One of the hallmarks of Pope St. John Paul II’s spiritual teachings was his “Theology of the Body.” When looking at how the modern world had lost the meaning of marriage, the great pope called Catholics back to its original meaning.
John Paul II looked to the Gospels when he was challenged with questions on marriage and divorce. They said to Him, “They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “ (Mark 10:4) But Jesus said that they didn’t look in the proper place to understand marriage. He took them back to the beginning, to the creation of man and woman in Genesis.
And that is where John Paul II centers his Theology of the Body.
Many books have been written expanding and explaining the Theology of the Body. This article could not do justice to all of that profound writing. However, we will focus on what might be the most important insight into the meaning of life for man: his nature as gift.
In Genesis 2, God makes Adam out of the earth and breathes life into him. With that life, God infuses the human soul and creates us in His image. God, being pure spirit, does not make man in His image physically. We reflect God’s image because we have intellect and free will, as He does.
But from the beginning, John Paul II notes that humanity was created in an Original Solitude. We are separate and distinct from the beasts, as we see when Adam names them but none of them are suitable partners for him in life (Genesis 2:20). He is also separate and distinct from the angels, who are purely spiritual beings and we are embodied. Finally, man is separate and distinct from God, who is infinite while we are limited. This final distinction is real, even though man is also born with Original Holiness, where we share in the Divine Life. But even in this sharing, man is incomplete. He is isolated in some sense in his body. The body is a border, a separation from all other things. He is not merely a part of something else. Even though He is God’s creation, He is distinct in himself.
So God made woman. He put Adam into a deep sleep and formed her out of his flesh. John Paul II makes clear that this sleep is mentioned to show that man has no active part in making woman. Man can claim no dominion over woman the way God can claim over man. When he sees her for the first time, he says, “This one at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23). Finally man has another who is not a beast, an angel, or God to be his companion. But notice that this is not another man. She is like him but not like him.
Here we see God’s plan for Original Unity. It should be noted that men and women are more alike than they are different. We are both equally made in God’s image. We both equally have intellect and free will. We both have the intrinsic dignity and rights that come from being human. And we are both creatures who exist in the body. But the differences are significant. Men are not women and women are not men.
This last point may seem obvious, but in the modern era, it bears repeating. We live in an age where this truth is being denied more and more. It is one of the many reasons I believe John Paul II was one of the greatest prophets of our age. God set up humanity so that we were not all the same. We needed each other.
As a priest once said to me, human sexuality points to this intrinsic unity. Look at any other bodily system you have. You have everything you need in your body to pump blood in your circulatory system. You have everything you need to oxygenate your body in your respiratory system. You have everything you need to repair your body with food in your digestive system.
But your reproductive system?
You need another person. Not only do you need another person, you need one who is of the opposite sex. In this is the great sign of Original Unity. Man needs woman and woman needs man. Humanity is incomplete without both sexes.
The last line of Genesis 2 says “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25). John Paul II makes clear that this is not the same as the same childlike naivete that causes children to run around without clothes. It is true that Adam and Eve are created in Original Innocence, but that is not the same as not knowing any better, as children sometimes behave. In fact, John Paul II points out that as many times as nakedness is referenced in the Bible, never anywhere else does it say that someone was naked and felt no shame.
There is something profound being brought up in this Original Nakedness. To be naked in front of someone is a big deal for most humans. Take, for example, a husband and wife who have saved themselves for marriage. On their wedding night, they are naked in front of each other for the first time. There are many intense feelings that accompany this, but we tend to recognize a few things. When we are naked to the other, we are completely exposed. Nothing is withheld. You present all you are, all that is hidden from the world and all that you might not like about yourself physically, to the other. You are vulnerable. When you are naked, no defense is offered. There is a complete exposure to any response from the other. And there is openness. In being naked before the other, you offer yourself, your entire person, to the other. And in their Original Innocence, they looked at each other not as objects of lust, but as persons to whom they must give themselves.
And with all of these elements, we see God’s plan for humanity.
In Original Solitude, God makes us distinct from each other. You are not part of a larger organism. You are you. The only way for you to reach out from your solitude is to reach out freely to the other. I have seen in my time working with teenagers how solitude causes so much interior darkness and pain. Many people feel alienated from others and the world and so they retreat into darkness. But the solitude we have is meant to be a gift. We are all prisoners in these lonely hearts. Yet if I freely choose to enter into relationship with another, we can overcome this solitude together. This does not have to be romantic. Friends are the people in your life who reach through your solitude.
In Original Nakedness, we see the ideal where all barriers are removed. There is a complete sharing. Real love removes the barriers and withhold nothing. I once said to a friend that I knew my wife was the one because I told her everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Many of us have those secret parts of our soul that we are convinced would make us unloveable to anyone. But I told her and she still loved me. To our best friends, we make ourselves vulnerable. They see all that we are, the good and the bad, in a way that very few people do. But because of that, the bond is strong. We, of course, must be careful in choosing the people with whom we are vulnerable. Too often on social media people create a false sense of intimacy. But when real openness and vulnerability occurs, then there is unity.
And in Original Unity, we see how in order for man and woman to be complete, they must give themselves to each other. And all of this shows us God’s plan for man:
God made us to give the free gift of ourselves.
John Paul II makes clear that man finds himself when he gives himself away as gift. When this gift is free and complete, it creates unity to the other.
This is the definition of love: self-donation for the good of the other. And in this way we best reflect God, who IS love.
And the way we give this love is through our bodies. It can be in the marital act between a husband and wife. But we also love each other in many other bodily ways. We give food to the hungry. We drive around our kids to their sports games. We visit the sick in the hospital. We embrace those who are sorrowful. In all of these cases, it is through our bodies that we make the free gift of ourselves. And nowhere do we see this more perfectly than in the words and actions of Jesus who said:
“This is My body, which is given up for you.”
Copyright 2020, WL Grayson