Is sex a mystery?

Alice Von Hildebrand wrote an essay that a.) holds up Dietrich Von Hildebrand as the model for how one should talk about sex and b.) criticizes Christopher West for not speaking like him (ht). The central claim in a.) is that DVH recognized that sex was a “mystery” (see esp. section 3). Is this true? If it is, in what sense?

Since this discussion is between Christians, the best point of departure is Ephesians 5: 28-32:

28 So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself.29 For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as also Christ does the church: 30 Because we are members of him, body, of his flesh and of his bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother: and shall cleave to his wife. And they shall be two in one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery/sacrament (μυστήριον): but I speak in Christ and in the church.

Note right away that the crucial term “musterion” fell into Latin as sacramentum, and so St. Thomas usually just takes this passage as a proof that marriage is a sacrament which symbolizes Christ’s unity with the Church (see ad 2 here. or corpus here or sed contra here) Taken in this way, the passage is more a discourse on sacraments than on mysteries- and though the two are related, the relation is still not immediate. But even after we decide to take musterion as the English “mystery” and not “sacrament”, there are still a great number of possible meanings to the passage. Nevertheless, one possible meaning is “the one flesh union is a great mystery”. But the sense of the passage seems to be that the one flesh union is a mystery because it symbolizes the union of Christ and the Church. This is not a facile comparision- it’s not as if St. Paul could have had just as powerful a comparison if he compared Christ to Gorilla glue or even to other human bonds of affection. Chrysostom shows the force of the comparison:

it is, yea, a great mystery, that a man should leave him that gave him being, him that begot him, and that brought him up, and her that travailed with him and had sorrow, those that have bestowed upon him so many and great benefits, those with whom he has been in familiar intercourse, and be joined to one who was never even seen by him and who has nothing in common with him, and should honor her before all others. A mystery it is indeed. And yet are parents not distressed when these events take place, but rather, when they do not take place; and are delighted when their wealth is spent and lavished upon it.— A great mystery indeed!

Taken in this way, the mystery is that one should leave those to whom he is bound to by nature and many years of common affection and go to one who he has no natural bond to and whom he has not always lived in company with. Thus, marriage becomes a symbol for the union of Christ and his Church in the most universal sense, for it symbolize everything that Christ did, so far as he did not esteem equality with God something to be grasped at etc. Chrysostom is right that this is a mysterious thing, which took great insight to see. If we are asked whether our bonds should be tighter with our family than with those outside our family, we would certainly say that familial bonds should be tighter. And yet the desire that leads to marriage reverses this, and by reversing it, allows for the survival of the family itself! In breaking the familial bond, we perpetuate it: unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, etc.

How does this sense of mystery get us to what DVH was speaking about? First, so far as sex is used as related to the union of Christ and his Church, it should be spoken of carefully and should be to some extent kept separate from the things we joke about or speak about with exuberance and our guard down. But the Church sees the proper place of sex as a part of a sacrament, that is, when it is used as a sign instituted by Christ. Here we see a very illuminating likeness between mysterion meaning “mystery” and “sacrament”: since marriage is a sacrament, the things essential to it should be treated like things essential to sacraments, and so sex should be treated in some way like we treat vestments or holy oils baptismal fonts, etc. Briefly, sex is holy and holy things demand to be treated in a certain way, and this involves, among other things, certain conditions on how we are allowed to speak of it.

But a secondary meaning of sex as mystery involves its peculiar character as essentially private, so much so that the public performance of it is contrary to its very essence (note that this applies not just to porn but even to sex scenes where one “doesn’t see anything”) Sex is essentially obscene in the old sense of obscene, meaning “happening offstage” or outside (ob) the scene. Placing it on stage, whether by auditory or visual depiction, or by overly graphic writing, is contrary to its nature. Sex is essentially something one does, not something he shows, and even the extent to which one can talk about it is measured by this. This too is a great mystery.


  1. Ruth Ann said,

    July 23, 2010 at 10:11 am

    I read Alice von Hildebrand’s essay in its entirety yesterday. I thought it was beautiful. My Twitter comment was, “This essay is a work of intellectual art!”

    James, you point out something very true, too: “Sex is essentially something one does, not something he shows, and even the extent to which one can talk about it is measured by this.”

  2. Br. Gabriel, OP said,

    July 23, 2010 at 10:43 am

    There is also a third reason. The third sense is fundamentally more ontological and the ground for what you provided. It can be called a mystery because it is an effect of the unique spousal relationship, as such. All inter-personal relationships are in some way mysterious due to the incommunicability of personhood. However, the unique intensity of the spousal relationship “pours over” into sexual expression adding a unique communicative dimension between husband and wife. This expression is both a sign and sacramentum of the relationship between spouses. Aquinas often notes, “an effect is sometimes named after its cause.” Thus, it is also a mystery by virtue of its natural establishment and not simply by virtue of its Christological signification.

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