Across the wide expanse of the Church, in the great diversity of her cultural incarnations, and in the varied and sometimes divisive opinions of her children, the phrase theology of the body (TOB) has been surfacing more and more. From Rome’s October synod last year and the multicultural Humanum colloquium that followed it, to articles in periodicals spanning a wide theological spectrum and apostolates incorporating its themes into their outreach, a reawakening and revisiting of St. John Paul II’s epic vision of the human person and human love is underway.
In an effort to distill this vast work and the myriad applications its capable of, it could be said that the TOB is about three powerful and potentially efficacious words: contact, conversion, and communion.
Never before than in the time we are living has contact been so easy, at least in the digital realm. We can text, tweet, or now even tap a cash register and make contact, conversation, or credit a payment through our smartphones. But we ache for more than this, for never before in history has contact, in the human realm, been more lacking. As the English poet William Wordsworth noted, “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours…” Much of what we contact merely clutters our hearts and minds. It may be abundant information, but it lacks substantial transformation.
The theology of the body begins with our birth in time and space. It reveals to us that we are human persons, composites of spirit and matter, body and soul. Our contact with the world is the very viaduct through which knowledge and experience comes to us. This contact, which is only the first step in our coming alive, is our solid and objective encounter with the real. It opens our eyes and invites us to live, to move, and to have our being in this present. And this present is a gift. Being in the present is the gift par excellence!
Genesis sings in the very beginning “Behold, it is good!” The theology of the body is the key to this contact. The theology of the body is the existential watermark imprinted onto every human person born into the world. It reveals our origin in God and holds the signature of His love in our masculinity and femininity (our destiny to return to Him). Making contact with this truth of our being as gift is an essential element in our becoming fully human.
Born in time and space, we come into contact with others in and through the body. Through the senses, we discover however, that we are born into a world of conflict. We sense very early on that we are a people at war, within and without. We all feel, in the words of St. John Paul II, a “fundamental disquiet” in our earthly existence and our relationships. There is a “hotbed of resistance” as the pope says, to becoming a gift and we sense this in our very core. Here we find a call in the theology of our bodies to conversion; a “turn with” the Spirit’s help, in and through Jesus, back to that primordial peace when the body and soul sang in harmony, and all was gift. The key to this conversion then is to recognize that sin is a diversion from this original unity.
Using people or exploiting things solely for ourselves leads to a reversion to the level of the animals. But we are made to be a gift! The TOB brings an awareness of an essential metanoia, a turning up and out of ourselves as a gift for the other, rather than one who grasps solely to use others.
Conversion is an “exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” in the words of Pope Benedict (God is Love, 6).
Having heard this call to gift in our conversion through an awareness of the theology of our body we are lead to the heart’s goal, which is communion. In his catecheses on human love, St. John Paul II reveals that all of our loves, our aches and desires, even our sins and shortcomings reveal the great truth of our origin, and our destiny; the Triune God Who is Communion. He is an eternal exchange of self-giving love, and the eternal receiving of that gift love.
“God created man in his own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love. God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion… God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.” (St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 11)
As we enter a new year, recognized by the universal Church as one dedicated to the twin vocations of human love, consecrated life and the family, may we find in our prayerful study of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, the blueprint for building a civilization of love and a culture of life. May the good work that God has begun in us, in our creation as man and woman in Eden, called to communion, be brought to completion through this sign of spousal love, which “bears within itself the germ of man’s eschatological future.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 101:10-11)
by Bill Donaghy