Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Perfect Body of the Virgin Mary

Which woman has the perfect body? Unquestionably, it's the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is "the masterpiece of embodied creaturely existence," according to Donald Calloway's The Virgin Mary and the Theology of the Body.

This idea is logical, but it sounds strange to us. What most people mean when they talk about a perfect body is a body that is the ultimate in sexual attractiveness. But a human body is much more than that. To reduce the body's value to sexiness alone diminishes its true worth, not to mention the worth of the person to whom the body belongs. We need to alter our concept of the perfect body.

This doesn't mean we should all remain virgin. If we did, the human race would quickly die out. So how should people, particularly married people, imitate the virginity of Our Blessed Mother? Should married people just shrug and assume it's an irrelevant theological detail, or does it reveal something crucial about our married vocation?

In The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism, John Zmirak quips:
I've always been confused by priests who held up the Holy Family to ordinary couples as a model of behavior. What can a regular Joe Catholic husband really gain from imagining that his wife is a sinless virgin and his kid is the adopted Son of God? What part of that is supposed to be helpful?
Very funny, but not so enlightening. I think the answer lies in the theological meaning of virginity. (See my earlier posts on the topic here and here.)

New Advent suggests that virginity is a sign of perfect chastity. Obviously, a person who remains virgin is not necessarily chaste. Someone who engages in "everything but" intercourse or someone burning with lust and resentment, while still remaining virgin, is not exactly demonstrating the virtue of chastity.  But Our Lady had perfect chastity, not only because she remained virgin, but also because she successfully integrated her sexuality into her marriage with St. Joseph -- "into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman," which is how the Catechism defines married chastity. (Catechism, sec. 2337) Mary and Joseph didn't try to push the line, see how far they could get, or slump grumpily around during the endless succession of  "not tonight, not ever" days. Every day they must have searched for ways to be a gift to one another.

They had a perfect marriage, because their hearts and minds were totally united to each other and to the will of God. As one, they gave themselves totally and completely to God in their virginity and thus became a perfect symbol of married life and religious life at the same time. Pope John Paul II in the Theology of the Body stated:
The marriage of Mary with Joseph ... conceals within itself at the same time, the mystery of the perfect communion of persons, of Man and Woman in the conjugal covenant and at the same time the mystery of this singular "continence for the kingdom of heaven."
This perfect union bore incredible spiritual fruit; it led to the incarnation of the Son of God. Their physical virginity thus symbolized their spiritual rather than biological fruitfulness. (TOB, 75:3) This reminds biological parents that we must be spiritually fruitful, also, taking care of our children's souls as well as bodies. Far from being irrelevant, Mary and Joseph's example can teach us to be perfect parents in addition to perfect spouses.

The Catechism also sees in Mary's virginity "the sign of her faith 'unadulterated by any doubt,' and of her undivided gift of herself to God's will." (Catechism, sec. 506) This is an example anyone would do well to follow, married or not.

Mary, Queen of Virgins, pray for us!


  1. This is a teaching I have always struggled with, much like John Zimrak.

    Part of this problem is that the teaching is sometimes presented in a negative way, as if sex is bad, even in marriage, and that the most holy couples shouldn't want it.

    But the marriage of Mary and Joseph tells us not that sex is bad, but that a marriage without sex can still be good. That's important, because there are times in every marriage where sex is not an option. Thank you for this excellent post that clarifies a very difficult point of doctrine.

    1. You articulate an important point well, James. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  2. As I struggle daily to put 3 meals (plus snacks!) together for 4 kids (soon 5!), stay on top of the unbelievable amount of laundry they produce, occasionally sweep up the crumbs and dog hair that build up to mountainous piles EVERY DAY, and homeschool all 4 (3rd, k, and 2 pre-k's, one of whom is developmentally delayed by about a year), I find myself increasingly annoyed by the emphasis on what an amazing mother Our Lady was. She was born sinless, she had ONE child to care for, and oh yeah, HE WAS THE SON OF GOD. What do you want to bet she never had to tell him 17 times in one day to stop jumping on the furniture? Do you think he complained about the broccoli in dinner, even though the day before he said broccoli was his favorite thing ever?
    And he definitely didn't ask "but why?" every time he was told anything. He already knew why!
    For me, Mary and the Holy Family represent an impossible model that's constantly being pushed in a "well, why can't you be more like your sister?" way. Her circumstances and life are so far removed from anything in my experience, that for the church to hold them up as such a specific ideal seems like a cruel joke.

    1. Kat, I've got six kids myself, so I hear where you're coming from. Being a stay-at-home mom of many little kids can be crushingly difficult. But Mary struggled and made mistakes, too. Sure, Jesus was probably better behaved than most kids, but Mary didn't have a dishwasher, a stove, or a laundry machine. And just because Mary never sinned didn't mean she always cooked a perfect meal. She just didn't let it get to her.

      I'm as imperfect as the next person, but Mary's perfection gives me hope that our struggle has a purpose. If we keep trying, not only will the days get easier, but we'll get a little happier and holier, too.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Just because Jesus never sinned doesn't mean he was an easy child. He ran off to the Temple when he was 12.

      If Jesus was fully human, then that means he was fully human. He cried (despite what "Away in a Manger" says). He had foods he didn't like. He probably jumped on the furniture. Perhaps Joseph taught him how to fix the furniture he broke?

      Oh, and the Bible says Jesus had "brothers". These were not the children of Mary and Joseph, but were some sort of close relatives. Even though Mary only had one biological child, it doesn't mean she wasn't taking care of other kids.

      If you want impossible, try the Proverbs 31 woman. She isn't even real!

  3. Raising kids should not make one angry. It should be something to be proud of and it does not last for ever. Even Mary and Joseph lost the one Child they had not four and they had to look for him. Raising four or ten children is much easier than to raise God. Can one be able to live with God for 30 years? Its not true.

    1. I think Kat is suggesting that when it's a struggle just to get through the day, the call to perfection seems like another impossible task on an already unachievable to-do list. Moms need practical as well as spiritual help. That's coming in a later post.

  4. first of all, I liked the disclaimer placed below. It is humorous and insightful as well.

    Then coming to the topic of Mary as mentioned above - it's a good attempt by you to have reflected on Mary's body. My hearty congrats.

    If you allow me to add - FRUITFULNESS of a person solely depends upon the LOVE that he/she shows forth, but it is 'Unconditional LOVE' which Pope Benedict XVI had spoken in 'SPE SALVI', and that LOVE will have to be AUTHENTIC as well. This has been to the highest degree exemplified in our Lord's death and Resurrection. No wonder, He has conquered the whole world and redeemed it from the devil.

    Our Blessed Mother Mary also typified the similar in the sense that her heart in its entirety, soul, mind, body and all strength were in unison and were directed to obeying the WILL OF GOD, come what may... all the while putting forth her LOVE unconditionally... accepting wholly the Will of the Father, Following in the footsteps of her Son Jesus the Savior, and allowing herself to be possessed by the Spirit Lord, and in perfect/authentic conjugal relationship with Joseph.

    Henceforth... as she herself claimed of herself, "henceforth all generations will call me BLESSED", her claim shall continue throughout the generations, that is the reward the Lord has bestowed on her, for she has even advanced in imagining and believing of the wondrous things the Lord would do to her in the ages after her earthly existence.

    Therefore, William WOrdsworth was very insightful to have said, "Mary, our tainted nature's solitary boast". She teaches us how to enjoy that perfect continence both by the laity and the religious as well.

    Thank you for the insightful article and having allowed us to think of that.

    But before I wind up... let me see what you say of the below:
    The Consecrated Religious in the Church, though a few of them have fallen like the Judas Iscariot, quite many [still in great number] are able to conquer their sexuality and place the Love of the Lord above all else in their life, and it is that 'Unconditional Love' in miniature. Perhaps, perhaps... the Lord is looking with love on these souls who are offering themselves completely to HIM throughout every generation, and as a consequence, this narsistic world [engrossed in the 'devil worship'] is able to continue to enjoy the Abundance of the Lord. They are like soul within the human body... and all Christians are called to be of such.

  5. I am Prasad. thank you once again for the thoughtful article on our Blessed Mother Mary.

    1. Thank you for your excellent commentary. I agree that the prayers of the consecrated religious are truly powerful, like incense rising to heaven.