Describing virginity simply as “intactness” is important but also rather inadequate. It would just be a negative definition, describing a lack of a certain experience (marriage, sexual union, etc.). This renunciation, this “lack,” is just a presupposition of virginity, and not its goal or its purpose. The true depth of the meaning and purpose of virginity will hopefully become much clearer in the following two reflections, on the veiling which is a yet deeper unveiling. But let me note here simply that there is also a positive truth in the meaning of “intactness,” in that the renunciation involved in virginity is a super-affirmation of something that is possible only on the basis of such “intactness”: namely, the spousal gift of one’s very bodiliness and sexual capacity to Jesus Christ himself, and also, within this gift, one’s opening to a new manner of human relationships made possible only within the realm of God’s redeeming and re-creating grace. This, indeed, is the essence of virginity (as a spiritual state which is also bodily, or which can be embraced spiritually even if bodily virginity has been lost). It is the surrender of oneself to God in a gift of self that parallels, and indeed super-fulfills, the word of marriage, which brings to full flower the spousal/unitive meaning of the body and of gender itself, and yet not before a human person, but before God himself, spreading out also to sanctify and transfigure the very intimate fabric of human relationships.
Despite this positive meaning of intactness, nonetheless, to merely say that virginity on a bodily level deepens a spiritual virginity is not adequate, and can actually be misleading, leading to the very opposite of what true virginity aims at. This is true, in other words, particularly in the dynamics of human relationships. For example, it has been said at times that a consecrated virgin needs to “guard her heart” from ever loving anyone except God, to lock it up and keep it safe for him alone. For her to love another person or to be loved by another person, in this understanding, would inherently obscure her total belonging to God, and would be an infidelity to the mystery of virginity to which she is called. Now there is a deep seed of truth in this: the attitude of spiritual virginity, which virginity as a vocation serves, calls for a radical and total purity of heart in which God alone is sought in all things and beyond all things, without compromise, sedatives, or distractions. Any and all things, whether natural created goods or human relationships, find their place only within this ardent pursuit of God alone, in Christ, and a total openness to welcome him in the naked space of the heart. This is in fact true for every vocation, clearly, for all human life, which virginity or chastity as a vocation serves. Nonetheless, just as there are two inseparable commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—so too virginity, from the fullness of a truly chaste, intact, and total gift of oneself to God, is also simultaneously a way of making oneself more capable of love and vulnerability, before both God and before human others. It is a stepping beyond the sphere of competition, of mere natural attraction, of the pleasure of the body—and indeed of the very paradigm of romantic love and the normal way of marriage tied to this life—and an immersing of oneself in the very virginal love of the Trinity. Precisely in this way, it radically unseals the capacity to share in the true intersubjectivity of persons for which our hearts were created, and which in this fallen world is continually in danger of being obscured. It is thus not a “protected” life, a life surrounded with many barriers and walls to keep one safe with God alone; it is rather a vulnerable life in which every wall surrounding the heart is dissolved by love to become pure acceptance and self-giving in love, to live already now as deeply as possible the ceaseless circulation of love that is the inner life of the Trinity, and which permeates the whole of creation and all human relationships.
Perhaps in the abstract one can struggle to understand this—particular if one approaches the whole question of virginity on the basis of fear. Despite this, in concrete experience before one another, we can continually feel and experience this gift operative within us quite vividly, for the grace of chastity poured into us by the redeeming touch of God is in fact very efficacious. It will not allow us to settle with anything less than a true living participation in the intimacy of the Trinity, both in relation to God himself as well as in relation to each one of our brothers and sisters, and in particular those entrusted specifically into the orbit of our love, and us into theirs.
Virginity, as the surpassing of the natural desires, privileges, and limitations of marriage, makes the encounter and love between the sexes even deeper precisely because it is more directly rooted in the Mystery that natural love symbolizes and to which it points. It is particularly “transparent” to the light of God, to the beauty of the Trinity, and this light makes an even deeper communion possible.i The “word” of cherishing love, indeed even the word of predilection about which John Paul II speaks, can resound loudly and clearly in virginity just as it can in natural marriage, and in a way even more so. It is precisely, in other words, the virginal renunciation that makes one’s super-affirmation of the other’s beauty more palpable, safe, and profound. This renunciation is thus ultimately not a renunciation, but a transition from one expression of intimacy to an intimacy that is deeper: deeper because it is both more deeply plunged into the Heart of God, and also more deeply rooted in, encompassing, and cradling the other in the virginal beauty of who they are. (Of course, since both vocations ultimately converge in the single mystery that surpasses them while being incarnate within them, marriage itself can be an expression of precisely this virginal way of seeing. Indeed, it is meant to be so.)
I have said that the natural, physical “tearing” (of circumcision for the man and sexual union for the woman) is a remedy that God has written into the human body in order to try and counteract concupiscence and the “obscuring” of true love due to the intensity of human passion and bodily pleasure. But virginity is a more radical “tearing,” one that is free and deliberate and thus more personal. It is a stepping-beyond the sexual realm entirely—insofar as it is expressed in this temporal world which is passing away, but not insofar as the sexual mystery itself will endure into eternity in its inmost virginal, personal meaning. And it does this, not in order to renounce intimacy, but to move beyond the partial and imperfect expressions of this intimacy, in order to step into the realm of pure light and beauty, into the deepest mutual self-donation of virginal persons within the cradling embrace of the Trinity.
Precisely by stepping thus beyond the sexual realm (of this world) and into the virginal realm (of the new creation which is already present now), virginity opens up a more profound intimacy, both in depth and in breadth. By letting go of the slightest semblance of the power-struggle paradigm between the sexes, virginity opens up the way to an even deeper nakedness than natural sexuality, and thus an even deeper intimacy. This nakedness is the utter vulnerability of hearts who welcome and cherish one another in God, affirming and sheltering and honoring the beauty of the other absolutely, in their unique personal beauty in the eyes of God.ii
This is indeed the most intense expression and experience of the virginal love which should lie at the heart of every vocation (even marriage). But because of original sin, the privileges of marriage can bear the danger of obscuring rather than revealing this virginal mystery. This is also how the married love between a man and woman often matures and becomes truly intimate particularly whenever sex becomes impossible (for example if one person gets sick). Then their hearts are harnessed to love and cherish one another in a deeper and more intimate way, by reaching out and making contact with the true heart and identity of the other, to sacrifice for them, to give oneself disinterestedly. In doing so, one is harnessed both to seek their authentic good and, at the same time, to discover an intimacy even deeper than that possible on the basis of sexual desire, or indeed even on the basis of the natural institution and sacrament of marriage, which, after all, is limited to this present life.
They are called, in other words, to reach out and make contact with the virginal mystery that is present within and even surpasses their marital love, and in doing so they make contact with the truly eternal significance of the love that unites them. And this eternal significance is precisely the virginal reality: the absolute affirmation, love, sheltering, and mutual self-donation of person to person, of heart to heart, in the love of the Trinity who has drawn them together and given them to one another.
i. It is significant that when God inaugurated the life of virginity and celibacy in this world, he did so, not by creating an “institution” which would care for those chosen for this way of life, but rather by entrusting a virginal woman into the care of a man. He entrusted the Virgin Mary into the orbit of the love of Saint Joseph, who lived with her a true communion, a communion that was no less intimate for being virginal, but manifested with a particular transparency the beauty of the life of the Trinity and the mystery of Redemption, and became a singular womb for the incarnation of God himself. And then, at the end of his life, Christ entrusted the Virgin again into the care of a man, into the love of Saint John, who would enfold and care for her until the end of her days. And this mystery has continued to manifest itself until this day. And it beautifully expresses the primacy of the personal over the institutional, and that, in eternity, person and intimacy alone will remain.
ii. Virginity not only seeks to do away with the power-struggle paradigm, but also the paradigms of use, pleasure-seeking, and appropriation (in other words, it goes directly contrary to the threefold concupiscence of the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life). And the renunciation of these paradigms is the inner truth of the evangelical counsels—the spirit of evangelical love—which is nothing but entering fully into the nakedness of love for the sake of authentic mutual self-giving and the communion that flowers from this. And while one could see a certain correspondence between the movements of pride and concupiscence and the three counsels that counteract them (e.g. obedience against the power-struggle, poverty against appropriation, and chastity against pleasure-seeking) they are in truth one indivisible reality of love. In authentic truth, they are the restoration of the virginal state that existed before the fall, and indeed a participation in the very virginal love and intimacy of the Trinity, which will be consummated in the whole creation at the end of time.
And this is made possible only in and through Jesus and Mary, through participation in the Love incarnate in the virginal Christ, and brought to the climax of self-giving in the Eucharist, Passion, and Resurrection. By letting ourselves be grafted into this Reality, by entering deeply into it, we are liberated, renewed, and transformed by Love, radically reopened to receive and to give and to enter into authentic communion with deep cherishing tenderness for every person in the sight of God.