Younger Than Sin

Author: Lorenzo Albacete


Lorenzo Albacete

Only the one who is "like this child" can recognize grace. That is why the one younger than sin was the same one who is full of grace.

When Pope John Paul II visited Lourdes in 1983, he recalled Bernanos's reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary as "younger than sin."[1] The expression points to the Immaculate Conception of Mary; Lourdes was where Mary identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception."

Bernanos's explanation is found in The Diary of a Country Priest.[2] Bernanos speaks through M. le Cure de Torcy:

She is our Mother, the mother of all flesh, a new Eve. But she is also our daughter. The ancient world of sorrow, the world before the access of grace, cradled her to its very heart for many centuries, dimly awaiting a virgo genetrix. For centuries and centuries those ancient hands, so full of sin, cherished the wondrous girl-child whose name even was unknown. A little girl, the queen of the angels! And she's still a little girl, remember! . . . The simplicity of God, that terrible simplicity which damned the pride of the angels. Our Lady knew neither triumph nor miracle. Her Son preserved her from the least tip-touch of the savage wing of human glory. No one has ever lived, suffered, died in such simplicity, in such deep ignorance of her own dignity.... For she was born without sin—in what amazing isolation! A pool so clear, so pure, that even her own image—created only for the sacred joy of the Father—was not to be reflected. The Virgin was Innocence ....The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child-eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sorrow . . . they are not indulgent for there is no indulgence without something of bitter experience—they are eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin [emphasis added], younger than the race from which she sprang, and though a Mother by grace, mother of all graces, our little youngest sister.

Mary belongs to the original state of human existence. I use the term "original state" as does John Paul II in his "Wednesday Catechesis on Human Love."[3] It designates the state of the human person as intended by the Creator, before the fall. "Original" is understood in an existential state, not according to linear historical time. It is a matter of archetypal experiences which we can "reconstruct" from the accounts in the Book of Genesis of the state before the fall (CHL, 12/12/79). These experiences are revealing of what a human person is in God's plan of creation. In spite of sin, they remain within us as a "distant echo" of what we are meant to be. Although born into a world enslaved to sin, Mary lived in the original state of human existence.[4] Her spiritual life was entirely filled with God's Spirit.

According to the teaching of the Church, the original state was one of "innocence," the innocence of humankind's childhood or youth. The present or historical condition of human existence is the fruit of what happened "later," that is, sin separated man from his child-like innocence. Mary is thus "younger than sin." Using these terms, redemption must be seen as the retrieval of childhood innocence. It is only those who "become like children [who can] enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:3). Only those who retrieve and sustain (by the power of grace) those experiences of "original innocence" can enter the kingdom. When asked about divorce, Jesus said that it was incompatible with "the beginning" of the human race, with the state of original innocence (Mk 10:6). It had been permitted by Moses because of the human "hardness of heart." His redeeming mission, however, would offer to man a new heart, one free from enslavement to sin, a youthful heart. In this article we shall examine what this youthful heart is like, guided by the study of original innocence by Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday Catechesis.

The myth of the beginning

John Paul II introduces the "Catechesis on Human Love" as a work in theological anthropology, an "adequate anthropology," he calls it. "The adequate anthropology rests upon the essentially human experience and is opposed to all reductionism of a naturalist type which often goes hand in hand with the evolutionary theory of the origins of man" (CHL, 1/2/80). That is, the adequate anthropology analyzes experiences held to be constitutive of human personhood, especially of human subjectivity, of the person as a "who" and not just a "what." These experiences are not reduced to a single common origin (such as, say, in Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the "masters of suspicion"). This would be a "reduction of a naturalist type." These experiences are retrieved from consciousness by "the very principle of reduction, characteristic of the philosophy of man."[5]

The creation accounts of the Book of Genesis are a theological source for the retrieval of these experiences, not only because they are the Word of God, but because of their literary form as Adamic myths.[6] Myths are a privileged source of these experiences because, in a sense, they are about those experiences of the mystery of the origins of our identity. Myths articulate the religious sense, the most fundamental of our levels of consciousness, the awareness of our contingency as creatures. Pope John Paul II quotes Paul Ricoeur: "The myth is something other than an explanation of the world, of its history and its destiny. It expresses in terms of the world, indeed of what is beyond the world, or of a second world, the understanding that man has of himself through relation with the fundamental and the limit of his existence.... It expresses in an objective language the understanding that man has of his dependence in regard to what lies at the limit and at the origin of his world."[7] In particular, this analysis of "original anthropological experiences" allows us to discover "the very structure of human identity in the dimensions of the mystery of creation, and, at the same time, in the perspective of the mystery of redemption" (CHL, 9/19/79).

Perennial meanings

The key to the analysis of these "original experiences" is the concept of meaning, or significato. The adequate anthropology, it was seen, is based on an analysis of the "original experiences" of identity, of personhood, of subjectivity. These experiences are "meaningful," that is, they "make sense" to us, they are adequate expressions of the truth about ourselves (based, the pope insists, on the truth of creation and redemption). These experiences communicate to us, make present to us, the truth of our creation and redemption. They are therefore signs of this truth. The meaning or significato of an experience is precisely the truth it makes present. The adequate anthropology, therefore, is constituted through an analysis of the meaning of original experiences. "The words of Christ have an explicit anthropological content: they touch on those perennial meanings by means of which the adequate anthropology is constituted" (CHL, 4/23/80).

Speaking of the "meaning of the body," the pope notes: The 'meaning' of the body is not only something conceptual . . . [it] is at the same time that which determines his attitude: his way of living of the body. It is the measure which the interior man . . . applies to the body" (CHL, 6/25/90). The meaning of the body is the expression of the experience or "attitude" of the person to his or her bodily self as it relates to the experience of identity, of subjectivity, of interiority. With this experience, man "measures" the importance of his body. The meaning of the body is that measure applied to it by the "interior man."

The creation accounts in Genesis, therefore, convey to us the "perennial meanings" that correspond to the structure of human personhood. Genesis does not intend to tell us about what happened at the beginning of history measured according to "linear time." Nor do the biblical creation accounts refer to happenings in some realm above space and time. Rather, they reveal what John Paul II calls "theological prehistory." The biblical prehistory is the primordial horizon within which history takes place. It is thus present in history as the basis for our experience of history itself. "Historical man is therefore, so to speak, rooted in his revealed theological prehistory" (CHL, 9/26/79).

Without "prehistory," the history of man is incomprehensible. The language that speaks immediately of the history of man, and mediately of his prehistory, is a symbolic or mythical language. History together with prehistory constitutes one narrative. Separating one from the other makes it impossible to know either.

Eschatological myth

Historical man, however, is not constituted only by the experiences of prehistory. There is another horizon present within which history is experienced, the eschatological horizon. We could speak of it as post-historical. Indeed, the "word" that touches man through his religious sense, through "original experiences," the "meaning" perceived through these experiences, the truth made present through them, is a truth framed by two horizons. There is on one side the experience of a distancing from an original state. Man is bound on one side by a sense of guilt as a result of this distancing.[8] On the other side is the experience of hope. When man is conscious of his being in history, he experiences having gone far from the beginning which is the arche of his existence. He is aware of "being far from." He experiences this as a fall, as the loss of his own self. It is then that he recognizes this primordial beginning as the "original," as the fullness of what he is, which gives birth to the hope of returning to that beginning at the "end," as one returns home. The sense of guilt and hope permeates man's experience of history, and gives to him the capacity to express that "beginning" and that "end" as the "truth" about himself in history. This truth is thus made present through "symbol," or significati, meanings. Through them, pre- and post-history become understandable within "history," making the latter comprehensible at the same time.

Myths, then, can be used to retrieve the original and ultimate meaning of things and provide human life with guiding patterns. The primordial past and eschatological future to which they refer are not part of history, but illud tempus, archetypal time. They constitute the horizon for the experiences of creation, fall, redemption, and triumph. These three cannot be separated if we desire to grasp the full truth about man. John Paul II insists that an adequate anthropology is constituted by this "triptych" of original, historical, and eschatological states. "Science" as a mode of viewing or intending man abstracts from prehistory and post-history; that is why the "abstract man" can be manipulated and redesigned by technology. As S. Grygiel writes, man ceases to "exist poetically over this earth" (Holderlin), and so the "prose of the world" (Hegel) renders him empty and sterile.[9] Thus "sterilized" from pre- and post-history, he ceases to exist as historical. It is, as Grygiel claims above, a result of the sense of "distancing" or "guilt." The myth prepares for speculation concerning the distinction between what is constitutive to created man (the "ontological") and what is "historical." Indeed, this speculation will lead to conceptualization and philosophy and it has to. Still, as John Paul II wonders: "The question, whether the metaphysical reduction really expresses the content which the symbolical and metaphorical language conceals within itself, is another matter" (CHL, 9/19/79).

Original solitude

John Paul II treats original innocence in the audiences from January 30 to February 20, 1980. His analysis builds on four concepts examined prior to innocence, namely, original solitude, original unity, original nakedness, and the nuptial meaning of the body. Here we can only summarize these as follows.

The solitude of which Genesis speaks is not the solitude of the male, but of man as such. It is an experience of the humanum. The context in which the experience of solitude appears is not primarily the creation of the woman, but the call to human dominion. It occurs while man is "naming the animals." Man is indeed a creature defined by the vocation to the development of the resources of creation. His identity is tied to this vocation. Carrying out his vocation, man becomes aware of his own superiority in comparison with all else in creation. Self-knowledge develops at the same time as knowledge of the world. Consciousness reveals man as the one who possesses the cognitive faculty as regards the visible world. Yet, this knowledge brings man out of his own being. It reveals man to man himself. Solitude, therefore, signifies man's subjectivity which is constituted through self-knowledge. This is the first revelation of man as person.

However, there is still an element lacking. The task of human dominion is "limited" by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the subject of a command that man was free to obey or disobey. That is, the experience of solitude also contains within it the experience of freedom and self-determination. Both self-consciousness and self-determination are constitutive of subjectivity.

Carrying out the vocation to dominion, man experiences his relation to matter, to the physical world to which he is linked through his body. The experience of solitude, therefore, is inseparable from the experience of the body.[10] One would imagine that it would have been otherwise; that the experience of the body would have led man to notice his similarity with the animals. Yet it is the other way around. Human personhood, therefore, is linked to the body. As John Paul II states: "The analysis of the Yahwist text also enables us to link man's original solitude with consciousness of the body, through which man is distinguished from the animalia and 'is separated' from them, and also through which he is a person" (CHL, 10/24/79).

Original unity

The creation of the woman does not bring about the disappearance of solitude. Solitude is inseparable from human personhood, as we have seen. Instead, with the creation of the woman, solitude "becomes part of the meaning of original unity" (CHL, 11/7/79): the experience of original unity is part of the experience of solitude, that is, of personhood. The creation of woman 'occurs" while man is in a deep sleep. Sleep is used here to indicate a specific return, so to speak, to non-being so that man might emerge again this time with his dual gender unity clearly manifested.[11] We could say that solitude, personhood, incarnates itself in gender differentiation; that is how it is disclosed, but it is, of course, not exhausted by it.

The pope speaks of a double solitude: with respect to the animalia, and with respect to one another. These are not "two solitudes"; this is the dual nature of the one solitude of man which affirms subjectivity, self-knowledge through self-determination linked now to the experience of the meaning of the body as masculine and feminine. Thus solitude is seen as the way that leads to communio personarum. Solitude, therefore (and thus subjectivity, being someone!) is an opening up to the "other" in a communion of persons. Subjectivity is constituted through communio.

The Priestly account of creation links the term "image of God" to gender polarity. In the second account, human personhood is disclosed through gender differentiation. The body as masculine and feminine (recall the experience of solitude is inseparable from the experience of the body) is always at the point of intersection between "image of God" and "communion of persons." Therefore, the sexual body has profound theological dimensions. Because the body "reveals" the person, man is a being who even in his corporeality is the image of God.

The unity between man and woman is achieved when they "cleave" together so as to become "one flesh." The reference is clearly to the sexual act, which is also associated with the blessing of fertility. Therefore, the sexual act is an act through which man and woman experience the mystery of solitude which makes their unity and fruitfulness possible. Through the sexual union they "recognize each other" as when Adam "recognized" Eve as "flesh of my flesh and bones of my bones." They relive, as it were, the original (in the existential way symbolized by the creation myth) experience of solitude. John Paul II calls this experience of solitude through the sexual act the discovery or experience of the virginal value of man. "This means reliving, in a sense, the original virginal value of man, which emerges from the mystery of his solitude before God and in the midst of the world" (CHL, 11/21/79).

We have here the possibility to speak of the union between virginity and fecundity in the original state, as Balthasar argues in The Christian State of Life.[12] Of course we cannot fully picture to ourselves how the link between virginity and fecundity can be expressed physically (as we must hold it to be, since it is as an experience of the body that the experience of solitude appears), anymore than we can picture a body free from physical corruption. Still, the fact that the experience of original unity by historical man contains traces, so to speak, of such a dimension of the experience of solitude, shows that the historical condition is not totally closed to this mystery. Balthasar writes of "a ray of hope" given to Adam and Eve after the fall, but still somehow within the experience of the original state ("before they had been driven into exile," he calls it).[13] The primordial experience of hope, as we saw, is more associated with the myth of the "end" of history, with eschatological language. But as John Paul II explains in his analysis of the words of Christ about the absence of marriage after the resurrection, the eschatological state is one in which virginity and newness of life (eschatological fecundity) will once again be reunited, and this as part of the eschatological experience of the body.[14] Our ability to discover this truth in our experience of "original unity" in the historical state is in fact due to the presence of the eschatological future in the historical world as a result of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The "pre-destination" of this saving event ("anticipation of its merits," one might say more traditionally) has made possible the appearance within the historical state of the embodiment of the "ray of hope" given to Adam and Eve to which Balthasar refers, namely, "the one human being who, because she knew not man, was able to be at once virgin and mother,"[15] the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is why Bernanos spoke of the generations after the fall awaiting a virgo genetrix.

Original nakedness

Another primordial experience found in Genesis's creation account by the Yahwist source is the lack of shame at being naked (cf. Gen 2:25). The passage from this lack to the shame present after the fall is not a question of not noticing nakedness and then noticing it. It is a matter of a "radical change of the meaning of the original nakedness" of one before the other (CHL, 12/12/79), as this meaning is constituted within subjectivity.

Nor does the lack of shame refer to some under-developed psychological stage (as children might not mind their nakedness); we are not really talking about a lack; we are talking of a positive experience of nakedness which later disappears. It is the experience of being affirmed in one's own self precisely through this total exposure to and for the other. This betokens a particular consciousness of the meaning of one's body as being, in its masculinity and femininity, a sign of being—for the other as the means of affirming and achieving the desired unity. The body not only does not stand in the way of this unity; it points to it and makes it possible concretely.

The body is the enfleshment of that subjective being—for the other which constitutes human existence, human subjectivity. Here the body through its nakedness shows itself as transparent to man's interiority, as in the case of the Blessed Virgin, a "pool so clear, so pure," as Bernanos said, "that even her own image (the image of her body) was not to be reflected."[16] The masculine and feminine bodies, in their nakedness, appear thus as the perfect vehicles for the gift of self one to the other.

This being made inter-personal communion, the truth about human subjectivity (which is always a physical/gender subjectivity), is part of man being the image of God. Therefore, original nakedness points to that experience of existence within the vision of God. "Nakedness signifies the original good of God's vision." This shows that in the original state there is no interior rupture and opposition between what is spiritual and what is sensible.

Nuptial meaning of the body

The concept of the nuptial meaning of the body, so important to the theological anthropology developed by John Paul II, follows from the meaning of original nakedness. The body, as we saw, incarnates the being for characteristic of human subjectivity. Human existence is thus understood through a "hermeneutics of the gift": "The dimension of the gift decides the essential truth and depth of meaning of the original solitude—unity-nakedness. It is also at the very heart of the mystery of creation, which enables us to construct the theology of the body "from the beginning" but demands, at the same time, that we should construct it just in this way" (CHL, 1/2/80). Thus the body as male and female is a "witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and so a witness to love as the source from which this same giving springs.... Such is the meaning with which sex enters the theology of the body" (CHL, 1/9/80).

The body witnesses to a theological reality, to love as the source of all creation. This Trinitarian love can be grasped only through the grace of God. Therefore, to say that original man is able to experience creation as gift of love through the body is to say that original man's experience of subjectivity through personal communion is a "subjectively beatifying experience"; that is, an experience of beatitude, of grace (CHL, 1/9/80).

The "meaning of the body," as we saw, refers to the capacity of the human body to make present the truth about the human person, namely, his origins in Trinitarian love. The human person encounters this Trinitarian love through the experience of the body's participation in his personal identity. The "meaning of the body" is how man "measures" its worth, its importance, its value in terms of his experience of subjectivity. The meaning of the body determines the attitude of man, it evokes a certain stand or interior disposition with respect to the body. When the experience of the body makes present the Trinitarian love at the origins of creation, when it is thus a "subjectively beatifying experience" of grace, then we can speak of the nuptial meaning of the body. The nuptial meaning of the body is a theological concept. "Nuptial" designates the "being-for the other" nature of personal existence, but the concept of nuptial meaning always includes the experience of the origins in divine love of this "being-for." It always designates a "subjectively beatifying experience."

"In fact, in the whole perspective of his own 'history,' man will not fail to confer a nuptial meaning on his own body. Even if this meaning undergoes and will undergo many distortions, it will always remain the deepest level, which demands to be revealed in all simplicity and purity, and to be shown in its whole truth, as a sign of the 'image of God"' (CHL, 1/9/80). It is precisely through the experience of the nuptial meaning of the body that man becomes aware of the original state as the primordial "beginning" of his history. The drama of sin and redemption in the historical state is played, so to speak, on the stage of the nuptial meaning of the body. Awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body "is the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (CHL, 1/9/80). That is why "redemption of the body" designates not an "aspect" of redemption, but redemption itself. Original innocence, therefore, must designate an experience of the nuptial meaning of the body.

Original innocence

If the experience of the nuptial meaning of the body is a "subjectively beatifying experience," that is, an experience of grace, of a participation in the inner life of God himself as love, then the experience of the nuptial meaning of the body is possible because of that "original justice" or "original righteousness" in which man was created, which becomes present in his original moral consciousness. It is "purity of heart, which preserves an interior faithfulness to the gift according to the nuptial meaning of the body" (CHL, 1/30/80). It is a "moral participation in the eternal and permanent act of God's will" (CHL, 2/6/80).

Theology, writes John Paul II, "has constructed the global image of man's original innocence and justice, prior to original sin, by applying the method of objectivization proper to metaphysics and metaphysical anthropology. In this analysis we are trying rather to take into consideration the aspect of human subjectivity [which] seems to be closer to the original texts," especially the Yahwist account (CHL, 2/13/80). We see in this quotation the entire philosophical and theological agenda of Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II describes the "existential configuration" of man in each of the three "states" (original, historical, and eschatological) in terms of particular configurations of the "system of forces" that characterize man bodily (sensitivity), psychologically (affectivity), and spiritually (relation with God). Connected with this is the concept of "spiritualization." "Spiritualization" designates the role played by man's "spirit" (openness to or link with God's Spirit) in each of the three states. The original state, he says, "indicates a degree of 'spiritualization' of man different from [the one] after original sin." It designates "another composition of the interior forces of man himself, almost another body-soul relationship, other inner proportions between sensitivity, spirituality, and affectivity" (CHL, 2/13/80). It is a degree of "interior sensitiveness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit" that is radically different from what we have now (CHL, 2/13/80).

There is another concept useful for the understanding of original innocence. It is that of "ethos." The "permanent roots of the human" are revealed to us by the "ethos of the body" (CHL, 2/13/80). The word "ethos" points towards an order of values. It is used to denote the characteristic traits of a particular people or culture: the American ethos, the Germanic ethos, the Latin ethos, etc. It reflects how a people perceive life and its purpose, their priorities, what they consider significant, real, or true, how they prefer to deal with problems, needs and questions, etc. It is an attitude based on a particular hierarchy of values. "Meaning," we saw, compels an attitude. The "ethos of the body" is thus the reflection of the "nuptial meaning of the body"; "ethos" is the basis of the "ethical." An action is ethical if it truly corresponds to the authentic "ethos" of the body. An attitude not in accordance with it is "unethical."

For example, concerning sexual desire, man is moved by the "erotica!," by the love known as "eros," the attraction of what is perceived as good, true, and beautiful. These desires should be structured according to what is "ethical," that is, to the nuptial meaning of the body. "It is necessary continually to rediscover in what is 'erotic' the nuptial meaning of the body and the true dignity of the gift," writes John Paul II. In this way "ethos becomes the constituent form of ergs" (CHL 11 /12/80).

In John Paul's words: original innocence means that the nuptial meaning of the body "is conditioned ethically," and "on its part, it constitutes the future of the human ethos" (CHL, 2/13/80). Indeed, "understanding of the fundamental meanings contained in the very structure of creation, such as the nuptial meaning of the body (and of the fundamental conditionings of this meaning), is important and indispensable in order to know who man is and who he should be, and therefore how he should mold his own activity. It is an essential and important thing for the future of the human ethos" (CHL, 2/13/80).

The word "future" is important because ethos refers to an action to be taken; ethos is an orientation, an interior disposition, that influences how the man will act in the future. We could say that it is the expression of "destiny." The "ethos of the body" points to the "destiny of the body" in God's plan of creation and redemption. The dominant experience in the original state is that of "gift," therefore we can speak of the ethos of the gift. "Through the ethos of the gift the problem of the 'subjectivity' of man, who is a subject made in the image and likeness of God, is partly outlined" (CHL, 2/20/80).

After the fall, even when this configuration of forces (or degree of spiritualization) changes drastically, the ethos of the gift will not disappear. It will produce in man a commitment inscribed deep within the human heart that will be like a "distant echo" of original innocence. Through it, man will continually be led to "re-discover" himself as "the guardian of the mystery of the subject, that is, of the freedom of the gift" (CHL, 2/20/80).

Original innocence also allows us to speak about a sacramentality of the body. John Paul II understands "sacrament" to designate "a sign that transmits effectively in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial" (CHL, 2/20/80). The very definition of the "nuptial meaning of the body" points to this. The nuptial meaning of the body is the experience of the body as a sign that communicates a presence, the presence of the truth about the human person originating in Trinitarian love. The body, through the original experience of its meaning, effectively communicates that presence. That is why it was an experience of "original innocence," a subjectively beatifying experience. In the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul, the term "mystery" designates God's plan for creation and redemption, the economy of salvation (CHL, 9/8/82). God's plan, the mystery, is described as the creation and recapitulation of all things in Christ, more precisely, in the relation between the Father and Jesus Christ.[17] This is the ultimate origin of our identity as persons. It is to this mystery, to the Trinitarian event (to use Balthasar's term) at its root, to which the nuptial meaning of the body points. This is why original innocence allows us to speak of the body as sacrament.

"The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a 'body,' by means of his 'visible' masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it."[18]

In the section dealing with the eschatological state, John Paul II deepens this insight about original innocence and the sacramentality of the body. He writes: "The Letter to the Ephesians leads us to approach . . . the state of man before original sin from the point of view of the mystery hidden in God for all eternity" (CHL, 10/6/82). Ephesians speaks of a plan of the Father before the creation of man: "God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (cf. Eph 1:3-4). That is, the creation of man and his election in Jesus Christ are inseparable. The following words, relating original innocence to Jesus Christ, are at the heart of John Paul II's theological anthropology:

This implies that the primordial gift conferred on man by God already includes within itself the fruit of having been chosen. Before sin, man bore in his soul the fruit of eternal election in Christ, the eternal Son of the Father. By means of the grace of this election man, male and female, was "holy and blameless" before God. That primordial (or original) holiness and purity were expressed also in the fact that, although both were "naked they were not ashamed" (Gen 2:25).... One must deduce that the reality of man's creation was already imbued by the perennial election of man in Christ.... Man, male and female, shared from the "beginning" in this supernatural gift. This bounty was granted in consideration of him, who from eternity was "beloved" as Son, even though—according to the dimensions of time and history—it had preceded the Incarnation of this "beloved Son" and also the "redemption" which we have in him "through his blood" (Eph 1:7). The redemption was to become the source of man's supernatural endowment after sin, and in a certain sense, in spite of sin. This supernatural endowment, which took place before original sin, that is, the grace of justice and original innocence [emphasis added]—an endowment which was the fruit of man's election in Christ before the ages—was accomplished precisely in reference to him, to the beloved One, while anticipating chronologically his coming in the body.... Marriage is a sacrament inasmuch as it is an integral part and, I would say, the central point of the "sacrament of creation." In this sense, it is the primordial sacrament.

Original innocence, therefore, designates Christ's own "innocence."

Children in the eternal Child

In his last book,[19] Balthasar grounds the teaching of Jesus about "becoming like children" in order to enter the kingdom in Christ's own experience as the eternal Child of the Father. He is the "archetypical Child who has his abode in the Father's bosom."[20] His "identity is inseparable from his being a child in the bosom of the Father."[21] In an essay in the collection Homo creatus est,[22] Balthasar explains that since in Jesus processio and missio are identical, his "being a Child" remains always present "within" his adult decision to follow this will of the Father and none other. Thus throughout his earthly life this childlike attitude is preserved, even at the moment of abandonment on the Cross when he asks the Father: "Why?" This is a child's question, Balthasar notes, and the Wisdom of God at this moment is a Child who for the moment is unable to receive a reply. The mission of Jesus, identical with his procession, is precisely to introduce men and women into his "coming forth" from the Father. Thus they become children in the Child, empowered by the Spirit to say Abba (cf. Rom 8:15ff.). This is not a metaphor; as Balthasar insists, it is the most intimate reality of the gospel.

This enables Balthasar to say that in this truth it is possible to surpass the opposition between playfulness and seriousness. For God nothing is more serious than the creation of the world through the predestination of Christ. Yet Scripture shows the Wisdom of God expressing this as a playful occasion: "Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth . . . then I was daily his delight, rejoicing [lit. "playing"] before him always, rejoicing [playing] in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men" (cf. Prov 9:29ff.). A game, says Balthasar, leading to the flagellation and the crown of thorns, which, for all their horrifying seriousness, are part of the same plan. Childhood and death, at least the death of a believer, are close to each other. It is a matter of handing oneself totally to the Other, the Father from whom all life comes. The child is born totally naked in body and spirit, entirely abandoned to the mystery of the Father. All that occurs between birth and death covers this radical dependence. Death brings it to light. For Christ all is always clearly coming from the Father eternally and returning to him eternally, at each single moment, always this "sacred game" which all are invited to join becoming "like children."

The result of this kind of life is an enthusiastic and firm commitment to the reality of the world, of the here and now, of the concrete. Balthasar notes how the ancient wise thinkers, such as Socrates or Laotse, grew old and considered it "wisdom" to withdraw serenely from the illusions of the world, from its dramatic condition, from its passions, from the bluntness of the flesh and its fierce demands. Aging brought about this detachment. Not so with Jesus, who died a young man. It is as if the truth of his identity as the eternal Child of the Father would prevent him from aging. And the death of Jesus was precisely an insertion into the very heart of the drama of earthly life with its conflicts and passions. The purpose of the death of Jesus was not to escape the demands of the flesh, but to redeem the flesh. His death was an embrace of all that is earthly. Does not the Wisdom of God appear as foolishness to the "wise" (cf. 1 Cor 1:25-27)?

There is a concept in John Paul II's "Catechesis on Human Love" which captures this attitude, this ethos, this devotion to reality which ties the "youthfulness of childhood" to the state of original innocence, to the fruit of redemption, and to eschatological life. It is the concept of spontaneity.


Spontaneity emerges within the discussion about the "ethical" and the "erotic." In the state of original innocence, the two are inseparable. Ethos becomes the "constituent form of ergs" during the experience of the nuptial meaning of the body (CHL, 11/12/80), a "subjectively beatifying experience," a grace-filled experience, the experience of original innocence. In the case of sexual activity, it is the fear of many that ethical concerns are often opposed to what is spontaneously erotic. This fear reveals that the nuptial meaning of the body has not been fully interiorized by the one who is afraid. Such a fear, explains John Paul II, is due to a rupture between the "exterior" and "interior man." The failure to grasp the nuptial meaning of the body occurs in the interior man; it is a failure in interiority, indeed, it is the lack, so to speak, of sufficient interiority, the lack of depth (CHL, 11/12/80).

Man must learn to experience the nuptial meaning of the body as an experience of interiority, an experience in the "heart." It is a matter of learning how to "discern and judge the various movements of the heart" (CHL, 11/12/80). Indeed true spontaneity is the outcome of such interiority, one that fully resonates to the truth signified by the experience "in the heart" of the body as masculine or feminine. Spontaneity thus arises out of a true grasping of the real, that is, of the meaning or ethos of nature, of the flesh. A man or woman without interiority cannot perceive meanings. He or she can perceive only functions, numbers, abstractions. His or her relationships are purely "external," interchangeable, commercial, utilitarian. The "spontaneity" of the "external man" is none other than animal instinct, or worse, the response of a robot when its circuits are activated. Lacking self-possession and self-control, such a person lacks the ability to grasp the "ethos of the gift." Blind to the experience of gift, such a person recognizes only "impulses" to which she or he responds with built-in, programmed reactions. That person is not truly free. And this can almost be seen in that person's bodily gestures, lacking in authenticity, precisely in spontaneity. Instead, in the case of original innocence retrieved through redemption as the anticipation of eschatological fulfillment, "the human heart becomes a participant, so to speak, in another spontaneity, of which 'carnal man' knows nothing or very little" (CHL, 11 /12/80).

To repeat, it is not only in sexual life that "innocence" leads to spontaneity; it is in all human activity, in an authentic human praxis. In the area of human development of the resources of the earth for life, the area of work, the opposite of spontaneity is that alienation which Marx saw but did not understand. Lacking that spontaneity which is the expression of an authentic interiority, alienated man manipulates, forces, and destroys reality, contented with the artificial. Culture, which comes from colere, "cultivating" or "tilling the earth" (human dominion according to Genesis), becomes the culture of the artificial, of the purely functional, of the replaceable, the "culture of death" described in John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Such is the spontaneity with which the country priest confronts the countess in Bernanos's novel and brings about her conversion.[23] Towards the end of the novel (and of the priest's life), the connection is made with childhood, with youthfulness. The country priest had been obsessed with his apparent failure to bring about spiritual results in his ministry. The meeting with the countess had been the first time, a meeting centered on a discussion for which he had not prepared intellectually. He had entered into it with all the innocence of his youth. Thinking back on this, he writes: "And I know now that youth is a gift from God, and like all his gifts, carries no regret.... There was no old man in me.... This awareness is sweet. For the first time in years—perhaps for the first time ever—I seem to stand before my youth and look upon it without mistrust.... And my youth looks back at me, forgives me. Disheartened by the sheer clumsiness in me which always kept me back, I demanded of my youth what youth alone can't give, and I said it was a stupid thing and was ashamed of being young."[24] This is the man whose last words were "Everything is grace."

Only the one who is "like this child" can recognize grace That is why the one younger than sin was the same one who is full of grace.


1 Cf. Origins 13 (8 September 1983).

2 George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Chicago: McMillan Co., 1937).

3 These addresses have been collected in four volumes: Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1981) Blessed are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and Writings of St. Paul (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1983); Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality and Spirituality (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1984), The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy: Catechesis on Marriage and Celibacy in the Light of the Resurrection of the Body (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1986). Henceforth they will be referred to as CHL, and will be followed by the appropriate month, day, and year.

4 The same cannot be said of her other dimensions, since she was subject to aging, pain, sadness, and death. She shared this dimension with all, including her divine Son. At this level she had to await the effects of the Lord's redeeming death. In a human being, the spiritual exists through the psychological and physical. Because the latter for Mary was not in the original state, we can say with Bernanos that she experienced physically and psychologically the pressure of sin in the world, but she did so in "wondering sadness" (surprise douloureuse). However, the doctrine of the Assumption reveals that, as soon as the redemption of the body was possible, Mary experienced its full effects, since she did not know sin.

5 CHL, 1/2/80. For a summary of how John Paul II understands the "principle of reduction" and the difference between its usual phenomenological application and that of the pope, see Kenneth L. Schmitz, At the Center of the Human Drama (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

6 "A reflection in depth on this text—through the whole archaic form of the narrative, which manifests its primitive mythical character—provides us 'in nucleo' with nearly all the elements of the analysis of man, to which modern and especially contemporary philosophical anthropology is sensitive," writes John Paul II in CHL, 9/19/79. Stanislaw Grygiel writes that this analysis "marks a change in the philosophical thought of the author. For the first time, in fact, he engages in the hermeneutic of a text constituted by symbols and myth." Cf. "Della solitudine al dono," in La Voce nel Deserto: Post-scriptum all'insegnamento di Giovanni Paolo II (Bologna: CSEO, 1981).

7 CHL, 9/19/79. Ricoeur's words are in Le conflit des interpretations (Paris:

8 Cf. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, tr. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

9 Grygiel, "Dalla solitudine al dono."

10 "This consciousness brings with it a particular perception of the meaning of one's own body, emerging precisely from the fact that it falls to man to 'till the earth' and 'subdue it.' All that would be impossible without a typically human intuition of the meaning of one's body." Cf. CHL, 10/31/79.

11 Remember, at all times this is the same man; there is never an androgynous prior state. The "return to non-being" is a device to highlight the constitutive nature of the gender duality, the very opposite of androgyny!

12 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 94. Balthasar believes that the "fecundity of human love would have been quite different in paradise—if man had persevered there—from what it is since the fall. Just as man's spiritual powers were emancipated by sin from their previous state of loving obedience in faith, so his bodily potentialities were severed from the fecundity of love, which was also disturbed by man's disobedience, and appropriated power to themselves in sexual love. Only then did there come to be a difference between virginity and fecundity. In paradise, Eve's virginity would not have been threatened by her motherhood. The love of man and wife would have been wholly chaste, finding the impetus for its fecundity in the spirit and admitting the body to this chaste love only in the role of a servant. We can no more picture to ourselves the nature of this fecundity of paradise than we can picture to ourselves most of the other conditions of man's original state." In John Paul II's analysis, the understanding of the creation accounts as pre-historical also prevents us from "picturing" exactly how the link between virginity and fecundity was achieved physically. Still, John Paul's insights about the "virginal meaning" of the act of sexual unity itself as intended by God (original unity) releases us from trying to imagine any other way of conceiving new human life so as to preserve "virginity."

13 Ibid.

14 "This will be a completely new experience, and at the same time it will not be alienated in any way from what man took part in 'from the beginning' nor from what, in the historical dimension of his existence, constituted in him the source of the tension between spirit and body, concerning mainly the procreative meaning of the body and sex. The man of the 'future world' will find again in this new experience of his own body precisely the completion of what he bore within himself perennially and historically, in a certain sense, as a heritage and even more as a duty and objective, as the content of the ethical norm." Cf. CHL, 1/13/82.

15 The Christian State of Life, 94.

16 Cf. The Diary of a Country Priest.

17 Balthasar's theodramatic meta-anthropology is based on this mystery of the "predestination of Christ" and our predestination in him.

18 CHL, 9/8/82. Actually, John Paul says it is possible to speak of the sacramentality of creation, the sacramentality of the world. He explains it as such: "Man, in fact, by means of his corporeality, his masculinity and femininity, becomes a visible sign of the economy of truth and love, which has its source in God himself and which was revealed already in the mystery of creation."

19 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like this Child (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).

20 Ibid

21 Ibid.

22 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Homo creatus est: Skizzen zur Theologie V (Einsiedeln: Iohannes Verlag, 1986).

23 The Diary of a Country Priest.

This article was taken from the Winter 1995 issue of "Communio: International Catholic Review". To subscribe write Communio, P.O. Box 4557, Washington, D.C. 20017

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