|Celebrating Catholic Motherhood|
with Pat Gohn
Live the Gift: Self-donation is Vocation
By Pat Gohn
The fourth article in a series on “Theology of the Body.” To read the second article click here.
In our house full of teenagers, I sometimes hear a snicker when they learn I’m taking another class or reading another book about sex—(yes, the theology of the body!)—and I’m learning this stuff from a pope no less!! My graduate studies in theology have led me to read, study, and write about John Paul II’s theology of the body. I’m no expert, so, be assured that you don’t have to be a theology student to embrace the beauty of this teaching or to be inspired by its wisdom. And even a teenager might be impressed to learn that sex, and who we are as masculine and feminine persons, were God’s original ideas. Our sexual selves were designed for a radical calling—to make a complete gift of oneself for another.
Let us explore this idea of gift. And as we do, I want to invite you to, slowly and meditatively, read and “hear” the words of the Holy Father contained in the remainder of this article.
Before he was even pope, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) wrote in Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press, 1981):
It is not sexuality which creates in a man and a woman the need to give themselves to each other, but, on the contrary, it is the need to give oneself, latent in every human person, which finds its outlet… in physical and sexual union, in matrimony. But the need… to give oneself and to unite with another person is deeper and connected with the spiritual experience of the person. It is not finally and completely simply with union with another human being. Considered in the perspective of the person’s eternal existence, marriage is only a tentative solution of the problem of a union of person through love.
What John Paul II is saying is similar to St. Augustine who said, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Very simply, this ache we have in our lives can only finally be filled by God. The best another person can be for us (for example, our marriage partner) is a sacrament (which indeed is a most wonderful gift since it communicates divine grace.) But, ultimately, our true fulfillment will be later on in Heaven.
But what are we to do in the meantime? Live The Gift.
The universal call to holiness in this: for the Christian we must live our lives in total self-donating love to others. Jesus said, as recorded in John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Every human person is called to love unselfishly and to lay down their lives as a gift to others, like Jesus did. How radical is that? Totally radical, as a teen I knew once said.
What’s more, living the gift is completely counter-cultural. And because we’ve been so formed by the influence of our culture, for most of us, it is completely counter-intuitive. In other words, we are very much me-first, and then, maybe, others-second. Recall Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And so, with the help of God, we can re-tune our intuitions and inclinations to the will of God, which redirects and reorders the gift of our love.
For married spouses, it means laying their lives and bodies down in loving service to one another and their families. The sign of this gift of total self-donation is the conjugal act, and it reflects, by analogy, the life of love and communion between the members of the Trinity.
The same goes for celibates in religious life. They, too, lay their lives down in loving service for others. In fact, the sign of their celibate vocation, in choosing freely not to experience the conjugal act, they make an offering of that gift unto God, as a sign to the rest of us of the purity and enormity of the heavenly marriage that is to come. Indeed, they image in their sign, that future union of Christ and His Bride, the Church. You might call it, an image of heaven on earth.
For single people of all ages,
it means purely, chastely, pouring oneself out freely to others in
loving service in preparation for eventual marriage or religious life.
Or if neither vocation is available due to age or circumstances, then
one should focus on the living the gift with as much humility and
grace as possible.
John Paul II explains this in great detail in his enormous work, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body, translated by Michael Waldstein:
This is the body: a witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs. Masculinity-femininity—namely, sex—is the original sign of [God’s] creative donation… This is the meaning with which sex enters into the theology of the body. (14:4).
All creation is Gift, and so our bodies and human nature as masculine and feminine are gift. We must receive the gift of the divine and, in a certain sense, give birth and return the gift to God. This goes back to that inner yearning or “ache” to be gift and to give a gift. Indeed, we are designed in our bodies to be gift to one another.
More from Waldstein’s translation of John Paul II:
Man appears in the visible world as the highest expression of the divine gift, because he bears within himself the inner dimensions of the gift. (19:3)
The gift reveals, so to speak, a particular charism… of the very essence of the person. When God-Yahweh says, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gen. 2:18), he affirms that ‘alone,’ the man does not completely realize his essence. He realizes it only by existing ‘with someone’—and, put even more deeply and completely, ‘for someone.’ (14:2)
The concept of ‘giving’ cannot refer to nothing. It indicates the one who gives, and the one who receives the gift, as well as the relation established between them. (13:4).
The giving and accepting [of] the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving. (17:4)
This brings us to one of the central ideas in the theology of the body, as we recall, “the spousal meaning of the body.” We continue with Waldstein’s translation of John Paul II:
The spousal meaning
of the body refers to the body’s power to express love: precisely
that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this
The spousal meaning of the body also indicates the power and deep availability for the ‘affirmation of the person’ [as] someone unique and unrepeatable, someone chosen by eternal Love. The ‘affirmation of the person’ is nothing other than welcoming the gift. (15:4)
Even if this meaning does undergo and will undergo many distortions, it will always remain [at] the deepest level… as a sign of the ‘image of God’. (15:5)
Christ’s words, which flow from the divine depth of the mystery of redemption, allow us to discover and strengthen the bond that exists between the dignity of the human being (of the man or the woman) and spousal meaning of his body. On the basis of this meaning, they allow us to understand and bring about the mature freedom of the gift, which expresses itself in one way in indissoluble marriage and in another by abstaining from marriage for the kingdom of God. In these different ways, Christ fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear. (86:8)
When we live the gift, we love as God intended, and when we love as God intended, well, then, it’s ALL GIFT. Even my teenagers get that.
This article made extensive use of quotations from Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body, John Paul II’s general audience addresses on Human Love in the Divine Plan, Michael Waldstein, translator, (Pauline Press, 2006).
With special thanks to Christopher
West and the Theology
of the Body Institute.
©2007 Patricia W. Gohn
2037 W. Bullard #247
Fresno, CA 93711
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