Saturday, September 17, 2011
For the wisdom of the flesh is death; but the wisdom of the spirit is life and peace. Because the wisdom of the flesh is an enemy to God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be. And they who are in the flesh, cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body indeed is dead, because of sin; but the spirit liveth, because of justification. (Romans VIII:6-10)

I woke this morning to find a lovely gift in my inbox. It was a Russian folk song about death, sung in the worn voice--all the more poignant for its quavering tones--of an old woman. The words were very simple, as such words should be on so universal a thing as the end of life. It echoed the sentiments of Tolstoy in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which a man dying of terminal illness is tormented most by his family and friends in their refusal to accept the fact that he is dying, nay, that he is even ill! 

It is because they perceive death in such a terrified manner that they try to spare themselves of its horror by refusing to see it in Ilyich, clinging to the health of their bodies and refusing to contemplate the failure of his flesh. Only the stocky, healthy peasant boy, Gerasim, offers the man any comfort. He does so through physical assistance, and by speaking frankly to him of his condition. 'You're a sick man. Why shouldn't I help you?' When Ivan does at last die, one of the many acquaintances that failed to console the man makes the typical, Western, post-Christian observation to Gerasim:

'Well, friend Gerasim,' said Peter Ivanovich, so as to say something. 'It's a sad affair, isn't it?'
'It's God's will. We shall all come to it some day,' said Gerasim. (The Death of Ivan Ilyich: Chapter I)

So we shall. 

Father Walter Ciszek, as he first repined in prisonment and then laboured in the Lubyanka prison, came to the conclusion that the flesh, after our soul quitted it, would in fact--not as a trite, pious euphemism--receive a well deserved rest until the day of the General Resurrection. For he came to love his body, as he discovered its magnificent power of endurance, to hold together, not as the 'glorified body of the athlete' but as his own simple flesh, persevering under comfortless, impossible conditions. As he observes this in his work, He Leadeth Me, he also remarks what a shame it is the way most Churchmen (orthodox ones) so immediately dismiss the body as a dumb brute that deserves nothing more than a good beating to keep it in line. Even the simple Russian song, which I am enjoying at this moment has to cast such a light on the flesh:

They will raise the sinful body and carry it to the church....

Poor body! As if it ever had any volition of its own! As if my hand ever of its own accord wrestled with a sister, or my tongue articulated an unkind word without the prompting of my mind, or my eyes ever rolled back in their sockets because of an involuntary instinct.

Yet, very often has my saucy spirit lectured it: 'I am willing, but you are weak. If you never ached, I would never be irascible! All your stupid hungers, desires, and needs! If I did not have to take care of you, look after you, I would be like unto an angel, and you hold me back with your rebellious corruptibility!'

Ungrateful soul! How would you even exist without this material form? You weren't before your body was, and you will not be whole after death until reunited with your poor flesh. Father Malachy summed up the absolute necessity of the flesh for man's being quite well when explaining the subsistence of angels to Bernard Janzen:

'How do we know there are two people in this room? We count two bodies. Angels do not have bodies. How then do we individuate angels? By their functions...'

In this fact, we see an instance where man is more fittingly made in the image of God than even the angelic choirs, and it has all to do with that corruptible mass of loosely bonded atoms. For as St. Thomas Aquinas observes:

We may speak of God's image in two ways. First, we may consider in it that in which the image chiefly consists, that is, the intellectual nature. Thus the image of God is more perfect in the angels than in man, because their intellectual nature is more perfect, as is clear from what has been said (58, 3; 79, 8).(Summa Theologica: Prima Pars, Question 93, Article III)

So when God said, 'Let Us make man to Our image', He referred to the intellectual aspect of man only in so far as man was above the beasts and elements just created. When compared with the angels's resemblance to the Divine though, man's likeness to God does not wane, for in one aspect it is even more vivid:

Secondly, we may consider the image of God in man as regards its accidental qualities, so far as to observe in man a certain imitation of God, consisting in the fact that man proceeds from man, as God from God; and also in the fact that the whole human soul is in the whole body, as God from God; and also in the fact that the whole human soul is in the whole body, and again, in every part, as God is in regard to the whole world. In these and the like things the image of God is more perfect in man than it is in the angels. (ibid.)

This subsistence in the flesh to be undertaken by God Himself is what some mystics (e.g. Venerable Mary of Agreda) say sealed Lucifer's rebellious course. He could not bear the fact of God in man--man who eats, sweats, defecates, and dies. He would not serve the God-man, and he would certainly not confess the superiority of the Virgin over any angel in creation, much less himself.

Furthermore, there is a blessed gift accorded to flesh that angels may never have. Saint Faustina wrote in her diary:

If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things; one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering. (Diary, 1804)

Indeed, can the resignation of an angel hold a candle to that of Our Lady's? Can an angel claim as much credit for its unwavering focus on the Lord, when it has never had a stomach which growled for feeding nor knees that ached from being long in a prayerful posture? And can they ever receive Christ so intimately as we do in that neglected miracle offered at every Mass?

The flesh was created by God, so it is good. As Christ taught us, we are not to blame our spiritual baseness on the less noble aspect of our being:

And He saith to them: So are you also without knowledge? understand you not that every thing from without, entering into a man cannot defile him: Because it entereth not into his heart, but goeth into the belly, and goeth out into the privy, purging all meats? But he said that the things which come out from a man, they defile a man. For from within out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile a man. (Mark VII:18-23)

Why then have the holy Apostles, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church so often lashed the flesh in such unequivocal terms, often praising the spirit for no other reason that it is spiritual? What of all the heresies and blasphemies that have arisen due to hatred of the flesh and the undue exaltation of the soul? And since as Our Lord says that evil arises from man's spirit, why does the flesh shoulder so much blame?

There are at least two possibilities for these invectives against the body. The first is that the preachers of the Church were speaking so that the masses could understand them. If a man has struck another and he repents, he may irrationally hate the hand that did the deed. When one behaves like a glutton and repents, one is disgusted with one's bodily appetites and not the spirit that would not curb the flesh. Our bodies subject us constantly to urges to which our mind objects, so it is easy to overlook our volition's responsibility and blame that physical mass for what we have done. 

When a teacher addresses a class, he will at least begin by speaking in their language and employing terms they understand. If the class is too large or too thick, he will not press them beyond their abilities with fine distinctions. So if a Father of the Church sees that his flock associates their sins with their bodies, he will tell them, 'Stop listening to your body!' 

Since ordering the flesh is not a pleasant thing, he will not describe asceticism in such terms as perfecting the harmony of flesh and spirit, but with analogies of violent subjugation. The disciplined athlete may come to see his exercises as an act of properly loving his body, but a coach just beginning to whip his team into shape will speak on the necessity of pain and competition with one's fleshly self to achieve perfection.

The second reason: as it is subsistence in a body which makes an individual man to be himself, it is also the indispensable centre of his ego. Spiritual people too often forget this, picturing their soul as its own individual entity (whether they see it as a spark or a ghost). Yet, one's body forms one's unique self, and it is how one knows he is not the person sitting beside him on a bus or the child playing on the grass outside his window. If ever solipsism afflicted me in my youthful contemplations, I escaped it not by thinking (Descartes's error), but by cradling myself with arms of flesh and bone while staring at two beams of wood crossed together, on which was mounted the metallic likeness of a crucified man.

Thus far there is no sin. However, attachment to one's self is hardly ever present in man at a moderate degree. We either love ourselves excessively, or we hate ourselves melodramatically. Only the saint stands a tip-toe on that slender thread of gossamer where he loves himself as a creature of God and is perfectly subordinated to the Creator. The infinite shades of sinful self-love or self-hate that lie on either side of that Golden Mean still boil down to one ugly fault: selfishness. Our souls were not, until knitted into our flesh, so that complex, simultaneous union makes the self. As matter itself is complex, it is even more natural for the self to identify more with its bodily aspect than its soul. This is rendered easier still by the material world surrounding us, so much so that when we speak of 'reality' we too often mean the laws of the material world, rather than absolutes which exist outside time and space.

If the flesh then is the means by which man turns away from Sum Qui Sum and into is qui non est, then the laws which his reason builds up from the flesh must be overturned, for their foundation is less than sand. Those hard grains do not corrupt and the body most certainly will.

For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. (Romans VIII:13)

A final reflection: having just completed the above citation, I stopped to blow into my hands. I have left the door to the balcony open all night, and the autumnal chill is nibbling at my fingers. I find the cold in the morning is good for this body. When it is inclined to indulge in the warmth of the bed, a quick swipe of the arm ripping off the blanket is more effective when the air is chill. Then this mortal flesh leaps off the mattress with hasty alacrity to prepare coffee and oatmeal. Alas, now it is cramped with sitting and pines for exercise. 

O dear body, whom I unduly love or despise in my fickle ways, may I bless you when you make me suffer, and may your variable needs teach my spirit moderation in all activities. Be a worthy ambassador between my soul and those of others; work with me to show my fellow man how I love him. Dear flesh, when you and I are parted, I hope you are not disturbed, but allowed to rest until that day when the trumpet blasts. My most earnest prayer is that I have entered God's benediction, and my soul and you will reunite in beatitude, as God had ordained before the Fall.


Richard Collins said...

A truly impressive blog, thank you so much. God bless.

Jacobitess said...

You are more than welcome, and thank you for the encouraging words! :)

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Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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