I remember the discussion I had with my friend Michael in the summer of 2009 when, following a story on ABC's Nightline, criticism of Christopher West was coming fast and furious. Both of us had really benefited from West's work, so it disturbed us to read comments on the internet like, "West is leading people into dangerous waters . . . He isn't doing justice to John Paul II's Theology of the Body . . . West is not taking into account the incredible strength of concupiscence, and his readers and listeners are going to be caught off-guard." As I talked with Michael, the most intense lover of the Carmelites I've ever met, the conviction emerged that West's critics were not accounting for the spiritual theology of one of the Church's great Doctors, the Carmelite's St. John of the Cross. West's critics appeared comfortable teaching that Jesus could empower people to overcome any sin - racism, alcoholism, the hunger for revenge, etc. -and actually live as blazing examples of those sins' opposing virtues . . . except for when it came to living a real, sustained victory over lust. In that one area we seemed forever doomed to live on a precipice. West on the other hand seemed to completely embrace St. John's teaching that God can bring us into a transforming union with Him, one that allows us to conquer temptations and take on the image of Christ, albeit with some slight imperfections, even in this life! Jesus' desire is to brings healing and wholeness to the whole person - and sexuality is an integral part of who we are as human beings."I have come that they may have life and have it to the full" (Jn.10:10).
Christopher West does a masterful job of teaching us the true value of the body within Christian Faith. As much as the world around us - and even our own poor catechesis - would like to characterize Christianity as souls seeking release from sinful flesh, nothing could be further from the truth. The great scandal of Christianity - as opposed to the Platonism of the Greeks, or the Cartesian duality of today - is the conviction that God not only descended into human flesh but, through the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, has raised it to literally unimaginable heights. The goal, the victory, we Christians await is not our souls' liberation from the body and the spiritual experience of heaven, but the glorification of both soul and body on the day Christ brings heaven to earth!
I did find myself taken aback at several points in the book - not from anything irreverent or immodest on West's part, but by the depth of the Holy Father's reflection. Allow me to site one example: the Holy Father's vision of marriage as the "primordial sacrament" (TOB 97:2). Prior to humanity's fall, John Paul sees marriage acting as an "efficacious sign," communicating divine life (TOB 19:4). The union of man and woman, and the new life that flowed from it, was an anticipation of the union to be achieved by Jesus and His redeemed Church, His Bride (Eph.5:31-32), and the supernatural life that would come into the world through it.
And the "transforming union" Michael and I discussed so many moons ago? Oh, it's here - in spades. West quotes from John Paul II (TOB 43:6), showing the Holy Father's complete agreement with St. John of the Cross that we can experience a "liberation of our hearts from 'concupiscence,'" a true transformation of our desires. (The Holy Father's agreement with St. John isn't surprising considering that he was the subject of JPII's 1948 doctoral thesis!) But like John of the Cross, the Holy Father and West insist that the purity of heart Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes (Mt.5:8) comes only after many purifications and dark nights. We should not overestimate our strength or progress in the spiritual life. For the vast, vast majority of us, periodic "custody of the eyes" will be a necessary safeguard to looking upon someone of the opposite sex with lust for a good, long while. But we are called to transformation. We are journeying toward looking at others with the very eyes and mind of Christ - that's the Beatitudes, that's the Sermon on the Mount. And the Lord wouldn't issue the call unless it were a real possibility! The question is, how serious are we about achieving it?
Looking back at what I've written so far, I recognize that my words have not, and in my opinion cannot, do justice to the depth of this book. I already have a list of friends to whom I plan to loan it. If you are ready to see yourself, marriage, reality, to see the Catholic Faith through a new set of eyes, then click this link: