There’s a story in the Jewish scriptures that is both fascinating and shocking in its earthiness.
A king named Jepthah is at war and things are going badly. In desperation he prays to God, promising that if given victory he will, upon returning to his kingdom, sacrifice the first person he meets.
Jepthah is granted his wish, as often happens in these kinds of archetypal stories, but upon returning home is dismayed because the first person he meets is his own daughter, in the full bloom of her youth. He tells her of his foolish promise and offers to break it rather than sacrifice her.
She, however, insists that he go through with it, though on one condition: She is unmarried, a virgin, and will now have to die inconsummate, unfulfilled, her fertility wasted. She asks him for forty days to go into the desert with her maiden companions and bewail the fact that she will die a virgin. Her request is granted and she goes into the desert to mourn. Afterwards she returns and allows herself to be put on to the altar of sacrifice. (Judges 11).
Despite the terrible patriarchal nature of this story and the fact that it speaks of primitive religion is one of its worst forms, this is a parable with a profound lesson. This is its wisdom: In order to give ourselves to others in a love that’s mature and altruistic (“to offer ourselves on the altar of sacrifice”) we must first have mourned our virginity, namely, made peace with the fact that our lives will always fall far, far short of our desires and dreams.
In the end, we will all die like Jepthah’s daughter, virgins, un-embraced, never fully consummated, denied the fullness of life, never having given birth to that for which we are so fertile, still awaiting the full symphony. We are always, in some way, unconsciously bewailing our virginity. This is just as true for married people as for celibates. At the end of the day, we all sleep alone.
What the parable teaches is that this has to be mourned, however we do that. At some point, each of us must go into the desert and bewail our virginity. If we don’t, we will never acquire the maturity to genuinely give ourselves over in selflessness. Instead, like the child or adolescent still gearing up for life, we will always be waiting for others to bless us, to admire us, to carry us, to feed us, and to give us life. We can only give ourselves in selflessness if we ourselves have, through a grieving process of whatever sort, first made peace with the fact that we sleep alone, that we will die as virgins, denied the full symphony in this life.
I have seen this quality in the great, selfless people that I have met. They have made peace with the inadequacy of life, no longer demand that others make them happy, and find real joy in being able to sacrifice their time, their dreams, and their lives so that others, especially the young, might have more life.
The opposite is also true. When I experience selfishness inside of myself or in another, it is because my inconsummation has become a bitter centre out of which I live. Not having mourned the perfect, fulfilled life that I can’t have, I go through life too demanding, too bitter, too disappointed, and too prone to blame others for my unhappiness. If I fail to mourn my virginity, then there is a constant pressure inside me demanding that someone or something – a marriage partner, a sexual partner, an ideal family, my own children, an achievement, a vocational goal, or even a vacation – take away all of my loneliness and make me whole. Of course, that’s a formula for disappointment and bitterness.
Nobody dies having had it all. In this life there is no finished symphony. We are built for the infinite and nobody, nor any achievement, can ever make us completely whole. We will always be lonely, restless, incomplete, still waiting (as Plato says) for that great embrace, for that unique immorality, and for real contemplation of the divine.
Our faith needs to give us the tools to handle that, namely, to help us come to grips with the fact that we live and die in incompleteness. Being lonely, having always to wait, and finding ourselves ultimately sleeping alone is our human lot. We have to make peace with that. If we do, we will be generous and happy. If we don’t, we will be selfish and demanding.
The daydreams of our childhood eventually die, but the source that fires them does not. We ache, just as much after we know that, this side of eternity, our daydreams can never come true, as we did before. Like Jepthah’s daughter, there comes a time then when we must go into the desert and mourn our disappointment for the fact that we will die a virgin.