Pope Francis made headlines in recent days by pointing out that there is more to the teaching of the Catholic Church than a few contentious issues, however important — fundamental, even — they may be. Christianity calls followers to a radical life of freedom in encounter with God. How do we live this encounter in our daily lives? John Paul II, during his tenure as shepherd of the world’s Catholics, gave a series of talks known as the theology of the body, about living an integrated life. Emily Stimpson, in a book released today, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about its timely, practical implications.
kathryn jean LOPEZ: Your book seeks to unpack the theology of the body for the lay man and woman but that sounds so . . . theological. Why should non-theologians keep reading?
emily STIMPSON: “Theology of the body” refers to a series of meditations given by John Paul II during his papacy. It answers some of the most pervasive and fundamental questions that all men and women across time have asked: Who am I? For what purpose do I exist? What does it mean to love? How am I to live?
You don’t have to be a theologian to care about those questions, and you definitely don’t have to be a theologian to read my book. I don’t focus on the philosophical and theological subtleties of theology of the body. I’m all about the practical, nitty-gritty application of it. So, what does the theology of the body have to do with eating Twinkies, running on a treadmill, or watching Dr. Who? Those are the questions I’m interested in, so those are the questions I address in the book.
LOPEZ: How much does the theology of the body actually have to do with sex?
STIMPSON: It has a lot to do with sex. It has many beautiful and powerful things to say about the physical dimension of human love. But it’s not only about sex. It also has lots to do with eating and drinking, dressing and dancing, work and friendship, liturgy and prayer. The theology of the body isn’t a sexology; it’s an anthropology, a meditation on what it means to be a human person, a union of body and soul, made in the image of God. As such, it has something to say to everything that we humans do in these bodies of ours.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the “bone church” (Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini) in Rome?
STIMPSON: Describing the Capuchin bone church in any way that doesn’t make it sound creepy and macabre is nearly impossible. I mean, the church features the bones of 4,000 dead monks turned into candelabras and ceiling medallions. How can it not sound spooky? But, oddly enough, it’s actually quite beautiful. It’s beautiful in its design, but more fundamentally, it’s beautiful in what it signifies. It’s beautiful to see bodies that were “temples of the Holy Spirit” in life become part of a literal “temple” in death. It’s also beautiful in the reminder it gives that these bones won’t always be bones. Someday, God willing, they’ll again belong to living bodies, resurrected bodies. And the more perfectly each of those monks imaged Christ in this life, the more beautiful his body will be in the next. The same holds true for all of us . . . although most of aren’t likely to spend the interim between death and resurrection as a chandelier.
LOPEZ: “Life,” you write, “is about God. It’s about falling in love with him and becoming like him so that we can be with him forever.” Is “falling in love” girl language? And does it work at a time when that phrase is in danger of taking on pop-song meaning at best.
STIMPSON: Admittedly, I think women tend to have an easier time than men with the concept of “falling in love” with God. That’s probably why you’ll find more women than men among the Catholic Church’s greatest mystics. But, male or female, we’re all called to love God with a single-mindedness that surpasses even that of the love between man and woman. That love, the love of a soul for Christ, is the real deal. It’s complete, transformative, and enduring. It’s eternal. The measure of the rest, of all the other loves we experience on this earth, is how closely they image that love and have been touched by that love.
LOPEZ: How is the theology of the body most significant in the life of a busy mom? Maybe a stay-at-home mom who is often made to feel she is not making the most of her life?
STIMPSON: One of the core teachings of the theology of the body is that each of us is called to make a gift of ourselves in love. And honestly, I can’t think of a more beautiful way to do that than as a mother. A mother gives her body as a gift to her child, nurturing him before he’s born. She then continues to give her body as a gift to that child after he comes into the world. She feeds him from her breast, bathes him with her hands, and comforts him with her arms. She cooks for him, cleans for him, educates him. Her whole life — from washing sippy cups to helping her child learn to say “please” and “thank you” — is a gift, a labor of love. The more love she pours into even the littlest actions, the more of herself she gives. In the end, résumés are tossed, promotions are forgotten, money comes and goes. But the work of nurturing and nourishing a life, with all the physical and spiritual effort that entails? Work doesn’t get more meaningful than that.