Marriage, Family, and the “Spousal Meaning of the Body”
The last few weeks of summer have been pretty beautiful. The day before yesterday, early evening, as the sun cast a golden glow across the Norfolk beach where my friends and I had spent the afternoon, I had one of those moments when you just think, “God, you are so good, and all of this is so good.”
A little group of us including my sister’s family and two other young families who are our friends (a myriad of all kinds of connections you get in the Catholic world, including some of us being at university together) spent the week near Walsingham. With six children age 3 and under and lots of early starts, yes, it was shattering, and most evenings involved a good amount of gin and stupid games when the kids were asleep.
And through the chaos, it was a week of many of these golden-edged moments… Seal-watching early one morning, incredible worship at the Youth 2000 festival, a stunning cycle ride round the Holkham Estate, lots of storytelling, duck-feeding, prayers and Mass together, a big BBQ one night with lots of other friends who were in Walsingham for the week, consecrating all of our families to the Holy Family in the Slipper Chapel on the final morning of our holiday. Someone asked if we’d had any arguments that week, as perhaps sometimes happens when lots of different people stay together for a period of time. But no, we didn’t… it was blissful and it was hard saying goodbye at the end. I know from my friends that parenting and family life in the trenches are tough, and somehow, doing it together with friends for one week made it consoling, fun, encouraging.
Just the week before, I had been at Buckfast Abbey for a School of the Annunciation summer school on Catholic moral teaching. I gave four lectures on Theology of the Body, and so my entire summer has been permeated with JPII’s “theological time-bomb” teaching. I hadn’t read Theology of the Body since I was at uni, when I determinedly ploughed through it one summer, drawing pictures to help get my head around the dense philosophy (and it was much denser in the days before the new Dr Michael Waldstein translation!). So, this summer, on moments on a beach in Wales, in a forest near home, and in my parents’ back garden, I found myself not reading a summer novel, but rather, Theology of the Body. God knew what he was doing when I was asked to give these talks, he somehow knew that filling my days and reading time with TOB was exactly what I needed.
One of the themes that runs through TOB is the “spousal meaning of the body”. JPII defines this at one point as,
the body’s “power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through the gift – fulfils the very meaning of his being and existence” (TOB 15:1)
How much I have reflected on these words… Of course, in the face of looking after under 3s, you wonder could this be any plainer?! Parents’ expression of love for their child is a complete outpouring of themselves; but it is also the experience of the young people pouring themselves out in running the Youth 2000 festival, and it was my experience on World Youth Day last month. I remember aching with tiredness and still pushing on, and knowing this is the experience of the crucible of parenthood, especially when children are really small. And in all this, I reflected, we see the “spousal meaning of the body”, what it looks like to make a gift of ourselves, and in this, discovering the “meaning of our being and existence”.
“…man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24)
I mentioned that earlier this summer, a close friend of mine was ordained a priest. Less than a month ago, another close friend of ours got married. In my final session on Theology of the Body, I included some of JPII’s teaching on celibacy, and also his reflection on the complementarity of celibacy and marriage. I love what he says about this:
In “the life of an authentically Christian community, the attitudes and values proper to one and the other state … in some sense interpenetrate” (TOB 78:4)
How beautiful this is. Marriage, he says, reminds celibates that the nature of their vocation and of their love is to be “spousal”. While celibacy reminds those who are married that their marriage is a temporal sign of the eternal reality of ultimate union with God. (See TOB 81 for more on this).
What I taught last week, I really experienced this week, sharing a beautiful house with a mix of friends who are married and celibate. What a gift both can be to the other. And tonight, knowing that I won’t be woken by a toddler as soon as the sun rises, I still know that the most beautiful way to live life is “spousally” – in a complete gift of yourself such that you lose and forget yourself. It really is the only way to live, to be free, to be happy. And I knew that for sure on that golden Norfolk beach.
From the Archives… Other posts on Theology of the Body: