Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Theology of the Body for Every Body": a book review

Leah Perrault’s Theology of the Body for Every Body (2012): book review


It’s the incarnation, stupid. 

True, Leah Perrault is nothing but gracious when she writes Theology of the Body for Every Body (Montréal: Novalis, 2012).  She would never say “stupid.”  But she does take her experience as a pastoral minister (as director of Pastoral Services in the diocese of Saskatoon) , a wife and mother of young children, and a teacher and writer on the Theology of the Body audiences to say with infectious joy: the Theology of the Body is about the incarnation of God and the bodily realities of being human.

Perrault (who also wrote a book on dating and the Theology of the Body) argues that the Theology of the Body literature is, more than anything, about what it means to be human.  Most secondary interpreters focus on the sexual ethics within the audiences, and Perrault adds to that conversation in new ways.  But she sees opportunities lost if we do not pay attention to “the first 500 pages of the audiences”: the theological anthropology and spirituality of John Paul II.

This is not an easy task.  As she notes, John Paul II’s audiences are less linear, more thematic and circular in their argument.  The audiences, especially here, have the feel of a theological exploration, full of wonder and mystery.  But what John Paul does theologically is internally consistent, and best broken down through thematic treatment. 

In Part I, Perrault uses short, eminently readable chapters to introduce salient motifs within the audiences: John Paul’s understanding and use of human experience, scripture, “original man,” the spousal meaning of the body, sacramentality, seeing through hope, and the philosophy of the acting person.  As one who has written an anthropology of the audiences, I applaud her for the succinct thematic summary (I wish she had included a treatment of John Paul II’s Carmelite influences, but otherwise, I think she hits all the high notes).   Besides providing some background outside the audiences, she peppers the first half of the book with pastoral examples.

But what may really open people’s eyes is the second half of the book, “Living the Theology of Our Bodies.”  Perrault’s own background as a pastoral minister serves us here as she moves through narrative after narrative of Christians, young and old, single and married and divorced and widowed and consecrated, facing messy realities that require discernment as to how to give oneself to God through others.   While Perrault connects the dots in some of the narratives to the Theology of the Body themes, other narratives are left to stand as evocative possibilities.  It is fascinating and poignant reading, made important by the implied challenge given the reader: how is this lived reality--a decision between two goods, a process of dying, an opportunity to address a family conflict--a sign that points to God?

This is a joyful and practical book, written with conviction and deep knowledge of the Theology of the Body literature and its possibilities in helping people live in a way more open to God’s work within their selves and the world.  I hope this publication marks the beginning of a sustained turn to the spiritual anthropology of the audiences, which not only grounds the audiences' latter section on the sacrament of marriage, but also provides a rich and deep way to see what it means to be created human, in relationship with the world, and destined for union with God. 

--Susan Windley-Daoust
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
July 16, 2013


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