In the Jewish Scriptures there’s a story that’s unique both in its capacity to shock and to fascinate.
A king, Jepthah, is at war and things are going badly. Praying in desperation, he makes a promise to God that, should he win this battle, he would, upon returning home, sacrifice on the altar the first person he meets.
Some days God has nothing better to do than to hear such prayers. Jepthah’s prayer is granted and he wins the battle, but, upon returning home, he is deeply distressed because the first person he meets is his own daughter, in the full bloom of youth. He loves her deeply, grieves his foolish vow, and is ready to break it for her sake.
But she asks him to go ahead with it. She accepts to die on the altar of sacrifice, except for one thing (in stories that bare the soul there is always “one thing”). In her case, the one thing is this: She will now die a virgin, unconsummated, unfulfilled, not having achieved full intimacy, and not having given birth to children. And so she asks her father for time in the desert (forty days, the time it takes the desert to do its work) before she dies, to grieve her virginity, the incompleteness of her life.
Her father grants her wish and she goes out into the desert with her companions (themselves virgins) for forty days to bewail that she will die a virgin. After this, she returns and is ready to die on the altar of sacrifice.
There’s a rather nasty patriarchal character to this story (such were the times) and, of course, we are right to abhor the very idea of human sacrifice, but this particular story is not historical and is not meant literally. It’s archetype, metaphor, a poetry of the soul within which death and virginity are not meant in their literal sense. What do death and virginity mean in this story?
They’re metaphors inside a parable meant to teach a profound truth, namely, all of us, no matter age or state in life, must, at some point, mourn what’s incomplete and not consummated in our lives.
We are all Jepthah’s daughters. In the end, like her, we all die virgins, having lived incomplete lives, not having achieved the intimacy we craved, and having yearned to create a lot more things than we were able to birth. In this life, nobody gets the full symphony. There’s a place inside us where we all “bewail our virginity”, and this is true too of married people, just as it is of celibates. At some deep level, this side of eternity, we all sleep alone.
We need to mourn this, whatever form that might take. When we fail to do this, we go through life disappointed, dissatisfied with our lives, restless inside our own skins, prone to anger, and forever expecting, unrealistically, that someone or something – a marriage partner, a family, a children, a church, a sexual partner, a friend, a career, or an achievement – can take all of our loneliness away, give us the complete symphony, and (metaphorically) consummate our lives so that we aren’t virgins any more.
Of course that’s impossible, only God can do that. Our yearnings and our needs are infinite because we are Grand Canyons without a bottom. For that reason, we all sleep alone, living (as Rahner famously puts it) in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable.
Recognizing and accepting this isn’t one of our strengths. Most everything inside of our culture today conspires to keep us from admitting this. No more for us the old prayer, “To thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Good for past generations, but not for us. The last thing we like to admit is tears, the helpless frustration.of our lives at times, and the incontrovertible fact of our own virginity.
We suffer a lot of restlessness, disappointment, and bitterness because of this. Until, like Jepthah’s daughter, we can recognize and admit and honour how we really feel, we will forever be fighting something or somebody – usually those persons and things closest to us.
The daydreams of our youth eventually die, though perhaps as we get older we replay them just to feel old sentiments (our own version of The Way We Were) rather than with any kind of practical hope. Time and disappointment have done their work, we no longer look for the daydreams to come true and the dreams themselves look pretty flat in the context of our actual lives. But what created those dreams all those years back hasn’t changed; indeed there’s a part of us now that’s more idealistic than before and we ache just as much as we ever did, even now when we accept that daydreams don’t come true,.
When that happens, it’s time to go into the desert and bewail our virginity. Our capacity for genuine self-sacrifice, it would seem, follows from that.