When I ran track at BU I didn’t just love running, I loved competing and the best was the indoor 500m. You’re all nerves days before and up to the very start of the race. As soon as the gun fires it feels like there’s just one long yell going on inside your head as you barrel along the track. I’m getting my heart rate and adrenaline going just writing about it. In every 500, you reach a point when you have to make a decision, usually with about 150m left to go, and you’ve only got a split second to decide: “Am I going to give my all, or am I going to simply try to finish the race?” In one sense, it’s not an easy decision to make, you’re tired, your legs are starting to go lactic, and you know as soon as the race is over you’re going to be suffering from “booty lock” as your glutes and hamstrings seize up and you can barely walk while your head is exploding as your vision darkens and your throat is burning and your head is in a trashcan with three other guys who are also dry heaving because nobody could stomach any food before the race.
And did I mention that I love competing? Because in the other sense, it’s the easiest decision in the world to make. In those last 150m you’re giving everything you’ve got and can’t hold back. In everyday life we have to hold back so much. Maybe it’s just something I experience as I guy; how I feel the need to climb a mountain and pick up a car and toss it off the ledge while yelling at the top of my lungs and solving complex math equations and somehow this involves saving orphans from a burning building. I’m not able to do this too often, so track provided me a way to for me to be entirely me, to be me for every ounce of me and so give every ounce of me until there was nothing left at all to be. And 20 minutes after the race and I was recovered, I wanted to do it all over again.
We’re all called and feel this need for a complete gift of self, though I’m sure men and women experience it psychologically in very different ways. We find outlets for it, some of them are healthy and some of them are not. Some just deaden our feelings, and some don’t fully engage us and thus fail to satisfy us. When it comes to sex, it really needs to be ‘betrothed love’ in order to be complete and satisfying on all the levels of who we are: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, etc. But how can we give ourselves completely in this way?
I have to admit, I hate lying. Whenever I lie, or am hypocritical or twofaced, I feel like there’s a hole deep in my stomach or that my soul is being split in two. It takes real integrity to not act with self-interest or change who we are just to please those around us. This integrity is essential for self-gift; for a gift to be complete it has to be whole, it has to be one. Since the ‘what’ we are giving is ourselves, we can’t be divided, we have to be integrated. For someone to be ‘one’ with another, they’ve got to first be ‘one’ within themselves. So exactly how does one become one so two can become one? (Love is a bunch of fuzzy numbers really).
Self-gift requires us to be one within ourselves and for that we need unifying or prioritizing values. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every action we make has some end, some value that it aims to achieve. Every day we face conflicts between competing values. Do I put the extra effort into this paper or do I get those precious hours of sleep. Do I enjoy this delicious ice cream or do I watch my figure. We need some kind of priority so that we can order those competing values so that the highest goals win out. We need a goal or value so great, so magnanimous, that it encompasses our entire human person so that we can be a person of integrity. We need a great love that’s worth living for and fighting for and directing everything else towards.
If the love is there, we need the use of free will, of self-mastery, to help us make this integrated and complete self-gift, so that all our attractions and desires are submitted to and directed towards their true end, the other person. This self-mastery, the virtue of chastity, allows us to be unified in our action towards the good of the other person. Chastity doesn’t just involve integrity of self though; it also means integrality in a gift of love. This is because the ‘what’ we are giving in love is the gift of ourselves – not just the body, but everything of ours and especially our free will. This is ‘betrothed love’, the complete gift of self, one, whole complete gift of self, and only when we are integrated can we give ourselves completely as a whole without holding anything back. True love involves an integrated self, true love is directed to the integrated value of the other person as a person, and true love is a one whole complete gift of self. But in surrendering ourselves to another, this self is far from destroyed but is rather expanded and perfected. Expanded because the existence of the person now includes another, and perfected because ‘to love’ is our most perfect, possible act.
We can only give ourselves to the extent that we are free, and we’re only free to the extent of our self-mastery. Mary was Immaculately Conceived so that she – pure, chaste, free – would have the freedom to say “yes” completely to God’s will during the Annunciation. The same is true for Jesus; the completely free act of will in the Garden of Gethsemane allows for a most perfect act of love on Calvary.