Our Sacred Selves: The mystery of the human body

Early this year, around the time I saw “Prodigal Son,” the New York City Ballet’s production of the George Balanchine work, I also received two radically different messages about the meaning of the human body.

The first came from reading a brilliant dissertation on art, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, by the Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain claimed that the human body is the most beautiful creation in nature and that the human face is naturally sacred. The second message came from the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which outsells by many times the magazine’s typical number of newsstand copies. The photo pictured a model wearing the bottom of a bikini with its top thrown over her shoulder, her arms folded in front of her, barely (pun intended) covering her breasts. The model’s seductive stare dispelled any temptation to describe her face as “naturally sacred.”

Both messages, almost contradictory, point toward mysteries. Working from St. Thomas Aquinas’s vision of the human person, Maritain saw the human body as essential for the spiritual dimension of the human person. The only mystery suggested by the cover of Sports Illustrated, though, is what that photo of a half-naked woman has to do with sports!

A long history of a dangerous dualism impedes a healthy reflection on the human person. This dualism, which goes back to Plato, has affected some Catholic theology and even some Catholic spirituality. Consider, for example, the dualism of René Descartes. The 17th-century French Catholic thought of the human person as a soul and the human body as an object somehow connected to the soul, a thing that a person carried. Percep-tive historians have attributed the start of 19th-century atheism to Descartes’ weak philosophy of the person (and his equally weak theism, which centered on his invalid “ontological proof” for the existence of God).

The cover of Sports Illustrated and pornography in general are indirect descendants of those dualisms (including Descartes’s) that reduces the human body to a depersonalized object, a thing. So influential was dualism in my own Catholic education that I was well along in seminary studies in theology before I had any notion why the resurrection of our bodies was important. For years I believed that as long as our souls reached heaven, what happened to our bodies was inconsequential. Resurrection of the body seemed like an unnecessary addendum, almost a divine afterthought.

Catholic personalist philosophers like Emmanuel Mounier and Gabriel Marcel, however, reacted strongly against dualism. Mounier wrote: “I am a person from my most elementary existence upward, and my embodied existence, far from depersonalizing me, is a factor essential to my personal status. My body is not one object among others…. I exist subjectively, I exist bodily are one and the same experience.” Marcel wrote, more simply, “I am my body.”

In the ballet “Prodigal Son,” every aspect of the production I saw glorified human bodiliness and beautifully illuminated the famous parable. The accompanying music was composed by Sergei Prokofiev, and the sets were copies of the originals painted by the great Georges Rouault. On seeing the sets, I was reminded of an experience I had a few years ago at an exhibit of Rouault’s paintings of Christ at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. When I reached the end of the exhibit, I was alone in the gallery. Sitting down to pray seemed the logical thing to do after encountering the artist’s depictions of the sacred. And while I have no idea of the religious practice of anyone connected with the production of the ballet, I found it to be more prayer than performance. Years ago I saw Rudolph Nureyev perform, and there was a magic to his art. No dancer’s prowess in “Prodigal Son” equaled that of the great Russian, but the ballet transcended the magical. For me, it approached the mystical.

St. Thomas once described beauty as “that which when seen pleases” (id quod visum placet). By “seen” he meant an intuitive knowledge that gives joy because of the object known. We are made for mystery, and all mysteries are beautiful. Beauty enchants, even seduces us. While this is true of all beautiful art, dancing seems especially enchanting. Part of the enchantment may be because the whole person is in action. This may even account to some extent for the popularity of television shows like “Dancing With the Stars” or “Glee.”

The enchantment takes on new dimensions when the art is explicitly religious. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus described a profound truth about human personhood and the personhood of God. He reminded his listeners of human frailty, finitude and moral weakness and, in the process, revealed what it means to say “God is love.”

The presentation of Balanchine’s ballet—with Prokofiev’s music, Rouault’s sets and dancers coming as close to deifying dance as finite beings can—had a marvelous integrity. Here I mean an aesthetic integrity rather than a moral integrity, though the distinction should not signal too great a separation. Because of its beautiful presentation of a profoundly spiritual theme, the ballet was like a sacrament.

Years ago, the Rev. Andrew Greeley pointed out that artists were sacrament makers, creators of emphasized beauty. The priest said they “invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world enchanted by the luminosity of their work and with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life.” At their best, artists lead us more deeply into the divine milieu.

American culture often is indicted for overemphasizing sex. The Sports Illustrated cover is an obvious example. Actually, to the extent that it embraces the Playboy or Playgirl philosophy, any culture trivializes sex. We should never be seduced into forgetting that sexuality is God’s gift to us for relationships. Sexuality is the dimension of the human personality that is both oriented toward the other and reaches its greatest manifestation in love. Maritain was correct: the face is naturally sacred. So is the whole body.

In capturing something of the mystery of sexuality as sacred, the ballet I saw choreographically contrasted lust and love. If we wish to encounter the highest manifestation of the mystery of sexuality as sacred, of human relationship as a loving self-gift, we can turn, finally, to the Eucharist, God’s religious masterpiece. In the Eucharist, humanity’s relationship with the divine is at its most personal, powerful and prayerful: Jesus, the bodily risen Christ, offers himself as well as his mystical body to his Father. The Eucharist is Christ’s act of love revealing the most profound mystery of human bodiliness.

View clips from George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son."

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 5 months ago

Wow.  Watching the clip of the ballet gave me goosebumps.

Thank you for this affirmation of the sacredness of the human body.  I hadn't thought about that sacredness as being inherent in its subjectivity - I AM my body; my person is not separate from my body - but it is so true that as soon as we begin to view the body as object, we have moved into profanity.

I especially appreciate the last lines about the Eucharist revealing the profound mystery of human bodiliness.

6 years 5 months ago
6 years 5 months ago

One of the most tangible miracles in our lives is the presence of another human being......a person who developed and grew from TWO 1/2 cells. Yes, as former anatomy students may remember my frequent exhortation, look at the person next to you and you are experiencing a miracle! The eyes, muscles, hormones, bones, neurotransmitters, nails, skin, etc., etc., etc.,  all from TWO 1/2 cells! 

This article expresses it so well, affirming the sacred mystery of the body and the wonder of art! 

6 years 5 months ago

Now this is a contribution to a THEOLOGY OF THE BODY!

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