“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” So said Vatican II, in words that John Paul II often repeated. Many call this principle the “Law of Gift.”
But what is “a sincere gift of self,” and how is it actually possible?
I’ve been re-reading John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, now over 40 years old. Okay, I’ll admit – I never actually finished it the first time around, twenty-one years ago. I found some of his reflections tedious and confusing. I drifted into other distractions. But in so many ways, I wasn’t emotionally and spiritually ready to engage all that he was saying.
At the time, I was gung-ho about upright sexual morality. So in my reading of Theology of the Body (TOB), I was scavenging for ammunition. I wanted “the Truth” so that I could fight the culture war, save marriages, and help young people stay pure. I was well-intended but misguided, because I was conveniently avoiding the brokenness within my own heart!
Even so, I was captivated by the beauty of TOB: the inherent goodness of our bodies; the God-given glory of sexuality, and the invitation to make a free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift of ourselves. I began preaching that message of self-gift.
Meanwhile, I prayed and toiled that I might somehow be strong enough or good enough to be self-giving in that way. I tended to one of two extremes. When I felt like I was “succeeding” in my sacrificial self-giving, I was puffed up with a sense of grandiosity. Then, inevitably, I would struggle or “fail” and would be flooded with shame and discouragement. In both cases, I was keeping parts of myself buried deep, where no one could see them (not even myself!).
In recent years, the Lord has been uncovering layer after layer in my heart and showing me repeatedly that he desires ALL of me – not just the presentable parts. As that journey progresses, I think I understand more fully the stunningly beautiful invitation of John Paul II. Under the loving gaze of God the Father, with much protection and nurturing from Mary my heavenly mother, I am invited to grow as a whole person so that I can make a free and wholehearted gift of myself.
There are two sides to this beautiful teaching: integrity and self-gift.
When we hear “integrity,” we tend to think of following the rules or getting it right. But the word literally means “wholeness.” I cannot give all of myself if I am unwilling to take hold of all the pieces of my heart – much less to invite God or others close. It is only when I grow in wholeness that I can make a total gift of myself.
It is only when I grow in wholeness that I can make a total gift of myself.
Just as there are two sides to the Law of Gift, so there are two common ways of deviating. The first is the one that I was committing for many decades, namely, “spiritual bypass.” We avoid going into the painful places of our own heart. Instead, we rush to “love” or “serve” others. We tell ourselves we are making a gift of ourselves. We tell ourselves we are sacrificing or (in Catholic lingo) “offering it up.” But in many cases, we are actually avoiding the Cross. We are resisting a full participation in the paschal mystery. We are unwilling (or perhaps not yet ready) to enter into the suffering and death of Jesus, to endure the hope of Holy Saturday, and to encounter the newness of the risen Jesus. He eagerly desires to go into those places of our heart with us, but some of us are not yet ready.
“Gift” is only gift if we give all the pieces. That is what integrity means. It means being authentically human – not just a spiritual or cerebral being, but also fully alive in our emotions, our imagination, and our desires. It means being EMBODIED!
“Gift” is only gift if we give all the pieces.
Many Catholics talk about “Theology of the Body” – but prefer to keep the teachings only at a spiritual or moral level. Rather ironic, isn’t it, since its focus is the body? I’ve often suggested that TOB is like a giant crate we’ve brought home from IKEA. It’s an amazing addition to our home – or will be, if we ever take all the pieces out of the box, much less engage in the hard work of assembly!
Meanwhile, in the broader culture, there have been amazing breakthroughs in neuroscience, in developmental psychology, and in trauma research. Trauma shows up in the body. Trauma is healed in the body. I am in awe of how well these findings connect both with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and John Paul II. But Catholic have been SLOW to integrate and make connections. We need to!
If we do not, the opposite error will prevail – that of personal “autonomy” or “independence.” In a well-meaning but misguided effort to reclaim the shattered pieces, many contemporary clinicians exalt the Self (with a capital “S”) as the be-all and end-all. It is well and good to become disentangled from abusers or to overturn oppressive structures. But our true human purpose is to make a gift of ourselves – to be the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies and bears much fruit.
And that brings us back to the original quote, which articulates the Law of Gift: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
We are, at our core, relational beings – because we are created in the image and likeness of a relational God. We will never become who we are if we do not make a free, total, faithful, and fruitful gift of ourselves. But it is a “sincere” self-gift – one that requires authenticity and integrity. If we bypass the broken places, we will never become a whole person that way. Our “gift” will be far less fruitful, because our “yes” is not yet free and wholehearted.
May each of us grow in integrity and discover the ways God is truly inviting us to make a gift of ourselves!
This post was originally published on Abiding in Truth and Love and is reprinted here with permission.