When Christopher West was a teenager in the 1980s, he was filled with desires, yearnings and a hunger that could not be satisfied.
Such feelings could arise after listening to Bruce Springsteen, or when sitting next to his childhood crush at school.
But his Catholic upbringing wasn’t “authentically Catholic”, Dr West, now aged 53, told an audience of several hundred young people at Sacred Heart College, Auckland, on January 18 at an event called “Made for More”, because no one “connected the dots between that yearning I felt and what I was learning in religion class”.
“I was raised on what one might call the ‘starvation diet Gospel’. The basic message I would hear was – your desires are bad, especially ‘those’ desires. They are only going to get you in trouble. You need to repress all that and follow all these rules in order to be a good, upstanding Christian citizen. Yeah!!
“I don’t know about you, but I’m a hungry dude. And starvation was not going to cut it for me. So in my teenage years I became a quick convert to what I call the ‘fast food’ Gospel, which is the secular culture’s promise of immediate gratification for the hungers.”
But this did not satisfy the young Christopher West, who found himself in his 20s searching for something more. He was to find it in St John Paul II’s collection of teachings known as Theology of the Body.
“Between 1979 and 1984, [John Paul] delivered this teaching in the course of 129 Wednesday audience addresses that spanned five years. He unfolded a biblical reflection on our creation as male and female in the image of God,” Dr West said.
St John Paul’s teaching gave Dr West “a language to understand what is going on in here”, he said, pointing to himself. He is now president of the US-based Theology of the Body Institute.
“That mad, aching, burning desire we all feel – the Church calls it ‘Eros’,” Dr West said.
“It rocked my world when I first read this. The Gospel invites us not to repress erotic desire, but to experience to the ‘fullness of Eros’, which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit, toward what is true, good and beautiful, so that what is erotic, also becomes true, good and beautiful.
“At 24, in my mind at the time, that which is erotic was synonymous with that which is pornographic. That is what I thought. But John Paul said that you are confusing the Greek word ‘Eros’ with another Greek word “porneia”.
“God gave us erotic longing, he gave us ‘eros’, to be like the fuel of a rocket, that has the power to launch us to the stars. . . But there is an enemy who doesn’t want us to reach the stars. But because of what the theologians call original sin, our rocket engines got inverted.”
Dr West gave the impression that his own “rocket” was in pretty good working order, with an energetic presentation that lasted nearly three hours. Several times he invited young people onto the stage to make a point, or leapt down and spoke to a person in the audience. He burst into song several times. He made allusions to the movie “Toy Story III” and to the musical “Les Miserables”, as well as to a YouTube viral video about a double rainbow. Made for More also featured several songs by Michael Mangione, described by Dr West as “kind of like a Catholic Bob Dylan. A storyteller, a troubadour, a poet”.
Earlier in his talk, Dr West proposed to his mainly young audience that “the crisis of love that we are involved in in the world today is a crisis of vision. We look at one another, but rarely do we really see the beauty of one another”.
There is a big difference between being “looked at” and being “seen”, he said. “If we are just looking – the body is treated as some ‘thing’. If we are seeing, the body is respected as some ‘one’.”
“I invite you to look inside your own heart, and ask the question, isn’t this where I want to be seen and known and respected? You are not crazy to desire that – you are wired to desire that, wired by God to desire that,” Dr West said.
“But we live in a world that looks but doesn’t see. . . . How do we heal? How do we overcome this? I think we begin by acknowledging our own blindness. Maybe even by asking forgiveness of those we hurt, in our own blindness.”
“So I would like to step back and do this right now,” he said, addressing the women in the audience.
“As a man, to the women – my dear sisters, please forgive me, please forgive other men in your life, who have looked at you, but have not seen you. Please forgive the men in your life who have treated you as dispensable, replaceable, repeatable. Please forgive us – I know these wounds go very, very deep – I invite you to open that pain, open it up to the one who really sees you, the one who really knows you, the one who really loves you, the one who sacrificed everything for you to know who you really are.
“We are made, each and every one us, but especially I want to speak to the hearts of my sisters, you are made for so much more, so much better than what the world is holding out.”
Dr West stated that there is “an enemy” who doesn’t want us to know who we really are, and linked this with the “violent attacks” upon the meaning of being male and female, and on the meaning of marriage today.
Returning to his rocket ship image, Dr West said that “Christ came into the world, as John Paul is teaching here, not to condemn those whose rocket engines are a disaster. Christ came into the world to . . . aim us towards the stars again. To redirect our rocket engines towards the infinite.
“You see most people think the only two options you have with all those desires is indulgence or repress it. There is a third way. We can learn how to open them towards the infinite.”
Dr West explained that God speaks in “sign language” and that, “if we are ‘seeing’ the body sacramentally, the body is also theological. It means that your body, my body, the body of everyone we meet, if we have the eyes to see it, the human body tells a divine story”.
Dr West spoke about God as a communion of life-giving love and generativity, of nuptial imagery in the Bible, bodily reception of the Eucharist, the value of celibate witness, and iconic nature of the male and female bodies, pointing towards an ultimate origin and destiny.
“We can summarise the whole message of salvation with five words,” Dr West said. “God wants to marry us. Guess what – we want to marry him too – that is what the yearning I felt was – to be one with the infinite.”
He was careful to explain that “We are not saying that God is sexual, God is not sexual, God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference of the sexes. . . But what we are saying is that human sexuality . . . means male and female he created them, and he blessed them, and he said be fertile”.
“If we follow our maleness or femaleness forward the whole way, we are at the marriage of the Lamb,” Dr West added, having also spoken about the “ecstasy of union with God forever”.
“Your body is a sign that points to our ultimate destiny – humans with God forever.”
For more information, visit www.theologyofthebody.nz
Photo: Christopher West speaks at Sacred Heart College, Auckland