** Trigger Warning: This article contains mention of multiple forms of trauma. **
My body was a battlefield for far too long.
At fourteen, I had a crush; an innocent, excited, puppy-love crush. When that turned into my first relationship, I thought my life was finally beginning to go right. Until it turned into an abusive relationship. I was young, painfully naïve, and overly determined to “love until it hurts.” He was aware of this, desperate for attention, and a skilled gaslighter. I spent the next three and a half years being sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. He was subtle and manipulative enough that I didn’t recognize it as abuse until more than a year after I got out. But under his threats to kill himself, there was no question that he was in charge. There was no question that he owned me, directed my actions and my body. There was no question that every piece of me belonged to him. My body slowly turned into a battlefield. It turned into a place he owned, a place of violence, use, and fear. It turned into the home of every ounce of trauma.
I was terrified to admit to any anger at his treatment, so terrified I wasn’t even able to name it to myself. I just knew my anger as this horrible black feeling of frantic energy. That anger lived inside my body, crawling in my hands and pushing to get out and make itself known. So I turned on my body, already the home of so much conflict. By about six months in, I had developed an eating disorder and started to self-harm, hoping to starve and twist and carve out the anger and hatred that was begging to be let out. I hated my body, for what had been done to it, for the conflict it housed and the way it looked and the feelings it felt. I hated my body because it was easier than admitting that I hated him.
By the grace of God and nothing else, I survived. At the age of seventeen, I opened myself for one minute, and He stepped in. In a split second, God revealed the enormous brokenness of my situation, and I realized that everything I had thought was love was not. This moment of encounter with actual Goodness and Love was enough to draw me bit by bit into healing. There’s a lot that goes into the story here: the part where I unsuccessfully broke up with him, the part where I later successfully broke up with him, the part where he stalked me for six months, the parts where I spent months fighting my own self-destructive urges, the part where I finally admitted my own anger. In short, the many years of healing it has taken me to get to where I am. They’ve been complicated years, but that’s not entirely the focus of this article. So, I’m going to move ahead to the part where Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body played a massive role in my healing.
I signed up to study theology of the body because I was intellectually interested; I like philosophy and theology and thought it was an interesting topic. I was not ready for the amount of deeply personal understanding and healing that would come from this. Here are a couple of massive truths I realized and the ways they helped me to heal.
- My sexuality, if not embraced and understood, is broken.
For years after all of this trauma, I hid from my own sexuality. I felt dirtied, so I hid from the part where my body wanted to show and receive love. I dated someone else pretty seriously for a year, and I never let him touch me or kiss me. But our relationship suffered because of it. I was in hiding, scared, trying to pass it off to myself as chastity. In reality, I was not chaste, just ashamed of my body and scared of his touch. I was trying to move my body and soul in different directions.
Chastity is the integration of sexuality into the human person, the virtue of the body and soul moving in harmony toward the same good and to the same degree. Fear and shame of your sexuality is not chastity; body and soul working against each other is not chastity. The natural progression of a relationship should include the natural progression of sexuality. To clarify, I’m not endorsing premarital sex here or anything, just the fact that as you grow together in mind and heart, so too should your bodily expression of love grow.
2. Written into the depths of our bodies is the purpose of communicating love.
All this time, I had been treating my body as a battleground rather than a place of love. I had only been able to understand my body as something bad. My body held all the times it had been violated: apparent proof that it was a place of shame and use and hurt. My body held all the times I had hurt it myself: apparent proof that it was something for me to fight against, to try to conquer, to take my anger out on. I deeply, experientially, held my body as a place of evil and fear. My body was a battleground.
I intellectually understood the argument when we approached the topic of love as the purpose of the body. But deep inside, the idea was so foreign and groundbreaking that it took me months to actually understand and believe. I could mentally grasp the idea that the body is meant to deepen and express the call to communion that is at the heart of the human being. But this meant my body was deeply good…that my body was a home of love and beauty and connection. That idea entirely, completely shattered me. It made everything that had been done to me worse, and yet, in my grief over that, I somehow felt better. I felt justified in my brokenness, in the deep sense of anger, injustice, and wrongness that I felt.
To be clear, I don’t have any deep exhortations to end this on. I’m still in many ways broken and struggling to live all of this out. But I know that my story, while wholly mine, is similar to so many other stories out there. I know that there are whole fleets of people out there who experience their body as a battleground, as a temple to all that’s ever been evil and broken and shameful in their life. So if that’s you, I urge you to study the theology of the body however you can. Try to understand the two simple truths I mentioned above. Read more articles about it. Read the study guide. Read the actual book. Whatever door works best for you, look for it. Because the deep truths held in theology of the body will help you come to see your body as what it really is: as something deeply good and beautiful. As a home of love.