By Fr. Jeffrey Stephaniuk
A conference entitled “Into the Heart” was held at St. Therese Institute in Bruno, Saskatchewan in early May, 2015. When even a little attention is given to some of the themes of Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, it is easy to start seeing these ideas everywhere in scripture and prayer. It is commonly heard that we can intellectualize much about religion, stay in our head, as it were, without saying anything from the heart, trying so hard to say something smart that we neglect what is more important: to say something from the heart.
“Go within with him”
“Because of your hardness of heart” is one of the foundational phrases behind the Theology of the Body, together with “but in the beginning it was not so.” In other words, we have been made for a dignity that we have nearly all but forgotten. Coming to the conference, then, part of the Institute’s Springtime of Faith series, was like starting the week in winter, frozen over, and over the course of the few days, warming up to the extent that breakthroughs in the ice were made by many participants as they moved from head to heart; they were able to work through memories and experiences and parts of themselves that they hadn’t considered for years because of certain pain associated with those parts of their lives.
“Go into the heart, but don’t go into the heart without Christ,” was the way this journey of purification was explained by the main presenter of the conference, Christopher West. “We have hard hearts, and if we go into our hearts with Jesus, he can heal all. Go within with him. God alone knows what is in the human heart, as also now do the saints who have gone through this purification.”
With such an introduction from West, it wasn’t long before common scripture passages took on new meaning: “Christ, who knows the hearts of men”; “a contrite heart God will not spurn”; and also for me, a phrase from the Eucharist service of Eastern Christianity, “You fully achieved the whole of the Father’s plan of salvation, fill our hearts with joy and gladness, always, now and forever and ever.” Even scriptural passages from the daily services started to reveal illustrations of themes from the Theology of the Body.
“So that your joy may be complete”
For example, on the last day of the program, one of the lines from scripture was “so that your joy may be complete.” We experience many joys throughout our lives, or to state some of the other words used in description of joy, bliss and even ecstasy. The point is that if God is excluded from our lives, it is impossible for human beings to experience the fullness of joy, completeness of happiness. To use pop-culture references of the kind that Christopher West often employs, without God we constantly “look for love in all the wrong places” and “can’t get no satisfaction, but I try and I try and I try.”
From that same concluding service, one of the other readings made reference to external observations and internal needs and experience, what Christopher West had earlier been calling ethic and ethos. From that bible reading from Acts, then, an illustration of what is involved in ethics, external observation, would be the practice of circumcision. Then, there was mention that God “knows the human heart.” The internal struggle concerned knowing the difference between an idol and the true God as far as religious observance was concerned, and similarly with regards to human relationships, entering into sexual relationships only on the basis of treating a person a person and not as an object. One of the conclusions of the conference was that persons who are not idols in their relationship reveal mystery of God’s love within the Trinity and Christ’s love for the Church.
“The body alone reveals the invisible”
On Wednesday of the conference, the saint of the day was Job, “The holy, just, and long-suffering one.” Job can be used as an illustration of how to understand Pope St. John II’s phrase that “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible; the spiritual and the divine.” Job is attacked in his body to get to his spirit, as a prayer on his feast day explains: “When the enemy of the just beheld the treasures of Job’s virtues, he sought to destroy them: he attacked his body but could not touch his spirit, for his pure soul was ready and strong.”
As another example, there is an Easter prayer that states “through the cross,” something in the physical world, “joy has come into the world,” that is, something spiritual that has consequences for us in this life and for eternity. One of the evening prayers spoke about having a good night’s sleep and the hope that the work we had done on that day may become for us as treasure in heaven. Another evening prayer during the conference, the prayer of Simeon, was included on each of the four nights: “now you can release your servant in peace; my eyes have seen your salvation.”
“Openness to new human life”
A common thread in all of the teachings of the Theology of the Body can be summarized in the phrase “openness to new life.” This openness includes acceptance of newly conceived human life, and also what was described by Lisa Anderson in her presentation on St. Therese of Liseux with regards to marriage that marriage is for the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. An attitude of openness to new life makes it possible to avoid the pitfalls of all moral temptations against body and life, and additionally, will hold a person in good stead when it comes to experiencing those moments that result in death and eternity; openness to life now and openness to life for eternity. Such are the high stakes involved in getting our origins, identity, and destiny properly understood.
Further, with reference to St. Therese, she is known for promoting the attitude of small physical sacrifices for a spiritual purpose. As for sacrifices, the insights in Psalm 50 (51) show that God is not pleased by the physical sacrifices in the usual religious sense of birds and calves, or in other religions the sacrifice of human beings. In this context, true sacrifice to God from human beings, who are body and spirit, must be more appropriate to their nature of reason and will, heart and soul: “a contrite heart God will not spurn.” Participation in the Eucharist is a much more worthy sacrifice than being a suicide bomber or beheading Christians. All those actions accomplish is the fulfillment of the scripture that “a day will come when those who kill you will think they are bringing glory to God.” But what they are doing remains in the physical realm, that is, murder of innocent human life.
“Ideas that might lead to martyrdom”
Christopher West even had a phrase that “there are ideas that someday might lead to Christian martyrdom,” speaking with reference to human identity as male or female, not the dozens as understood by the Facebook mentality, and that properly understood, there is no such thing as homosexual or transgender. These are invented words from about a hundred and fifty years ago. The only terms that fit who we are is male or female,” he explained near the end of the conference. “So do not buy into the vocabulary foisted on us by the culture. It is a terrible disservice to label people gay or transgendered. All you have is a person who is confused about what it means to be male or female. Our witness is to say that we’re all in the same boat of sexual confusion and Christ meets each of us where we are, he loves us right there, taking us step by step by step in the truth of who we really are.” He added that “language shapes the way we see reality: All that exists is sexuality, made by God as male and female.”
Another example given by Christopher West on the topic of language used for ideological purposes rather than with the intention of accurately describing reality is with relation to contraception. Contraception is related to homosexuality in that “men and women have homosexualized marriage by rendering the sexual act sterile.” Before contraception is ever a product to be bought and consumed, it is an attitude of human will: “contraception is the choice to engage in the sexual act and render it sterile.”
In other words, it is a choice of human will working against the health of one’s body, not the use of medicines that happen to have unintended consequences. Contraception happens in the will long before you ever take the pill. The will is disembodied from what the body of the newly conceived human being reveals: a new human life of body and soul. As a result, in the 1960s the definition of pregnancy was changed from fertilization to implantation. “But the reality is that pregnancy happens at the moment of conception,” West explained. “Not only is contraception against conception, it is also a contradiction of the language of the body.”
“Return to the reality of the unity of body and soul”
The separation of what Pope Paul VI calls “the unitive and the procreative” has resulted in the justification for human embryo experimentation, as well as the denial of the biological reality that one develops as a male or female already early on in one’s pre-natal development. Not only is pregnancy denied until a later stage, but also the humanity of the pre-born is denied until later and later points in time of development, on the principle or will rather than acknowledging the language of the pre-natal body, in other words that there is no baby until the mother says there is a baby and utters the magic words of “wanted.” In this mentality, no one but you can ever say if and when the pre-born ever become human beings or if an when an individual ever becomes a man or a woman.
The liberation from all this confusion comes by paying attention to the language of the human body, in the case what it is about the spirit and the divine that is revealed by the pre-natal human body. “Body language can be spoken truthfully, or falsely,” added West. “The body can speak prophetically, that is, God’s truth, but it must be discerned from the false prophets.” The false prophet of dissent to the Church document, “Of Human Life” released in 1968, is the error of “reducing the body to biology.” He explained that “when we are blind to the mystery revealed through the body, human identity becomes posited in thought, in the mind, and we become a consciousness within a body; no longer us, we are just a shell within which we dwell.” His conclusion was that “before we can accept or return to church teaching on human life, we must accept or return to the unity of body and soul.”
Theology and the True God
On several occasions during the week, Christopher West cautioned that we can never truly do justice in theology to describe who God really is in reality. We make our attempts, but analogies are limited, and our best efforts are limited, and fundamentally must sound as nonsense to God. There is a prayer in the Divine Liturgy that refers to this difficulty: “And yet, because of your love for mankind – a love which cannot be expressed or measured – You became man...” Reverence for God in all things goes a long way to keep us from speaking arrogantly about the spiritual life.
There are examples of those whose theology we can follow with confidence, such as John the Evangelist and Theologian. He is called a theologian for a reason. When he speaks about the connection between keeping the commandments and love of God, he shows the unity of ethic and ethos, the head and the heart. Christopher West uses the illustration of a musical instrument in the hands of a musician, beautiful music which is created, in contrast to one who is no musician at all, merely clanging along and making noise. In fact there is a prayer on the feast of St. John the Theologian that expresses his role in singing the praised of God as an instrument stirred by God himself: “The harp of heavenly songs played by God, the recorder of mysteries, the divinely eloquent mouth, beautifully chants the hymn of hymns.” Or as Christopher West stated, “we are creatures of rhythm, and God is a love song.”
“The one who cannot express himself”
There was an infant brought by his parents to the conference. The little boy was very well behaved and especially during times of singing he would add his voice. He became for me a metaphor of how God might see our attempts at theology. He was alive and vibrant and innocent and joining his voice to ours, perhaps thinking that he was sounding just like us when he sang along with us. Of course what we heard was the delightful tones of a baby’s first sounds. The Ukrainian word for infant basically means “the one who cannot express himself.” As we know, babies cannot speak, but they can sure communicate, whether it is their needs or their joy. God must hear our theology and smile in the same way, accepting from us our thoughts about him, reverence from the ones who cannot express themselves.
“Music and the heart of Christian mystery”
There is a beauty in the infant that is greater than his or her capacity to express oneself verbally. It is beauty that softens the hardened heart, such as a man’s awe before the beauty of a woman or humanity’s reverence before God. “The Lord is clothed with beauty,” is a phrase from one of the psalms. Jim Anderson gave these illustrations of the power of beautiful words to build the esteem of children: “A father needs to tell a son that ‘I love you and am proud of you.’” A biblical foundation for this statement would be the following: “You are my beloved son, and in you I am well pleased." It also gives food for thought about why the culture has "pride" parades - what are they grasping for by themselves, in the manner of Adam and Eve grasping for the knowledge of good and evil instead of accepting what God had intended as a gift.
Anderson continued with his second statement of affirmation: "A fathers to a daughter: I love you, and you are beautiful." A Marian reinforcement of this sentiment is found in Psalm 45:9: "The Queen stood at your right hand arrayed in gold, robed and adorned." Robed in beauty indeed.
There was a very powerful example given about the connection between beauty and the divine. It came from an individual during question and answer. He expressed gratitude for cleansing he had received in regained innocence after being liberated from an addiction to pornography, and was thankful for the pure heart he had regained, making it possible to see with new eyes, to see beauty. Based on the scripture, “blessed are the pure of heart,” one would have expected him to say “eyes to see God,” as in “blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” However, his choice of words was very honest, showing that in authentic human experience there is an equivalence between seeing beauty and seeing God.
“Body and soul in search of God”
This man’s experience in cleansing and healing is supported by an insight from Pope Benedict XVI that was provided in a section called “Eros: Our Yearning for the Infinite”: As we pass through “purification and healing,” it is possible to experience “authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” Pope Benedict has also found Theology of the Body references in scripture, how the physical reveals the spiritual, quoting a line from Psalm 63 then commenting on it: “O God, my God, for you I long at break of day; my soul thirsts for you, my body pines for you, like a dry land without water.’ Not only my soul, but every fiber of my flesh is made to find... its fulfillment in God. And this tension cannot be erased from man’s heart: even when he rejects God, the thirst for the infinite that abides in man does not disappear.”