When reflecting on my life and faith “before TOB”, it honestly feels like such a foreign time, even though it has only been about five years since I really started learning and embracing the teaching of Saint John Paul II. Faith was always important to me growing up and a huge part of my personal identity, but in practice, it was legalistic rather than relational. God’s love was something I needed to earn, rather than simply receive. My sins and flaws needed to be hidden from God, rather than opened to Him for His perfect love and healing.
My parents must have mentioned Theology of the Body at some point, because I was aware of it and I somehow knew about the TOB Institute, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I actually took it upon myself to learn more. I had started counseling in 2013 for childhood wounds and a generally unhealthy view of sexuality and myself. At that time, my husband and I had been married for a little over three years and had two daughters. Through counseling and what I can only conclude was the Holy Spirit, I found some free talks by Christopher West online and started listening to them while I was making dinner and cleaning around the house. Immediately, I realized that I had discovered a goldmine and was completely overcome by the desire to learn more. In a matter of weeks, I was registered for my first week-long course at the TOB Institute.
For a little background, the Theology of the Body Institute is a mission founded in 2004 by Christopher West and David Savage. Taken straight from their website: “The Theology of the Body Institute spreads the life-giving message of Theology of the Body through graduate level courses, on-site speaker programs and clergy enrichment training. Theology of the Body Institute seeks to penetrate and permeate the culture with a vision of true sexuality that appeals to the deepest yearnings of the human heart for love and union.” The courses are each one week long, on-site (located just outside Philadelphia), and include 30 hours of graduate level instruction from the best of the best theologians, ethicists, and professors. The certification program requires eight courses, exams from each course, reading JPII’s catechesis in its entirety with written reflections, and a board-approved teaching practicum. Ain’t no joke.
Anyway, there I was, signed up for this graduate level course, pooping my pants a little because I’m REALLY not a scholar and the thought of such academic material being presented for a whole week was slightly terrifying. But I went anyway, trusting that this is where God wanted me, and it completely changed my life. Here are three ways in which that very first course, Theology of the Body I: Head and Heart Immersion Course, transformed the way I saw myself and the world.
1) “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair” – G.K. Chesterton.
TOB I did this for my faith. For the first time in my life, I realized that God loves me. Ok ok ok, I grew up knowing that ‘Jesus loves me this I know’, but I didn’t actually know with my heart. I had had genuine encounters during high school, I prayed regularly, attended mass and adoration, all of that…but this was different. That week, I felt God wooing me and chasing me and LONGING for me to just LET HIM love me. I didn’t have to do anything to earn his love because he created me FOR LOVE. Hashtag mind blown.
When you feel that kind of love for the first time – not a forceful or invasive love, a deeply passionate but still gentle love – it’s basically impossible to ignore or forget. I learned that, as a woman, I am uniquely designed to receive love. It is literally written in my body that I am designed to take in, receive, and generate love. At first, that was an uncomfortable thought. It felt passive and weak. Like I just had to ‘let’ someone love me. In reality, receptivity is active and requires humility and strength. I must actively die to myself, renouncing my pride, and acknowledge that I am not capable of getting to heaven on my own. I can’t live a virtuous life by my own will. And by deferring to God’s will and accepting Christ’s love, I am accepting a life that will not be easy, although fulfilling. That requires strength. Just think of the strength it took for Mary to fully receive the Holy Spirit and say “yes” to God’s will for her! Through all this receptivity of God’s love, we are empowered and capable of then GIVING love, because we can’t give what we don’t have. In order to give, we must first receive. And I am made for that uniquely. Because I’m a woman. Is this totally insane to anyone else? Just me? Crickets…ok. Moving on.
I came home from this experience with a deep, passionate desire to have a close relationship with Jesus and Mary. Like never before, I was committed to growing in relationship, not just getting better at following the rules. I wanted to receive everything that Christ had for me, stretch my heart, and then receive more. Here is an entry from my prayer journal, written the week after my first course.
“Thank you, Jesus, for loving me and filling me with your love and mercy. Thank you for forgiving me and accepting me, broken and all. Thank you for always calling me back, for always drawing me back in. Thank you for taking my sin and bearing my cross for me. Thank you, Momma Mary, for being the ultimate example of the receiver. For being strong and beautiful. For saying ‘yes’ and allowing God’s love to fill you completely. Help me to be more like you. Help me to be ready and open to receive. Help me to be gentle like you. I want to overflow with your love, Lord. I want your love to flow through me to my husband and children and everyone around me. With you I can conquer all things and for the first time I really feel like that’s true. Help me to be a light to the world. I want to be on fire, Lord. I want to set the world ablaze. Show me how to do that and help me. Walk with me.”
2) “From the beginning it was not so…” Matthew 19:8
In his catechesis, JPII explains that to understand who we are as human beings, we must look to the beginning, to what God intended at the time of creation. By looking back to Genesis, we learn that we were not created for the fallen world that we live in, but rather, we were created for a life of eternal communion with Christ and his creation. So, all the junk, all the wounds, all the evil that we endure here on earth…it was never meant to be! And because we live in this fallen world, we will never be satisfied by anything in this life. Every job, every amount of money, every degree, every child, every person will fail to satisfy our desires. ONLY Christ can satisfy. Again, I kinda knew this, but I didn’t actually know it. On one hand, this is super depressing. On the other, it’s super freeing! Knowing that my husband will inevitably fail and hurt me, and I him, takes the pressure off. I no longer need to look to him for happiness because I know he can’t fully deliver what I desire. So why do I even have these desires and longings if I can’t satisfy them? Well, God gave them to us to show us that we were made for more, but looking for fulfillment in anything other than Christ will leave us miserable and empty. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “if you find in your heart a desire for something that can’t be fulfilled in this world, that means you were made for another world.” I learned that each and every longing of the human heart was placed there to point us to the eternal. My desire for recognition, for friendship, for delicious food. It all points me to the divine. Christ knows me better than I know myself and recognizes the accomplishments that no one else could even see, so I turn to him for affirmation instead of my peers. Jesus is the only one who will always be there for me to lean on and to have a conversation with, and the desire for communion shows me that I’m created for eternal communion with Christ in Heaven. And my desire for delicious food points me to the only food that will truly satisfy, the Bread of Life. Jesus, given to me as food in the Eucharist.
3) TOB lenses
After returning home, everyone asked how the week went and I would often describe it saying, “it’s like I put a pair of glasses on for the first time. I could kinda see things before, but it was all fuzzy and foggy. Now I can see the world clearly.” By looking into my own heart and exploring my wounds, allowing God into those icky places that I hid for so long and accepting his healing love, I’m now able to recognize others’ woundedness and be more merciful and patient than I was before. Now, when I see a sunset over Lake Michigan, I can’t help but thank God for that gift of beauty. I learned that the invisible is made visible through the physical. What does that mean? The sound of the breeze through the trees, the delicate petals of a wildflower, the mighty rush of a river, the tender hug of my daughter, the savory, salty taste of mashed potatoes and gravy, the ache of my legs and lungs after a hard run, the smell of a bonfire or a newborn baby’s head. All these gifts are tangible realities that tell us something about our creator. Although, I have yet to figure out what mosquitos or some of those super creepy sea creatures tell us about God, but I’m much more mindful of these constant touches of the divine and I’ve basically turned into my mother, finding myself saying things like “thank you, Jesus, for the dandelions!” As a kid, I always thought she was a little crazy saying things like that. Sorry, mom, you were totally on to something.
If you’ve ever worn glasses, you know that you can’t just stop wearing them. Having seen the world with clarity, you can’t go back to blurry vision. The same is true for me and Theology of the Body. I can’t unlearn or forget what I’ve encountered. And I can’t keep it in, either. I can’t NOT tell everyone about how great it is to be loved so deeply and completely.
So, this post is about 1800 words now and I could write, ohhhh, probably about six billion or so more. Give or take. But I’ll save more for later. Suffice it to say, this is just the beginning. It would be a shorter list to share what TOB has NOT changed. It would be a list of zero things. And all that up there, that was just one course and I’ve been to four more since. Stay tuned and thanks for sticking with me this long!