Last month, I introduced Pope St. John Paul II’s concept of original nakedness. In that reflection, we saw that our first parents “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). According to the saintly pope, this lack of shame corresponded to a fullness of interior freedom they felt in one another’s presence. By virtue of original innocence, by which the man and woman were untainted by sin and filled with God’s grace, they were able to behold each other “with all the peace of the interior gaze” (TOB 13.1). The pope was referring here to a capacity to “see” each other not only with physical eyes but also – to borrow an expression from St. Paul — with the eyes of the heart (cf. Eph 1:18). What precisely is this “interior gaze” or “heart vision” through which our first parents beheld each other? And what does it have to do with us?
Physical eyes see the exterior of things: light and dark, shape, colors, texture, movement, etc. When we look at one another only with this limited form of vision, we merely see the exterior of the body. We fail to see the interior reality of the person. This can lead us to treat the person as just one more object among so many in our environment. Like any other object we see, we begin to evaluate this object as to what it can do for me. How useful is it? Will it gratify me in some way or give me pleasant feelings? Is it what I want?
If we are to avoid this objectification of the person, our exterior vision needs to be guided and informed by a heart that “sees” the true value of things and is disposed to receive them with gratitude. Indeed, all of creation is a gift to man from our loving Creator and is meant to draw us back to Him. Everything that exists has a certain truth, goodness, and beauty in it that reflects the infinite Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that exist eternally in God. There is nothing in visible creation for which this is more true than the human person. Made in the image and likeness of God, possessing the capacity of self-awareness and self-determination, the human person is the most exalted creature in all of the visible world. A person is not just a “what” but a “who,” another “I” like me. Each person is entirely unique, a son or daughter of God set in a distinct, unrepeatable relationship with Him. A person is capable, through freedom and intelligence, of truly human activity. We discover all of this through the human body, if we have the interior eyes to see it, for the body reveals the hidden, spiritual reality we call person. The body makes the person present and is the “place” of encounter with the person.
Our first parents instinctively saw the fullness of the dignity of the person revealed in each other’s bodies. Indeed, they saw all of creation as a gift given by their loving Father to be cherished and respected, most of all one another. They beheld each other as embodied personal subjects and not as mere objects to be used. They intuitively knew that this body reveals a person, and a person is the sort of thing that must never be used and must always respected with awe and reverence. I can never “possess” another person or treat him/her as a means to an end. This attitude filled their hearts and enlightened their eyes. This is why they could be “naked” and not feel “ashamed.” There was no danger or threat for them in being completely exposed (physically and spiritually) before each other. They were totally safe in each other’s person-affirming gaze.
For us, wounded as we are by sin yet redeemed by Christ, we have to work hard, with the help of God’s grace, to grow into this capacity to always “see” and affirm the person. Even then it is not fully attained in this fallen world in which threats to our dignity abound and the effects of sin are never totally blotted out. Nonetheless, pondering original nakedness underscores for us the dignity of the person and points out to us the incredible respect that every human person, revealed by his or her body, deserves. It is only in letting this vision take root in our hearts that we can hope to experience a glimmer of the intimacy with God and others for which we are created.
Note: This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”.
Continue Reading: Gift, Self-gift, and the Meaning of Life — Part 1
Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services
(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, April 2022 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)