There has been a growing tendency in Catholic theology, which reached an apex in the middle of the twentieth century, to interpret the meaning of Christian revelation and the life of Christ not in terms of gratuitous intimacy but rather in terms of mission. (Mission here is understood not merely as being “sent out” to evangelize or minister to others, but rather as a vocational choice that “gives form” to one’s entire life in its every moment as a gift for the good of the Church.) In this understanding, the incarnate Jesus is, for all practical purposes, defined not by the communion that he shares eternally with the Father in the kiss of their one Spirit, but rather as the one who has been “sent” (missio) into the world as a servant, and who lives only to accomplish this mission. This sending of the Son, and his radical and disinterested obedience to the Father to the point of death, is used as an interpretive key to understand the whole of revelation. He is defined essentially and entirely as the “man for others.” He is a person because he is mission. Yes, that is not an exaggeration for some theologians: God is eternal mission. For this understanding of the mission of Christ is even interpreted back into the innermost life of the Trinity itself, such that “mission” is understood as being the very essence of God’s inner life: in other words, the Son’s attitude before the Father for all eternity is one of obedience for the sake of mission, it is his openness to submitting his entire being to the Father in being sent forth by him, first within the divine life, and then also in creation (and the same disposition is proper to the Spirit). All of this may appear attractive on the surface, particularly to those of us who thirst to do heroic things and to sacrifice our lives for the good of others—a desire, however, which usually hides underneath it a deep insecurity about our own innate value, a value that inheres in us even and especially in our utter poverty, weakness, and incapacity. But when we espouse this understanding of life and the purpose of our existence, what is the result? The result of this approach to theology is precisely that the incomparable value and dignity of each person is destroyed, and he or she becomes important insofar as they fulfill a particular mission/vocation in the Church. And, just as deeply, there is little or no space for gratuitous intimacy—namely an intimacy between persons that is sought and desired for its own sake, simply because it is beautiful, good, and true.
This mission theology, indeed, is the almost direct opposite of the authentic essence of the Gospel, as in it mission takes priority over the person, and service takes precedence over human fulfillment (or rather is understood as the path of human fulfillment); as communion is understood as the “coordination of roles” in the Body of Christ; and as the human emotions, desires, and capacities are all subjected to the one, overarching reality: strict obedience to the call of God to fulfill one’s mission for the good of the whole Body. The influence of this theology has even led as profound a thinker as Joseph Ratzinger to make the terrible statement: “Christian faith demands the individual but wants him for the whole and not for himself.”i The crisis in the priesthood today—and also in the religious life—is rooted precisely in this mission theology gone mad. Many dioceses in our world are “killing” their priests by treating them, not as men created for their own sake and called to happiness, but as servants called to sacrifice themselves for the good of all without a thought for self. I do not intend, of course, to speak against the profound beauty of sacrifice for the good of others, but to emphasize that this must be held within a prior intimacy, and in the affirmation of the incomparable dignity of the person, in order to be authentic. True mission, true service, true sacrifice can flower authentically, not when it becomes the primal element of reality, when it becomes the lens through which all things are seen, but only when it is held in the arms of intimacy, and is but an expression of the heart’s gratitude to God and of its desire for the good of others—that they too may know God’s love and the joy of intimacy with him.
In my humble opinion, and after intensive reading, study, and prayer—as well as much suffering—I think that this mission theology is a diabolical distortion of Christian teaching and of human life, insinuated by the evil one himself in order to hurt many persons and to keep them from recognizing how good their loving Father is, and thus also from experiencing the joy of gratuitous, nuptial intimacy with Christ, and with the entire Trinity, for which they were created. This error has been insinuated in the Church in a particular way through the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, who based their entire joint project on the concept of “mission.” For them, a person only truly becomes a person whenever they accept and fulfill their mission in life. Indeed, this mission also determines their eternity, such that if they happen to refuse or even to “miss” their God-given mission, then they are, to use Speyr’s phrase, “eternally fractured as a person.” A number of other tremendously harmful concepts flow from this fundamental lie: The ideal of “anonymity” in which it is not the person who matters, but rather the fulfillment of their role/task for the good of others, such that any care for self is a betrayal of one’s calling, and, if one refuses this call, then God will just as easily turn to someone else to fulfill it. Indeed, the ideal for these thinkers is precisely a “depersonalization for the sake of mission,” which supposedly leads to the discovery of one’s authentic personhood as what they term a “theological person,” identical with one’s role and mission in the Body of Christ. A large part of their teaching is also an understanding of the Passion of Christ as a true and literal abandonment of Jesus by his Father—rather than, as I have expressed it in an earlier reflection, as the sheer “yes” of affirming love pronounced by Jesus and the Father in their compassion with us in the place of greatest darkness, as the love and intimacy that remain present and alive even in the place of deepest suffering and death. This also leads to their “holy Saturday” theology, based on Speyr’s so-called “mystical experiences,” in which they claimed that Christ, after his death, didn’t just descend into the realm of death to liberate those who had died before his coming and to open up the path to heaven for them (which has been the constant Church teaching), but rather experienced literal damnation in hell: in other words, he experienced a so-called state of “complete depersonalization,” a kind of annihilation of his personhood in solidarity with sin. And this was only possible because Jesus, leaving the Father’s glory, “deposited” his divinity with God and became, first “mere man,” and then, “mere sin.”*
How in the universe this is supposed to be redemptive, I do not know… How in the world this is supposed to be beautiful, and to draw our hearts to fall in love with God, I cannot imagine. And what hurts my heart so deeply about this theology—particularly as represented by these two persons—is that it is so complicated, and so esoteric, that only those who are either quite brilliant or highly theologically trained can even begin to make sense of their massivecorpus of writings. This is the very way that the evil spirit works, by the way, since he has a “superior” intellect to human beings, and can insinuate all kinds of lies into our minds to obscure our vision of the simple reality of love. In all of this, therefore, we can and should ask: Where has the simplicity and poverty of the Gospel gone? Where has the word of salvation given to the little ones disappeared to? Why has the awesome gift of God’s love, reaching out and touching wounded hearts and giving them joy precisely in the call to gratuitous intimacy in the likeness of the Trinity, disappeared? To avoid the terrible temptation of these lies, therefore, we must be humble, embracing our littleness and dependency as children of God; we are invited to not be afraid to acknowledge both our deep aspirations for love and intimacy—for its own sake!—and also to trust in the awesome love of the Trinity who comes to reveal to us his tender and compassionate heart and to give us, in communion with him and with other persons, the fulfillment of the desires of our hearts.
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Let us return to the theme with which this reflection began: mysticism. To come full circle, what all of this means for us concretely—and so beautifully—is that mysticism is not meant to be reserved for the elite who are able to undergo the so-called “arid path of total annihilation,” but rather is meant to live precisely within the concrete contours of human existence in its fullness, healed, purified, and renewed by the grace of God.For God wants to pour out his innermost mystery, to communicate his life as Trinity, not only in the deepest silence of prayer and in the inner sanctuary of the heart beyond all things, but also in the conscious experience of all of our faculties of mind, imagination, affection, and emotion, and, as we have seen, in the very living of our bodies. It is, after all, the body which God has fashioned to be the visible manifestation of the invisible mystery, the sacrament of encounter, the space of nuptial union with the Incarnate and Resurrected Christ, and, in him and through him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In sum, God wants to approach us in our entirety—in our very bodiliness and in every one of our experiences and faculties—and to grasp us in our every concrete experience, down to the most tangible and most humble circumstances of each day. All—truly, all—is meant to be his, in the purity of receptive love and reciprocal surrender. It is precisely in this sacramental encounter perpetually renewed and ever deepened that we make contact with him and enter into union with him: in the slightest throbbing our our heart within our chest; in the stillness of prayer in which an intangible peace grips us inexplicably by the direct touch of God at the core of our being; in the deep intuition of the mystery of love glimpsed in a verse of Scripture or in a human face; in the sexual embrace between man and woman lived with purity of heart and the authentic tenderness of mutual affirmation; in the meal we gratefully receive and eat to nourish our bodies; in our rest and relaxation; in our playful humor in the beauty of the world that God has made, and in the lightness that touches the very heart of God in and beyond all tangible things—a humor and playfulness which, in fact, is one of the most mature expressions of faith, hope, and love, since it is a profound “yes” to the lightheartedness of God’s own life present and alive, throbbing like a heartbeat, in the midst of creation, and making it new from within.
Therefore let me now begin to try, however inadequately, to speak of the mysticism of the body—more accurately, of the mysticism of the encounter of the human person with God, which occurs also and always in and through the body, and, most precisely, as the body-person. In order to understand this, we need to try to grasp something of the original experience of our first parents before their lives were marred by sin. This is called the state of original innocence or justice. John Paul, in his Theology of the Body, focuses particularly on the experience of man and woman before one another, in their “nakedness without shame.” But he also provides deep insights that help us to approach the original experience of the body as God intended it, and thus to come closer to understanding what the true living of our bodiliness is meant to be. John Paul
defines original innocence as that which “at its very roots, excludes the shame of the body in the relation between man and woman, that which eliminates the necessity of this shame in man, in his heart or his conscience” (TOB 16:4). This prompts a question: What in original man radically eliminates any experience of shame? John Paul has a one-word answer: grace.
John Paul states that if creation is a gift to man, then grace determines man’s fullness and deepest dimension as a creature. Grace is God’s self-gift to man; it is God’s Spirit breathed into the dust of our humanity. The state of original innocence speaks above all of this gift of grace that God gives and man receives. This grace made it possible for human persons to experience the meaning of the world as God’s primary gift or donation, and this grace enabled them to experience the reciprocal donation of masculinity and femininity as a recapitulation of this gift. Their original communion of persons, thus, was a participation in grace. And grace, John Paul tells us, is “participation in the inner life of God himself, in his holiness.” It is “that mysterious gift made to man’s inmost [being]—to the human heart—that allows both the man and the woman to exist from the ‘beginning’ in the reciprocal relationship of the disinterested gift of self” (TOB 16:3).
“Disinterested” obviously does not mean that man and woman lacked interest in each other. They were deeply interested in each other, but not selfishly so. Their experience of “the irradiation of God’s love” (i.e. grace) enabled them to love one another sincerely, as God loves. In this we can understand the beatifying experience of the beginning connected with the awareness of the spousal meaning of the body. This blissful awareness of the body’s meaning speaks of their conscious experience of God with them and God within them—of God’s Spirit (i.e. his love) radiating through their bodies. “Happiness,” John Paul says, “is being rooted in Love. Original happiness speaks to us about the ‘beginning’ of man, who emerged from love and initiated love. … One can define this ‘beginning’ also as the original and beatifying immunity from shame as the result of love” (TOB 16:2).ii
It is beautiful how explicitly and persistently John Paul speaks of the experience of God’s grace in and through the body, and not in some disincarnate place of the heart. Rather, for him—as it is in the authentic Catholic tradition—the heart is not a disincarnate spiritual faculty separate from the body, but rather the very living core of the person in which body and spirit intersect. The heart is the innermost “I” of the living subject, who knows and experiences himself precisely in his body and as his body, even as his subjectivity reaches out to the invisible mystery of God for which he was created. Thus, original innocence, for him, is precisely the state in which man and woman experience their own bodily existence, and the whole of visible creation, as a pure gift of God’s love—and they experience it in the light of the pure gift of God’s love, in other words, in the light of grace.
Thus, in original innocence, there is not a rupture between the gift of nature and the gift of grace, between the spiritual and the physical, between the primal gift of Love and the concrete gifts of Love in created reality. Rather, the latter are totally open to, and are complete bathed in, the former. Or rather, as John Paul says, they are “rooted in” the pure irradiation of God’s own Love, and never depart from it. And this is happiness. It is “being rooted in Love.” Thus, to reconnect now, in our historical circumstances, with the intentions of God for us, is to realize anew, experientially, that we have “emerged from Love,” and, in this Love, it is to “initiate love.” And this very rootedness in Love—we could say this very permeation by Love as the very ground of our being and existence—eliminates all shame. It is a taste of that “beginning” as “the original and beatifying immunity from shame as the result of love” (TOB 16:2).
What does it mean, concretely, to emerge from love and, in response, to initiate love? In its inner essence it means to experience the restoration of the reciprocal relationship of reception and gift before the Persons of the Trinity. It means to live in communion with God at the heart of one’s concrete existence. And, secondarily, it means to live and manifest love in all of one’s choices and acts, particularly as they concern other human persons. In both cases, it is to establish communication or participation—the sharing of what is most intimate to each person—such that distinct persons become one while remaining distinct, coming to share in the “we” of intimacy. But what does it really mean to experience communion or intimacy? What does it really mean to “become one” with another person in the mutual affirmation that overcomes the distance between them while safeguarding their uniqueness?
This leads us to perhaps the central phrase of John Paul II in terms of authentic communion: intersubjectivity. If subjectivity refers to the innate solitude of each person in their incomparable “I,” then intersubjectivity expresses what occurs when persons come so close in reciprocal self-giving that they share their subjectivity with one another, they enter into one another’s subjectivity such that they live “with” and “in” one another in the deepest way. Here again the words of Christ at the Last Supper—“as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”—reveal their profound significance. In other words, God desires intersubjectivity with us. He created us precisely to share in his own innermost life, which is precisely a life of eternal intersubjectivity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! And, in the experience of this total intersubjectivity with the Persons of the Trinity, we are also enabled to experience intersubjectivity with other created persons. In fact, to experience complete intersubjectivity with God and with all of our brothers and sisters is precisely the blissful destiny that awaits us at the end of time. As John Paul expressed in his rich words at the highest and most beautiful point in the Theology of the Body:
We should think of the reality of the “other world” in the categories of the rediscovery of a new, perfect subjectivity of each person and at the same time of the rediscovery of a new, perfect intersubjectivity of all. In this way this reality means the true and definitive fulfillment of human subjectivity and, on this basis, the definitive fulfillment of the “spousal” meaning of the body. The total concentration of created, redeemed, and glorified subjectivity on God himself will not take man away from this fulfillment, but—on the contrary—will introduce him into it and consolidate him in it. One can say, finally, that in this way the eschatological reality will become the source of the perfect realization of the “trinitarian order” in the created world of persons. (TOB 68:4)
How can we bring this back to the body, to the experience of intimacy with God in the body, with which we began this reflection? If God truly fashioned the communion of man and woman to be an image of his own divine life, then to look at that experience is to get a glimpse of what communion with God is like. And what is the experience of the intimacy of man and woman? What is the authentic experience, and not the counterfeits in pleasure-seeking and use? What, rather, is precisely that intimacy that recaptures, even if imperfectly, the mystery of the original innocence in which man and woman experienced together the spousal meaning of their bodies without shame? It is actually quite simple, even if difficult to express in words: the man experiences, with the woman, the mystery of her own bodiliness as the incarnation of her person (and thus experiences her personhood itself, her subjective “I,” with her and for her), and the woman experiences the same with the man.
This is precisely what the physical, “one flesh” closeness of sexual union makes possible, and also why, in our fallen state, it calls for such humility, reverence, and purity of heart. And this is precisely the vulnerability of nakedness, in which the person is laid bare in their innate solitude to become a gift to another, and to receive the other’s reciprocal gift. Their innate solitude—in other words, their subjectivity—is communicated through the very nakedness of the body, in order, not only to be seen, but to be shared in by another person. And this authentic sharing in the subjectivity of another person is tenderness: it is the capacity of love to feel with and for the other person even the slightest spiritual tremors of their being, and to embrace them in this space with a heart devoted to their authentic good. And the body mediates, manifests, incarnates, and communicates all of this.*
And if this is what the communion between two human persons incarnate in and through the body consists in, then the incarnate nuptial union with God expresses the same mystery. Of course, God is not visible in the same way as human persons, and his personal mystery infinitely transcends that of any created person; and yet nonetheless he still seeks to communicate to us the living experience of his own subjectivity, just as he shares in our subjectivity through his loving tenderness. Yes, he desires, as Saint Paul expresses it, that “we may know even as we are known” (1 Cor 13:12). The import of that statement is astonishing. God desires that we may know him, in his inner subjective life as Trinity, as we are known by him. Of course we cannot know him in an exhaustive way; we cannot comprehend or reduce his ineffable and infinite mystery. No, not in the least. But we can—and are called—to enter into the mystery of his innermost life, so as to live with him and in him the very life that he eternally lives!
And in this encounter—in various ways within the contours of this imperfect life, and in utter transparency in the new creation that awaits us—our body itself is meant to be fully engaged, fully present. We are meant to be absorbed, body and spirit, in contact with the mystery of the Trinity who is fully present to us, communicating himself in the tenderness of love—in and through the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Christ and through the Spirit whom he breathes forth into us from the Father.
*This understanding of Christ’s suffering on the Cross as a true and literal abandonment by the Father seems to me to be, perhaps, the most dangerous and harmful heresy of our times. It sums up in itself, as it were, all the different subtle lies that I speak against in this book: the primacy of mission over person, of task over gift, of service over intimacy, of the whole over the individual, etc. It also contradicts the witness of Scripture. As Jesus said to his disciples shortly before he was arrested: “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said to this you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:32-33).
Yes, Christ took our sins upon himself and bore them in his own flesh; he even bore the inner subjective resonance of our pain in compassion, and cried out to the Father in our name and on our behalf. But to say that he was overcome by this suffering, and somehow literally lost his consciousness of being the Father’s beloved Son, lost his trust in God on the conscious level of his being and died out of despair, is to sever the connecting thread of love and intimacy, and thus to break down the continuity between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between the Passion and the Resurrection. (As a note, von Speyr said explicitly that “unless Christ had despaired, he could never have died. He died out of despair.”) If God himself, in solidarity with us, has despaired, what hope is there for us? Rather, the suffering of Christ is redemptive precisely because, even in the place of greatest darkness and compassion, the light of love and communion never ceased to shine, and showed itself stronger than all that would oppose it. In this certainty lies our hope, for here we see the glory of Resurrection already in the Passion, and can be sure of God’s loving presence with us even in the places of our most desperate need and suffering, giving birth to the newness of life in unbreakable and undying intimacy with the Trinity.
*This is also the rich significance of the fact that, in Biblical language, sexual union is referred to with the verb “to know,” as in “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived…” To “know” this woman, to “know” this man, therefore, signifies much more than having an experience of the body of another individual of the opposite gender—for if it is merely this, it is not love. Rather, it signifies precisely the depths of tenderness that reverences the unique dignity and identity of the other person, and enters into communication with this identity, in and through the manifestation of their bodiliness. Of course this communication, even this “knowledge,” occurs in many different ways in this world, of which the sexual act is but a particularly pointed and full expression. But again, the conjugal union is a paradigm, a key, into the nature of all love, which by the plans of God manifests, in different ways and degrees, this same mystery that is expressed in the conjugal act: man and woman “reveal themselves to one another with that specific depth of their own human ‘I,’ which precisely reveals itself also through their sex, their masculinity and femininity” (TOB 20:4). Yes, as John Paul clarifies, in the sexual act—as in all mature expressions of reciprocal love come to full maturity—persons “become one single subject, as it were, of that act and that experience, although they remain two really distinct subjects in this unity” (ibid.).
i. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J.R. Foster (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2004), 251.
ii. Christopher West, Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them (Pauline Books and Media: Boston, 2007), 139-140.