The topic of “communication” is popular in marriage preparation programs and pre-Cana retreats. There is nearly always a witness talk on communication in marriage, because it is so important to the success of any relationship. These are often very practical and personal talks. But what about the spiritual side of communication? What does communication have to do with theology?
John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides an important spiritual perspective on the topic of “communication” that can help frame these witness talks and other marriage preparation discussions about communication between couples.
To put it simply, we communicate the truth about ourselves as married couples through our bodies. This act of communication should reveal what is at our deepest core: we are made in the image and likeness of God as a communion of persons.
Communication in Conventional Language
John Paul II specifically addresses “communication” in his catecheses on Genesis 2:25, which focuses on the meaning of Original Nakedness. According to this passage in Genesis, “they were naked, but did not feel shame.”
First, John Paul II explains how we understand “communication” today, noting that it has become “alienated” from its deepest and original context. As he sees it, the modern concept of “communication” is “tied mainly to the realm of media . . . to products that serve as means for understanding, exchange, and bringing [people] closer together” (Theology of the Body [TOB], 12:4). In other words, we tend to think of communication as an external means to an end.
Although he pointed this out over twenty years ago, today’s use of modern social media, email, Skype, and text messaging could not support his point further. We communicate through products as a means of understanding and connecting with others.
Communication in the Theology of the Body
John Paul II points out that in contrast to our understanding of communication as “media,” the original meaning of communication “was and is directly connected with subjects who ‘communicate’ precisely based on the ‘common union’ that exists between them, both to reach and to express a reality that is proper and pertinent to the sphere of subjects-persons alone” (TOB, 12:4).
To put it more concretely, “through its own visibility, the body manifests man and . . . acts as an intermediary that allows man and woman, from the beginning, to ‘communicate’ with each other according to that [communion of persons] willed for them in particular by the Creator” (TOB, 12:5).
If couples were naked and felt no shame (Gn 2:25), then their exterior bodies (expressed by physical nakedness) affirms what is inherent in the persons (no shame).
The Spousal Meaning of the Body in Layman’s Terms
Let’s try to put break this down a bit.
It is an unfortunate fact that we constantly misunderstand what our spouse communicates to us. Very often the emotions within our bodies stand in the way of effective communication. We might listen to what our spouse is trying to communicate, but hear something different than what he or she actually intended.
We also let fear stand in our way. Afraid of what our spouse might be thinking or feeling inside, we misinterpret what the other is trying to say. Or, feeling ashamed or afraid of what our spouse might say or think of us if he or she knew what we were feeling, we try to put up a front and misdirect the exterior perception of ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I constantly misread body language and facial expressions. I’m also very bad about letting my body accurately show how I’m really feeling inside. More often than not I’m thinking about something without realizing I look like I’m sad or angry!
The point John Paul II is trying to make is that “in the beginning it was not so.” God, who made us in his image and likeness, calls us to live as a “communion of persons” that allow our bodies to express accurately what is true on the inside. This communion of persons is made possible when we become a “sincere gift of self”–when we are able to ignore our emotions, our wants, and our fears and truly accept each other as gifts and give ourselves to one another in mutual self-giving.
Making this leap in interpersonal communication to real intimacy with one another gets at the core of what John Paul II wished to express in his Theology of the Body. When we allow our bodies to be true expressions of who we are as man and woman specifically in the way we communicate to one another, we begin to understand the meaning of our bodies as gifts of self.
This is what John Paul II refers to as the “spousal meaning of the body” and a theology of the body.
“This is the body: a witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs” (TOB, 14:4).
Embracing the gift of God’s grace, we can truly communicate through our bodies the deepest truth about ourselves: we are a gift.
(Actual quotations are taken from Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology Of The Body translated by Michael Waldstein)