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For Your Marriage

The Mountains Bring the Freedom: The Theology of the Body

Karol Wojtyla regularly escaped from the Communist regime into the mountains of Poland. Once there, he and some 200 married couples kayaked, hiked, and talked. They planned no particular diplomatic intervention or militaristic coup. Instead, they discussed the mainstay of resistance to the occupying power. The mountains brought the freedom to converse about the identity of the human person and marriage.

Some thirty years later, Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II, conversed with a worldwide audience. He gave a series of lectures not in the countryside, but in Rome, almost every Wednesday from 1979 to 1984. The occupying powers this time were secularization, materialism, and the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. His escape route was the same: he taught on the “theology of the body” to describe the identity of the human person and of marriage.

In the theology of the body, Pope John Paul shows no embarrassment for his repeated appeal to the two accounts of creation in Genesis. He admits the accounts are myth, but not in the rationalist sense of fable. They are the classical myth: more than true, they convey a truth too dense to fit in a fact. Instead, the fable is the modern approach to the human person and marriage.

False ideas abound for persons entering marriage today. The contemporary focus on acquisition and consumerism translates into: “The more I get the happier I’ll be.” The concentration on materialism and usefulness translates into “I am what I own.” The emphasis on feeling good translates into “If it feels good do it.” These ideas infect marriage and the sense of the human person. Couples begin to “run their marriages” as a business rather than a bond of love.

The Genesis picture is different. God creates the visible world through a series of commands. The commands cease on the sixth day. God pauses and ponders within himself (Gen 1:26-27). The manner of the human person’s creation is different from that of the rest of the world because the person is different, created in the image and likeness of God. Classical theology teaches that man is the image and likeness of God in the capacity to know and to love.

The second chapter of Genesis presents a mysterious interval between the creation of man and that of woman (Gen 2: 7; Gen 2:22). This interval is the basis for a series of meanings, or original experiences, about the internal identity of the human person and the relation man to woman.

The first original experience is Original Solitude. The popular notion of solitude is a calm, silent retreat at a monastery on a hill. This is not the solitude to which John Paul refers. Original Solitude is the internal, spiritual identity of the human person and the person’s search outside the self to be in relation. Through tilling the soil (Gen 2:5), naming the animals, (Gen 2:19) and the command regarding the tree (Gen 2:17) Adam realizes his identity on the basis of his body: he is a being who has the capacity for consciousness, self-knowledge through self-awareness and self-determination in and through the body.

The body reveals meaning and identity and includes the search outside himself in openness to another in relation. God says, “It is not good for man to be alone, I shall make a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). Of course, there is no evil in paradise, so what does “not good” mean here? “Not good” means that man’s identity is not yet complete. The helper is not a helper to till the soil or to name the animals. The helper is the helper in terms of the man’s very identity.

The second original experience, Original Unity, reveals the meaning of the human person created always as either masculine or feminine. The sleep of Adam is no ordinary nap. For Pope John Paul, the sleep precedes a great action of God, as when Abraham fell into a sleep or trance before encountering God, as did Jacob, St. Joseph, and the apostles. The sleep is Adam’s return to the moment preceding his creation. The sleep reveals that Eve is created by God alone. Yet, created from the rib, they share the same humanity.

Upon awakening, Adam speaks for the first time. All the beauty of God’s previous creation has not caused him to speak. But the beauty of woman does. He exclaims, “This, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called woman, because she has been taken from her man” (Gen 2:23). Adam recognizes her on the basis of her body. And in naming her, he reveals something about himself. Up to now in the Genesis text he has been called the general “Adam” or “person.” Yet when he names her, “woman,” he names himself “man.” Her identity unlocks his, and his identity reveals that of her. The meaning of her identity for his own fills his consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-determination and vice versa.

The third original experience is Original Nakedness. The account further notes that man and woman were naked but not ashamed (Gen 2:25). The nakedness is not merely that Adam and Eve have no clothes. Nakedness is more about what they do have: they share the vision of God when God looked at all he made and said it was very good (Gen 1:31). In the nakedness they see each other with the original vision of God. They understand the meaning of the other and the body of the other in a direct, immediate, simple, full and complete manner.

The body of the other or the self may never be used as an object in a selfish manner. The other is always and only a gift. Love and life always take the form of the gift of self. The meaning of the body for life and love is a spousal meaning. The reciprocity between man and woman is inscribed with the quality of the gift of self. The gift includes from the beginning the blessing of fertility. The communion of persons in marriage in which the two become one so that they may become three – is so profound that John Paul notes the communion of persons as decisive for man as the image of God.

Marriage is the reminder that love can never be reduced to the satisfaction of my own personal need, erotic or otherwise. The spousal meaning of the body is wounded in sin, but not destroyed. Pope John Paul shows that through the human person’s own choice to doubt the gift the person “casts God from his heart” by sin. The fourth original experience, Original Shame, outlines the effects of concupiscence as the flesh wars against the spirit. Through a “fundamental disquiet” and an “interior imbalance,” fear and shame disrupt the relation of marriage. The tendency to reduce and try to dominate or possess the other begins to infiltrate the gift of self. The grace of Christ and the life of virtue both restore the human person’s fruitful response to the spousal meaning of the body.

The theology of the body reasserts the original meaning of the person as a gift fulfilled in an original way through the gift of self in marriage. Through John Paul’s words married couples and those preparing for marriage can find themselves escaping into the mountains away from acquisition to be the gift, away from materialism to spend themselves for the other, away from focus on pleasure to the beauty of the gift of self.

Additional resources:

  • Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
  • Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, translated by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).