Some years ago, while giving a retreat, a lady came to me for confession. Her confession was long and sincere. However, that sincerity and genuine contrition was constantly punctured by a cynicism, sarcasm and background experience which caused her to be constantly questioning whether she wanted to be sincere and contrite. She was very bright and very experienced. In virtually every sense of the word, she had been around. She was also very happy. When we had finished, she asked what I felt she needed to do. I suggested that she undergo a long and intensive process of revirginization. It was a suggestion which mildly shocked her, but it was what she really needed. Though young, she had been most everywhere, done most everything, and had, in a way of speaking, sophisticated herself into a huge unhappiness. There was not a childlike bone in her body, nor a childlike thought in her heart. She had lost most of her virginity.
That prescriptive counsel I gave to her, revirginization, is a counsel which I judge more and more needs to be given to all of us and to our age in general. We are horribly unvirginal persons. What is meant here? Virginity is, in its deepest sense, not so much a past sexual history as it is a present attitude. Whether one is a virgin or not has less to do with his or her past sexual experiences as it has to do with the posture with which he or she meets reality. What is the posture of virginity? It is comprised of three compenetrating elements:
First, virginity is the posture of a child before reality. A child has a very primitive, virginal spirit. In a child’s heart and mind, and in a virgin’s there is a sense of newness, of experiencing for the first time. There is too a capacity to be surprised.
There is no illusion of familiarity and there is a natural “fear of God,” love’s fear, the fear that is the beginning of wisdom. Because of this, there is in the child, or the virgin, a sense of mystery, a sense that some things are sacred, untouchable, beyond manipulation. Second, virginity is living in a certain inconsummation, living with a desire for experience which is not fully satiated. To be a virgin is to live in tension, unfulfilled, longing, waiting for a time in the future when one will be fulfilled. The virgin does not prematurely enter the marriage bed. This is true not just in the area of sexuality, but in all of life.
Finally, virginity is living in such a way that there are certain areas of our personality and life which are revered and sacred and which are then shared only within a context which fully respects that sacredness. For a virgin there is a certain chastity in experiencing, in all areas of life including the sexual. Virginity opposes itself to promiscuity of all kinds. The virgin knows that the human heart, temple of the Holy Spirit that it is, is not cheap. As a precious gift, it may only be trustfully given.
This posture, virginity, is natural in a child. However, here it is dependent upon certain factors which are themselves natural in children, namely, ignorance, lack of experience, superstition, lack of opportunity, natural naivete, and a lack of criticalness and practicalness. As we grow older, as our critical faculties sharpen and as we experience more, we naturally lose much of our virginity. Partly this is necessary, natural and healthy – to be adult and naive is not an ideal. However, partially this loss of virginity is unnecessary and unhealthy. As was the case with the lady I described above, partly the loss of virginity is the result of giving in to the urge to experience indiscriminately, of stripping reality unduly of too many of its sacral dimensions, of illicitly breaking taboos (including sexual ones), and of letting impatience and despair drive us beyond chastity. When this happens, and to a greater or lesser extent it happens in each of our lives, we develop a false familiarity with life and begin to live under the illusion of familiarity. This is the real loss of virginity, living in an unhealthy familiarity with life, others, sex.
In this state, all real love, real romance, and all aesthetics in love, die. Unvirginal persons never send flowers, nor love notes. That’s kids’ stuff! Ultimately, the loss of virginity is characterized by a sophisticated unhappiness, an unchildlikeness which, while miserable, refuses to admit its own misery and its cause. That is one of the qualities of being in hell, to be miserable and to refuse to admit it. With that comes a proclivity for the perverse. Why? Because as Chesterton so aptly puts it: “There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of pretending; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. “There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired of playing…the effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all the drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose.”
Lately, as a culture, we have taken to tormenting the cat! How do we wake ourselves from the nightmare? My next column will offer some suggestions for revirginization.