New Course: Concepts Made Clear

“The physical kiss should be offered or accepted only for fixed and honest reasons.” Aelred of Rievaulx

It seems to me that the topic of kissing calls for some clear thinking and straight talking. Kissing is clearly a gift to all of us. It is something of nature, something in other words that we didn’t somehow think up on our own–as if its origin were, “Hey, let’s just try this!”

In kissing we have a uniquely powerful instance of a bodily action with a natural signification of deeper, indeed spiritual realities. Again, while kissing is governed by convention, and thus its use varies from culture to culture, it nonetheless has a natural signage. Thus since there is some objectivity to its meaning, its use should be guided according to that meaning.

I think that is the background for Aelred’s insight, stated with such elegant simplicity. We all know that the kiss can be offered and received when it should not be. There are certain reasons for utilizing this remarkable natural gift that are fixed (i.e., objective) and honest (i.e., fitting and true).

Aelred proceeds to give some examples: “as a sign of reconciliation…as a sign of peace…as a sign of love, as is permitted between husband and wife or as is given and received between friends after a long absence, or as a sign of unity, as is done when a guest is received.” I find this list remarkable. It has given me a greater sense of the diversity and richness of the gift of the kiss.

The kiss has a place in everyone’s life: is it in reconciling estranged family members, greeting a long absent friend, receiving a guest into one’s home, or expressing to a child our deep affection? What a gift—I dare say an irreplaceable one—it can be in each of these instances and more!

And then of course there is the kiss between a man and woman in love. There is so much to think about here, and so much to treasure, and to protect. This calls for more consideration—right thinking that is honest, righteous, and realistic. I think it is significant that Aelred mentions husband and wife. In the end, the romantic kiss—that kiss that clearly stands out and is different from, while still similar to the others—belongs to the married. Such is its nature; such is implied in its meaning and inner tendency.

Does that mean that this kiss must be reserved exclusively for those who are already married? I think not. This kiss can be appropriate for men and women who are not yet married—and the details of this are determined by prudence, including a consideration of cultural conditions. Yet surely this is always as a kind of extension of the privilege of marriage, an extension in view of some real connection and preparation for that state.

In one of my favorite movies set a hundred years ago among peasants in Italy, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, there is a great scene where a young man follows a young lady and expresses his interest in her. Clearly, she is receptive to his interest. It culminates in his quietly saying, “Perhaps a kiss now?” As she continues to look away from him, and down, she responds, “There is a time for that.”

Indeed, there is a time for that. Precisely what it is might not always be clear. We nonetheless do well to ask and carefully consider when it is–and help our young people think about this. Frank conversations are probably in order.

Kissing in its various forms is a unique gift in human life. It is connected to many of the most rich and intimate aspects of human relationships—especially of man and woman. As with all gifts of nature, its true reality is discovered and experienced to the extent we receive and use it with integrity and humility, with an eye for what it demands of us. If we are willing to do this, we might discover it is even better than we imagined.

St. Aelred (1109-1167) was the abbot of the English Cistercian monastery in Rievaulx. He is most known for his treatise On Spiritual Friendship.

The image is from the first movie kiss in 1896.

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