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Scarred and Sacred

May 20, 2019

By Jeannine Peters, a Woman of Malvern

May is the birth month of the great saint, John Paul II whose entire life could be viewed as a summation of May with all its hope and promises. He gave to the Church the beautiful and transformative teaching of the Theology of the Body. Many people think that the Theology of the Body is about sex and marriage. And while it is that, it is also so much more. At its core it answers two fundamental questions: what does it mean to be human; and how can I be happy. The answer lies in our creation as male and female and our call to be gift to one another.

As John Paul II’s writes in the Theology of the Body “The human body includes right from the beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift – and by means of this gift – fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.” – TOB 15.1. In other words, our bodies have purpose and meaning and make visible the invisible reality of who we are. We don’t have a body, we are our bodies. Our call is to love and the only way that we can communicate love is in and through our bodies.

I hadn’t started formally studying Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body when my mother was dying from cancer but it was a moment when I saw very clearly and concretely what his teaching meant. It was twelve years ago when  my mother’s uterine cancer returned and was accelerating so fast that it still is surprising to me. She was 79 years old when she died, but an old 79. Though her face was youthful for all of her adult life, her body betrayed a sedentary life of  work/home with a love for ice cream and caramel nips.

In the five months of her sickness, I would drive to Massachusetts with my three year old in tow once a month for a week or more at a time to see her and relieve my sister of care for the week. At first she simply needed assistance with bathing and other tasks but after some months of the cancer’s rage, she required much more constant care. Toward the very end of her life, as I gently washed what was once my mother’s soft and full body, I was left breathless by the beauty of her. This broken and scarred body, now skeletal and gaunt, had been ravaged by age and disease. It had yielded to the tyranny of breast cancer and uterine cancer, to the scars of a mastectomy and hysterectomy, to arthritic knees and ankles, to hair loss and sunken places in her face and abdomen.

Yet, this broken body was so beautiful to me that I was overwhelmed by the sight of it. This body, her body, her person, was my home. As I washed each part of her, I thought about how much my mother had loved me, had lived her life as gift to me in and through her body. Her body had been my first home and had nourished me. Her body spoke love and encouragement and offered me kisses. Her body had soothed my tears and bandaged my knees, prepared my food and washed my clothes. Her body had cradled and carried me. Her body had spent sleepless nights next to me when I was sick, and had spent sleepless nights knelt in prayer when I was out all night. And her body had stood on the sacred ground of my deepest pains in life and, offering encouragement and prayers, pulled me close to her heart. Her scarred and sacred body was born of and worn out by a life given in love. 

I will never forget that day, when my mother’s physical presence became a meditation on the deep reality of her love for me,  and the gentle washing of her body became an act of worship to a God who created us to be gift.

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