What is our body? A protective shell? A moldable lump of clay in need of constant alteration according to one’s self-perception? A tool for performing physical activities (e.g. sports, art, physical labor), which is useful as long as it is young and healthy? A material resource (for the medical science which claims victory when a half-human-half-animal being is created)? A profitable merchandise (e.g. sale of body-parts or human-trafficking and sex trade)? A shameful aspect of the person, to hide and make disappear (as soon as illness and pain emerge)? We can see the common denominator in all these trends: even when partially taken into consideration, the body still remains separated from and foreign to the reality of the person. As the Letter Placuit Deo points out, what we see today is an emerging Neo-Gnostic vision of the body, which “presumes to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe, in which traces of the provident hand of the Creator are no longer found, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man.”
Why is it that when man loses sight of the profound meaning of the human body, he also becomes disoriented with regard to his own identity and vocation? Such Neo-Gnostic “solutions” show us that no vilification or idolization of the body takes place without also generating a loss of the mystery of the human person and its destiny.
How can one begin to scrutinize the true depths of the mystery of the human body without running the risk of such dualistic fractures?
Saint John Paul II helps us find the answer in the light of the mystery of Christ who reveals the unchanging personal nature of our bodies in the original plan of God, from the moment of creation. Who is the body?
1. The Body: An Epiphany
Far from being an extraneous and alienating object, for the Holy Father the body is an epiphany of the person. The violin-player thrives in the excellence of his artistic skill not because he is free from the body, but precisely as he can only express it within and because of it. Our knowledge of the complex depths of reality, our inventiveness in science and arts, our capacity to love and thus generate others in love, our care for the world around us is only possible because our body allows us to embrace reality, not to escape it.
Such consciousness of the meaning of our personal body, for John Paul II, is acquired not in a solitary laboratory of an introspective mind, but is rooted in our experience. What kind of experience is capable of offering us such depth and richness about the quest of who we are? The Catecheses on human love shed an important light on the three fundamental and foundational experiences each person is called to recognize and to make in our existence, all three inscribed in our hearts by the Creator.
a) The first experience of the first man—as shown in the catecheses on the book of Genesis—is that of original solitude.
Instead of focusing on the privative meaning of solitude, John Paul II explores the richness of the experience of Adam’s encounter with God the Creator and the world, in order to extract its most significant anthropological truths. The first man gradually comes to know who he is in the dynamic discovery of God’s presence in His marvelous works. The wonder generated in this identity-quest allows Adam not only to transcend himself as he comes to know the wonderful nature of the creatures entrusted to him, but also to thus assert his unique personhood among them:
“In fact, the body was from the beginning marked, so to speak, as the visible factor of transcendence, in virtue of which man, as person, surpasses the visible world of living beings (animalia)” (c.27, #3).
Our body therefore fully participates in this personhood self-discovery and can never be assimilated to simply my property or my tool, as things I own can be lost and tools can be damaged, without my being damaged or disappearing at the same time. We can therefore perceive the world and relate to God because our body has its own interiority; it is part of our being.
It is in virtue of this consciousness of being a personal self, in his bodiliness, that the first man then receives the gift and task from God “to subdue the earth,” a typical human activity in which he participates in the Creator’s providential presence in the world since the “body expresses the person” (c.7, #2) (contrary to the arbitrary and deforming concept of freedom as “power over nature”).
Therefore, this first fundamental original experience reveals to the first man, and in him to us, the gift of our dignity as imago Dei manifested in our rational capacity of self-determination and subjectivity, of our embodied human freedom: all fully actualized as beings who are capax Dei (c.5, #4). In fact, the “theological definition of man,” according to the Pope, is man’s discovery of being in “a unique, exclusive and unrepeatable relationship with God himself” (c.6, #2).
b) It is in fact God himself who quenches Adam’s thirst for something that cannot be satiated in a subject-object relationship alone. And this why the second original experience of dual unity starts with another gift: the creation of Eve.
Adam’s complete receptivity of Eve (expressed by his “sleep”—c.8, #3) manifests the constitutive dynamics of all human interpersonal love which, in its initial stage, is not first and foremost the outcome of our work: the beloved’s presence opens up new horizons, irrupting into our lives with its novelty. And the novelty is that Eve reveals herself to Adam as another imago Dei, with all that being a person entails: with the same dignity and making the same experience of original solitude (“double solitude”—c. 9, #2) by which she becomes conscious of her own uniqueness among creatures and called to enter an unrepeatable covenant with the Creator.
For this reason, Adam is able to express his joy in finding a true “help” (“ezer”) (c.8, #4)—one that is interpersonal—in his journey toward God: “This yes, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen. 2:23). Before the woman’s different body—which speaks to him and invites him to enter a radically new and meaningful relationship, irreducible to previous ones—Adam can respond and pronounce: unity. Such sexual difference shines and is expressed in all the profound aspects of their personhood: sensuality, emotions, reason, will, and openness towards God. Thus, sexual difference is not a peripheral aspect of human love, but it has an epiphanic and axiological (c.9, #1) character: original, true love does not seek to efface the uniqueness and originality of the beloved through a fusional bond, but rather exalts and promotes the beloved as being complementary. In this way, true love reveals the promise of a common destiny of plenitude and happiness. How imperative it is for each woman and man of today to have this experience, which leaves no room for those “toxic masculinity” and “radical feminist” reductivist labels, which fail to see that both lose if one is lessened! Authentic freedom reveals itself not as being solitary or self-absorbed, but as reaching its full potential when directed to achieving an ever-growing communion in which each is valued in their own singularity.
Thus, both Adam and Eve discover a new transcendence, by which they are enriched, not alienated: the going out of one’s solitary subject-object mentality towards the gift of a person-to-person relationship reveals to them their full identity, i.e. structurally relational as therefore also imago Dei:
“(…) man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning. The function of the image is that of mirroring the one who is the model, of reproducing its own prototype. Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. He is, in fact, “from the beginning” not only an image in which the solitude of one Person, who rules the world, mirrors itself, but also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons”. (c.9, #3).
Why is it that only within this embodied human spousal love God chooses to bestow upon Adam and Eve (and in them, upon all spouses) the dignity to become life-giving co-creators with Him? It is crucial to observe that this complementary union, which embraces sexual difference, is the only one capable of being intrinsically and structurally fruitful through God’s blessing: as it is a reflection and participation in the eternal truth that, in God, Love and Life are always united. Therefore, the spousal meaning of the body emerges in its integral truth: as being intrinsically generative. (c.22, #6).
c) What is, therefore, the original meaning of the body and why is it fully perceived in Adam and Eve? The third experience (c. 11-13), the original experience of nakedness (rooted in the first two experiences) offers us the answer. The absence of shame in seeing their bodies is not a privation, but, on the contrary, an abundance of meaning: it is the fullness of “divine vision” (c.13, #1), which allows them to see the pure value of the sexuated body. What is this value?
The human body finds its meaning before a gaze that it is not opaque, epidermic and self-referential. It is only when the person loves in truth, that it can perceive the body of the beloved in its full-meaning: as being a gift from the eternal Giver:
“This is the body: witness to creation as a fundamental gift, then witness to Love as the source, from which this same giving was born” (c.14,#4).
Each man and woman who has this experience gains the depth of true interpersonal intimacy, which is rooted in the quality of exclusively belonging and sharing one’s life as a person with the beloved. It is only within the gaze of true love, that the personal body manifests itself serenely, without fear of losing its dignity. How important it is for each one of us to also have this third experience, in a world where the “vision” of the body seems to exalt it, but in fact, depersonalizes it and reduces it to a mere object of enjoyment.
In fact, it is important to ask: are these three original experiences still accessible for us today, or are they unreachable and impossible to actualize after the fall?
John Paul II is a realist: he clearly shows in his Catecheses how sin wounds human love and each of the three experiences. With sin, doubt is cast into the hearts of Adam and Eve about the goodness of the Creator, which in turn leads to the corruption and obscuring of the spousal meaning of the body (c.31, #6) and a new and entirely contrary inclination in their heart—to reject the gift and to appropriate the other as an object:
“If a man relates to a woman in such a way that he considers her only as an object to appropriate and not as a gift, he condemns himself at the same time to become, on his part too, only an object of appropriation for her and not a gift” (c.33, #1).
And yet, the Holy Father does not espouse the “complete corruption of human nature” position. The truly Christian perspective on the historical (post-lapsarian) human person, cannot consider sin as the original truth of man: God is the Origin and His divine plan for human love is original, foundational and indelible. According to John Paul II, after sin, the human heart becomes a “battlefield” (c.33, #2) between man’s ineradicable original desire to love and be loved in truth and the extraneous desire of concupiscence to appropriate. Neither does the body, therefore, ever lose its personal identity or its reality of being “the substratum of the communion of persons.” But the vision of man and woman is certainly darkened by the inclination to consider sexuality as an “obstacle” in the man-woman relationship (c.29, #3).
How then is the original divine plan for human love made possible?
2. Christ: The Redeemer of the Language of the Body
When one contemplates Marc Chagall’s painting of Creation (1958), one notices that, as a faithful Jew, he does not represent God directly, but only the Angel of God, who carries into the light the newly created body of Adam, which waits to take its first breath from the divine breath. Yet, it is quite singular that in this and many of his other works, Chagall includes the crucifix: a detail which is often interpreted as pointing to the innocent victim of evil present in the world and, in particular, as symbolizing the pain that the Jewish people have suffered throughout history, recapitulated in the pain of innocent Jesus.
But Christians can perceive an even deeper truth in Chagall’s use of the crucifix: it is only in Christ that we gain full access to the original truth of our being (GS 22) in all its complexity as a union of body and soul. It is Christ Himself who, when confronted with the apparent failure of human love, indicates where the truth is, namely “In the beginning…”, because He is the Beginning:
“Christ is the ‘Beginning’ who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbor.”
Reaching up to the source of our being, in order to enter the mystery of the original creation, is therefore not an attempt to dig into a nostalgic prehistoric past that has become irrelevant to us (c.4, #3). In Christ, the Prototype of our personhood, we reach both the origin and the goal of who we are: we find the arché (the foundation) of all our actions and all our relationships with others, which, renewed in Christ, lead us to attain the vocation to greater participation in God’s inner divine life.
It is through Christ’s redeeming love for the Church, His Bride, that human love is finds its source of redemption and fulfillment. Thus, “the redemption of the body” in Christ (c.4, #3) seals forever the original goodness of human sexuality as the expression of the person’s gift of self. Yet, Christ bestows on the original human love a new gift: in the sacrament of marriage, the spouses receive the gift of loving with the same love as Christ’s (Jn 15:12). The gift of such dignity and greatness shows us that Christ’s redemptive love is not only reparative of the original love of man and woman, but it is also perfective and salvific, as it actualizes the fullness of human love which man and woman were meant to receive from “the beginning”.
In fact, the Catecheses on human love first introduce the concept of the “language of the body” (c.103 #4), in the context of the analysis of the sacramental sign of marriage, i.e., the words of the spouses at the moment of the marriage celebration. These spoken words are not simply external verbal utterances. They are intentional and they correspond to the reality of the entire persons. These words therefore become a vow to make a complete mutual gift of self in marriage, fulfilled in the conjugal act:
“The words spoken by them would not of themselves constitute the sacramental sign if the human subjectivity of the engaged man and woman and at the same time the consciousness of the body linked with the masculinity and the femininity of the bride and the bridegroom did not correspond to them. Here one must call to mind again the whole series of analyses of Genesis 1–2 carried out earlier. The structure of the sacramental sign remains, in fact, in its essence the same as «in the beginning» What determines it is in some sense «the language of the body», inasmuch as the man and the woman, who are to become one flesh by marriage, express in this sign the reciprocal gift of masculinity and femininity as the foundation of the conjugal union of the persons” (c.103, #4).
The “language of the body” is inscribed by God in man’s and woman’s bodies. The body, therefore, is also a prophet, John Paul II states, as it speaks with the authority of God and of His original plan for human love (c.104, #1).
Thus, the spouses’ bodies become a prophet for the spouses themselves. The husband and wife are sacramentally endowed with capacity to recognize the body’s truth, its spousal meaning, each day, through their renewed love in Christ in the sacrament of marriage. It is therefore a language that is both enduring and new at the same time (c.103, #5), since it requires its continuous re-reading in the concrete life of the spouses:
“In the perspective of a shared life and of the conjugal vocation, that initial sign of marriage as a sacrament of the Church will be continually filled with the «prophetism of the body». The body of each spouse will speak «for» and «on behalf of» each of them; the body will speak in the name and with the authority of the person, of each of the persons, thus carrying out the conjugal dialogue, which is proper to their vocation and based on the language of the body, continually reread on the right occasion and at the proper time: and it is necessary that it is reread in the truth! The couple are called to form their lives and their living together as a «communion of persons» on the basis of this language (c.106, #2).
How can this new measure of love in Christ become possible in the contingencies of the spouses’ every-day life? How can the “new ethos of redemption” illumine the human eros?
3. Purity: The Guardian of the “Language of the Body”
Through the virtue and gift of conjugal purity.
What is purity in the Catecheses on human love? The Pope teaches us that, in the state of innocence, purity is a faithful guardian of original love: it is the ability to embrace in love the whole person of the beloved, as a gift:
“There is no obstacle, it seems, against understanding this original innocence as a particular “purity of heart” preserving interior faithfulness to the gift according to the spousal meaning of the body” (c.16, #5).
Thus, the original purity of Adam and Eve manifests itself as a quality of the heart— “purity is a requirement of love. It is the dimension of the inner truth of love in man’s «heart»” (c.4, #7), capable of generating that integral vision proper to the original experience of nakedness, through which fear of being diminished and reduced to a “thing” is eliminated:
“Inner innocence as «purity of heart» made it impossible somehow for one to be reduced by the other to the level of a mere object. If «they did not feel shame», this means that they were united by the consciousness of the gift, that they had reciprocal awareness of the spousal meaning of their bodies, in which the freedom of the gift is expressed and the whole inner richness of the person as subject is shown” (c.19#1).
Purity, after sin, through its integral component of “shame”, doesn’t cease to remind man and woman of the inner truth inscribed in their bodies: it signals and warns the subject (through its affective reaction of protection) of the danger for the embodied person to be treated not according to its personal dignity, but according to the inclination of appropriation. “Shame has a twofold meaning: it indicates the threat to the value and at the same time it preserves this value in an interior way” (c.26, #6). This is why, for John Paul II, “shame,” understood in both phenomenological and theological terms, is a symptom of the wounded human heart which continues to long for true love; but also, a heart that no longer possesses the ability to attain this aspiration on its own.
It is to this heart of man and woman that Christ can appeal and bring healing and hope.
Purity, analysed by the Holy Father in both its moral and charismatic dimensions, finds its dynamic fulfilment through Christ’s redemption as both a virtue and a gift from the Holy Spirit, ensuring that the body of man and woman preserves its full redeemed dignity:
“(…) purity as a Christian virtue is revealed in the Pauline letters as an effective way of detaching oneself from what is a fruit of the concupiscence of the flesh in the human heart. Abstaining «from unchastity», which implies keeping the body «with holiness and reverence», allows us to deduce that according to the Apostle’s teaching, purity is an «ability» centered on the dignity of the body, that is, on the dignity of the person in relation to his or her own body, to the masculinity or femininity that shows itself in that body. Understood as «ability», purity is precisely an expression and fruit of life «according to the Spirit» in the full sense of the term, that is, as a new ability of the human being in whom the gift of the Holy Spirit bears fruit (c.56, #1).
Purity is not, therefore, an automatism: it stimulates the spouses to find daily ways of expressing their newly found vocation in Christ, which is to receive themselves as a gift and to respond by their mutual and unreserved giving of themselves, in all the richness that human integral love involves: body, emotion, reason and will, and transcendence.
Therefore, it is beautiful to see that chastity does not lessen, but rather fully values the human body in all its personal truth and dignity, rejecting any reduction rooted in the affective fragmentation and eroticism. Thus, purity pedagogically (c.59, #7) helps the spouses to enrich their spousal gaze, through purification and self-denial, so as to aim at the personal communion with each other, where the gestures of love do not diminish or disappear, but become more abundant and profound:
“If conjugal chastity (and chastity in general) manifests itself at first as an ability to resist the concupiscence of the flesh, it subsequently reveals itself as a singular ability to perceive, love, and realize those meanings of the «language of the body» that remain completely unknown to concupiscence itself and progressively enrich the spousal dialogue of the couple by purifying, deepening, and at the same time simplifying it. For this reason, the ascesis of continence, about which the encyclical speaks (see HV 21), does not impoverish «affective manifestations» but, on the contrary, it makes them spiritually more intense and thus enriches them (c.128, #3).
Purity, as virtue and gift, teaches us to fully speak “the language of the body,” the language of a life-giving love, because Christ spoke and communicated this love to us in an irrevocable way: “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 15, 11-12).
Who is our body? The Neo-Gnostics cannot answer, because they cannot understand the question itself: as, for them, the body can never be the manifestation of the subject.
But, in the light of the John Paul II’s Catecheses on human love, we have come to see that the body is the epiphany of our person: made in the image of God, redeemed by Christ and called to find its full meaning in the total gift of self. And, as God never ceases to pour His love unto us, we thus receive, in Christ, a new measure of human love, that we were eternally destined to receive: to be capable of loving one another with the very same love of our Redeemer.
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