There is a story in the Old Testament that both shocks and fascinates by its sheer earthiness.
A certain king, Jephthah, is at war and things are going badly for himself and his army. In desperation he prays to God, promising that if he is granted victory he will, upon returning home, offer in sacrifice the first person he meets. His prayer is heard and he is given victory. When he returns home he is horrified because the first person he meets, whom he must now kill in sacrifice, is his only daughter, in the full bloom of her youth, whom he loves most dearly. He tells his daughter of his promise and offers to break it rather than sacrifice her. She, however, insists that he go through with his promise, but there is one condition: She needs, before she dies, time in the desert to bewail the fact that she is to die a virgin, incomplete, unconsummated. She asks her father for two months time during which she goes into the desert with her maiden companions and mourns her unfulfilled life. Afterwards she returns and offers herself in sacrifice. (Judges 11)
Despite the unfortunate patriarchal character of this story, it is a parable that in its own earthy way says something quite profound, namely, that we must mourn what’s incomplete and unconsummated within our lives.
Karl Rahner once wrote that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we begin to realize that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” He is correct. In the end, we all die, as did Jephthah’s daughter, as virgins, our lives incomplete, our deepest dreams and deepest yearnings largely frustrated, still looking for intimacy, never having had the finished consummate symphony … unconsciously bewailing our virginity. This is true of married people just as it is true for celibates. Ultimately, we all sleep alone.
And this must be mourned. Whatever form this might take, each of us must, at some point, go into the desert and bewail our virginity – mourn the fact that we will die unfulfilled, incomplete. Its when we fail to do this – and because we fail to do it – that we go through life being too demanding, too angry, too bitter, too disappointed, and too prone to constantly blame others and life itself for our frustrations. When we fail to mourn properly our incomplete lives then this incompleteness becomes a haunting depression, an unyielding restlessness, and a bitter centre which robs our lives of all delight.
It is because we do not mourn our virginity that we demand that someone or something – a marriage partner, a sexual partner, an ideal family, having children, an achievement, a vocational goal, or a job – take all of our loneliness away. That, of course, is an unreal expectation which invariably leads to bitterness and disappointment. In this life, there is no finished symphony. We are built for the infinite. Our hearts, minds, and souls are Grand Canyons without a bottom. Because of that we will, this side of eternity, always be lonely, restless, incomplete, still a virgin – living in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable.
My parents’ generation tended to recognize this more easily than we do. They prayed, daily, the prayer: “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” That prayer, and others like them, were their way of bewailing their virginity.
Contemporary spirituality tends to reject such an emphasis on the limitations of this life as unhealthy and a bit morbid. That is arguable. What is not is the fact that we never, here in this life, get the full symphony, the panacea to our loneliness. Any balanced truly life-giving spirituality must take this into account and challenge people to understand, integrate, and live out that fact. Perhaps the best way to do this is not the way of my parents’ generation, who sometimes put more emphasis on life after death than upon life after birth. Maybe it is a bit morbid to consider this life so much a “vale of tears”. But tears must be factored in. Otherwise, in the end, we are falsely challenged and the symbolic infra-structure of our spirituality is inadequate to handle our actual experience.
The daydreams of our childhood eventually die, but the source that ultimately fires them, our infinite caverns of feeling, do not. We ache just as much, even after we know the daydream can never, this side of eternity, come true. Hence, like Jephthah’s daughter, there comes a time when we must go into the desert and mourn the fact that we are to die a virgin.