Heaven’s Song: Sexual Love as it was Meant to Be, by Christopher West, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2008. 189 pages. Reviewed by Rose M. Wingfield.
In Heaven’s Song, West’s stated goal is to help readers understand how sexual love opens a pathway to deep intimacy with God. He uses the undelivered addresses of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body which focus on the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs and the great spiritual contest surrounding the marriage of Tobias and Sarah.
West succeeds in writing a book that is informational and accessible, as well as inspiring and provocative. In addition to making John Paul II’s Theology of the Body understandable and applicable, he incorporates insights from great mystics of the Church including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Louis de Montfort.
He introduces the book and uses the universal image of music and how it speaks of the profound unity of the physical and spiritual aspects of human beings. However, he says, Heaven’s music is too much for human beings to handle. The transcendent melody of the Song that has been sung throughout eternity among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit must be “translated into a poetic language that human beings can understand and embrace” (2). He suggests that the boldly erotic Song of Songs is that translation and “sexual love is the earthly key that enables us to enter into heaven’s song” (2).
He provides a short overview of the Theology of the Body, particularly the recently discovered unabridged talks 108-117. He believes this section is “clearly one of the most important” in the entire catechesis (9). In addition to the Song of Songs, these talks reflect on the Old Testament marriage of Tobias and Sarah. “John Paul II’s reflections on Tobias and Sarah show us the certain path to victory in the spiritual battle that assails unsuspecting married couples everywhere…by allowing martial love and union to become a participation in the Church’s liturgy” (10). West suggests that it is no mere coincidence that the liturgical chaos of the last several decades has coincided with a sexual chaos.
West promises to bring the “mystical” down to the practical by showing how John Paul II’s teaching can help bring sexual healing and integration. He successfully does that by introducing and closing each chapter with real life stories. He states, “If we are to enter into proper union with Christ and his Church, the diseased images and ideas we have about our own bodies and sexual union must be healed” (12). To aid in prayerful examination of these diseased ideas and attitudes, he includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter.
West cautions readers regarding the delicate nature of the content. He says John Paul II “did not deliver the full text of his teaching on the Song of Songs precisely because its content was ‘too delicate’ for a general audience in which young ears would be present” (14). This book, says West, is written for mature readers with a high level of purity. However, he says the book “ is for anyone and everyone – single people, married people, and consecrated celibates – who longs to sing heaven’s song and thus enter more deeply into the ‘great mystery’ of Christ’s love for the Church” (2).
Heaven’s Song is divided into two parts. West devotes the first six chapters to explaining the meaning of the Song of Songs and establishing the proper context for understanding the Song. He says, “‘from the beginning,’ our bodies have had the God-given ability to reveal divine mysteries. Thus, in reading the Song of Songs, we need not jump immediately to the spiritual and divine reality. Rather, we can and should linger on the truth of the body and the love of the spouses, allowing these to ‘speak.’ For the language of the body, according to John Paul II, is ‘prophetic.’ It proclaims the very mystery of God” (32).
In the second part of the book, West uses the marriage of Tobias and Sarah to explain how the language of the body becomes the language of the liturgy. Here, he defines liturgy and links it to the conjugal life. “‘Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross’ (Familiaris Consortio, 13)…the consummation of a marriage – the mystical marriage of Christ and the Church. Spouses in and through the language of their bodies, are to ‘enter into’ this mystery, become a living icon of it, and proclaim it to the whole world. And only the liturgy provides entrance into this ‘great mystery.’ When lived according to the ‘great mystery’ of God’s designs, even the marital embrace becomes a profound prayer, a profound longing for God. It becomes ‘eucharistic’ as an act of thanksgiving offered to God for the joyous gift of sharing in his life and love” (128).
He also uses the marriage of Tobias and Sarah to illustrate the great spiritual battle. “In fact, the union of husband and wife ‘is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love’” (141). To be victorious in this battle, John Paul II urges married couples to recite a “conjugal creed” just as Tobias and Sarah did on their wedding night. This prayer (Tobit 8:4-8) embodies all of the themes in the Theology of the Body (147).
Finally, in what could be considered the most provocative portion of the book, West explains the spousal nature of the liturgy. “The mystery of sexual difference and the two becoming ‘one flesh,’ in fact, undergirds the whole economy of God’s revelation. Recall, as John Paul II asserts, that the visible sign of marriage is ‘the foundation of the whole sacramental order’ (TOB 95b:7). Right from the beginning, the joining of the two in ‘one flesh’ points us to the summit of God’s eternal plan for man and for the universe that all things in heaven and on earth might be ‘one’ in fruitful union with Jesus Christ (see Eph 1:10). This is what is enacted and accomplished by the Church’s liturgy: God’s holy nuptials! – his espousing of his own creation” (173).
West has authored a compelling and engaging book. His presentation is accessible and practical. It provides a new understanding of the Theology of the Body, marriage and the liturgy. In addition, this book would be helpful for all married couples to read together.
However, the subject matter is “mystical stuff, and mystical theology is never something easily grasped. It needs time to penetrate” (177). In the epilogue, West wisely recommends reading Heaven’s Song a second time in the adoration chapel. After all, that is where John Paul II wrote the Theology of the Body. It is here before the consummation of our faith that we can best get in tune with the transcendent melody being sung by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is recognized around the world for his work in promoting and teaching Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.