Mary Shivanandan STD is a Professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family, Washington, DC. Her book Crossing the Threshold of Love is about to be re-released as a paperback following first publication in 1999, and we thought we should catch up with where she is in terms of her research, and find out a bit more about her current work.
Read on for the interview between T&T Clark (T&T) and author Mary Shivanandan (MS):
T&T: What particular areas or themes of Theology interest you and why?
MS: The area that interests me the most are relations between the “I” and the other/Other, especially as expressed in relations between the sexes. Since this is an area that Saint John Paul II has explored extensively in his pre-papal as well as papal writings, I have been drawn to making a study of his work, notably his philosophical concept of participation, later theologically communio personarum, which he contrasts with alienation in all its forms. He was faced with certain modern ideologies, namely atheistic materialist communism, scientific positivism, radical feminism, sexual liberalism, all of which promise a real if limited good but, which he saw, threatened the dignity of the person as a substantial unity of body and soul oriented to fulfillment in communion, especially in the family. Much of his research and writing is directed to showing how the teaching in the Encyclical, Humanae vitae, of Pope Paul VI not only responds to the good these ideologies seek, but helps fosters the dignity and fulfillment of each member of the family, man, woman and child in a true communio personarum. From the 1970s I had been involved in research and writing on couples living their family life based on these principles, which provided me with practical insight that confirmed Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II’s philosophical and theological investigations and conclusions. Some of this research was done in collaboration with internationally renowned sociologist, Thomasina Borkman, now emeritus professor of sociology, George Mason University.
T&T: How would you describe your book in one sentence?
MS: It is an exploration of John Paul II’s concept of the person and communion of persons experientially, philosophically and theologically, showing how it opposes alienation and illuminates the teaching of Humanae vitae.
T&T: When did you start researching for this book?
MS: I had been immersed in researching and writing articles and a book on marriage and the experience of “natural sex” couples since the mid 1970s but it was the opportunity to study and later teach at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family in Washington, DC that led to my writing the book. It was the pope’s emphasis on experience in what is called his Wednesday Catechesis on the theology of the body based on his exegesis of Genesis 1:1-4:1 and other Scriptural texts that first inspired me. He showed that shame is a boundary experience through which one can sense not only what has been lost by man’s disobedience in the Garden, leading to alienation, but also the happiness and communion to which man and woman were originally destined. Through Christ’s redemption on the cross, man and woman are once again called to communion that will culminate in perfect “intersubjectivity” with God and each other in the resurrected life. It will truly be participation in the Trinitarian life of God. It was my rewarding task to follow his personal and scholarly path through his plays, the mysticism of John of the Cross, the philosophy of Thomism, the phenomenology of Max Scheler, the teachings of Vatican Council II and finally to Scripture.
T&T: Which part of the book have you enjoyed most?
MS: I enjoyed most having the opportunity to explore, in some way, one of the great minds of our age and a person of outstanding holiness, now declared a saint. When I asked a friend, who met him, if she found him very holy, she responded that he was supremely human. I was continually delighted by the beauty of his words and concepts, as well as his desire to affirm everything that is good in contemporary culture. I also enjoyed presenting his analysis of “participation” with its emphasis on full acceptance of the person (in other words, unconditional love) as essential in human relations especially in the family. The opportunity to make connections with movements in our society oriented towards healing of body and spirit, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also based on unconditional acceptance in relationship, was also most satisfying. Both recognize the need to work through the pain and frailty of the human condition.
T&T: Any tips for people reading the book?
MS: My advice to the reader: Look to your own experience of both alienation and communion. Suspend conventional wisdom about the “inevitable necessity” of modern contraception, for example, and allow the goodness, truth and beauty of what John Paul II says about the person and communion of persons to invade your spirit.
T&T: Where will your research go from here?
MS: I continue my interest in relations between the “I” and the o/Other. The meaning of bodily presence as it affects this triad, I find of great significance and one, which is under threat from contemporary fascination with technology, especially communications technology. Such technology seems to increase intimacy but, research is showing, can actually diminish it. While bodily presence, it appears, is essential for human flourishing, not all presence fosters human well-being. What makes the difference? Also is there a difference between masculine and feminine presence and, if so, what constitutes it? Why is sacramental presence so important in the Catholic Faith?
Professor Shivanandan and Dr. Kandiah Shivanandan were married for nearly 50 years before his death in 2010. An infrared astrophysicist, he was a pioneer in the background radiation of the universe. In his autobiography he singled out Pope Paul VI as one of four who “contributed advances in global humanity” during his lifetime for his encyclical, Humanae vitae.