“The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” Theology of the Body, 19:4
This is the body: a witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs. Masculinity-femininity – namely, sex – is the original sign of [God’s] creative donation…. This is the meaning with which sex enters into the theology of the body.” Theology of the Body 14:4
Theology of the Body (TOB): TOB is the working title Pope John Paul II gave to the first major teaching project of his pontificate. He delivered 129 short talks every Wednesday to a general audience from September of 1979 to November of 1984. The result is,“Man and Woman He Created Them – A Theology of the Body.”
TOB originated in response to something Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical Humanae Vitae: “The problem of birth [regulation], like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered beyond partial perspectives.” It must be seen “in light of a total vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation.” (Humanae Vitae, 7). Paul VI, however, did not provide us with this “total vision of man and his vocation.” John Paul II does, and that, essentially, is what his TOB is.
Due to the enormity of TOB, many of the people who understand this great work have an extensive background in theology. But for the average Catholic, attempting to read the entire 750 page TOB teaching is too overwhelming. This is where author Christopher West enters the picture. West is considered “The TOB guy” in theological circles. In 1992, at 23 years old, West not only read all 129 addresses, he also understood it! But he recognized the need for a “translation” for the lay Catholic. He has written Theology of the Body Explained, which takes TOB and explains it in plain english. However, this book is 650 pages. West still felt a need for a “basic” introduction to TOB and so he wrote Theology of the Body for Beginners, a quick 250 page read.
God’s Ultimate Plan For Us
Have you ever heard that we are all, every one of us, called to holiness? Those raised without a Catholic education may have never heard this before. Some people, lay Catholics and non-Catholics included, hear the word “holiness” and assume this is meant for people who enter the religious life and clergy. However, rest assured, since we are all God’s children, we are indeed called to this holiness. This is God’s plan for us.
In his book, Theology of the Body for Beginners, West uses an image that helps us understand our calling. He calls this the “flat-tire syndrome.” You see, we have been driving around with flat tires ever since the dawn of original sin. You can easily picture this image in your minds – all of us living our lives on unstable ground, a shaky foundation. We are a little unsure of what we are doing with our lives. We don’t quite understand our purpose as God created us, so we don’t live our lives to our full holy potential. But Jesus didn’t come to condemn or shame those of us living a sinful life. Jesus came to re-inflate our flat tires to holiness!
We will never be free from original sin but this doesn’t mean we can’t try to live our lives “fully inflated.” Another way of saying this is that we can try to live our lives as saints. To live as a saint seems extremely daunting to many of us in our fallen world. We have too many obstacles trying to poke holes in our “tires.” These obstacles usually take the form of sin and people who, sometimes unknowingly, prevent us from living a life of holiness.
So how can we live a holy life in today’s world? We have to “peel back the layers of debris that cover the true desires of our hearts,” according to St. John Paull II. What does he mean by the word “debris?” In the simplest terms, sin.
The Discovery of the Spousal Meaning of the Body
The spousal meaning of the body refers to the body’s “power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.” TOB 15:1
“Christ’s words, which flow from the divine depth of the mystery of redemption, allow us to discover and strengthen the bond that exists between the dignity of the human being (of the man or the woman) and the spousal meaning of his body. On the basis of this meaning, they allow us to understand and bring about the mature freedom of the gift, which expresses itself in one way in indissoluble marriage and in another by abstaining from marriage for the kingdom of God. In these different ways, Christ ‘fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear.’ TOB 86:8
TOB actually offers us a beautiful explanation of our human sexuality and the meaning of our bodies. Starting with the book of Genesis, St. John Paul II goes into great detail to explain that not only were we created in the image and likeness of God, but he goes deeper to explain how “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.” TOB 9:3. In other words, the union of man and woman in the marital embrace is a sign of the image of God. In TOB we learn how and why this is true. When we understand this communion, we then understand our call to communion with God and with an “other.”
What about the Singles?
What if our “other” is not in the form of a spouse? As stated in the beginning, TOB is for every body, including those who are single and celibate. St. John Paul II teaches us that to be human means we are called to communion with God and with one another. God creates in us, all of us, a deep longing for Him. So no matter our state in life or vocation, we have this deep longing to satisfy. Some seek to choose to satisfy this “ache” with things of this world like money, power, sex, fame, drugs, food, alcohol or any number of other vices. TOB asks us to consider that the only thing that can possibly satisfy that “ache” is a relationship with God and our union with Him. For those who are married here on earth, TOB teaches us spouses are “getting a taste” of heaven in their marriage. But, as we know, our spouse does not complete us, only God can. For those who are single, does this mean our only way to satisfy this ache is to get married? No! The good news is that to be celibate for the kingdom is another way to realize our vocation as a human person. Contrary to secular belief, Christian celibacy is not a rejection of sexuality. No, celibacy points us to the ultimate purpose and meaning of sexuality. Those who remain celibate for the kingdom forego the sacrament of marriage in anticipation of the heavenly reality, the “marriage of the Lamb.” To be celibate reveals that our ultimate fulfillment is found only in union with God.
Living out Our Vocation
Living a holy life and loving the way Jesus taught us to love can seem a difficult and almost impossible task, especially living in a fallen world. We are surrounded by temptations of the flesh which can cause us to fall into sin with our bodies. As just stated above, TOB helps us understand this meaning of our bodies as male and female. We can’t possibly walk around with a blindfold on in order to avoid temptations, so what can we do?
The answer lies in TOB. Theology of the Body sheds a light on these lies and uncovers the truth of our embodiment as male and female and what it means to be human. TOB can help us steer our desires towards heaven, not towards temporal things of this earth. When we understand our bodies to be holy, it helps us understand that what we DO with our bodies should be holy as well.
Just by reading books about the saints or going to mass is not going to automatically get us to this point. We need to dig deeper and TOB can be our “shovel” in the dumpster.
By pulling out the “garbage” and vowing never to eat the scraps again, we are throwing away the lies that we have believed from others, society in particular, about our bodies such as:
- “You are not thin enough to be attractive to the opposite sex.”
- “You are not handsome enough/You aren’t pretty enough.”
- “You need to lose more weight if you want to be well-liked.”
- “You’re too fat to be loved.”
We are peeling away the deceit that we ourselves may have been promoting with our own bodies such as:
- Dressing in such a way that reveals more skin in order to “feel sexy” or show off as a way to boost our ego
- Flirting with the opposite sex in order to “get our way,” or to feel powerful
- Gossiping and spreading false rumors about others in the way we speak
- Fornication, sex outside of marriage and contracepted sex within our marriage
We are peeling away the pain that we have caused to ourselves and others when our bodies were used instead of loved and received as gifts such as:
- Lusting after men/women who are married
- Cheating on our spouses/partners
- Verbal, physical and mental abuse from our loved ones
- Self-pleasure, viewing pornography, engaging in objectifying and degrading physical activity
The Aftermath of Learning the Meaning of Our Bodies
As we can see, this process of uncovering our layers of sin can be very challenging and difficult. So a word of caution is warranted here: Whenever sin is discussed, we usually do one of two things – rationalize our sin and make excuses for all the errors we have committed, or sink into deep despair, assuming we will never be able to right the wrongs we have done and chastising ourselves as broken with no repair possible.
But this is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so amazing. It’s a great gift to take part in this sacrament that fills us with God’s mercy. When we go to confession and speak to the priest about our sins, the priest is acting in the person of Christ, or in persona Christi. It’s our chance to speak to Jesus and repair our broken relationship with Him. When we sin, it’s almost like we are “breaking away” from Jesus. So by reconciling with Him, we are attempting to obtain healing from the damage we have done. And when the priest, acting in the person of Christ, speaks the words of absolution to us, it’s a powerful and beautiful gift to receive.
It’s never too late to re-inflate our tires. It’s never too late to step away from the garbage dumpster and walk towards the feast God has set out for us. When we do this, through the lessons of TOB, we reveal a beautiful foundation of what it means to be human, to be created in God’s image as man and woman.
Would you like to learn more about St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body? Here are several websites to check out:
Christopher West has written the most about this subject. He runs a website called the Cor Project with blogs, audio commentary and podcasts. This is a link to all of his books: http://corprojectshop.com.
We recommend Theology of the Body for Beginners as the best way to start your journey due to it’s easy-to-understand language as well as short length.
For married or engaged couples we recommend The Good News about Sex and Marriage.This book is set up as a Q&A and sectioned off into categories such as: co-habitation, infertility, contraception, natural family planning and the meaning of chastity within marriage.
For a more in-depth analysis we recommend Theology of the Body Explained.
To read all of St. John Paul II’s public addresses its entirety with no commentary, you can purchase Man and Woman He Created Them – A Theology of the Body by John Paull II here.
Other helpful websites: