A Fundamental Disquiet in All Human Existence

Author: Pope John Paul II

A Fundamental Disquiet in All Human Existence

Pope John Paul II


At the General Audience on Wednesday, 28 May, the Holy Father delivered the following address.

1. We are reading again the first chapters of Genesis, to understand how—with original sin—the "man of lust" took the place of the "man of original innocence." The words of Genesis 3:10, "I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself," provide evidence of the first experience of man's shame with regard to his Creator—a shame that could also be called "cosmic".

However, this "cosmic shame"—if it is possible to perceive its features in man's total situation after original sin—makes way in the biblical text for another form of shame. It is the shame produced in humanity itself. It is caused by the deep disorder in that reality on account of which man, in the mystery of creation, was God's image. He was God's image both in his personal "ego" and in the interpersonal relationship, through the original communion of persons, constituted by the man and the woman together.

That shame, the cause of which is in humanity itself, is at once immanent and relative. It is manifested in the dimension of human interiority and at the same time refers to the "other." This is the woman's shame with regard to the man, and also the man's with regard to the woman. This mutual shame obliges them to cover their own nakedness, to hide their own bodies, to remove from the man's sight what is the visible sign of femininity, and from the woman's sight what is the visible sign of masculinity.

The shame of both was turned in this direction after original sin, when they realized that they were naked, as Genesis 3:7 bears witness. The Yahwist text seems to indicate explicitly the sexual character of this shame. "They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." However, we may wonder if the sexual aspect has only a relative character, in other words, if it is a question of shame of one's own sexuality only in reference to a person of the other sex.

Relative character of original shame

2. Although in the light of that one decisive sentence of Genesis 3:7, the answer to the question seems to support especially the relative character of original shame, nevertheless reflection on the whole immediate context makes it possible to discover its more immanent background. That shame, which is certainly manifested in the "sexual" order, reveals a specific difficulty in perceiving the human essentiality of one's own body. Man had not experienced this difficulty in the state of original innocence. The words, "I was afraid, because I was naked," can be understood in this way. They show clearly the consequences in the human heart of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Through these words a certain constitutive break within the human person is revealed, which is almost a rupture of man's original spiritual and somatic unity. He realizes for the first time that his body has ceased drawing upon the power of the spirit, which raised him to the level of the image of God. His original shame bears within it the signs of a specific humiliation mediated by the body. It conceals the germ of that contradiction, which will accompany historical man in his whole earthly path, as St. Paul writes: "For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind" (Rom 7:22-23).

Centre of resistance

3. In this way, that shame is immanent. It contains such a cognitive acuteness as to create a fundamental disquiet in all human existence. This is not only in face of the prospect of death, but also before that on which the value and dignity of the person in his ethical significance depends. In this sense the original shame of the body ("I am naked") is already fear ("I was afraid"), and announces the uneasiness of conscience connected with lust.

The body is not subordinated to the spirit as in the state of original innocence. It bears within it a constant center of resistance to the spirit. It threatens, in a way, the unity of the person, that is, of the moral nature, which is firmly rooted in the constitution of the person. Lust, especially the lust of the body, is a specific threat to the structure of self-control and self-mastery, through which the human person is formed. It also constitutes a specific challenge for it. In any case, the man of lust does not control his own body in the same way, with equal simplicity and naturalness, as the man of original innocence did. The structure of self-mastery, essential for the person, is shaken to the very foundations in him. He again identifies himself with it in that he is continually ready to win it.

Interior imbalance

4. Immanent shame is connected with this interior imbalance. It has a "sexual" character, because the very sphere of human sexuality seems to highlight especially that imbalance, which springs from lust and especially from the lust of the body. From this point of view, that first impulse which Genesis 3:7 speaks of is very eloquent: "They knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." It is as if the "man of lust" (man and woman "in the act of knowledge of good and evil") felt that he had just stopped, also through his own body and sex, being above the world of living beings or animalia. It is as if he felt a specific break of the personal integrity of his own body, especially in what determines its sexuality and is directly connected with the call to that unity in which man and woman "become one flesh" (Gn 2:24).

Therefore, that immanent and at the same time sexual shame is always, at least indirectly, relative. It is the shame of his own sexuality with regard to the other human being. Shame is manifested in this way in the narrative of Genesis 3. As a result of it we are, in a certain sense, witnesses of the birth of human lust. Also the motivation to go back from Christ's words about the man who "looks at a woman lustfully" (Mt 5:27-28), to that first moment in which shame is explained by means of lust, and lust by means of shame, is therefore sufficiently clear. In this way we understand better why and in what sense Christ speaks of desire as adultery committed in the heart, because he addresses the human "heart".

Desire and shame

5. The human heart keeps within it simultaneously desire and shame. The birth of shame directs us toward that moment in which the inner man, "the heart," closing himself to what "comes from the Father," opens to what "comes from the world." The birth of shame in the human heart keeps pace with the beginning of lust—of the threefold concupiscence according to Johannine theology (cf. 1 Jn 2:16), and in particular the concupiscence of the body.

Man is ashamed of his body because of lust. In fact, he is ashamed not so much of his body as precisely of lust. He is ashamed of his body owing to lust. He is ashamed of his body owing to that state of his spirit to which theology and psychology give the same name: desire or lust, although with a meaning that is not quite the same.

The biblical and theological meaning of desire and lust is different from that used in psychology. For the latter, desire comes from lack or necessity, which the value desired must satisfy. As we can deduce from 1 Jn 2:16, biblical lust indicates the state of the human spirit removed from the original simplicity and the fullness of values that man and the world possess in the dimensions of God. This simplicity and fullness of the value of the human body in the first experience of its masculinity-femininity, which Genesis 2:23-25 speaks of, has subsequently undergone, in the dimensions of the world, a radical transformation. Then, together with the lust of the body, shame was born.

Double meaning

6. Shame has a double meaning. It indicates the threat to the value and at the same time preserves this value interiorly.(1) The human heart, from the moment when the lust of the body was born in it, also keeps shame within itself. This fact indicates that it is possible and necessary to appeal to the heart when it is a question of guaranteeing those values from which lust takes away their original and full dimension. If we keep that in mind, we can understand better why Christ, speaking of lust, appeals to the human "heart".

1) Cf. Karol Wojtyla, Amore e responsabilità (Turin: 1978), chap. "Metafisica del pudore," pp. 161-178.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 June 1980, page 1

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