What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God

When I was 19, I stopped eating. Not entirely. Just mostly. For the better part of six years, I survived on lettuce, tuna, and frozen yogurt. It’s not a diet I recommend, but at the time, it made me feel safe and in control.

I hated my body back then. I hated its softness, its feminine curves, its absolute refusal, no matter how little I ate, to be as long and angular as the models in the magazines.

I wasn’t so fond of my soul either. I didn’t know what to do with all the opinions that came so easily or the tongue I couldn’t tame.

So, I tried to hide them behind a frame I made increasingly fragile. If I were small, I posited, no one would mind the smarts so much. And if I starved my body, I hoped, perhaps I could starve my temper and tongue as well.

In many ways, my plan worked. I never managed to starve the smarts or the opinions out of me, but in what I ate and how much I exercised I found a way to control my world. I also found a way to punish myself for not being the person I wanted to be.

Throughout those six years, there were better times and worse times.  The year 2001 was a “better” time: I’d put on weight and generally ate like a normal human being.

But I still hated my body, and I still hated food. They frightened me. I wanted to be better, but the eating disorder had taught me to see my flesh and the food that nourished it as the enemy. They were problems to be managed, evils to be combatted.

An Encounter

 That’s where I was when I started finding my way back into the Catholic Church.

And that’s why, when I walked into a Catholic bookstore one Saturday afternoon in March 2001, John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body caught my eye: It had the word “body” in it, and I wanted a theology of the body. I wanted to know what this Church of mine had to say about the flesh I despised.

So, I bought it, went home, and started reading.

In its pages, I found grace. And truth. And healing. In it, I found an entirely different way of seeing not just my body, but God, the world, and everything Creation contained, food included.

The Theology of the Body taught me that my body was not some hunk of flesh encasing my soul; it was me. It expressed me. It made me present to the world, enabling me to love and be loved.

It also taught me that those curves I despised were gifts, reflecting my feminine heart and God himself, who nourishes and nurtures his people with more tender care than any mother who nourishes and nurtures her child.

And it helped me see food not as something to be feared, but as a perpetual witness to that nourishing love of God’s. It unlocked the power and beauty of the Eucharist and changed every meal into a natural foreshadowing of One, Holy, Sacrificial Meal.

Perhaps most impressively, it did all that in the first reading.

A Question

Now, fast-forward a year to 2002, when, as a graduate student at Franciscan University, I headed off to a lecture by Christopher West. I had no idea who West was, but he was speaking on the theology of the body, so off I went.

Two hours later, I left the lecture confused.

“Did we read the same book?” I asked my roommate. “’Cause I don’t think we did.”

It’s not that I disagreed with West. He had lots of powerful things to say that plenty of people in that audience needed to hear.

But there was so much more to say, so many more truths to talk about—truths that I thought were more foundational than what I heard that night.

I mean, yes, of course, married sex is good and holy and helps us understand the life-giving love of the Trinity. I got it.

But how do you live sexual integrity, inside and outside of marriage, if you don’t first understand what the body is or who the human person is?

How do you even talk about those things in a way that respects the beauty and dignity of the marital act, if you don’t already understand the beauty and dignity of the human person?

How do you express the truth of the redemption of the body in the bedroom, if you can’t express it standing over the kitchen sink?

After all, there are 24 hours in a day, and the overwhelming bulk of that time is spent vertical. Becoming who we’re called to be and living how we’re called to live is mostly about that time. That’s where the real work is done, the work that shapes our eternity, as well as those horizontal hours.

An Answer

 John Paul II understood that and he gave us a blueprint for that work in The Theology of the Body.

But, in recent years, in the midst of all the talk about sex, a lot of people have missed the blueprint. They’ve equated the theology of the body simply with the Church’s teachings on sexuality, seeing them as one and the same.

Again, that’s understandable. Sex is shiny. It captures our attention oh so easily. It’s also an area in which countless men and women have been profoundly wounded. People have needed the healing the theology of the body’s teachings on human sexuality can bring. For helping them find that healing, I applaud Christopher West and many others.

But (and this is a huge, all-caps, bolded kind of “but”), without learning the rest of what the theology of the body has to say, that healing can only be, at best, incomplete.

That’s why I wrote my newest book, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Bodyto start a new conversation about the theology of the body, one that (hopefully) can help us live a fully and authentically Catholic life outside the bedroom, as well as inside.

That’s also why, for the next few weeks, I’m going to try to engage in that conversation here.

Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

I think the same can be said of Catholics and the theology of the body. Many hate (or don’t care) about what they think it is. But it’s almost impossible to hate what it really is.

Because to hate what it is, is to hate seeing a world teeming with grace and rich with meaning. It’s to hate seeing the world with Catholic eyes. It’s to hate the truth about yourself and God.

And that truth…it’s beautiful.


Nude Woman, by William Adolphe Bouguereau

  • Rick Fagan

    TOB is great – but don’t just pick up the Pope’s “Man and Woman He Created Them – A Theology of the Body and start reading it. That would be like trying to work calculus before you had algebra or trig onometry. Start out with Christopher’s West’s Theology of the Body for Beginers, then go to his Theology of the Body Explained and then read what Bl Pope John Paul II wrote. You could also go to one of Christopher West’s Head and Heart Immersion Courses too!!! TOB changed my life – I am now a candidate for the Diaconate and if there is “one” thing that made a difference – it was TOB

  • Janet O’Connor

    Actually this subject was also being discusses a few years back when Alice Von Hildebrand was critical of West and his interpretation on the TOB. Alice and her late husband were both experts on human love before the TOB

  • http://onesimplemama.com Erika Marie

    This is GREAT. Makes me want to read the original Theology of the Body and not just what Christopher West has written on it. The Church’s teaching on the body is so RICH and BEAUTIFUL.

  • Tom

    Emily, thank you so much for this. I am often dismayed at how JPII’s great gift of TOB has been reduced down to a theology of sex. There is so much more to TOB than sex. There are great, deep theological truths in TOB that enrich our understanding of what it means to be human and have great value to engaging our culture today.

  • Gail F

    I am very interested to read your book. Someone close to me is mentally ill, and though it has never impacted my faith it is hard to see how God can be expressed or understood through his body, which causes him to act in so many bizarre and hurtful ways to himself and others, and in fact seems to make him incapable (at this point) of faith because of his negative, rigid patterns of thought that are irrational about some, but not all, subjects. It is heartbreaking in ways that people not impacted by an organic mental illness (one that can’t be cured by learning to think differently or other therapies) can even understand, so it’s difficult to talk to anyone about.

    • http://www.emilystimpson.com Emily Stimpson

      Gail, there is a small section in the book that talks about suffering bodies, not nearly enough to do the topic justice I’m afraid. I guess my immediate response is that a person who suffers in the way you described, in a very special way reflects the image of a God who suffered and died for us. Whether we choose to see it or not, he shows us the Suffering Servant on Calvary. Someday, God willing, that particular bodily suffering of his will make his resurrected body all the more beautiful. I’ll try to address this idea more in a future post.

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