As John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Families,” “The contemporary family, like families in every age, is searching for fairest love.” The phrase “fairest love” is a traditional translation of Sirach 24:24: “Ego mater pulchrae dilectionis — I am the mother of fairest love,” or, more simply, “I am the mother of beautiful love.” In Sirach, these are words spoken by Sophia, by Lady Wisdom, in praise of herself. In the Catholic tradition, they are applied to Mary.
At the very top of the first page of his handwritten manuscript of the theology of the body, John Paul placed a verse from the Song of Songs, also applied to Mary, “Tota pulchra es, Maria.” The full verse in the Vulgate reads, “Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te — You are all beautiful, my beloved, and there is no spot, no macula, in you” (4:7). This first page is dated Dec. 8, 1975, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
To anyone familiar with the thought of John Paul II, the references to Mary will be no surprise, but what I want to draw your attention to in particular is the emphasis on beauty. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he writes, “As a young priest I learned to love human love. ... If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of ‘fair love,’ because love is fair; it is beautiful. After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love.”
Beauty is one of the two legs on which John Paul II’s pastoral method stands in the area of marriage and family life. I should immediately mention the second so that the pastoral method does not seem to be hopping on one leg: It is experience. John Paul II is an astute and disciplined observer of human experience, particularly of the experience of love between man and woman. His early encounter with the spousal-experiential poetry and theology of St. John of the Cross gave a strong impetus to what seems to have been a keen natural talent of young Karol Wojtyla.
The combination of these two, beauty and experience, is powerful. A detached beauty seen from afar as an object of admiration, out of reach of the actual experience of ordinary men and women, can arouse nostalgia, but it cannot cause real change or provide effective direction. A beauty understood as realizable and as connected with the daily experience of love — this has great power to move and sustain actual life. One does not need to take the teaching of John Paul II on mere authority. One can verify or falsify it in one’s own experience.
It is no secret that many Catholics, particularly in academia, disagree about the ethics of sex, marriage and the family. John Paul II’s pastoral method is a positive way forward in this situation of, at times, entrenched battle lines. He seems to say to us, “Your desire for the beauty of love will lead you to the right place. Try this beauty; test it in your own experience.”
In a theological account of the body, the question of the purpose of the body is central. Why did God create matter? Why did he create the human body? He created it as a sacramental sign in order to express his own life as the Trinity — and in order to transfer a share in this life into the visible world. The purpose of matter and of the human body in particular is to allow the splendor of divine life to penetrate into the visible world and express itself in a harmonious bodily form in the love between man and woman.
How can we grow in seeing and feeling this beauty? How can this beauty truly enter into our daily experience so that it can unfold its power in transforming our lives? Supernatural life, which we can see only with the eyes of faith, reaches into our experience through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Which of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is particularly important in allowing the beauty of love to reach into our experience? John Paul II’s teaching is very clear on this point. The gift of the Holy Spirit that lies at the heart of conjugal spirituality is the gift of piety or reverence, that is, a living sense for what is holy and divine in the relations between man and woman.
In the “Letter to Families,” John Paul illustrates this by looking at the ugliness of its opposite: “A love which is not fairest, but reduced only to the satisfaction of concupiscence (1 John 2:16) or to a man’s and a woman’s mutual ‘use’ of each other, makes persons slaves to their weaknesses. Do not certain modern ‘cultural agendas’ lead to this enslavement?”
One can grasp the beauty of love by contrast with this mutual “use.” The mere use of persons, even mutual use by mutual consent, for mere pleasure or episodic erotic drama, is ugly, because it is an offense against human dignity. The first and most fundamental beauty of love is connected with respect or even reverence for the rational dignity of other persons. It is only in the free space opened up by this respect and reverence that man and woman can move freely and with joy together in love without the fear of suffocation in use or simple disposal after erotic excitement has ebbed away.
In John Paul’s theology of the body, the beauty of the body is seen, above all, in the gift of self in love. In that gift, a great depth shines up in the body: not only the will and sentiment of man and woman to be one in giving themselves to each other, but more deeply, a share in the divine communion of persons. It is in the body’s power as a sacramental sign in marriage that its greatest beauty can be seen.
Michael Waldstein, Ph.D., is the Max Seckler professor of theology at Ave Maria University. He translated Pope John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.