When God completed the six days of creation, He saw that “it was very good.” Indeed, everything coming out of the Divine Hand reflects, however modestly, the perfections of the Creator. From sun and stars to the smallest insect, all His works sing His glory. This “goodness” clearly refers to the ontological perfection of existence, and not to moral perfection, for the plain reason that matter is matter is neither morally good nor morally evil. This should be kept in mind, for confusing ontological goodness with moral goodness is a trap into which some thinkers have fallen.
The most perfect among all the creatures mentioned in Genesis, is man, (homo) for he is made to God’s image and likeness. There is an endless hierarchy among creatures, but those that are “images” (imago) of God are greatly superior to those who are just traces (vestigium) of His power.
Man is a person - a perfection he shares with angels - and therefore is able to sing God’s praise in tones that the most magnificent star cannot match.
But by the very fact that he has this gift, he can, alas, revolt against His Creator - envying His metaphysical glory - by refusing to serve Him. Whereas all impersonal creatures, by their very existence, will inevitably play the modest instrument assigned to them in the immense orchestra of creation, man can - in his foolishness - refuse to join this glorious choir and echo the satanic words: non serviam.
Adam and Eve were created beautiful. I am not only referring to the ontological beauty of creatures made to God’s image and likeness, but also “artistically” beautiful. The body of a human person is a masterpiece. Magnificent as animals are and can be, none of them has the dignity and nobility of a human body.
Artistic masterpieces testify to this beauty: painters and sculptors have been inspired by the awesome dignity of the human body as coming out of God’s hands. Let us think of the dying slave of Michelangelo in the Louvre in Paris. When I saw it for the first time, I was awe-struck by its nobility: every single part of its body reflects the loving genius of the Creator. Its dignity is so overwhelming that one has the feeling that it just came out of the hands of the Divine Artist. Indeed, Adam and Eve were created nude. It awakens in us a feeling of reverence not only for the other sex, but also for one’s own body: it is noble, it calls for respect.
Then came the tragedy of original sin; our first parents, instead of gratefully spending their lives praising their Creator and singing His greatness, let themselves be tempted by the Evil one, whose diabolical joy is to persuade other persons to join him in proclaiming his revolt.
Every sin brings about its own punishment. Having ruptured their loving relationship with their Creator, our first parents immediately suffered the penalty. Having stripped themselves on the white garment of innocence symbolized by their nudity, they discovered to their dismay that they were “naked” and were ashamed. The sweet bond existing between them was tarnished: Adam had given Eve the glorious title of “mother of the living.” Now she was perceived by him in a different light. She, so intimately linked to “life”, was instrumental in bringing death into the world, by listening to the lying promise of our Arch Enemy: Lucifer.
Adam’s vision of Eve’s beauty, which reflected God, was blurred and he now perceived her as a temptress who attracted him by promising him the gratification of a feeling until now unknown to him: lust. This explains why Adam put the blame on Eve - not a very gentlemanly conduct! They both realized they were “naked”, - an illegitimate uncovering of one’s body awakening in the other sex a violent craving for sexual satisfaction. Adam no longer saw Eve as his sweet wife, a person united to him by the bonds of spousal love: she had become a temptress. Now they realized they were stripped of the white garment of innocence, and perceiving their misery, they were rightfully ashamed.
In our contemporary “anti-culture” (as Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed it) where pornography and sexual perversions have made deep inroads, it is crucial that we should perceive the essential difference between nudity and nakedness.
As mentioned above, the noble and loving relationship existing between Adam and Eve now degenerated into a “sex game”, in which each partner seeks his own satisfaction. The fearful battle between the sexes had begun - the damages of which have come down through the ages and tell a sad saga of brutality, selfishness, impurity, abuses and crimes. The words of Genesis: “they shall become one flesh” - sublime expression of a mutual self-donation - now threatened to be reduced to the fulfillment of a powerful urge - the satisfaction of a craving that at times is so violent that it leaves the soul no peace until the latter acknowledges defeat and by yielding opens the door to the next defeat. Lust dislodges love from the human heart. Sins against the sixth commandment are probably those which confessors hear most often mentioned in the confessional.
Unless constantly sustained by grace and the help offered by the sacraments, it is a sad fact that innumerable men are likely to fall into the filthy pit of impurity. Indeed, sexual sins should be stigmatized as “dirty.” How often does the Bible refer to our need to be cleansed from the crust of dirt covering our souls! They are not the only sins defiling us, but they tend to be prominent in many of us.
This constant danger sheds light on the rigorous asceticism practiced by saints throughout the centuries, an asceticism ridiculed by Luther, viewed as a form of sadism by Simone de Beauvoir, and today labeled as a typical mediaeval exaggeration - totally meaningless for modern man. It is declared to be unnecessary in our advanced society. Today the very word is not only become unpopular but is practically eliminated from religious vocabulary. I once mentioned “hair shirts” to a pious young girl. She looked at me with astonishment: “What is that?” she exclaimed.
Conscious that their body is potentially a constant source of temptation, those seriously aiming at holiness put these violent cravings on a leash and severely punish any disobedience to the commands of the soul.
Why is it crucial to distinguish between “nudity” and “nakedness? Today some are blind to the abyss separating them. The former refers to the beauty of the human body as coming out of God’s hands and combining beauty and purity. The second is the caricature of the same body wounded by lust. My brother in law - the well-known sculptor Theodor Georgii - was once asked by a colleague to look at a status he had just completed. “Do me the favor to look at my little Eve”. Georgii - a man who had the guilelessness of a child - came to the latter’s studio. He contemplated the work for a while, and then gently said to him: “Clearly, you intended to depict Eve after the fall”! She was clearly “naked.” There is such a thing as Body language: the way a person “feels” in his or her body: that is whether he approached it with the reverence due to a mystery - for the intimate sphere, being closely related to God in the procreative act, is marked by sacredness - or whether it is experienced mostly by males (not excluding females) as a domain that offers inebriating pleasures without much fatigue, (fast fun), and to women the dangerous awareness that they possess a powerful tool to attract men - who alas, often fail to live up to their reputation of being the “strong sex.” Samson - a giant of physical strength - was defeated by Delilah!
Failure to distinguish between “nudity” and “nakedness” has led some well-intended thinkers, wishing to repair the damages done by “Puritanism”, to go from Scylla to Charybdis assuming erroneously that we should overcome the unhealthy puritan shame of being stripped of our vestments, by “getting used” to nakedness, that is by daily contemplating our naked body in front of a mirror - something that should be challenged.
A parallel between man and animal might be illuminating. In the animal world the distinction between “nudity” and “nakedness” is meaningless. Why is it that animals do not wear clothes? There is a deep reason for it. I recall my amazement when aged four or five, my mother took me to the circus and I saw a monkey dressed up as a soldier. I thought it was terribly funny. Mammals know neither impurity nor intimacy. Their instincts regulate their relationship to the other sex, totally dominated by their biological clock; the female attracts the male only when she is in heat, which is when she is open to reproduction.
Not being affected by original sin (even though theologians will rightly tell us that man being the king of creation, his revolt against God had repercussions in the whole of nature) - they are not “guilty.” It is not by accident that a famous Greek cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, called himself “a dog”, (from which the Greek word “cynic” derives). He prided himself to imitate dogs, by doing in public what is not meant to be a show.
A confusion between nude and naked easily arises because we cover both what is intimate and what is disgusting, but for radically different reasons. Dogs and cats reproduce themselves on streets. The husband who wishes to embrace his legitimate spouse, knows that the mutual embrace - an exchange of secrets - calls for veiling. People poisoned by Puritanism will interpret this “secrecy” as a proof that the sexual sphere is “dirty”, failing to make a crucial distinction between what is hidden because “it is repulsive and disgusting” or what is hidden because it is precious and intimate.
Animals need no clothes because they have neither a mystery to veil, nor filth to hide. To speak of the virtue of purity, (the key of which is reverence toward this sphere) is meaningless when referring to animals. The concept of nakedness I tried to sketch above is linked to a perverse attitude toward one’s body.
The Bible often refers to this moral sickness. More than once, God promises that He will “cover our nakedness”, clearly referring to something shameful that should therefore be hidden and covered.
Those conscious of the mystery of the intimate sphere know intuitively feel that “nudity” expresses a mystery, refers to a “secret” and that by their very essence, “mysteries” call for veiling.
The same reverent awareness makes the pure person realize that “nakedness” (shameless advertising so popular in our anti-culture) is an offense to the dignity of a child of God, referring as it does to a provocative display of the human body, wounded by original sin. Today wherever we go, we are greeted by pictures of women paid for adopting positions that inevitably will trigger animal sensuality in the male viewer. Men are experts at knowing what will best trigger in them illegitimate cravings. It is not by accident that the most famous fashion designers are men. It is purposely that on many television shows women’s legs are prominently displayed, often making it difficult for male viewers fascinated by what they perceive, to concentrate on the message of the female anchor. It is worth mentioned that beautiful male legs (for legs have no sex) are not displayed. My French sense of humor tempts me to picture the amazement of viewers if, one day, without any warning, a male anchor’s legs were prominently displayed, while women’s legs were hidden under the table.
Lewd and salacious pictures do not exist in the animal kingdom. Animals having no free will cannot be immoral. To create moral filth is the sad “privilege” of revolted creatures inspired by the Evil one who not only wallows in filth, but delights in it insofar as demons can delight in anything.
Nudity calls for covering because of its mystery, and this mystery should be unveiled only in the privileged moments when God allows the spouses to reveal themselves to each other in the sacrament of matrimony. This “unveiling” should remain “extraordinary” to guarantee that mysteries do not lose their “patina.” Let us think of the attitude of a St. Elizabeth of Hungary who tenderly and passionately loved her husband, when she gave herself to him: what trembling reverence, what “holy shyness”, what sweet blushing tenderness! In order for this attitude to become “super actual”, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that such great moments are short-lived and are meant to be so. To artificially prolong them is to poison them (alas, this modern perversion is also gaining currency by means of drugs). One of the great dangers in human life - to use a comparison - is to want to celebrate Christmas every day of the year. To try to do so is to strip it of its mystery. A gift should be gratefully received, and then reverently kept in the secret of our heart. We can only hope , that every time a priest, truly worthy of his vocation, enters the sanctuary, he feels the same trembling awe that he felt when he first celebrates mass on the blessed day of his ordination. How I wish and hope that every single one of them never forgets for a single moment that when he utters the sacred words of consecration, he is acting in persona Christi. This trembling reverence was characteristic of a St. Cure d’Ars. It is told that when he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a procession, he was given the grace of being so keenly aware that He was carrying The Savior of the world that he seemed to be collapsing under this Holy Burden.
Let us pray for the grace of never getting used to unveiling what is sacred. It is my firm conviction that when spouses striving for holiness, give themselves to each other, their trembling reverence duplicates what they felt on their wedding day. “Domine, non sum dignus.” It should always remain “extraordinary”, and never a matter of “routine”, for it is meant to be “so ancient and ever so new”, to mention St. Augustine.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.