This post continues a series of adult reflections on the children’s books that comprise our Theology of the Body curriculum for children, called “The Body Matters.”
In 2012, I walked the Camino de Santiago, an ancient 500-mile trek from the border of France, to the Cathedral of Saint James at the western end of the continent. About a quarter of a billion people have made this journey over the past 1,000 years. It is a titanic phenomenon in human history.
Centuries of people praying along the trail seems to have carved something like a spiritual river across Spain. When a modern pilgrim joins the trail, there is a strong sense of being part of something vast and primordial, something much, much bigger than oneself. The Camino takes a person out of our 21st-century micro-self-absorption, and into an awareness of belonging to the colossal stream of humanity.
In a sense, the body, understood from the viewpoint of Theology of the Body, does the same thing. The quite simple 1st-grade book, The Body Tells A Story, gives this understanding of belonging to the long chain of humanity. It is our hope that it will ground children in a way that the microcosmic, narcissistic 21st-century American culture cannot. The noisy politics of identity tend to fracture community, setting each person in a river of their own, with little awareness that they are part of a human stream.
It’s a good reminder for us, too. Adults have breathed in and digested the fumes of our current culture, and reading this simple book may help bring us back to our senses.
The book begins with a tiny telling of the salvation story in the Old Covenant: creation, fall, disunion, God’s calling us back through judges and prophets. You know Jeff Cavin’s Timeline, that leads you chronologically through the Old Testament story? This is the first-grade equivalent. It introduces some major players, and leaves children with the foundational idea that a break in our friendship with God also causes a break in our human relationships.
The book goes on to the story of Jesus, which is a very BODY-ly story. Jesus was conceived in a human womb, a being with blood and flesh and DNA, born to a mother who cradled his body, and brought him to the Temple for circumcision, where, through his body, he was incorporated into the covenant. Later he was baptized in the green, silty water of the Jordan River, and emerged sopping wet, with his sandals squishing. He caused the whole hearing function to work again in a man’s inner ear and brain, he caused cells to reanimate in a child who’d died, he made molecules of water somehow transform into molecules of wine. These were all earthly, tangible, bodily things. He spit saliva and rubbed it in someone’s eyes, even!
The actions of Jesus are a good argument for showing that salvation is a bodily story, not a purely spiritual story. The body on the crucifix is the most potent argument. Jesus was well and truly dead, but in God’s providence, that body walked and talked to the apostles for forty days before ascending. It is the story of salvation, told in a body.
Life in the Church continues the story of death and resurrection. I don’t mean “the church” as a social club, a political action league or a historical artifact. I mean the living, breathing Church that gives life, true life, every day, through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
As the Church pours life into us, the faithful, we are able to take the love of God out to the world. It’s not sentiment or even good intentions that we take; it’s the white-hot love of God that lives within us. When we are wide-open to the power of God, renewed every time we receive the Eucharist, our relationships with others change. The power of love advances out into the world.
This story is discoverable in our own bodies. Just as Christ gives life through baptism, our parents gave us life through their love. Sometimes that’s harder to see in a world where sex has been separated from love, but according to God’s plan, we all came from love. The story of love continues as we learn to bend ourselves to the good, to offer friendship to others, to give kind responses to people in need, to serve our families and neighbors, to return God’s love to Him.
It’s a story that began in love, and ends in love. Granted, it can be a tangled story, as we lose our way or take dead-end turnoffs. But the Church is equipped to bring us back to the path and help us walk forward toward Love, leading with the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.
The amazing thing, especially to 21st-century sensibilities which tend to be limited to empirical data, is that the story is written right in our very bodies. It’s like an ancient river flowing across a continent or a path worn into the landscape by millions of pilgrims. The river rose up long before us, and will continue long after us. We are a part of it, through our bodies, part of that long stream, that ancient story.