The Poetry of the Body

One of my goals with these posts about Catholic art is to show the profound relationship between beauty and the truths of the Catholic faith. Wonderful works of art have been inspired by our beliefs. However, it is not only artists who are inspired by the theologians, but sometimes, the theologians are inspired by the artists. That is, some works of art have led theologians to gain further insights of some revealed truth, they have helped to further express some theological truths that are only later systematized and expressed in theological language.

Such is the case with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. More often than not, we think of this body of work in purely philosophical and theological terms. If we ponder on the various influences that gave it origin, the names of Kant, Descartes and Husserl come immediately to mind. However, we forget that one of Pope John Paul II’s main influences came not from Philosophy, or even from Systematic Theology, but from poetry. As he himself would recognize, one of his most significant sources of inspiration was the mystic poetry of a humble Carmelite friar: Saint John of the Cross. John Paul II was so moved by St. John of the Cross’ poetry that he taught himself Spanish in order to be able to read him in his original language!

St. John of the Cross

Now Saint John of the Cross was a great theologian, so great that he is one of the revered Doctors of the Church, but even before being a great theologian, he was a great poet. Some say, and I would not object to it, that he is the finest poet of the Spanish language. Certainly, one of the things that make his poetry special is that, besides being beautiful, it is also profoundly theological. One might say that, just as St. Thomas Aquinas presented his theological conclusions in structured logical tracts, St. John of the Cross expressed his in verse. Talk about using art to teach the faith!

The question probably arises, though, as to how the poetry of this monk, whose main theme is the mystical union of the soul with God, could be related with JPII’s Theology of the Body. What do such lofty spiritual matters have to do with such a carnal thing as the love of a man and a woman? The best thing to do is to let the verses of Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul illuminate us:

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
—ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
—him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

 I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

At first sight, this could seem one more amongst the many love poems that are out there. If we unknowingly ran into this poem, we would hardly think of it as a religious poem and would probably find the title misleading. And yet, the author himself affirms that it is a description of the union of the soul with God, that is, the most important moment of the mystical experience. Why then does he use these sexual images to describe a spiritual matter? John Paul II provides us with an answer: he understood that if Saint John of the Cross can use these images to describe divine love it is only because human love is meant to be an image of divine love. Saint John’s artistic intuition revealed what John Paul II would explicitly state, almost five hundred years later in his teachings on sexuality: human love is analogous to divine love. Divine love is, therefore, the model which human love must imitate. This is the foundational teaching of the Theology of the Body.

Of course, that was not the only insight that John Paul II derived from St. John’s poetry. Another one of his poems will help us follow the pope’s train of thought as he developed his views with respect to human love as an image of God’s love. The poem is titled Romance on the Gospel Text In Principio Erat Verbum regarding the Blessed Trinity, and I will only use some select verses, since the poem itself is rather long.

As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.

It is clear that St. John of the Cross is speaking of the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity. However, they also allow us to arrive at a first conclusion with respect to the likeness of human and divine love. The book of Genesis declares: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). A common interpretation of this verse leads us to see every individual person as made in the image of God, possessing, for that very reason, an infinite dignity. Another often cited exegesis of this verse refers to our intelligence and will and our personality as the image of God. While both of these are true, Pope John Paul II does not stop there. He sees this and more. Man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God not only in their individual existence, but also in their existing together. Marriage, as a communion of love between a man and a woman is the image of the communion of love that exists between the three divine persons. Marriage is, therefore, not only a human institution but, more importantly, a sacred institution because it is made in the image of God Himself. The community of persons that is formed by the sacrament of marriage is meant to reflect the community of persons that is the Most Holy Trinity!

Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

A second conclusion that we can deduce from this poem is that human love ought to be unitive just like divine love is unitive by nature. To remind us of that, John Paul II refers us constantly to the book of Genesis: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen. 2: 24). That way, when man and woman marry and become “one body” they are reflecting the perfect union of the Holy Trinity that, being three distinct persons, forms a single God. Just as the divine unity is indissoluble, so is the marital bond. Seeking to break this bond goes against the very nature of marriage as God intended it “in the beginning”, as Christ told the Pharisees when they questioned him about divorce (Mt. 19: 3-11). The Church opposes divorce, among many other reasons, because it distorts this reality.

I will go seek my bride
and take upon myself
her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so;
and that she may have life,
I will die for her,
and lifting her out of that deep,
I will restore her to you.

A third conclusion that the Theology of the Body arrives at has to do with marriage and love as a mutual gift of self. This always implies a sacrifice and giving up of personal interest in order to achieve the good of the other. The oft quoted passage from the Letter to the Ephesians points this out: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5: 21). It goes on further, making clear the way in which this love ought to be like God’s love:

“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” (Eph. 5:22-30)

Marriage understood in this manner is also an image of God: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5: 32).

St. John of the Cross and his good friend St. Teresa of Avila, reformers of the Carmelite Order

All this allows us to understand why the Church is so keen on defending marriage. If marriage properly understood reveals such intimate aspects of God’s very self, its distortion obscures them. It makes it more difficult for them to come into the light. God intended to reveal so many things about his own nature through human marriage that we could only expect the Devil to use all his power to try to confuse us about it! Maybe what our society needs is to re-read Saint John of the Cross. His poetry could not only educate us in a masterful use of language (which we most certainly need), but it could also guide us back to a correct understanding of human love and marriage and, hence, to restoring that image that will provide us a better knowledge of God.

Drawing of Christ crucified, by St. John of the Cross. “In the sunset of your life, you shall be judged in love”

Tags » , , ,

Related posts