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

35 thoughts on “What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God

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  2. Marcelino says:

    Emily, C West’s work does go beyond sexual union. If you onlly went to one talk then one would have to ask what the focus of the talk was. Having had several oppportunities to hear him speak on topics “through the LENSES of TOTB”, not all of them were about sex. One of his points was that others will take up the mission of spreading TOTB in areas which they can find applicable. Obvously this is the approach you are taking. Congratulations, you are in league with Fr Thomas Loya, Katrina Zeno, Jason Everet and many more. Each bring their own flavors to this teaching, and are successful at it Best of luck to you as you bring your flavor to the mix.

    1. It’s so hard to fit everything in to an 1100 word post. Harder even than a 1 hour talk. But yes, I know there are others out there and I’ve heard C. West speak more times than I count by this point, as well as interviewed him, read his stuff, etc. I’ve also heard, interviewed, talked with the other speakers you mention and more. Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are other speakers out there addressing other aspects of TOB and that West is tackling this in ways he wasn’t 12 years ago, the public mind is still stuck, if you will, in 2002. People who know TOB extremely well know better, but most don’t. I’ve talked about this problem with many TOB speakers and its an ongoing source of frustration for many. Part of it may have to do with how the subject was introduced and first popularized, part of it may just be that sex is shiny. Regardless, it is a problem. Anyhow, one last time, this post is not a “bash Christopher West” post. I was telling a story about how I discovered TOB and how I’ve always approached it in a way different from the way most people did. I’ve defended him many times in the past from some of what I believe have been unfair criticisms, and am grateful for the work he’s done. I even quote him in the closing chapter saying TOB is not all about sex. I keep repeating myself on this, because I don’t want this post to be construed as anti-West. It’s certainly not meant to be that way. But people do need to hear that there is more than one approach, and that other approach’s aren’t just optional but necessary.

  3. Emily, this is a beautiful post and I will definitely read your book soon. You may be interested that we seem to be thinking in some similar ways…there’s more going on in those great audiences! My own book on that reality is coming out in June 2014. http://www.tobextended.com Peace!

    1. Also, you probably know, Christopher West is branching out as well–at least in Fill These Hearts, which is much more about the first half of the audiences. It’s very well done, in my opinion.

  4. Ray Rondini says:

    Dear Emily,

    Thank you for your honest, insightful post. I must confess, as a lover of TOB and an admirer of Christopher West, I was somewhat reluctant to read what I thought would be another “bash” of Chrostopher’s work an approach. Surprisingly to myself… I agree with you wholeheartedly. Christopher has a great message, and that message can and does indeed reach those many, many people who have been wounded and distorted by fallen sexuality. But there IS SO MUCH MORE than sex! So thank you for this special insight into how we need to look at the body- and indeed all creation- also in light of that vast majority of vertical time :) Christopher says frequently during his classes, “there’s more! There’s more!” And indeed there is. Thanks again.

  5. Lindsey says:

    Thanks Emily! I’m thrilled to read about this and will look forward to reading your book. I have shied away from C. West because it seems sex-obsessive (don’t know if that’s accurate or not) and this sounds like the kind of well-rounded study of TOTB that I need!

  6. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post! Having fought a similar battle with eating disorders in my youth, I can really relate to your experience. Thanks be to God for Blessed John Paul II and his writings!

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