Scripture is often shocking in its earthiness. The Book of Judges gives us an example: A certain king, Jepthah, is at war and things are going badly. He prays to God in desperation, promising that if God lets him win this battle he, Jepthah, upon returning to his kingdom will offer on the altar of sacrifice the first person he meets. God takes him at his word. Jepthah wins his battle and is overjoyed. His joy quickly evaporates. Upon returning home, he sees his own daughter, in the bloom of her youth, running out to meet him and he, conscious of his promise to God, now faces a horrible dilemma – break an oath to God or sacrifice his own daughter.
He tells his daughter of the promise and is ready to break his vow. She, however, offers to die in sacrifice … except there is one thing (as there always is in every great story of the soul). What is the one thing in her case? She’s a virgin and will now die in non-consummation and barrenness, never having achieved wholeness and never having given birth. So she asks her father to grant her a period of two months to go into the desert and bewail her virginity. Her father agrees and she and her maiden companions go out into the desert to grieve the fact that she will die unwhole, barren, never having been granted the full symphony. She does her grieving in the desert, returns, and dies on the altar of sacrifice.
On one level this is an awful story – a terrible commentary on God, patriarchy of a bad sort, and religion at its worst. At another level, though, it’s a profound story, worth meditating. Biblical stories of this genre, as we know, are neither historical nor meant to be taken literally. Rather they depict the inner dramas of the soul, of every soul, in every age. This is our story. We too are invited to mourn our virginity. What’s our particular virginity?
Henri Nouwen once said that here, in this life, “there is no such a thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitation. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance.” That’s an important insight.
There is no such thing as a clear-cut, pure joy. This constitutes a kind of virginity. We are always somewhere unwhole, barren, unable to give full birth to what’s pushing for life inside us. This frustration takes various forms during the course of our lives, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s there in the area of sexuality, irrespective of whether we are married or celibate. I remember a former colleague of mine, a married woman, challenging a group of priests: “You, celibates, feel too sorry for yourselves,” she said. “Do you know what’s worse than sleeping alone? Sleeping alone when you’re not sleeping alone!” Everyone, in some areas of life, is deeply alone.
More deeply though our frustration is with the limits of life itself. Art too has its martyrs, Iris Murdoch once remarked, and there is no greater pain in life than the inadequacy of self-expression. None of us ever finds adequate self-expression.
This stems not from idiosyncratic pathology, but from the way we are built. We are made for the infinite and are, as John of the Cross says, caverns without a bottom, infinite canyons that nothing can ever fill in. With a depth and a capacity for the infinite, we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t find all we need within the finite. We’re over-charged for this life.
We experience this in our daydreams. There we feel the discrepancy between what we yearn for and what we can actually have, though there comes a day when we realize that, this side of heaven, our yearned-for consummation is not to be had. But the fire doesn’t die. We ache just as much after the realism soaks in. It’s then, when we realize that so much of what we yearn for is not to be, that, like Jepheth’s daughter, it’s time to head for the desert to make peace with our souls and with God for the infinite patience that is asked of us.
Karl Rahner once said that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to realize that here in this life all symphonies remain unfinished.” Former spiritualities called this living “in a vale of tears.” There is nothing morbid about such a statement.
In the end, one way or the other we all die as virgins, never having fully experienced consummation, barren, never having given birth. Celibate or married, we all sleep alone. There comes a time to mourn this so as to find the joy that lies on the other side, after the grief, on the altar of sacrifice.