Why Sex Sells

By: Christopher West

lips

Time Magazine  recently reported that a “sexy” PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) commercial was “too hot” for TV and got nixed from the Superbowl’s line up of provocative commercials.   That’s good, I thought.   At least somebody is drawing a line somewhere.   But as I thought about it, I realized that the fact that that was my first reaction only demonstrates how numb I’ve become to the absurdity of using sex to sell, well, everything.   A commercial on saving cows from the butcher block so “sexy” that it’s “too hot” for the Superbowl?  C’mon!

So, Why Does Sex Sell?

That may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but I want to dig a little deeper.   I recently came across an article by James K.A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, that provides some provocative insights into this question.   And he draws from none other than St. Augustine to make his point.   In the article, entitled “The Erotics of Truth, and Other Scandalous Lessons from Augustine of Hippo,” Smith wrote:

“I think [Christians] should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry — which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connect to our heart and imagination — is … able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because they have rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures….   They have figured out the way to our heart because they ‘get it’: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures — creatures who are oriented by love and passion and desire” (Comment, June 2008).

Here it seems Smith is referring to “eros” in the sense that Plato used the term — the inner desire and yearning of the human being for the true, the good, and the beautiful.   This yearning passes by way of sexuality, but it points beyond it as well.   Eros speaks to our longing for transcendence — for a beauty, for a love ultimately beyond what this world has to offer.

Ironically, eros  cannot be satisfied by the merely “erotic.”   Even Freud understood this: “We must reckon,” he wrote, “with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavorable to the realization of complete satisfaction” (“On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” sct. 3).  And it’s on this point that the media does not “get it.”   Marketers continually promise “complete satisfaction” for “three easy payments of 19.95.”   As Smith puts it, “Certain modes of advertizing appeal   … directly to eros, … and then in a bait-and-switch move of substitution, channel our desire into a product.”   Smith rightly calls this the “bastardization of the erotic.”

Debasing the Erotic Desire

To “bastardize” means to debase something — to reduce from a high state to a lower state.   That’s precisely what’s happening in us when we image that eros  can be satisfied by the things of this world.   The union of man and woman — as beautiful and wonderful as it can be — is only a sign, an icon that is meant to point us to something Infinitely greater — the love of God himself.   As Augustine famously put it: “You have made us for yourself oh God, and our hearts are restless until   they rest in you.”  A beloved professor of mine, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, put it this way: “We talk about different ‘sexual orientations’ in human life.   But the ultimate orientation of human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity.   Human sexuality, therefore, is a sign of eternity” (God at the Ritz, p. 120).   This means, as Smith observes, that the “erotic — even misdirected eros — is a sign of the kinds of animals we are: creatures who desire  God.”

Christians are right to raise serious concerns about the provocative and even pornographic nature of so much of today’s advertizing.   But how should we respond?   Rather than condemning the media outright, Smith suggests that Christians should honor what the marketing industry has right — that we are creatures of desire — and then respond  in kind with counter-measures that demonstrate where desire really points us (to God).  The Church is not opposed to desire!   Rather, she is opposed to counterfeit satisfaction of desire and yearns to lead the world to the One alone who satisfies.   “Why spend your money for what is not bread … for what fails to satisfy?   Heed me and you shall … delight in rich fare” (Is 55:1-2).

Playboy vs. the Vatican

By: Christopher West

breast feeding bubba

In 2008, Playboy magazine sunk to new lows in mocking the holy.   Of course, every edition offers a mockery of the holy — the holy, in this case, being the female body.   Precisely because of the exquisite holiness of femininity, the Serpent has had his sights set on woman from the beginning.   The ultimate Biblical “woman” of course, is Mary.   And now Playboy set its sights on her too.  Reuters reported that the December issue of the Mexican edition of Playboy features a semi-nude Blessed Mother figure standing in front of a stained glass window.   The caption below reads “Te Adoramos, Maria” (We love you, Mary).   The fact that the posing model’s name is also Maria wasn’t a sufficient alibi.

The outcry from the faithful of Mexico was swift.   In response, the Chicago headquarters of Playboy Enterprises issued the following statement: “While Playboy Mexico never meant for the cover or images to offend anyone, we recognize that it has created offense, and we as well as Playboy Mexico offer our sincerest apologies.”   (Hmmm… Playboy  has been “causing offense” for over fifty years.   Are we really to believe the sincerity of such an apology?)

Vatican Calls for More Images of Mary Nursing Jesus

I can’t help but juxtapose this news story with an inversely related story from prior summer.   The Internet was abuzz that June when the Vatican’s newspaper called for an “artistic and spiritual rehabilitation” of semi-nude portrayals of the Blessed Mother breast-feeding the Christ child.  Catholic News Service (CNS) reported the story as follows: “A vast iconography of traditional Christian art has been ‘censored by the modern age’ because images depicting Our Lady’s naked breast for her child were deemed too ‘unseemly,’ the [Vatican] paper said June 19.   Artists began depicting a fully clothed nursing Mary in sacred art in an attempt to make her seem less ‘carnal,’ but the depictions unfortunately also diminished her human, loving and tender side ‘that touches the hearts and faith of the devout,’ the newspaper said.”

Artistic portrayals of a bare-breasted nursing Madonna — known as “Our Lady of La Leche” (Our Lady of the Milk) — were plentiful throughout Christian history until the 16th or 17th century.   Then, various Protestant reformers were quite critical of what they considered “the carnality and unbecoming nature of many sacred images,” wrote Christian historian Lucetta Scaraffia in the Vatican newspaper article.   In turn, even though the Catholic Church officially rejected this anti-incarnational view, many Catholic artists — not to mention vast numbers of the Catholic faithful (or, in this case, unfaithful) — were influenced by the reformers’ condemnations.   “The splintered views concerning the sanctity of the human body were not repaired and therefore an ‘artistic and spiritual rehabilitation’ of a breast-feeding baby Jesus is needed, [Scaraffia] wrote” (CNS).

The Problem with Playboy

So, we must ask — what makes Playboy’s  semi-nude portrayal of a Blessed Mother figure a terrible offense (even a sacrilege) and what makes the semi-nude portrayal of Our Lady of La Leche a sacred image promoted by the Vatican?   In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II wrote that pornography raises objections not because it exposes the naked body.   The human body in itself always retains its inalienable dignity.   Rather, pornography raises objections because of the way in which the human body is portrayed (see TOB 63:5).   Pornographers portray the body with the explicit intention of arousing lust in the viewer.

That is why seeing a Blessed Mother figure under the headline “Playboy” is so jarring and offensive.   The goal of Playboy  is to insight lust.   The sacred artists’ goal in portraying a semi-nude Virgin Mary, on the other hand, is to help us ponder the God-given beauty and dignity of Mary’s femininity and sacred motherhood.   Mary’s body reveals a gloriously sacred mystery, and tasteful, sacred art has the ability to get us in touch with that mystery.  Lucetta Scaraffia “said the sacred image of Mary nursing her child is ‘an image so concrete and loving’ that it recalls her offering her body for nourishment and giving herself completely to her son as he offers his body and blood in the Eucharist” (CNS).   I’m certain that’s not what Playboy Mexico  had in mind.

The “Spousal Mystery” of Christmas

By: Christopher West

Mary and Jesus at birth

Christmas celebrates the marvels of the birth of the Son of God from the virgin womb of Mary.   At Christmas pageants, at Mass, and in beloved Christmas carols we will hear the story told again and again each year: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin … and the virgin’s name was Mary. …And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.   And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Lk 1:26-31).  Perhaps our familiarity with the story has numbed us to the breath-taking, astounding, incredible mystery that is Christmas.   In this article and the next, I’d like to turn to the mystical insights of a certain saint in the hopes of waking us up a bit to the mind-blowing reality we celebrate (or should celebrate) at Christmas.

St. Louis de Monfort’s Reflection on Mary

St. Louis de Montfort, in accord with the whole mystical tradition (those saints throughout history who took as their life philosophy the contemplation of the mystery of God’s Love, and so grew into a special interior union with God), often speaks in very sensuous ways about the Christian mystery.   He uses spousal categories and terminology, drawn largely from the Song of Songs (one of the favorite biblical books of the mystics), to illuminate divine truths.   He sees the Annunciation, for example, as a divine wedding proposal.  But before we get into some of de Montfort’s imagery, let me preface it with something John Paul II — himself a sincere devotee of de Montfort — once said.   The Pope admitted that this saint’s writing “can be a bit disconcerting, given its rather florid … style, but the essential theological truths which it contains are undeniable” (Gift and Mystery, p. 29).   Bearing that in mind, let’s now turn to de Montfort and allow him to awaken us to some “essential theological truths” about the great “spousal mystery” of Christmas.

As de Montfort put it, God sent his angel to Mary “in order to win her heart.”   And on account of the “hidden delights” of his divine proposal, “she gave her consent.”   He describes the Hail Mary — the familiar prayer that re-presents this glorious moment when God proposed and Mary said “yes” — as “joy for the angels,” as “a sweet melody,” as the “Canticle of the New Testament, a delight for Mary, and glory for the Most Blessed Trinity.”   This divine song is “a pure kiss of love” given to Mary, “a crimson rose, a precious pearl” (True Devotion 252-253).  Then, groping for images to describe this glorious moment when the invisible, immortal, eternal seed of God was given to Mary (see 1 Pt 1:23), de Montfort writes of “dew falling from heaven.”   In this astounding moment, God poured a “chalice of ambrosia” upon his mystic-bride and, receiving this “divine nectar,” she conceived God’s own Son (see True Devotion 253).

Christmas: A Celebration of the Word Made Flesh

Whoa!   Such imagery would have been enough to give my wonderful, but rather prudish grandmother cardiac arrest.   For anyone experiencing palpitations, de Montfort reminds us plainly: “These are comparisons made by the saints” (253) — saints who, undoubtedly, were immersed in the holy and sensual imagery of the Song of Songs.  The Song of Songs teaches us — as does the spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture — that God wants to “marry” us.   Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, “impregnate” us with divine life.   In the Virgin Mary, this becomes a living reality.   And this, as the Catechism says, is why “Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle’” (CCC 773).

With great reverence and a kind of “holy daring,” St. Louis de Montfort unabashedly presents the spiritual mystery revealed to us through the Virgin Mary’s feminine body.   If we don’t share his comfort — indeed, many find themselves decidedly uncomfortable in the face of such a treatment of the Virgin Mary — we would do well to examine the source of such discomfort.   It is much easier to eschew the body (our own body, Jesus’s body, Mary’s body) than it is to face the disorders in our hearts that cause us to eschew the body. Christmas is a celebration of the Word made flesh  in the womb of the Virgin Mary.   May that “great mystery” cast out all the lies we have believed about our own bodies.

As the  Catechism  states, “The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary’s virginal motherhood” (505).   And  that  is what we celebrate in the Christmas season.   God has espoused himself to us forever by sending his Son, born of this woman.  My own experience growing up in the Church — and learning of the experiences of thousands of other Catholics around the world in my lectures and travels — has taught me that many Catholics have what I call a “hyper-spiritual” idea of the Blessed Virgin.   It’s as if the title “virgin” itself leads us to believe that Mary is somehow opposed to bodily realities, or that her immaculate purity makes her a prudish or even “a-sexual” being.   But such impressions of Mary can only stem from projecting our own fallen humanity on to her.

Purity-A Perfection of Sexuality

First of all, purity doesn’t annihilate our sexuality — it perfects it.   Far from being “a-sexual,” Mary is the only woman who ever experienced God’s original plan for sexuality in its fullness.   Sexuality is not to be equated with sexual behavior.   Mary remained a virgin.   But virginity is not to be equated with “a-sexuality.”   Virginity, from the Christian perspective, is not the negation of sexuality, but an embracing of the ultimate purpose and meaning of sexuality — to point us to union with God.   God made us male and female and called the two to become “one flesh” as a sacramental sign of a much, much greater reality — the marriage of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).

This  is the original and fundamental meaning of human sexuality and this is how Mary must have experienced her womanhood, her sexuality — as a burning desire for union with God.   Through the gift of redemption, we can begin to reclaim this original truth, but even for the holiest among us it remains muddled by our fallen condition.   To recognize Mary as the “Immaculate One” is to recognize that her sexuality was never muddled by our fallen condition.   For she experienced the  fullness of redemption  right from the first moment of her conception.

The Gift of Mary’s Body

This would mean that Mary’s purity allowed her to experience her sexuality in its fullness — as a deep yearning for total communion with God in Christ.   This is why she didn’t have sexual relations with Joseph: not because marital union is “unholy,” but because she was already living the union  beyond  sexual union — union with God.   This is not to knock Joseph, but earthly, sexual union with him would have been for Mary  a step backwards.   Instead, Mary took Joseph  forward  with her  into the fulfillment of all desire.  And she wants to take us forward with her as well, into the fullness of union with God.   But this journey demands that we face all of our diseased images and ideas about our bodies and our sexuality.   For union with God passes by way of sexual healing and redemption.   And there is no detour.   Here Mary, too, serves as a perfect guide and help.

As Father Donald Calloway expresses: “Mary shows us how to accept the gift of our embodiedness, and this includes the God-given sex of the body.   In this it is important to note that Mary’s exemplarity of what it means to accept the gift of one’s body means that the body is not an obstacle to overcome but, rather, a gift to be lived.   Mary delights in her body, especially in its God-given sex: femininity.   It is precisely in her gift of being a woman that Mary was fashioned and called by God to be the  Theotokos  [God-bearer].   The gift of her body is exactly what helps her to become the  Theotokos.   Just think of what would have happened if Mary had rebelled against the gift of her feminine body!    We  would be in a very different situation today.   (Mary and the Theology of the Body, pp. 55-56).

Mary, all pure Mother of God, show us the beauty of your femininity and teach us, in turn, to embrace the beauty of our own humanity as men and women made in the image of God.

Redeeming the Erotic

By: Christopher West

clouds

Someone recently sent me a link to a blog offering a review of one of my latest books.   The book, called Heaven’s Song, provides a guided tour of the undelivered and long-hidden talks of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body which consist primarily of reflections on the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs.  This blogger found my book “dirty and immodest to the core,” adding that that “which is erotic is simply not appropriate for Christian consumption.”   Then he asks, “Where can we find this type of thing in Scripture or Tradition?”   Never mind that my book itself is a reflection on the most commented-on book in all of Scripture (the Song of Songs).   Never mind that I draw extensively from the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Louis deMontfort.   For this blogger, I might as well be writing on behalf of Lucifer himself.

Sex & Our Union with Christ

There are layers of errors in this bloggers thinking that I don’t have time to get into in this article.   But one serious error is a failure to see how Lucifer actually works and why  he is so intent on perverting our sexuality.   Odd as it may seem to some, a proper vision of our sexuality provides the clearest window for catching a glimpse of the “great mystery” of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ (see Eph 5:31-32). Conversely, a distorted vision of our sexuality — including a fearful, puritanical view of the body — serves as one of the most effective blocks  to understanding who God really is, who we really are, and what the “great mystery” of Christianity is really all about.

Christianity is all about Holy Communion with Christ.   And, as we learn so clearly from John Paul II, the call to Holy Communion with Christ is stamped right in our bodies and in the call of man and woman to a holy communion.  Lucifer hates  this plan, and aims all his arrows straight at it.   He is the great plagiarizer.   He takes what belongs to Christ and puts his own name on it, claiming the erotic realm for himself.   Tragically, it seems many Christians are content to let him have it.   It is not uncommon to encounter people who — in the name of a supposed “piety” — find the very idea of linking erotic love and Christ’s love unconscionable.   Adopting this attitude, however, we do not overcome the deceiver’s lies; we unwittingly buy into them.

Reclaiming  Erotic Love for Christ

We must not surrender the erotic realm to the enemy!   We must not let his distortions bind us to our own lusts and blind us to the “great mystery” revealed through our bodies!   Precarious as it is, we must be courageous in reclaiming the erotic sphere for Christ and his Church.   For, as both Old and New Testaments teach us — and as we see especially in the Song of Songs — the erotic sphere is the privileged realm of a divine revelation.  Reclaiming the erotic sphere for Christ does not  mean, of course, that we bring eros back “as is” from the enemy’s turf.   Rightly do the pious recoil at this idea.   For appealing to the lustful distortions of our sexuality as images of divine realities would be blasphemy.   Rather, in the process of reclaiming the erotic realm for Christ, we must submit all that is “erotic” to a radical transformation.

We are often prone to what John Paul II called “the interpretation of suspicion” (see TOB 46), an attitude that can’t imagine any prism other than lust through which to see or discuss erotic matters.   Lust is certainly a powerful force that can cloud and even dominate our thinking.   However, as John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of [lust] ….   Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).  This means that God’s grace, through its power to heal and transform us inwardly, can lead us to a pure way of seeing and thinking about our bodies and the gift of our sexuality.   We can come to see, as countless saints and mystics have, that the boldly erotic poetry of the Song of Songs is not only not “inappropriate for Christians,” but offers a bright illumination into what Christianity is.

To experience  Heaven’s Song for yourself, click here.

Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be

By: Christopher West

Gates of Heaven

Authors often compare writing a book to giving birth.   I can relate.  I remember feeling the “after glow” of having delivered my “fifth child” (coincidentally, my wife was really and truly about to deliver our fifth child).  Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love as It Was Meant to Be was released in September of 2008 by Ascension Press.   It’s based on the “hidden talks” of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB).   Let me explain.  In the summer of 2005, Dr. Michael Waldstein of the International Theological Institute in Austria (now a professor at Ave Maria University in Florida) contacted me to ask for my assistance with a very exciting project he was working on — a fresh English translation of John Paul II’s TOB.   Having worked with the existing English editions for nearly a dozen years at that point, I was well aware of various shortcomings in the translation.   News of Waldstein’s project was music to my ears.   But, as a TOB devotee, what I was about to learn knocked me off my chair.

The Hidden Treasure of JPII’s Undelivered Talks

During his research for the project, Waldstein discovered John Paul II’s original manuscript in the archives in Rome.   The text, Waldstein told me, was written as a lengthy book and had been divided by John Paul II into 135 talks.   But, as I knew well, he had only delivered 129.  Are you kidding me?!   New undelivered material from John Paul II’s theology of the body!?   To what shall I compare my astonishment and delight?   It’s like a die-hard Beatles fan finding out that some unknown tracks from the fab-four had just been discovered in an obscure closet at Abbey Road studios.   And not only that — when I finally got my hands on this new material, I realized these lost songs were not “b-sides.”   This material had not fallen by the wayside because it wasn’t up to par.   This material contained some of the most beautiful tracks that John Paul (the Pope, not Lennon and McCartney) had ever laid down.

These “hidden talks” provide deeply moving reflections on the intimacy of the lovers in the Song of Songs; penetrating insights into the spiritual battle that accompanied the marriage of Tobias and Sarah in the book of Tobit; and new illuminations on the “spousal” nature of the Church’s liturgy gleaned from St. Paul’s teaching on the “great mystery” of marital union in Ephesians 5.  John Paul had delivered four addresses on these themes as part of his 129 talks.   I was quite familiar with those.   But Waldstein discovered that there were actually ten  prepared talks in this section of the catechesis which the Pope had condensed into four.   The ten unabridged talks unearthed for the English speaking world for the first time by Waldstein offer a much fuller vision.

The Authentic Soundtrack of Christianity  

Heaven’s Song zooms in on this section of John Paul II’s catechesis, unfolding the hidden treasures of these unabridged addresses in an extended form for the first time.   Although I’ve touched on these themes elsewhere it seemed not only appropriate, but necessary, to give this new content — tucked away all these years in the John Paul II archives — a fuller exposition.  Why is it called Heaven’s Song?   Because the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs transposes heaven’s music into a human key, helping us to understand sexual love as it was meant to be.   It was meant to be a foretaste here on earth of the joys that await us in heaven.

Why is the Song of Songs the favorite biblical book of the mystics?   Why have the saints written more commentaries on this seemingly obscure and wildly erotic love poetry than on any other book in the Bible? Hmmm….   What do they know that most Christians seem not to?   If this is “heaven’s song” transposed into a human key, then, as the saints and mystics know, the Song of Songs is the authentic soundtrack of Christianity.  My new book seeks to bring the divine secrets of John Paul’s “spousal mysticism” to all those “with ears to hear.”   If you are already familiar with John Paul’s TOB, you will delight in this new material.   If you’ve not been exposed to the genius of John Paul’s catechesis, this book will serve as a good introduction and whet your appetite for more.

You can get a copy at any book store, or go to Ascensionpress.com.

Un-fleshed v. En-fleshed Religion

By: Christopher West

angel and sky

“Angimals”

True or false: Man is a spiritual being.  True or false: Man has a spiritual nature. “Religious” people typically answer “true” to both questions. But — at least from the authentically Christian perspective — such “religious” people are mistaken. Contrary to widespread belief, man is not a spiritual being with a spiritual nature. Angels are spiritual beings with a spiritual nature. Man is a human being with a human nature, and human nature is at one and the same time spiritual and physical.

Human nature presents an anomaly in all of creation. Angel nature is spiritual and animal nature is physical, but human nature is both at the same time. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but their union forms a single nature” (365): human nature. In a way, we’re part angel and part animal. I like to call us “angimals.”  The temptation of religious folk to “spiritualize” human nature is constant and fierce. Christians must resist this temptation just as fiercely. For it poses an insidiously dangerous threat to the very foundations of our faith. Christianity is the religion of the Word (the Logos) made flesh in the womb of Mary. En-fleshed religion and un-fleshed religion are antithetical. Un-fleshed religion is, in fact, a diabolic attack on Jesus Christ. As St. John tell us, we recognize the anti-christ as the one who denies Christ come in the flesh (see 1 Jn 4:2-3). In other words, we recognize the anti-christ as the one behind un-fleshed religion.

The Devastating Effects of an  Un-Fleshed Religion  

Why does the enemy want to un-flesh our religion? Because, as the Catechism says (quoting the early Christian writer Tertullian): “The flesh is the hinge of salvation” (1015). Our very lives, our very existence, our very selves, our very salvation depend on the unity of body and soul. What do we call the separation of body and soul in man anyway? That’d be death. Hmmm. That would mean that those who seek to live a “spiritual” life apart from their bodies are, in fact, “dead.”  And this brand of “death” is widespread. During a recent lecture to a large group of priests, I asked them to guess what percentage of their parishioners considered their bodies to be a kind of “shell” in which their true “spiritual selves” lived. The lowest guess was 60%. The highest was 98%. Most of the priests guessed about 80%.

No wonder pornography is everywhere. Here, one of man’s deepest needs — to be in touch with his own flesh — is making its presence felt in a terribly disturbing and disturbed way. When religion is un-fleshed, porn’s job is easy. When religion is un-fleshed, God’s love becomes an abstraction and the satisfaction of our need for en-fleshed “love” is only a mouse-click away, so the purveyors of porn would have us believe.  Some argue that the Scripture itself demands that we un-flesh ourselves. St. Paul often admonishes us about the dangers of “the flesh” and contrasts this with the life of “the Spirit.”   But St. Paul cannot possibly be teaching heresy, and the idea that the flesh is the “bad” part of us and the spirit is the “good” part of us is just that — heresy. Contrary to appearances, Paul is actually calling us, as he himself says, to experience “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).

Reclaim the Flesh for Christ

To live “by the Spirit” does not mean we un-flesh ourselves. It means we en-flesh the Spirit. It means we allow the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to dwell in us, in our human nature — which, let us recall, is both spiritual and physical. “If the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom 8:11).  This is the logic of Christianity. God’s logic — theo-logic — is revealed through the flesh: Logos made flesh, God’s logic incarnate, theology of the body. As I once heard a priest explain, if the language of Israel is Hebrew, and the language of Islam is Arabic, the language of Christianity is the body. This is the language we must speak if we are effectively to counter the terrible distortion of the flesh taking place in our world today.

Living the Theology of Our Bodies

By: Christopher West

prayer (1)

In my lectures across the nation on John Paul II’s “theology of the body” (TOB), people are often struck by the beauty of this vision for human life and, at the same time, by their own inability  to carry it out.   Hence, one of the most frequently asked questions I hear is How do I live this?

How  Do We Live These Teachings?  

This is the dilemma of anyone who encounters the teaching of Christ: we don’t have what it takes on our own to fulfill it.   As John Paul II says, “Love and life according to the Gospel [are] beyond man’s abilities.   They are possible only as a result of a gift of God who heals, restores, and transforms the human heart by his grace.”   Living the Gospel, then, is “a possibility opened to man exclusively by grace, by the gift of God, by his love” (Veritatis Splendor  23, 24).  In his TOB, John Paul gives us a 3-fold “program” for opening ourselves to this divine love, this grace: prayer, Eucharist, and Penance.   These, he says, are the “infallible and indispensable” means for living the truth of love that God has inscribed in the theology of our bodies (see TOB 126:5).

At first, this might just sound like “standard Catholic stuff” that you’ve heard before.   Sure enough, it is.   But John Paul II’s “spousal theology” gives us a fresh, mystical perspective that you probably didn’t hear growing up in Catholic school.   In this article, the first of a three-part series, we’ll take a brief look at the “spousal” nature of prayer.   In subsequent articles we’ll look at the Eucharist and Penance.  As the Catechism teaches, “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church” (CCC 1617).   Christians are called to live from within this “great mystery” of Christ’s spousal love (see Eph 5:31).   This “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God…is prayer” (CCC 2558).

Prayer

Prayer must never be reduced to a rote recitation of formulas.   It’s an invitation to deep intimacy with God.   Prayer is where we “let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed” (CCC 2711).   We must allow ourselves to “get naked” before God.   Masks and fig leaves are the same thing — a way of hiding from God: “I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself” (Gen 3:10).   Prayer is where we allow Christ’s perfect love to cast out that fear (see 1 Jn 4:18).   Standing naked before the heavenly Bridegroom in prayer, Christ washes his bride (see Eph 5:27) so as to prepare her for “nuptial union.”

John Paul elaborates on this spousal vision of prayer in his document on the new millennium: “The great mystical tradition of the Church… shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.”   He continues: “This is… a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the ‘dark night’).   But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union’” (Novo Millennio 33).

Here we see John Paul drawing from one of his favorite teachers, St. John of the Cross.   According to this “Mystical Doctor,” prayer leads us to a surrender to God (and him to us) analogous to the surrender of spouses in sexual union.   St. John writes, “Just as in the consummation of carnal marriage there are two in one flesh, … so also when the spiritual marriage between God and the soul is consummated, there are two natures in one spirit and love” (Commentary on the Spiritual Canticle).  Only to the degree that we are “one in spirit and love” with Christ the Bridegroom are we able to love one another as he loved us.   It is an experience that comes to those who persevere in Christian prayer.   Let us, then, not be afraid to persevere through the painful purifications that lead to us to “nuptial union” with God.   Lord, teach us to pray!

To live the “theology” of our bodies means to recognize the plan of love that God has written into our bodies as male and female and to live in accord with it.   This is what the Christian life is all about — to love as Christ loved: “This is my body given for you.”  There’s a fundamental problem here, however.   Christ asks us to do something we do not have the power to do.   No human being, with his or her own strength, can love as God loves.   It’s impossible.   Only when we realize we  can’t  follow God’s law on our own are we actually ready for the good news of the Gospel.   In a word that “good news” is called  grace.

Only By the Grace of God

Grace is that mysterious gift of God that empowers us to love as he loves.   Grace is God’s love poured out on us and  in  us.   Only to the degree that God’s love remains alive within us are we capable of sharing that love with others.   In other words, only to the degree that we  receive  God’s love are we able to fulfill God’s law.   As St. Augustine said, “The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled” (De Spiritu et Littera).  Oh this is good news!   What a relief it is to realize that it’s not up to me.   No matter how hard I try, I simply  can’t  do it on my own, I can’t fulfill God’s law (no wonder I keep failing…).   God’s grace alone makes it possible.

The question then becomes, how do I receive this grace?   John Paul II’s answer is prayer, and the regular reception of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist.   John Paul II’s “spousal theology” gives us a fresh,  mystical  perspective on these three  “infallible and indispensable”  means for living the Christian life.   In the previous column, we looked at the “spousal” nature of prayer.   Here we’ll look briefly at the “spousal” nature of the Eucharist.  To receive the Eucharist and live it with faith is to receive and live everything John Paul teaches in his theology of the body.   The Eucharist, he says, is “the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.”   Christ instituted the Eucharist, John Paul continues, “to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’” (Mulieris Dignitatem  26).

The Eucharist: Christ’s Self-Gift to Us

What wealth of truth there is to unfold here!   In the Eucharist, Christ the Bridegroom gives up his body for his Bride and we, the Bride, receive his body into our bodies.   In this most sacred and holy consummation of love, Christ’s Bride is infused, in-filled, “impregnated,” so to speak, with all the grace necessary to love as Christ loves.   Here we receive all the power necessary to overcome our sins and weaknesses and become the men and women we are created to be.   John Paul asks, “Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia  60).

The following story about my in-laws illustrates beautifully the connection between the holy communion of spouses and the Holy Communion of Christ and the Church.   At Mass the day after his wedding, my father-in-law was in tears after receiving the Eucharist. His new bride questioned him. Thinking of the consummation of their love the night before, he said, “For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of Christ’s words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”  When all the smoke is cleared and all the confusion is cast out — this is the deepest meaning of the human body and the “one flesh” union.   It’s all a “great mystery” that’s meant to point us to the Holy Communion of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).   Our bodies “given up” for each other in true marital love are meant to point to Christ’s body “given up” for us in the Eucharist.

Called to Love in His Image

A man’s body does not make sense by itself, nor does a woman’s.   Seen in light of each other, we discover the unmistakable plan of the Creator — man and woman are designed to be a fruitful gift to each other.   “Be fruitful and multiply” is simply a call to live in the image of God in which we are made.   “For  this  reason … the two become one flesh.”   For what reason?   To reveal, proclaim, and participate in the very love of Christ and the Church (see  Eph 5:31-32).   Such a love is called  marriage.  Marriage, of course, is not the only way to live the “theology of our bodies.”   Regardless of our state in life, we are  all  called to love as God loves.   Spouses do this in a very particular way by becoming “one flesh” and by devoting themselves to the natural fruit of their love — children.   Consecrated celibate men and women do this by devoting themselves entirely to the family of God.   And single men and women imitate Christ in all the ways they make a gift of themselves to others.

The common denominator for us all is that, despite our sincere intentions, we fail in innumerable ways to “love as Christ loves.”   This means that in all human relationships, a large dose of mercy will be required.   Think about it: everyone of us is created for perfect love, but none of us receives it from the other people in our lives, and none of us is able to give perfect love to others.   This leaves us hurt and in need of mercy and healing.  Thank God for the Sacrament of Penance!   The riches of this sacrament are inexhaustible.   Unfortunately, many Catholics have not been helped to appreciation this sacrament beyond the preparation they received in second grade.   We can tend to think that if we haven’t done anything “big, bad, and horrible” there’s no reason to go.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation  

As the  Catechism  says, “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church.   Indeed, the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our consciences, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (CCC 1458).  Progressing in the “life of the Spirit” does  not  mean we reject our bodies.   Rather, it means we open our bodies to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so that what we do with our bodies glorifies God.   This is the  only  way to live the theology of our bodies — by opening ourselves to the “life of the Spirit.”   And regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance (even if we’re not committing serious sin) is an “infallible and indispensable” way of remaining open to the life of the Spirit.

As often as we are falling into serious sin, we should be going to Confession — every week if necessary.   For those who, by God’s grace, are not regularly struggling with mortal sin in their lives, many wise spiritual directors suggest Confession at least once a month.  Living the theology of our bodies (that is, loving as Christ loves) engages us in a serious battle against sin.   Through this sacrament of mercy we are not only reconciled to God through the forgiveness of our sins.   We also receive “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle” (CCC 1496).   We should avail ourselves of this spiritual strength regularly.   Why not go to Confession soon?

Erotic Love & Prophecy

By: Christopher West

brilliant sky

I remember doing a lot of radio interviews in the Fall of 2007 promoting my new book The Love That Satisfies.   Subtitled Reflections on Eros and Agape, this book offers a guided meditation on key quotes from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical God is Love.   In the midst of our pornographic culture, like John Paul II before him, Benedict is helping us recover the true meaning of erotic love (eros) as an image of divine love (agape).

God’s Divine Love for Us is  Erotic

One day someone contacted me who had heard me on the radio.   She thought that, by appealing to erotic love as an image of God’s love, I was somehow debasing God.   We obviously have to be careful in the way we apply this imagery.   Heaven, for instance, is not going to be “sex in the clouds.”   We use the loving union of man and woman only as an analogy of the love we will experience in the heavenly “Marriage of the Lamb” (see Rev 19).  I’d suggest, however, that what’s really involved in the difficulty we can experience applying erotic imagery to God is not a debasement of God, but a debasement of sex.   We have been conditioned by our pornographic culture to think of sex in a radically distorted way.   When this distorted vision appears as the “norm,” it becomes increasingly difficult to reclaim the pure meaning of sexuality and erotic love as an image of the divine.   When we seek to do so, we are often overwhelmed by what we might call “pornographic interference.” Like static snow on a TV screen, you try to make out the true image, but interference distorts the picture.

This, I would suggest, is the precise goal of the deceiver, the one who is ultimately behind the terrible distortion of sex in today’s world.   He is quite literally hell-bent on keeping us from recognizing the true meaning of our bodies and sexuality.   Why?   Because if we come to understand and live the true theology of our bodies, it will launch us like a rocket into the heart of the mystery of God.  As Pope Benedict explains, “The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, describe God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images” (God is Love, n. 9). The story of Hosea taking a prostitute for a wife at the Lord’s command is well known.   In this marriage we discover an image of God’s love for us, his unfaithful spouse.   Betrothed love is the proper expression of eros.   Hence, since this betrothal expresses God’s love for his people, God’s “love may certainly be called eros,” Pope Benedict tells us, “yet it is also totally agape” (n. 9).

True and False Prophets

God’s love is a love that yearns for intimacy with the “other” and rejoices in that other’s beauty.   “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is 62:5).   The Prophet Ezekiel’s imagery is even more explicit:

And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full maidenhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.   When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love. …I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. (Ez 16:7-8)

Pope John Paul II taught that the body and erotic love have a “prophetic” meaning.   The body “speaks.”   The union of spouses proclaims a “great mystery” — the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).   But wherever prophets are sent to proclaim truth, false prophets inevitably appear with cunning schemes to distort that truth and deceive God’s people.   Pornographers are false prophets.   And our difficulty as God’s people in seeing the true theological  meaning of the body and erotic love is a measure of their success.  If we find it difficult or even impossible to see the mystery of God revealed through human sexuality, it’s probably because we have been “evangelized” by men like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint, rather than by men like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.   This is why our world (beginning with all of us in the Church), as both popes have insisted, is desperately in need of a new evangelization.

Spring Awakening: A Cry From the Depths for Sexual Redemption

By: Christopher West

spring

If you’re familiar with Broadway musicals, you’ve certainly heard of Spring Awakening.   In this rendition of Frank Wedekind’s play, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik make creative use of their modern rock score to explore the inner world of teenage angst and yearning in sexually repressed 19th century Germany.

First performed in the Spring of 2006, the secular press hailed it “an unexpected jolt of sudden genius.”   Some religious folk, on the other hand, deemed it an “abomination” with no goal other than to encourage sin.   Indeed, the play takes a very frank look at things like masturbation, fornication, sadism, incest, homosexuality, and abortion.   A few of these behaviors are portrayed on stage leaving little to the audience’s imagination.   Because of that alone, some might expect me as a teacher of Catholic sexual ethics to join the angry bandwagon of those who condemn this play outright.   But I’m not going to.   Let me explain why.

A Cry from the Depths of our Hearts

In his Letter to Artists, John Paul II wrote that “even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. …Even when they explore   the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (n. 10).

This explains precisely what I think Spring Awakening offers as a piece of art.   It does, indeed, explore some of the “most unsettling aspects of evil.” There where times during the show when I had to put my head down because of the “weight” of grief I was experiencing.   But the over-riding theme of this musical, as I saw it, was a cry from the depths of the spirit for redemption, more specifically, for the “redemption of the body” (Rom 8) so often spoken of by John Paul II.  With all its outspoken rebellion against religion, I’m convinced that this play — like the sexual revolution itself — is not a rejection of Christianity per se.   Rather, it rejects the heretical, puritanical vision (or rather, anti-vision) of the body and sex that so often passes for Christianity.   Puritanism says “spirit good — body bad,” and the Catholic Church is the first to insist that this is something everyone should reject!

Puritanism  Breeds  Atheism

The hormone-laden teens in this play are longing for answers to their questions while parents, teachers, and preachers offer nothing but shaming condemnations.   Moritz pleads with his more informed friend Melchior, “Melchi, why—why am I haunted by the legs of a woman?”   Melchior responds, “All right then, I’ll tell you.   I got it out of books.   But prepare yourself: it made an atheist out of me.”  It struck me when I heard this line: puritanism breeds atheism — it must.   Why?   Because those who awaken to the goodness and beauty of human sexuality must reject any god who condemns it.

But such a god is not the true God — thank God!   Far from being evil, the Bible actually employs sexual love as its main analogy of divine love.   The Bible begins with the union of man and woman and it ends with the union of Christ and his bride, the Church.   And smack-dab in the middle of the Bible — literally the Bible’s centerpiece — is that divine ode to erotic love, the Song of Songs.  The Song of Songs is the authentic soundtrack of Christianity.   As great mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila have told us, it is the song that God has been singing to us throughout the ages as an invitation to ecstatic, blissful “nuptial union” with him.

Spring Awakening  is an attempt to break the bonds of puritanism and sing what the heart is created by God to sing — the Song of Songs.   In its search for that Song, it errs by swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other.   But if Christians only respond with condemnations without trying to understand and, even more, answer the utter cry of this play for sexual redemption, then Spring Awakening’s indictment of what it knows to be “Christianity” is both understandable and deserved.  Christ came to teach us how to sing the Song of Songs.   Would that that was what the teens in this play were taught by their parents, teachers, and preachers!

The Agony and Ecstasy of Being One-Flesh

By: Christopher West

ring and cross

A few years back, the title of an article in the National Catholic Register caught my attention —   “Divorce: In the Image and Likeness of Hell” (Sep 30 – Oct 6, 2007).   The first few sentences confirmed what I intuited from the title — this writer, Melinda Selmys, was going to speak plainly.   It seems she’d had enough of the sweet, pious lingo with which many Catholic writers often speak about marriage.   Heck, for all I know, she may have had me in mind.

She observes, “The theologians remind us that our married life is an image of the union between … Christ [and the Church].   We hear of … the bliss of the two becoming one.”   When things get tough, we are told “to improve our communication, fall in love with each other all over again, observe the tender moments, etc., etc.”  Then she allows such advice to butt up against the all-too real experiences of actual marriages.   “But how are you to fall in love again,” she asks, “with an insensitive beast who has broken your heart and slept with another woman?   How can you see your sex life as an image of the intimate life of the blessed Trinity when your wife consents only on a full moon when Mars is in Virgo, and makes love with the enthusiasm of a dead frog?”

The Brutal Truth

When I first read that last line, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.   But I did breathe a sigh of relief.   Man, it’s refreshing to hear people say it like it is.   For whatever reason, such brutally honest writing seems rare in much of the Catholic press.   It’s as if those who promote Catholic teaching are afraid it won’t go over so well if we talk about the real sufferings of following Jesus.   So we conveniently promote the glories of the Christian life without a realistic assessment of the sorrows.   I, myself, have been guilty of that on occasion, I think.  Christian marriage is a messy, painful business.   How could it be otherwise?   “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church” (Eph 5:25).   If marital union is an image of Christ’s union with the Church, this means, as Selmy observes, that marriage will involve “the same agony, the mingling of tears and blood, the same thorns digging into our skulls, the same nails plowed through our palms.”

In light of how many people believe the Church is “down on sex,” the glories and ecstasies to which authentic Catholic teaching calls spouses in their union should be emphasized.   But these glories and ecstasies are the fruit of embracing much purifying suffering.   If the joy is not set before us, we will have no motivation to endure the suffering.   “For the joy set before him Christ endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).   But if the path to those joys is not also realistically assessed, we will naively wonder why marriage is so agonizing.

A Realistic Look at the Pains of Marriage

As Selmys writes, “In every marriage there are moments when it seems impossible.   I am sure that when Christ fell on the road to Calvary, the thought of lifting his cross again … seemed like madness.   Perhaps its different through divine eyes, but for men, there are always moments when we turn to heaven and say, ‘Are you insane?’   When we are hardly able to see to the top of Golgotha through our dust-bitten tears, we derive no comfort from reassurances that crucifixion isn’t all that bad, and that, seen in perspective, its’ really a beautiful expression of love and self-giving.”

It is a beautiful expression of love, to be sure.   But it’s beautiful precisely because Jesus selflessly embraced the wine-press of suffering.   It’s when we’re face to face with that wine-press that we’re most tempted by sexual sin — be it an affair, internet pornography, masturbation, contraception.   Why?   Because sexual sin promises the pleasure without the pain, the “wine” without the wine-press.  True love is always linked with suffering.   As Fr. Paul Quay said in his book The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, “It is precisely this link between true love and suffering that is rejected by sexual sin.”   Christ suffered greatly in loving his spouse.   We are to follow him.