Coventry Patmore and the Theology of the Body
By Ralph Capone
November 25, 2019Ours is a time of great confusion, a dystopia abandoned by reason, a place where, for far too many, the irreal reigns. Its “kingdom” is found where “unreality … does violence to reality – that could in no coherent sense ever be called real.” It’s where reason is forsaken and a man may declare that he is no longer one simply by dint of his feelings. Words like maleand female, rooted for millenia in humanity’s common sense and reason, no longer signify what is real.
This lexicon of thereal is based upon knowledge of the natural world and perceived through our rational intellect and five senses. It has provided reliable meaning and guidance throughout human history. Further, for believers, God enhances these natural gifts with supernatural graces and gifts of faith, hope and love. These, then, enlighten and guide us and lead us to where experiencing the real fulfills more than just our natural desires but accomplishes the ultimate personal desire for true happiness found only in union with God (Latin beatitudo or Greek eudaimonia).
For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
Get our free book, The Essential Ethika Politikathe God of the whole earth he is called. (Isaiah 54:5) The Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, a Catholic convert in 1864, 19 years after the conversion of Saint John Henry Newman, was led into the Church by his faith and belief in the Incarnation. A master of the English language, who with the heart and vision of a poet, saw “natural objects through eyes that were clear and unclouded…” (page 57). He was called a “visual sensualist” (page 206) in his great paean to married love, The Angel in the House, and in his other writings and poetry e.g., The Unknown Eros. His fertile imagination and spirituality were directed towards “an exposition of the divine mystery of wedlock” (page 73) as foreshadowing Christ’s love for the soul. “Here, the ideal of nuptial love is described by no other modern poet, with the purity of a saint and the passion of a flaming lover.” (page 73)
Marriage as a sacrament that reveals the hidden mystery of God was the pattern occupying his thoughts before his conversion. This motif became greatly strengthened by the profound sacramental nature of Catholicism rooted, as it is, in the real. Though both this poetic creativity and his ultimate conversion to the Catholic Church were costly to his career and reputation, like it was for Newman, especially among contemporaries including erstwhile supporter, John Ruskin. Even the great Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, criticized this particular poetry, shocked by its “sexual-mystical symbolism” (page 166). Yet Patmore remained true to these inspirations which predate by over one hundred years the masterful catechetical work of Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Marriage, love and the purposes of human sexuality can be understood by perceiving the reality of a male and female body, each a “natural object” and their biological and complementary differences. In Man and Woman He Created Them,Saint John Paul II explains sexuality in marriage both in natural (unitive and procreative) and in supernatural terms as the two-in-one flesh which images the Trinitarian God. Man, he says, in his natural state is alone (page 151) and seeking communion with the “other”, naturally, with a spouse and supernaturally, with God. This union, “communio personarum” (page 162-163), is accomplished in other ways e.g., in maternal-child relationships, in friendships, and in teacher-student relationships. The most radical form of this communion of persons is found marital intercourse and achieved through the “language of the body”(page 531) in which both spouses give their bodies, fully, unreservedly and selflessly to one another.
Human bodies have, as part of their nature, a spousal meaning that is “capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” (page 203) Marriage is a sacrament in which the invisible reality of God is made visible through the one flesh union of spouses and by their complete self-gift and fidelity. The form of the sacrament is the marital act by use of the “language of the body”; the matter is the bodies and genitals of the two spouses. This visible reality, through the spouses openness to new life, images both the unity of the Triune God (Three Persons in One God) and God’s generous fecundity. Finally, what is also made visible, according to Saint Paul, is the great mystery of Christ and the Church, the Bridegroom and His spouse.
The Glory of the Sacramental Imagination
Coventry Patmore’s religious conversion strengthened his early sacramental imagination in which he perceived that “the intimate details of a man’s love for a woman form the best available symbolic language for expressing God’s analogous love for the soul.” (page 207) The central “real” event for Christians is the et Verbum caro factum est in which the second Person of the Trinity – the Word of God, in time and place, pitched his tent to dwell among mankind. This amazing reality of God-made-flesh, the Incarnation, the locus of man’s renewed dignity, was for Patmore also the place where “human and divine love meet and fuse: man’s love is deified, and God’s love is humanized.” (page 207) It was marriage that hitherto “almost all other poets had treated as either the enemy or the conclusion of love“, Patmore saw it as love’s “very object and summit.” (page 84)
For far too many, by denying the real-ness of biology, sexuality and marriage are perceived as enemies of mankind. The awesome beauty of spousal two-in-one flesh communion manifested by unique differences in male and female bodies, and the supernatural reality it points to, is misperceived and disvalued. As one writer notes “(w)e are sick of sex, we are indeed. Reality is too dull for us. The imaginary is too real for us. So we have turned to the irreal: to what could not be real in any conceivable universe.” Those, indeed, for whom this real-ity is too dull have abandoned the means to their natural happiness. But a far greater loss is that ultimate happiness to which all are invited. Pascal, to whom Patmore has been compared wrote about the search for God who is also discoverable in those fundamental truths of nature knowable through our rational intellect. “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace…(that) can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
For Patmore and Saint John Paul II, love between spouses fulfills the natural desire for union of man and woman and images in a natural way the supernatural union with God. Marriage points to that reality of God’s immense and eternal love for each soul. After his conversion, Patmore fretted over his work, especially The Angel in the House, that perhaps it was not consistent with the truth of Catholic doctrine. What he couldn’t know which would ultimately vindicate his work qua Catholic was that a later Pope would describe married love in much the same way. “With his eye turned firmly upward and outward – to the world and to God – Patmore’s writing reveals a keen perception of the infinite disclosed in every single finite creature. It is his firm grounding in the real that allows Patmore to surpass his Romantic precursors and contemporaries, with his insights on the relationship between the world and God, the body and soul and woman and man.” It would be profitable, in our time, to turn to those who, canonized or secular, discovered in thereal, meaning and happiness for man amidst evidence for the mystery, grandeur and glory of God.