One of my favorite ways to refer to St. John Paul II is “the Star Trekkie of the Catholic World.” For many of us, the mission of the Starship Enterprise is etched into our minds: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Captain Kirk, Spock, and “beam-me-up” Scotty invited us to accompany them on their mission, taking us boldly where we’d never gone before. When it comes to his reflections on heaven, St. John Paul II throws his lot with the Enterprise: he boldly goes where no pope has gone before – and invites us to go with him.
For the past three blogs, we’ve been reflecting on our glorified bodies and the two-step process of spiritualization and divinization. While this may have been novel or mind-stretching for you, it wasn’t outside the realm of previous theological explorations. The concepts may be new to us, but St. JPII stands in a long Scriptural and spiritual tradition.
St. JPII, however, is not done exploring the far reaches of our heavenly perfection. In TOB A67, every paragraph, even every sentence, explores new marvels of our eternal union and communion with the Trinity, which, he says, “seem also to unveil the new meaning of the body” (A67:4).
A new meaning of the body in heaven? What could that possibly be? And on what evidence is St. JPII basing his statement?
First of all, St. JPII returns to Christ’s words in the gospel, where Jesus declares we will take neither wife nor husband in the future resurrection (Mk 12:25). Marriage and procreation, St. JPII reminds us, are tied to this life only. These two central human realities lose their raison d’être in eternity not because we become disembodied, but because masculinity and femininity contain a deeper meaning than what our earthly existence alone can reveal. To adapt St. Paul’s quote from 1 Cor 15:19, “If for this life only we are masculine and feminine, then we are the most pitiable of all people!”
Are you feeling a bit like the crew of the Starship Enterprise at this moment, entering into uncharted territory? We reflexively assume being male and female is linked only with marriage and procreation and therefore has no meaning or reason to exist in heaven. Many people have mistakenly interpreted Galatian 3:28, which says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ,” to mean we are genderless in heaven.
This passage in Galatians is not referring to our sexuality disappearing in Christ. Rather, it refers to Baptism having no pre-qualifications. Jews, free citizens, and males were all privileged categories in the cultures where the gospel first took root. Paul explicitly states that those categories of privileged and under-privileged no longer apply in the Church. To use a contemporary phase: “All are welcomed here” to the baptismal font, to the process of conversion and incorporation into the Body of Christ.
Well, then, if we will have our own bodies in heaven, and if they will be glorified as male or female, and if the purpose of masculinity and femininity as expressed in marriage and procreation is passé, then what is the new meaning of being male and female in eternity? In typical St. JPII fashion, here’s his answer: “Is it possible, in this case – on the level of biblical eschatology [i.e., at Christ’s Second Coming] – to think of the discovery of the ‘spousal meaning of the body’ above all as the ‘virginal’ meaning of being male and female in the body?” (A67:4)
Here’s my quick and easy translation: In our eternal perfection, we will all be virgins! Doesn’t that make you jump up and do a little heavenly jig? Ok, maybe not, because endless virginity doesn’t sound like heavenly happiness to us. It sounds like an eternal state of doing nothing. Why? Because our cultural definition of a virgin is precisely someone who hasn’t done something – a virgin is someone who hasn’t had sex.
If St. JPII claims we are perfected as virgins in heaven and a virgin is someone who hasn’t had sex, then logically heaven is where we won’t be having sex eternally. Thanks for sharing St. JPII. This certainly doesn’t make anyone jump up and dance a jig or even a tango. It sounds eternally (yawn) BORING…
And yet, the text stares us in the face, demanding we somehow makes sense of it. In fact, St. JPII repeats himself in the next audience where he says, “…virginity, or rather the virginal state of the body, will manifest itself completely as the eschatological fulfillment of the ‘spousal’ meaning of the body…” (TOB A68:3). We can’t just sidestep St. JPII venturing “boldly where no pope has gone before.” We can’t label this statement as too baffling or obscure and therefore dismiss it. We must try to make sense of it because the integrity of the entire Theology of the Body rides on it. So what do we do?
We change our understanding of virginity.
To reframe our understanding of virginity, we need to make a simple distinction: the difference between potential and actualization. Your legs have the potential to walk, and yet, when you were born did you walk out of the womb? No, that potential lay dormant within the structure of your legs and had to be activated and then actualized. First you learned to scoot, then crawl, then pull yourself up, then toddle, and finally walk. And I imagine your first steps were greeted by a round of applause from all!
And rightly so because as you began walking your legs didn’t lose their capacity to walk; it was strengthened and increased so that you could eventually skip, jog, and run. This is the great gift of the multitude of capacities or potencies innate in our human nature. We are born with the potential to eat, speak, and run. Our human nature carries the potential to add numbers, laugh at humor, and compose love letters. Through the circumstances of our lives, these capacities must be activated and then gradually actualized until they reach full actualization.
Let’s apply this framework to virginity. Instead of seeing virginity as an absence (something someone hasn’t done), what if we approached virginity as a capacity, a potential, of our embodied human nature? If this were true, then over the course of our life, our virginity would not be “lost,” but would be activated and continuously actualized, reaching its full actualization and perfection only in heaven. If we reframe virginity in this manner, then it’s possible to make sense out of St. JPII’s claim that our human nature is perfected in virginity in our masculine or feminine glorified bodies.
Let’s imitate the Enterprise and St. JPII and boldly forge ahead by asking, “What is the capacity of virginity?” In other words, what potential lies within our embodied human nature that can be activated and then actualized over the course of our life?
The answer is my second favorite word: union! More specifically, union and communion through a gift of self. In the beginning, St. JPII says, our bodies were created with a unitive power (potential) that when activated provided the foundation for Adam and Eve’s personal union or communion of persons (see TOB A55:6). St. JPII identifies this unitive power with the spousal meaning of the body, which, he says, is “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (TOB A15:1).
Just before this description of the spousal meaning of the body, St. JPII makes a seemingly offhanded remark, but now we can see it as the lynchpin of the meaning of human life and embodiment. He says, “The human body, with its sex – its masculinity and femininity – seen in the very mystery of creation is not only a source of fruitfulness and procreation, as in the whole natural order, but contains ‘from the beginning’ the ‘spousal’ attribute, that is, the power to express love…”
From the beginning of our existence, St. JPII indicates that our embodiment as male and female can’t be explained fully by reference only to procreation. Masculinity and femininity point to a deeper, and indeed universal, reality of our human nature: the power to express love through self-gift.
The “spousal meaning” of the body, and therefore the fundamental meaning of our human nature, is awakened first as others make a gift of self to us and then actualized as we learn to self-gift to those immediately around us – our family. The spousal meaning of the body continues to be actualized and strengthened as we expand our gift of self to include God, friends, respect for the natural world, and self-mastery, which integrates the various dimensions of our personhood.
On the natural level, marriage is the most complete expression of the spousal meaning of the body because it actualizes the unitive power of the body not only through acts of service, words of affirmation, and spending quality time with our beloved, but through the one-flesh union of the conjugal act as a communion of persons.
And this brings us back to the constant theme of TOB Tuesdays: a gift is not a gift until it is given and received. A communion of persons is not a one-sided, disinterested love. It is a reciprocal giving and receiving. As we activate and then continue to actualize the spousal meaning of our body, we grow in our capacity to self-gift. We grow in our capacity for union and communion with others. We grow in our capacity to receive. And this capacity to receive is what I think St. JPII means by virginity.
I know it seems we’ve covered a lot of extraterrestrial territory to arrive back at virginity, but this is how one learns to read and decipher St. JPII and his Theology of the Body. It’s not enough to read through TOB once and then sell it as a lightly used copy on Amazon. We need to dig through the TOB audiences over and over again, investing a good amount of intellectual sweat equity in order to identify the logical progression and interior cohesiveness of St. JPII’s thought.
St. JPII’s deep intuition, which provides cohesiveness to all of TOB, is the human body as not only filial, but spousal. We are created to experience ourselves not only as a child (child of our parents; child of God), but for deeply bonded, spousal relationships (on both the human level and the divine level). Thus St. JPII makes the spousal meaning of the body the distinguishing feature of our human nature because this meaning is initially expressed in time and then endures in eternity where it is perfected in a virginal manner in union with God.
Think of everything you read in last week’s blog: participation in the divine nature, penetration and permeation of our humanity by divinity, living in an organic union with God, the two being two and yet one, union with God in his trinitarian mystery, intimacy with him in the perfect communion of persons, abiding, indwelling, a union and holy communion with the glorified Body of Christ in your glorified body – these were all ways I tried to describe our intimate, virginal union with God.
In other words, heaven is where our embodied human nature reaches its fulfillment in perfect union with God through perfect receptivity. Relative to God, our human nature is virginal. It has been created from the beginning with the capacity to receive God into it. This is the profound truth of the Incarnation (forgive me for spiraling back). Jesus of Nazareth’s human nature received the divine nature into it so there was a perfect union and communion between the two without confusion or separation. The Incarnation was a virginal one-flesh union between humanity and divinity in the body of Jesus Christ.
Our human nature has this same virginal capacity. The spousal meaning of your body was designed from the beginning by God to reach its full actualization by perfectly receiving God into it. In our glorified and spiritualized bodies, this virginal capacity or potency reaches its ultimate fulfillment through God’s self-communication of his divinity to us, which we receive. And the two, you and God, become one-flesh in an eternal union and holy communion through the glorified Body of Christ.
I know this spousal language of one-flesh union can be extremely uncomfortable because one-flesh union and sexual activity are usually inseparable in our minds. So please allow me to be blunt: IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO SEXUAL ACTIVITY – not with each other nor with God. Sexual activity belongs to this life only. This is why St. JPII brilliantly describes our eternal union and communion with God as virginal: he makes it crystal clear that our heavenly union and communion with the Trinity in our glorified bodies is spousal, but absent of sexual activity. It is a virginal actualization or fulfillment of the spousal meaning of the body. Spousal love and human sexuality are not absent in heaven, but fulfilled in a radically new and virginal manner, more abundantly than we could ever experience on earth.
Please forgive me for ending here, but I think the Enterprise needs some time to simply hover over these ideas instead of accelerating into new territory. This week I invite you to reconsider two things: 1) Why would our bodies still be masculine or feminine in heaven if there is no marriage or procreation in eternity? and 2) What will be the qualities of your virginal union and communion with God in your glorified body? (Hint: Meditating on our Eucharistic union with Christ will help.) And remember…you are a gift!
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS