Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is incredible, and in the years since its introduction to the Church, many individuals and ministries have taken to teaching these beautiful truths, originally crafted by one who displayed a resounding understanding of the human person. Those who are active or attentive members of the Church are likely familiar with Theology of the Body in some form. I myself, as I’ve moved past high school and college, have become increasingly frustrated with the way Theology of the Body is communicated and discussed.
Many resources have limited the scope to focus on marriage and spousal love, and while that is an integral part of the whole, “theology” simply means the study of God, and how we relate to him. Saint Anselm called it “faith seeking understanding.” So Theology of the Body simply means how we understand our bodies and how God made them. We are made up of body and soul, and so our bodies are something we live with every day. Obviously. When we focus solely on spousal love in our study of Theology of the Body, we deny ourselves understanding of the purpose and power of our bodies in other aspects of life.
It took me years to pinpoint what exactly my frustration with the Theology of the Body teaching I’d encountered was, but I remember one particular incident where it became quite clear. I attended an event for Catholic young adults centered on chastity and marriage. I had been reluctant to go, but the topic was one in which I sought encouragement. As an unmarried person, I was looking for people who understood the same struggles, temptations, and discouragements as me. I wanted real, practical advice, and was hoping to hear something that resonated with me.
I left the event feeling discouraged and a little jaded. While the evening had been presented by top-notch speakers, and was based on John Paul II’s amazing teachings in Theology of the Body, I had heard it all before. More importantly, any discussion on the subject was stunted and limited. It seemed that everyone wanted to simply express how beautiful married love is. For the MANY single people in the room, that was sole focus of discussion. It was obvious that many of them desired to be married someday. But that was the ONLY focus. (It didn’t help that a few of them were very obviously wondering if there might be a potential spouse in the room). The only advice I took away was, “Marriage is going to be great. So for now you just have to wait until it gets here.” I saw no way that this helped me in my current state of life. There was nothing to encourage me. And most importantly, nothing applied to me NOW.
Many of us spend our energy looking forward, focused on something that is “not yet.” We feel discontent and impatient. We compare ourselves to others. We’re afraid to share our struggles with chastity. We are caught between a hyper sexualized culture and a marriage-obsessed Church community.
Theology of the Body, in its most basic form, shows us that the spiritual is shown through the physical. Our bodies have a sacramental purpose, because they both reveal and affect the truth of who we are.
Recently I started reading a book with a couple close friends entitled These Beautiful Bones – An Everyday Theology of the Body by Emily Stimpson. I highly recommend it. Throughout this book, along with good old Scripture and Catechism, prayer, and honest conversations, I’m slowly becoming more conscious of how the physical and the spiritual interweave with one another. I’m discovering the true heart of John Paul II’s writings. In our work, social interactions, and leisure, our bodies are so often disconnected and disengaged from our minds. It’s easy to dismiss the physical aspect of our humanity, especially if we don’t like the way our bodies look, or the temptations that seem to stem from them. But our bodies and spirits are tied together, and we need both. God has called us to redeem our whole selves – body and soul.
My own study of Theology of the Body has shown me that the ordinary things of daily life are just as important as great theological ideas when it comes to living God’s plan for us. I have been more conscious of how my expressions and way of talking affect other people. I’ve been trying to spend time with the people I care about rather than texting or interacting online. I’ve been trying to experience things such as music, art, or nature in real life and not through a screen. I’m trying to take better care of my body, which means that eating organically, working out, and dressing well need not be viewed as vanities. I am more conscious of the amazing gift that is my body. That I can think, read, paint, work, laugh, clean, walk, run, hug, sing, serve. God gave us the ability to live, create, and love - not solely in a spiritual way, but through our bodies. This vision of life makes it easier for me live out chastity. From this vantage point, it feels less like an idea from outside myself, and more like a transformation of my whole person.
How we work, how we dress, the gifts we give, our schedules, how we use our minds, the way we use technology, where we focus our attention, how we treat our bodies, our expressions and mannerisms, our posture when we worship, the things we speak out loud, the way we sing songs when we mean it, how we create or build things, how we show affection, the way in which we welcome others, how we care for each other... these are part of Theology of the Body. No matter our state in life, we can stop and assess what truths we profess through these activities. It is all connected, and part of the sacramentality of God’s amazing creation. The visible creation makes known the invisible. It is all part of the redemption of our souls and bodies to which God is calling.
Perhaps if we focused on Theology of the Body in a wider context, it wouldn’t be so weird and awkward when we got to middle school and high school. Maybe we wouldn’t hear it for the first time as an adult when it would have saved us a lot of heartache to hear it earlier. Maybe it would be easier to share our struggles with chastity with a few people to help us be accountable. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time listening to the marriage and sexuality talks – because we would already know how connected our bodies are with our souls.
We would know that everything we do through our body matters. It would be easier to live out chastity because we are already thinking about the true “Theology of the Body” every day. It would be part of daily life. The very important and necessary part about marriage and sexuality would fit in smoothly as part of a larger vision. Theology of the Body would matter – no matter what state of life we are in.