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Quintessence of Dust   


Chemistry, for the ancient Greeks, dealt not with 92 natural elements, but with a mere four: earth, air, fire, and water. Yet there was an added mystery to their chemistry.

They believed that the stars were composed of an imperishable element. Beyond their quartet of perishable elements, then, was a fifth, or a quinta essentia, which soared majestically above the world representing a higher kind of being and a visible image of immortality. This fifth essence, therefore, was the quintessence, or the purest manifestation of anything that existed.

Shakespeare's Hamlet spoke masterfully and metaphorically when he said of the human being: "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" And then, at the climax of his panegyric, framed him in a most exquisite paradox as the "quintessence of dust."1

"Quintessence of dust" embraces the most disparate poles of that creature whom Medieval philosophers called "homo duplex" and Genesis described as both made in the image of God and compounded of dust. Man is a mixture of starlight and earthdust. His being is a synthesis of the uncreated and the created. He is eternal like the stars and as ephemeral as dust. He bears within himself a tension that establishes both his drama and his destiny.

"Truth consists of paradoxes," wrote the American poet Carl Sandburg, "and a paradox is two facts that stand on opposite hilltops and across the intervening valley call each other liars." Throughout history, man has oscillated between polarities that seemingly contradict each other. He aspires to angelic status, but all too often descends to the realm of the bestial. His soul takes flight; his body remains below. He is an enigma, claiming to be both the special creation of God and the accidental product of chance. His ancestry is either sovereignty or slime. It is small wonder that human sexuality, that demands the integration of both the creative and the corporeal, has so long been a source of confusion and one-sidedness. Indeed, of exasperation and shame!

The "sexual revolution" of the sixties was more an enslavement to the flesh than a liberation from moral constraints. Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae, not surprisingly, was greeted, by and large, with indifference, incomprehension, and hostility. Paul VI's statement that birth regulation must be understood in the light of the "total vision of man" (n.7) meant little, if anything, to most people. A world that embraced specialization, convenience, and simplistic solutions was hardly disposed to grasping the paradoxes inherent in this "total vision."

John Paul, understanding both the fundamental importance of this "total vision" and the rift in the Church that followed Humanae Vitae, was determined to set things right. From September 5, 1979 to November 28, 1984, Pope John Paul II delivered to Wednesday audiences in Rome a series of 130 allocutions that presented this total vision of man, applying it to the nature of the human person, sexuality, masculinity and femininity, and marriage. Altogether, the totality of these talks constitutes the Pope's "Theology of the Body," "Theology of Masculinity and Femininity," or "Theology of Marriage."

George Weigel has stated that "If it is taken with the seriousness it deserves, John Paul's Theology of the Body may prove to be the decisive moment in exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology."2 There is nothing "conservative" or "moralistic" in the notion of human sexuality that the Pope elaborates. Men and women are embodied persons. The human body is an integral feature of their concrete personhood. The body is not a container or an inferior apparatus for the "soul" of the person, as some contemporary separatists claim. It is that through which men and women express who they are and enact their existence. The human being is a psycho-somatic entity, an integrated, self-possessed person.

John Paul, who has a great love for languages, emphasizes the meaning of the Hebrew words in Genesis that describe humanity, the man and the woman. In the Priestly text in Genesis, which is the first account of the creation of the human being, the word 'adam is used: "God created man ('adam) in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male (zakar -masculine) and female (uneqebah - feminine) He created them" (Gn 1:27). Here the Hebrew term 'adam expresses the collective concept of the human species, "corporate personality," or humanity.

In the term 'adam and 'dama (soil, ground) there is an evident play on words, a practice the Bible shares with other ancient literature. In no way is this an instance of punning. To the Hebrew mind names were not merely identification labels, but symbols, magic keys, as it were, that opened to the essence of the beings they signified. The humble origin suggested by the notion of being molded from the earth, from dust ('apar), conveyed a seal of humility that man would ignore at his own peril. Human beings are, indeed, "earthlings."

According to the second or Yahwist account of the creation of the first human beings, God creates Adam initially and then the woman. "It is also significant," states the Holy Father, "that the first man ('adam, created from 'dust from the ground') is defined as 'male' ('ish) only after the creation of the first woman" ('ishshah).3 In Genesis 2:23, we find for the first time the distinction between 'ish (man) and 'ishshah (woman). "We can conclude," John Paul writes, "that the man ('adam) falls into that 'sleep' in order to wake up 'male' and 'female'."4

Human creation is not complete, then, until man and woman stand in loving partnership with each other. The image of God is reflected in the mutual self-giving that man and woman express to each other. The nuptial or marital significance of the body is an icon of the Law of Gift built into the core of human personhood that reflects the inner dynamism of God's own life. Through love and gift, dust attains its quintessence.

There is never the remotest hint of prudery in the Pope's discussion of the body. "The human body," he state, "oriented interiorly by the sincere gift of the person, reveals not only its masculinity or femininity on the physical plane, but reveals also such a value and such a beauty as to go beyond the purely physical dimension of sexuality."5

Nor does he ever associate human sexuality with rules. He wisely repositions the discussion of sexual morality within the context of the human person as set forth in Genesis and then reaffirmed and broadened in the New Testament. The question is not so much, "what must I avoid doing?" but "how do I express my sexuality in a way that is consistent with my dignity as a person and as an image of a loving God?"

George Weigel believes that the Pope's 130 catechetical addresses "constitute a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church."6 The "Theology of the Body" is, indeed, faithful to the "total vision of Man" that inspired it. It integrates and harmonizes the Yahwist and Priestly accounts in Genesis, the Old and New Testaments, subjective experience with objective reality, theology with philosophy, faith with reason, the masculine with the feminine, and anthropology with ethics. It makes plausible the paradox that dust and diamond, dirt and divinity, characterize the essence of the same being.

"Earthlings though we are," writes Ralph McInerny, "unimaginable without feet and arms and ears, all of which will one day turn to dust, we are diamonds whose facets give off light and darkness."7 Or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it in his own inimitable way:

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond


  1. Act II, Scene 2.

  2. George Weigel, Witness to Hope (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 342.

  3. John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), p. 35.

  4. Ibid., p. 44.

  5. Ibid., p. 65.

  6. Weigel, op. cit., p. 343.

  7. Ralph McInerny, "Persons and Things," Crisis, Jan/Feb 1997.

  8. Gerard Manley Hopkins, "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection."


DeMarco, Donald. "Quintessence of Dust." The Catholic Faith (January/February 2002).

Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Faith.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2002 The Catholic Faith



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