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 (TOB) 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.
If we are presenting God’s plan in all its splendor and in age-appropriate ways, there is nothing to be ashamed of here. There is nothing to be squeamish about or embarrassed about. If we find ourselves clamming up and unable to talk about these beautiful truths with our children, that’s an indication, I think, that we ourselves are in need of some healing in this area of our lives. Taking up a study of JP II’s TOB is a great place to start on that journey.
Kapler: I would like to hear about the growth of your interior life. You obviously have a deep appreciation of the Carmelites. When and how were you introduced to their writings? Who do you consider your great teachers?
West: I first got turned on to Carmelite spirituality in the writings of John Paul II. When JP II speaks of prayer as a journey toward “nuptial union” with the Lord, he speaks by name of Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. That’s what encouraged me to start reading their works. To be honest, I had already been speaking and writing about the TOB for several years before I really started pursuing a deeper interior life. It’s one thing to be able to speak and write about the theological ideas in your head. It’s another thing altogether to allow those theological truths to penetrate and transform your heart. Life has a way of compelling you on that journey, but we often resist it because transformation demands purification and that’s painful – it means passing through fire, through trials and dark nights. Not fun. But oh so rewarding, and so necessary for our souls! In 2004 I started seeing a priest for spiritual direction and I’ve been seeing him regularly ever since. He’s immersed in the mystical tradition of the Church and has helped me tremendously in developing a deeper interior life. I’d say that he and my wife – and, of course, John Paul II – have been my greatest teachers in that regard.
Kapler: When I hear your name I immediately think of the Theology of the Body Institute. When your book At the Heart of the Gospel was released, however, I discovered that you had launched a new apostolate called The Cor Project. Readers would love to know more about it. What are its goals? Does it mean less time working with the TOB Institute?
West: I co-founded the TOB Institute in 2004 with two other colleagues and was involved for several years in its administration as the Institute was solidifying its mission and programs. We’ve attracted a top-notch faculty – including Janet Smith, Peter Kreeft, Bill Donaghy, John
Haas, and Michael Waldstein – and students come from around the world to take the week-long intensive courses that are part of the TOB Institute’s Certification Program (www.tobinstitute.org). I continue to teach about four of these intensive classes every year, but I’ve stepped away from the administrative side of things to pursue a new global initiative called The Cor Project.
“Cor,” of course, is Latin for heart. At the heart of culture is the relationship of man and woman. It’s an illusion to think we can renew culture unless we reach this “cor” with a healing, redemptive vision of life, love, and sexuality. I’ve spent nearly 20 years spreading TOB in Catholic circles, and I’ll continue to serve in that way. But The Cor Project is working with culture-shaping individuals and organizations around the world – artists, musicians, screenwriters, playwrights, Hollywood and Broadway producers, businessmen and women, experts and pioneers in online education – to take the message to a wider audience. We feel urgently compelled by Christ’s call to “go into the main streets and invite everyone to the wedding feast.”
Kapler: You and some of the Cor Project team just returned from Haiti. What did you see the Lord doing among the Haitian people?
West: We were invited to educate the priests, but we also had the chance to be among the poorest of the poor. We spent some time with a lovely Irish missionary nun, Sr. Anne, who, as part of her rounds, took us to meet a paralyzed teenaged girl who lives in a small shack on the side of a mountain. You would think this girl – who has nothing and lives a life of great suffering – would be tragically depressed, but she radiated joy. Sr. Anne asked her why she was so joyful and the girl said, “I talk to Jesus all day long, and he talks to me.” That was the most memorable experience of the trip.
Kapler: In At the Heart of the Gospel you pointed out, and I would argue rightly so, that we cannot change the culture through a merely intellectual presentation of the Truth, nor one that starts simply by attacking error. Instead we need to focus upon the beauty and power of the Truth as it comes to us, for example, in John Paul II’s TOB. But what does that look like? How should I respond when I am at work and my coworker begins talking about how bigoted it is to oppose same-sex “marriage”?
West: Yes, where to begin? I think it’s important to look for common ground before discussing differences. For instance, everyone yearns for love. Everyone feels that “ache” inside for fulfillment. Start there. Affirm it. Catholic teaching is so often presented merely as a list of prohibitions rather than as a path by which to pursue the satisfaction of the deepest desires of our hearts. In my experience, if people know that you are with them in affirming that deepest yearning of the human heart – if they know that you feel that yearning too and are a true seeker of answers to life’s deepest questions – then we can begin a civilized conversation about what fulfills that yearning and what doesn’t In other words, we need to love people right where they are and approach them not with an agenda to prove a point or win an argument, but with love, compassion, understanding, patience, and as a fellow seeker in the human quest for answers to life’s questions.
Kapler: I understand you have a new book about to be released, Fill These Hearts. What is the focus?
West: Actually, it’s about precisely what we were just discussing – that “ache” inside that we all feel for fulfillment. The subtitle is God, Sex, and the Universal Longing. The Greeks called that longing “eros.” Fill These Hearts explores the ancient but largely forgotten idea that the restless, erotic yearning we feel at the core of our being is actually our desire for God, for “the wedding feast” that Christ promises in the Gospels. I try to show that true satisfaction of our hunger lies not in repressing eros, nor in indulging it lustfully, but in learning how to direct our desire according to God’s design so we can safely arrive at our eternal destiny: bliss and ecstasy in union with God and one another forever. The Gospel in a nutshell is this: there is a banquet that corresponds to the hunger we all feel inside; there is a sweet wine that corresponds to the thirst we feel inside; there is a balm that corresponds to the “ache” in our hearts. Life, yearning, suffering, love, our cry for intimacy and union – all begin to make sense when the Church’s teaching is properly framed and presented as the beautiful invitation that it is.
Kapler: Fill These Hearts is more than a book, it’s also a live event. Would you tell us about that?
West: Sure. I’ve been in dialogue with a team of creative thinkers and artists for several years now, all of the “JP II generation.” Each of us has been impacted by art and music as much as by our study of theology. We were especially inspired by JP II’s Letter to Artists in which he insists that the Gospel cannot be presented in all of its splendor without the help of art. With that as our inspiration, The Cor Project has been developing an artistic event that integrates my presentations with the live music of indie folk-rock group Mike Mangione and the Union (www.mikemangione.com) along with other artistic elements like movie clips, classical and contemporary paintings and icons and thematic imagery projected on large screens.
Kapler: So this is quite different from the church seminars you’ve done in the past?
West: It’s much more like a night at the theater, a kind of living, moving performance. The art, the music, and the spoken presentation are all woven together to create a cohesive whole. I’ve always tried to keep my presentations lively, but you can only go so far with the spoken word. Art is the language of the heart. A song, a melody, a movie clip, a beautiful painting projected on the big screen takes the message to an entirely new level. And the highlight of the evening for almost everyone is the sand-painting. If you’ve never seen this form of art before, you won’t want to miss it. It pierces the heart and communicates the message at a much more profound level than a mere lecture ever could.
Kapler: Who is your target audience for this event and where can people learn more?
West: We want this event to be something that Catholics can invite their fallen-away or even un-churched friends and family to. This is one of the reasons we typically hold these events in theaters rather than churches. It is certainly intended to enrich the faith of those who are already active in the Church, but we also want to reach out to those who might not be inclined to attend a “church event.” We have one more event in 2012, in Sylvania, Ohio, on Nov 17. Then we’ll be launching a national tour in 2013 in tandem with the release of the book. If you’d like to attend or inquire about bringing one of these events to your area, you can learn more at www.fillthesehearts.org.