By: Christopher West
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 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?