be in God’s plan, both in his own time and at his own pace. At that point the deepest and most unbreakable bonds of friendship are formed, of mutual affirming and loving.

The first need of a person, then, is to be allowed to be himself. The second need is to know the truth. My obligation within this affirming relationship is to help the other to know who and what he is, and what he should do. The other will listen to me only because I have opened him to his own goodness, to the goodness of all creation, and to the goodness of God. When the other is disposed to listen to me, then I can tell him how he must live.iv


* I do not intend to say that the will’s only activity in human life is to say “yes” to what touches me from the outside. It is true that in the deepest reception of gifts, in deep experiences of being-moved, this is indeed the case. I cannot force or will or initiate such things. At most, the activity of my will can have an ancillary (helper) role, in disposing myself for such an encounter through living in such a way—in my actions and choices, etc.—such that I let myself be touched in this way. The role of the will, in other words, is oriented primarily towards my determination to choose beauty, goodness and truth with my whole being, as well as, in a particular way, towards external actions and choices that incarnate this choice, towards the realm of ethics. Thus it indeed has a central role in human existence. But the will itself is enfolded within, and continually carried—in its very activity and initiative and choice—by a primal receptivity, a primal being-touched and being-carried, in which alone it can find its own true freedom in directing and guiding. It finds its place, in other words, within a prior cooperation with the nature of all being in its beauty, goodness, and truth, and with the grace of God that always awakens, accompanies, and alone brings to full completion.

i. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 69-71.

iii. Conrad Baars, I Will Give Them a New Heart: Reflections on the Priesthood and the Renewal of the Church, ed. Suzanne M. Baars, MA and Bonnie N. Shayne, MA (Alba House: New York, 2007), 46 and 56.

iv. Ibid., 57, 67-68.