What does it mean to give oneself away?
Fr. Cormac Burke takes a shot at defining it, in an article I read on his website. To give oneself away, he rightfully identifies, can only be fulfilled within the marital bond, and particularly within the marital act.
DEFINITION OF HOLY MATRIMONY
Fr. Burke points out that the 1917 Code of Canon Law—the law defining matters within the Catholic Church—defines matrimonial consent as an “act of the will by which each party gives and accepts a perpetual and exclusive right over the body, for acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children” (1917 Code: canon 1081, #2).
I am partial to that definition. It is precise and it gets to the heart of what a marriage is, as we shall see. But then…
The 1983 Code of Canon Law changed the definition to this: “[an] act of the will by which a man and a woman, through an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept each other in order to establish a marriage” (1983 Code: canon 1057, #2).
But wait. What does this ambiguous phrase to “give and accept each other” even mean? It is critical to answer, given that a marriage cannot be entered into unless the each spouse does it. Fr. Burke attempts to answer what does it mean to give oneself away.
What follows is an excerpt from his article, which I will quote in its entirety, since I think it is very well written. I pass this along to you, my dear readers:
(All bold emphasis is my own, whereas all italics emphasis is original.)
FR. BURKE’S EXPLANATION OF HOW TO GIVE ONESELF AWAY
Giving one’s “self”
Two persons can certainly bind themselves, physically or juridically, to one another; but they cannot actually give themselves to each other, other than in a moral or analogical sense. How can they actually give their bodies? Above all, how can they actually give their selves – their very persons?
They can show their desire to give themselves, i.e. their desire for personal union, by their words, their deeds, their gifts… In order to prove his love for someone, a person can give to the one he loves something that is his – his time, his money, his care…
The more proper to himself, the more intimate and unique, the gift he gives, the more deeply does he express his love for the other in giving it. Further, if his gift is accepted – in its entirety, without any reservation or rejection – then he senses that his love has been truly reciprocated. So, the more truly unique and personal the gift which spouses mutually exchange, the more deeply and singularly do they signify their desire for personal union.
Many acts make up married life and can express married love. Of all of these acts, one however is considered to be so singularly expressive of the conjugal relationship that it is in fact termed “the marriage act”. It is of the greatest importance to consider what it is in conjugal sexual intercourse that makes of it a totally unique expression of this “sese donans” of marriage.
The greatest expression of a person’s desire to give himself is to give the seed of himself. “Giving one’s seed is much more significant, and in particular is much more real, than giving one’s heart. “I am yours, I give you my heart; here, take it”, remains mere poetry, to which no physical gesture can give true body.
But, “I am yours; I give you my seed; here, take it”, is not poetry, it is love. It is conjugal love embodied in a unique and privileged physical action whereby intimacy is expressed – “I give you what I give no one” – and union is achieved: “Take what I have to give. This will be a new me. United to you, to what you have to give – to your seed – this will be a new “you-and-me“, fruit of our mutual knowledge and love”.” .
In human terms, this is the closest one can get to giving one’s self conjugally and to accepting the conjugal self-gift of another, and so achieving spousal union.
If marital intercourse, therefore, expresses a unique relationship and union, this derives not from the sharing of a sensation but from the sharing of a power – of a sexual power that is complementary and extraordinary, and which is extraordinary precisely in virtue of its life-relatedness.
In a true conjugal relationship, each spouse says to the other: “I accept you as somebody like no one else in my life. You will be unique to me and I to you. You and you alone will be my husband; you alone will be my wife. And the proof of your uniqueness to me is the fact that with you – and with you alone – am I prepared to share this God-given life-oriented power”.
In this consists the singular quality of intercourse. Other physical expressions of affection do not go beyond the level of a mere gesture; they remain a symbol of the union desired.
But the conjugal act is not a mere symbol. In true marital intercourse, something real has been exchanged, with a full gift and acceptance of conjugal masculinity and femininity. And there remains, as witness to their conjugal relationship and the intimacy of their conjugal union, the husband’s seed in the wife’s body.
What do you make of Fr. Cormac Burke’s attempt to explain what it means to give oneself away?
Please leave your thoughts below!