It made no sense. People would see the old woman—frail and bent, her face lined with a thousand wrinkles. They would talk to her, look her in the eye, then walk away, invariably saying the same thing: “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Again, it made no sense. At least not by the standards of every major fashion magazine. The woman wasn’t long and lean. Her lips weren’t pouty and her eyelashes didn’t bat. She wasn’t hot. She wasn’t sexy. She wasn’t Gwyneth Paltrow.
But she was beautiful. And everyone who met Blessed Teresa of Calcutta believed her to be so.
Because, as John Paul II wrote in The Theology of the Body, “the body expresses the person.”
In other words, through Mother Teresa’s body, people saw her soul, a soul alive with love and transformed by grace. In her eyes, they saw mercy. In her hands, they saw compassion. In her shoulders, stooped and bent, they saw humility.
And in her whole person, they saw God. Through her mercy, compassion, and humility, they saw his mercy, compassion, and humility. Through her love, they saw his love. Through her strength, his strength.
They saw all that because, as I explain in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, that’s what the body does. It makes visible the truths of our invisible soul, and it makes visible the truths about our invisible God. It communicates who we are to the world as it images the Creator of that world. What makes it beautiful is how well it does that, how perfectly it images the God who formed it.
Which is to say, what makes a body beautiful is how well it loves.
That’s not pious claptrap. It’s the simple reason why people walked away from Mother Teresa fully convinced that they’d just met the most beautiful woman in the world.
Her love for God and man were written on her face. Her virtue—her compassion, her purity, her obedience, her respect for life—manifested itself in her every look and action. And that didn’t just make her soul beautiful. It made her body beautiful. It caused people to see her as lovely. They liked to look upon her.
The same holds true for us.
The Beauty of Us
We may not think we’re beautiful. We may look at the women and men gracing the pages of Glamour or Men’s Fitness and think we don’t measure up because our hair isn’t as thick or our abs as tight or skin as firm. We may not like what we see in the mirror: the wrinkles, the scars and stretch marks, the cellulite or gray hairs, the nose or eyes or lips that don’t resemble the models in the magazines.
But the people we love don’t see what we see.
They don’t see a collection of body parts; they see us. They see our love for them. They see sacrifices made and patience exercised. They see how many times we’ve forgiven them, listened to them, and encouraged them. They see our honesty, integrity, fidelity, and devotion. They also see our intelligence, humor, wit, and creativity—all gifts from God and all ways we image God.
And make no mistake, they see that in our bodies. They see that when they look at us. Even if we don’t see it.
When your two-year-old or mother or spouse tells you that you’re beautiful, they’re not lying or exaggerating or blowing smoke. They don’t have a vision problem. In a way you don’t, they see the reality of you, the beauty of you—a person created by God, loved by God, and who, in body and soul, images God.
That is, they see that beauty if there’s beauty to be seen.
For just as love of God and man makes a body beautiful, the absence of that love makes a body decidedly less so.
Hatred, vulgarity, cruelty, vanity, pride, self-pity, and insecurity—they work their way to the surface too. Youth might be able to hide them for a while, but by a certain age, most everyone has the face they deserve. And even if they have a better face than they deserve, only strangers usually see it that way. Those who know them best, look upon them and see the rot in their soul. They see the absence of beauty when there’s an absence of love.
Again, the body expresses the person. It can’t do otherwise.
A Beauty Plan
So, do you want to be beautiful?
Then love. Pray. Obey God. Get to know him so you can be like him.
Talk less of yourself and listen more to others. Open your home to friends and strangers. Pay more attention to them and less to the dishes piled up in your sink. Turn of the TV and visit the elderly neighbor across the street. Put down the iPhone and look the person you’re with in the eye. Write checks for widows and orphans. Look away from the half-naked woman walking down the street. Don’t flirt with the married co-worker in the office next door. Hold the complaining and tell God, “Thy will be done.” Forgive. Be frugal. Be merciful. Don’t gossip. Don’t shirk your responsibilities, and don’t make everything about yourself.
Also, laugh. Smile. Throw your arms around the people you love. Cook your kids’ favorite meal for dinner. Knit a scarf for a friend. Finish the project you’ve long promised your wife you’d finish. Give flowers for no reason.
While you’re at it, care for your body, but don’t obsess about your body. Spend less time looking in the mirror and more time looking at the Cross. Be patient with yourself as you’re patient with others.
Basically, pursue virtue, avoid vice, love truly, and use the body God gave you to express that love. Use it to give your love away every day in a thousand little ways. Be the gift of love that you are.
You may not see how beautiful that makes you. It may take a while to like what’s staring back at you in the mirror. Cultural voices are hard to silence, and old habits of seeing and judging die hard.
But others will see it. They will see you. And through you, they will see God. Which is exactly how God designed it to be.
*This is the second post in a series about the ideas discussed in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. Read the first post “What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God” here on Catholic Vote.