Because the humanity we inhabit involves the intertwined concepts of person and body, our notion of personal intimacy is interwoven with bodily intimacy. Intimacy provides a great challenge for western culture. Though we are barraged by displays of physical intimacy, we are naive about personal intimacy.
Many forms of our social interaction rest upon two assumptions: that personal intimacy is always physical and sexual; and, that sexual intimacy is merely physical. These widely held assumptions create spiritual challenges for us: we have a hard time imagining personal intimacy that is not sexual; and we have an equally hard time accepting that sexual intimacy is always personal, with relational implications. These assumptions hinder our ability to imagine personal intimacy that is not physical, and therefore our ability to follow Jesus into intimacy with God.
Think of John, the beloved disciple, at the Last Supper. Jesus loved him for who he was and not merely for his physical embodiment. Reclining against Jesus at the Last Supper table meant something very different in his culture than it would today. It expressed genuine friendship and love for Jesus, and prefigured the personal and intimate relationship we all have with Jesus, through Baptism. Our culture does not prepare us to perceive this truth. And when we don’t experience its beauty, we don’t believe it is real.
Intimacy with God always has some affinity with, but also clear differences from, our intimacy with other persons in this fallen world. Sometimes, our words, facial expressions and bodily gestures are not sincere, and we fall short of encouraging each other’s wholeness. We find ourselves merely creating the impression of a personal relationship and intimacy. But our intimacy with God never involves using one another. God cherishes us for who we are in his embrace, and not merely for who we are in our own eyes.
With God, we are always the end and goal of divine self-giving love. Jesus revealed and embodied God’s personal love and intimacy. His loving intimacy is nurturing and healing, and enables a wholeness that can only be called the beauty of holiness.
The above print, The Last Supper (1995), is by the Japanese Christian printmaker, Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996). For further reflection on these ideas, click here to see my homily exploring the theme of how Jesus is the Way into intimacy with God.