It has been over a decade since I first read Christopher West’s Good News About Sex and Marriage and then made it required reading for the RCIA program I coordinated. I couldn’t help myself. If there was one area in which people seemed most confused it was the Catholic vision of sexuality and I had not seen anyone unpack John Paul II’s Theology of the Body with the understanding and sincere joy of Christopher West. West has of course authored a number of books since, with his newest Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, due out in January. He is also about to embark on a 2013 national tour for Fill These Hearts unlike anything we’ve seen before – using the beauty of music, art, and the spoken word to unmask the human longing for God. Christopher was kind enough to answer my questions about his new book and outreach as well as TOB in general.
Shane Kapler: What do you say when someone completely unfamiliar with Theology of the Body asks you to explain it to them for the first time? What are maybe the three or four main points that you want them to walk away remembering?
Christopher West: Although JP II’s most famous catechesis is quite long and complex, its main idea is quite simple: Our bodies tell a story, the most beautiful story imaginable. Our bodies, in fact, tell the divine story –that’s what makes them theological. What is that story? God himself is an eternal exchange of life-giving love and we are destined to share in that exchange as male and female. The yearning for love and union that we all experience both in body and in soul is ultimately a cry of the heart for union with God and with all of creation. And that’s what God wants to grant us – an eternal bliss of union with him, and with everyone and everything. Scripture calls it the “Marriage of the Lamb.” The call of man and woman to become “one flesh” tells the story of God’s desire to take on flesh and become one with us. And that’s precisely why the devil is hell-bent on distorting our understanding of sexuality. When he twists it out of shape, we can no longer read the story, and our understanding of Christianity is placed in great jeopardy. At the heart of our faith is the Incarnation: God in the flesh. So it’s critical to understand that the TOB is not just about sex and marriage. It takes us to the heart of the Gospel itself.
Kapler: I know that many of us parents would like to hear your advice on how to introduce our children to TOB. How did you begin with your own children? How did you gradually unfold this vision and when/how did you know it was appropriate to fully explain what is meant by the “marital embrace”?
West: First, we must recognize what a critical responsibility we have as parents to pass on the glory of God’s plan for the body and sexuality to our children. Silence is not an option. When we say nothing, the culture fills the void with its terribly distorted message. But we can’t give what we don’t have. As parents, before we can pass the TOB on to our children, we have to immerse ourselves in it.
The Church teaches that education in God’s plan for sexuality must begin in the womb, and continue uninterrupted throughout all the ages and stages of development. So, obviously, we’re talking about much more than just giving our kids “the talk” when they reach a certain age. We’re talking about a way of living and of embracing life that is itself an education in the meaning of sexuality. We’re also talking about engaging in an ongoing conversation about the meaning, purpose, and dignity of being created as male and female in the image of God. One of the things my wife and I have done with our kids is put this ongoing education in the context of our nightly prayers. Every day since they were born my kids have heard me thanking God for making Mom to be a woman and making me to be a man; for calling us to the sacrament of marriage; and for bringing each of them into the world through Mom and Dad’s love. Then I ask God to help the boys grow into strong men and the girls to grow into strong women and I ask God to teach them how to give their bodies away in love as Jesus loves. Then I pray for their future vocations. Eventually, as they get older they start asking: “What does it mean that I came into the world through your love?” That’s when we start taking the conversation to the next level – based on their age level and understanding – and it unfolds fairly naturally from there.