Monday, May 28, 2012

The Theology of the Body: Retrieving the old to compliment the new

The Theology of the Body, as it has been taught in recent years, has capitalized on the sexual dimension of the body and its spiritual significance. This, no doubt, has contributed to its widespread popularity. Within this context, the person- both body and soul –is viewed as a gift to God, as a gift to one’s spouse and even as a gift in the communion of persons at large. Also, the very anatomy of the body- in its in male and female form –symbolizes, not only the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church, but in addition, it represents who God is in himself. And no doubt, it speaks to who we are in relation to God and each other. For this and so many other reasons, the Theology of the Body is of immense value for Christians.

But as the tradition of Theology of the Body moves forward and develops, it is important that it brings along with it older theological insights. Excuse the brief digression but quite often, when the Holy Spirit inspires a new direction for his Church or bids that a new emphasis is to be added, human weakness, nevertheless, enables us to focus only on the new thing while leaving the old but valuable thing behind.

For instance, the Holy Spirit, through Vatican II, inspired the Church to enter into "a kind of dialogue” with the people of the world; to understand them better; to know their longings, hopes and struggles; to answer their questions about life and the life to come; and to use the light of the Gospel to interpret all that is meaningful to them. But in the process of carrying this mandate out, not a few Catholics have left behind their sense of mission and conversion. I can’t tell you how many members of the clergy- even in high places –have made a truce with the world and other religions. In 2002, for instance, a committee comprised of U.S. Catholic cardinals, bishops and Jewish rabbis put out a statement that converting from one religion to another is not necessary for salvation. These representatives of the Church sent a message, at least to the Jewish world, that if you are not in communion with Christ and his Church…well…not to worry…just stay where you are at. In fact, when Dr. Scott Hahn was seeking to become Catholic, he knocked on a few rectory doors to inquire how he might enter to the Catholic Church. To his surprise, at least one member of the clergy (maybe two or three) informed him that it is not necessary to convert to Catholicism; again, the message he got was, “Just stay where you are at.” However, dialogue without mission and conversion is a gross misunderstanding of what God was telling the people of God through Vatican II.

As for the Theology of the Body (TOB), the presentation of its sexual-spiritual significance is a recent development. And as indicated, new developments run the risk of leaving behind well established truths and insights to complement it. From time to time, there have been TOB specialists who have masterfully communicated the beauty of human sexuality, inspiring an appreciation of its God-given purpose and design, but sometimes omitting old cautionary measures that should attend it. Even in the context of its theological truth and even with the aid of grace, the body or the flesh is still strongly inclined towards sin. In fact, the New Testament is clear on the following point: that the flesh continues to wage war on the spirit. While the body still lives, the law of sin “within its members,” to use the words of St. Paul, still lurks. And when spiritual vigilance is relaxed, the law of sin is bound to get the upper hand. Perhaps, in part, this relaxed vigilance is the reason why so many orthodox priests have fallen from grace in recent years. In advancing Blessed John Paul’s TOB, therefore, it is important to reacquaint ourselves with St. Paul’s theology of the body.

For St. Paul, the sexual-spiritual meaning of the body is implicit in his writings, to be sure. But what stands out clearly is the liturgical meaning of the body. The body as a temple (I Corinthians 3:16), the body as a living sacrifice to be offered to God for spiritual worship (Romans 12:1), the body as a libation being poured out for other people’s faith (Philippians 2:17), the body as that which is filled up with the afflictions of Christ for the sake of the Church (Colossians 1:24), the body that must be crucified to the world (Galatians 6:14), the body that carries the dying of Christ so that life may come to others (II Corinthians 4:10; 4:12), the body that must be conquered and trained lest we be disqualified (I Corinthians 9:27), the body’s desires that must be put to death (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5); and the body that must be "dead" so that the person may be absolved (Romans 6:7).

These themes were picked up by the early Church Fathers like St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 A.D.) and were made to shed light on the relationship between the Eucharistic sacrifice and martyrdom, the ultimate offering of the human body. As a prisoner in chains who was sentenced to be thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to several churches about his impending sacrifice. He said, "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ." Interestingly, he alluded to his body as the "wheat of God" and the "pure bread of Christ;" but on the condition that it be sacrificed.

By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the body is associated with God’s house and an offering for the altar. Like the first Jewish Temple which was destined to be destroyed (586 B.C.), the body will die. But like second Jewish Temple which was rebuilt( 515 B.C.), it shall be raised up again at the resurrection of the dead. When the body is blessed with God's presence and is conceived as having liturgical value and symbolism, it serves as an instrument of communicating the grace and merit of Christ’s Passion. Infirmity, disability and suffering can be transformed from an incidental misfortune to a liturgical act with a profound meaning for oneself and far reaching consequences for others. And as for the body being the house of God, it can be a place where the peace of a monastery and the beauty of a cathedral can be found.

In the book, Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to Coroticus, John Skinner gives one of the reasons behind the Apostle of Ireland’s perseverance in his mission. It is as if he hints at this interior cathedral of beauty that the Holy Spirit builds up within the soul: “Pascal said that in difficult times you should always keep something beautiful in your heart. Patrick is able to survive these harsh and lonely territories of exile precisely because he keeps the beauty of God alive in his heart. The inner beauty of the divine intimacy transfigures outer bleakness. This inner intimacy brings his soul alive. It opens the world of divine imagination to this youth.”

And when life has taken a toll on the body, its liturgical meaning can give hope to the weary. In his Book of Morals, a commentary on the book of Job by Pope St. Gregory the Great, he said, “When Paul perceived within himself the riches of internal wisdom, yet saw the corruptibility of his own body, he was led to say: We have this treasure in earthen vessels. Now in the blessed Job the earthen vessels felt the gaping sores without, while the treasure of wisdom remained whole and intact within. For outwardly his body was in agony, but inwardly from the treasure of wisdom came forth holy thoughts: If we have received good from the Lord, why should we not endure evil? The good here refers either to the temporal or to the eternal gifts of God, and the evil to the scourges of the present time…”

Dr. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, psychiatrist and a Jewish convert to the Catholic Faith, said that those who kept their peace and sanity during their imprisonment at Auschwitz, were able to draw from the world from within. For those people of faith especially, their interior world of cathedral beauty, monastic peace and the cherished memories of God’s blessings they enjoyed in life, served to not only sustain them, but to go beyond themselves and carry out acts of charity. Though their bodies experienced a kind of hell, their souls were in communion with the God of strength and beauty. It also worth pointing out that 1 out of 28 people survived Auschwitz.

What works for suffering and trials, also works when the pleasures of the flesh are provoked by occasions of sin. The liturgical meaning assigned to the body by St. Paul is not just one of positive affirmation- something beautiful and valuable; he also reminds us that the body is something to be sacrificed due to its strong inclinations to sexual sin. And I think this is where some TOB specialists have fallen short (I say, “some”). Indeed, sometimes there has been an unguarded approach to the topic of human sexuality and all of its theological richness; almost forgetting that the law of sin, as St. Paul said in Romans 7, is at enmity with the law of the spirit. Even St. Francis of Assisi called his body “brother ass” so as to remind himself that there is a principle at work; a principle that needs to be continually offered to God through self-denial, discipline and vigilance.

As previously mentioned, there seems to have been a wave of fallen priests within the last decade. But priests are not the only ones struggling with their own sexuality; lay men and women are too. My spiritual director, who is now a bishop, said that over half of the confessions he hears from men have to do with pornography. It would be commendable, therefore, that teachers and speakers of the Theology of the Body, in addition to explaining the God-given beauty and design of sexuality, would retrieve the liturgical meaning and significance of the human body.

The body is a gift designed for the purposes of sexual love and communion to be sure, but it always bears repeating that it is also a gift of offering that must be prepared for sacrifice through acts of self-denial and charity. As such, the body, having been sanctified by grace, will grow into a house fit for God's dwelling where peace and beauty can be found. But such a house cannot be built without our vigilance and untiring efforts.