Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Begotten, not forgotten

"Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God," writes St. John in his first letter.

A few verses later, the apostle writes, "We love because He first loved us."

I believe it was my friend Steve Kellmeyer, author of Sex and the Sacred City, who noted — perhaps in explaining the Nicene Creed's use of the phrase "begotten not made" to describe Jesus — that a being can make something that is unlike itself, but can beget something only of the same kind as itself.

If the act of loving, then, makes us "begotten by God," it means that one's act of willing to love — for true love is always at root an act of will — automatically makes one like God.

At the same time, there is something paradoxical in that He loves us, we love, and it is then that we are "begotten by God." The act of begetting occurs not through His loving us, but through our returning His love.

The reflexive way in which God begets us and we are begotten by him is a mystery, yet I think in some way it images the communion of the Trinity.

I learned from Sex and the Sacred City that God's complete self-gift is automatic, in the sense that it is immediate, and it is continual. As Steve has noted in an article, "God is a family of persons whose life is love. In fact, the three persons of the Trinity are so closely intertwined in love that each Person can be distinguished from the other two only by these relations of begetting and generation. Father begets Son, Son is begotten of Father, Father and Son together generate Spirit, Spirit is generated by Father and Son."

God's automatic self-gift comes to mind when I ponder Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane. He could not even think of man's sins without immediately sacrificing His own life to save us — hence His sweating blood ("the life is in the blood").

I am thinking about the topic of begetting because, this morning, I read a beautiful online journal entry by a college student who recently, through a Catholic youth retreat, came to understand that, although she had lost her virginity, she could regain the "gift" of it (her word) through Christ.

Some people refer to one's virginity as a "gift" for one's future spouse, and that is part of what the student meant. But what I found touching was not that the student saw her virginity as something she could give, but as something she had received as a gift.

I believe that whether one is a literal virgin or has been born anew in Christ, one should always view one's purity as a gift — not as something one has earned the right to possess through jealously guarding it or through "being good."

The student's words reminded me of something Sister Faustine of Jesus of the Apostolic Sisters of St. John said to me.

The nun said she advised young women who had engaged in sex outside of marriage that, by returning to God and his plan for their lives, they could receive "secondary virginity."

I interrupted and told her that I preferred the term "chastity" to "secondary virginity." The word "secondary" sounds like "second-string," I explained, and nobody wants to be a second-string anything.

"But I tell them that they can receive their virginity again," Sister Faustine replied.

I stared at her, probably looking the way Nicodemus did when He asked Jesus, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?"

The nun patiently went on.

"When we give ourselves to Jesus," she said, "He gives us his."

I had never thought of it that way before. Uniting my heart to Mary, I had thought, could make me share in her virginity, but the even more present way to share in Jesus' virginity had not occurred to me.

It made perfect sense. We receive Jesus' body in the consecrated Host. In a real way, by choosing to unite ourselves to Him, we are renewed in His image.

Does that mean, then, that one should abuse one's body knowing it can be so renewed — to "sin that grace may abound," in Paul's words? "God forbid!"

What it does mean, I believe, is that in sharing in God's love, loving purely and chastely, I am begotten of God, and, in so being, I am like He who is begotten of Him.

The key, I think, is to remember that virginity. even if retained or regained in reserve for marriage, is not truly a gift one gives to one's spouse. Whether one is married, open to marriage, or consecrated to God, one's virginity can in truth — as with all embodiments of love — be given only to God.