St. Valentine is seen in a mosaic in the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem. CNS photo/Crosiers

From Valentine’s to ashes

  • January 31, 2012

Anne was a pretty young blonde. She always had men interested in her, had friends, intelligence and a good career, and was a generous, good-hearted person. How surprising to hear, later on, she’d found her good looks a point of difficulty.

She’d learned that often people were interested in her body but not the rest of her; underneath her popularity she had trouble finding self-worth. So though she took good care of her body, she was not on good terms with it.

Another friend, Jenny, has a body that seems always to be against her. It’s had one illness after another, and the many medical interventions she’s undergone have cost her too. Visiting her in hospital, I suddenly became aware of the difference between being in my healthy body, and her ravaged one; between getting along with one’s body, and having it constantly fighting you, demanding, getting in the way.

If I asked Jenny, or Anne, whether they need to be reconciled with their bodies, they may not understand. If I said, “Do you like your body?” I’m sure they’d cry, “No!”

What if I invited them to love their bodies? It’s a hard question, whether we have stunning bodies or suffering ones. Likely without realizing it, we seem quickly to slide into worshipping or idolizing our bodies, or into doing battle with them.

This tussle with the body is reflected in our relationships, including our sexuality. The other day, I entered a shop looking for gift wrap. A shiny aisle seemed promising, so I headed towards it. Everything was red and heart-shaped, filling shelves from top to bottom on both sides of the aisle, as far as the eye could see. I’d wandered accidentally into Valentine’s Day, the strange annual festival of “relationship.”

Is it surprising that the shelves get filled in this way? Is this shiny attention-getter filling a void left by us Christians? Society tends to the extreme of worshipping the body—manifest in many ways, from advertising to sexual norms, to big-budget pornography which entraps many. What have Christians to say in return? What can we witness about loving the body without worshipping it, living our sexuality as gift of God without being harmed or harmful by it?

In the later 20th century, a movement arose to bring body and sexuality into the open, to bare these physical realities rather than covering them with shame (think of Masters and Johnson or Alex Comfort). Yet we don’t live in Paradise, where Adam and Eve could be naked and unashamed; perhaps our sexuality needs to be covered, not by shame but by reverence. At the same time, our young people, living in a body-obsessed, material-obsessed society, need a word from us. They need more than just “wait until marriage.”

Over the centuries, Christianity has been interpreted as being anti-body, anti-sex, anti-physical. At times, our Church has had trouble not being so. Movements have continually cropped up in the Church, from the second-century Encratites on down, teaching that salvation means being freed of the body.

Sometimes Christians have been encouraged to live as though sexuality itself was sinful, or as though the body was to be shunned. This is a misunderstanding of asceticism. For Christianity, the body is created good by God, and salvation is about body as well as soul. It must be so for followers of Christ, God’s Word made flesh, the person who unites in Himself divine and human, whose resurrection in the flesh is the turning-point of our faith.

From 1979 to 1984, in a series of general audiences, Pope John Paul II presented his “Theology of the Body.” Remarkably, Christians were invited to reflect on how to live in our bodies and to look at the place of the body in our relationship with the divine Trinity, as well as with each other. His teachings give a glimpse of how body and sexuality actually can point us towards God, towards our human destiny, the divine-human union and our own likeness to God. Far from being anti-body, this vision draws body up into the greater yet connected reality of soul, in the image of God.

How can we love our bodies? Valentine’s Day is soon followed by Ash Wednesday. Lent can help us to wrestle with the question, by asking the corresponding question: “How can we give bodily love?” Lent invariably begins with the physical.  We’re reminded that we’re made of earth, as we’re marked by ashes; we see Christ in the desert undergoing hunger, thirst, wild beasts.

Lent is profoundly mystical, but also terribly physical. Sometimes we think of it simply as a time to do good things, or make “lifestyle changes.” But our Lenten ascetical practices invite us to encounter more deeply our own bodies, to help us enter more deeply into the spiritual.

Take heart of a different sort as February melts into Lent. To follow this path with our lives can be searingly arduous. And searingly glorious.