What Theology of the Body Teaches on Suffering

According to St. John Paul II, one of the goals of his Wednesday audiences was to provide an “adequate anthropology of man.”  In layman’s terms, he wanted to lay out a way of understanding that we are as male and female that can provide answers to a lot of the questions we have in life. The Theology of the Body might not provide answers to everything, but its principles are surprisingly versatile.  The Pontiff hinted at this when he concluded his Wednesday audiences on the subject:

We must immediately note that the term “theology of the body” goes far beyond the content of the reflections that were made. These reflections do not include multiple problems which, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message). We must state this clearly.

Why is suffering important to us as Christians?  While the world frequently misrepresents almost everything Christians believe, they seem to instinctively understand that we have a certain understanding about the nature of suffering.  This has often been something even non-Christians have respected and admired about Christianity:  it offers us real lessons on how to deal with life once the pleasure cruise inevitably stops.  Yet today’s TOB is mostly about the pleasure cruise.  It offers nothing on the other important questions of life, and that’s a shame.  Even more so when we realize that there’s actually quite a bit the principles of TOB can tell us about suffering.

One of the most important facts about our human nature is that, precisely because it was such a good and noble thing, Christ had a human body.  In having a body, Christ elevated every aspect of our faculties towards their true purpose:  serving God.  This purpose is written within the code of our creation.  One of the ways Christ lived that code is through his suffering.  (Isaiah 53)  Christ didn’t tell people to live a life defined by pleasure, but to “take up your cross and follow me.”  This isn’t to say that Christians never experience joy, or that we will always suffer.  It is however a statement that the life of a Christian is a life of great difficulty, but even greater reward.  The great Christian thinker Tertullian reflects on this mystery in his work On the Resurrection of the Flesh:

Come, tell me what is your opinion of the flesh, when it has to contend for the name of Christ, dragged out to public view, and exposed to the hatred of all men; when it pines in prisons under the cruelest privation of light, in banishment from the world, amidst squalor, filth, and noisome food, without freedom even in sleep, for it is bound on its very pallet and mangled in its bed of straw; when at length before the public view it is racked by every kind of torture that can be devised, and when finally it is spent beneath its agonies, struggling to render its last turn for Christ by dying for Him— upon His own cross many times, not to say by still more atrocious devices of torment. Most blessed, truly, and most glorious, must be the flesh which can repay its Master Christ so vast a debt, and so completely, that the only obligation remaining due to Him is, that it should cease by death to owe Him more— all the more bound even then in gratitude, because (for ever) set free.

Tertullian finds solace in suffering in that through suffering, the flesh follows the path Christ trod.  Just as Christ became a fragrant offering to the Father, so we become a fragrant offering through our tribulation.  With every act of suffering, we can gain a greater insight into the depth and nature of the debt God paid for us when He became man and died the cruelest of deaths, a death reserved for traitors.

So important is this aspect of the flesh (its ability to suffer), that Tertullian proclaims caro cardo salutis, that salvation hinges on the flesh.  For him, it is impossible to believe “except while in the flesh.”  The flesh provides proof of that belief.  In language those familiar with the Theology of the Body might say, the life lived via the flesh reveals what we choose to have communion with.

What can the Theology of the Body tell us about this?  Quite a bit actually.  When the Christian suffers, their external suffering reveals the invisible truth behind that suffering:  they place the original communion we were all called to have with God over everything in this world.  Our suffering shows how important that call is.  In a very real way, our suffering is evidence of that communion.  Why is this so?

The Second Vatican Council teaches that man can “only find himself through a sincere gift of self”; something the Theology of the Body has at the center of its teaching.  Due to concupiscence, a sincere gift of self is the last thing man is inclined towards.  A sincere gift of self implies a lack of control, certain vulnerability.  Faced with such vulnerability, mans first instinct is to do what Adam did:  run and hide.  (Genesis 3:8)  If they can’t hide forever, they often turn to despair in seeking death like Cain.  (Genesis 4:14)  The Biblical story explicitly ties Cain’s refusal of any suffering as the reason for his downfall.  (Genesis 4:6-8)

Christ shows us the depths we must be willing to go to in that gift, even if it is the Cross.  Just as a lack of suffering was Cain’s downfall, Christ’s suffering was the cause of his glory.  (Philippians 2:6-11)  Our own vocations tell a similar tale.  All great marriages are not pleasure cruises, and the same goes for all holy religious.  Pope Francis spoke of even good marriages in which “dishes will be broken.”  Through a lifetime of discipline and love, husband and wife learn to let go of their own desires and wants, and instead focus on living a life of service to their spouse.   Through that service, they find out what they were really created for:  to love someone else, mainly God.

Modern society (and indeed most of contemporary Christianity) goes to great lengths to try to get us to ignore this message.  Yet despite their best efforts, man cannot get rid of the call stamped into the very fiber of his being.  Modern man knows something is wrong, even if he can’t say what.  A true Theology of the Body, that takes into account all the needs and desires of man can be one powerful tool amongst many in evangelizing him.

image: Station of the Cross in Czestochowa / Shutterstock

Kevin Tierney

By

Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • John O’Neill

    Thank you Kevin for this most inspiring article from the theology of Saint John Paul II. The mystery of suffering has always been at the center of Catholic spirituality and always will be. I still remember from my pre Vatican II school days the good nuns telling us to offer up our suffering for the poor souls in purgatory. It took a long time to understand that this advice is really our way of explaining the role of suffering in our life. It is something positive and something that can be used for the good. To accept our suffering gladly for the glory of God is the true mission of us struggling souls in the Church Militant.

  • Ron

    I am surprised that you didn’t mention Saint Pope JPII’s letter on suffering, issued in February of 1984. See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_en.html

  • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

    Hello Ron,

    There’s a lot that could be quoted, and that’s certainly one of the resources. I cited Tertullian because it’s a text not many are familiar with, but it’s also a pretty old source. I wanted to show that this kind of stuff isn’t new, and that, even though he used different language, he was speaking in more or less the same concepts as John Paul was.

    It’s more or less a choice I made in trying to broaden everyone’s knowledge of TOB to outside of John Paul II.

MENU