On this frigid New England day, I find myself taking a brisk and seemingly endless walk around Pinewood Lake in Trumbull. You see, my New Year's resolution to exercise more has survived the first month of the year! But I can't claim to be particularly happy about it. As the grade grows steeper, I wheeze like an old locomotive. Straining to keep up with my 35-year-old priest-secretary, my body tells me the obvious - I am out of shape. Too many meals and too little exercise have taken their toll!
But don't worry. This column is not a promo for a health club or a diet plan. It is, however, a warm invitation to a conference mysteriously entitled "The Theology of the Body," scheduled to take place March 20 and 21 at Sacred Heart University. And what, you may ask, does my less than optimal physical condition have to do with a theological conference?
Truth to tell, the Church takes the human body seriously. This may come as a surprise to many good Catholics who think that the Church holds a negative view of the body in a culture that seemingly glorifies the body. On the contrary, it is our culture that gives short shrift to the human body and the Church who truly grasps its true importance.
Allow me to explain!
At Christmas we celebrated the mystery wherein the Eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, assumed our human nature, manifested in His human body. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the Incarnate Son of God "worked with human hands, thought with a human mind . . . acted with a human will . . . and with a human heart, He loved" (Church in the Modern World, 22). The Council points out that by becoming one of us, Christ, in a certain way, has united himself to each and every person.
Firmly believing that God's divine Son truly assumed our humanity, the Church, from the very beginning, rejected the teaching of groups collectively known as "Gnostics" - groups that have been popularized in books such as Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The Church rejected the Gnostic view of a radical dualism between matter and spirit. That philosophy saw matter (the physical dimension of life) as evil and embraced as good only the spirit (the spiritual dimension of life) - to which Gnostics felt they access through hidden revelations or gnosis (the Greek word for "knowledge"). The Gnostic world view could not accept the truth that God's only Son actually took upon himself our human flesh, including a human body, soul, intellect, and will, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Writing in the early third century, Tertullian expressed the opposite view. "The flesh," he wrote, "is the hinge of our salvation." Christ truly assumed our humanity, including a human body, so that He could be seen, heard, and touched, and so that He could die and rise for our salvation. In turn, Christ's humanity gives us a whole new view of our humanity.
Reflecting on the mystery of Christ, we discover our human identity as "en-fleshed souls." We human beings are not just souls. Nor are we just bodies. We are "en-fleshed souls" called to live not only in this world but also in the joy of God's Kingdom. And just as Christ's Body played an instrumental role in winning our salvation, so the body is essential for our participation in divine life. We are called, body and soul, to share God's life forever.
According to the constant teaching of the Church, the human body is completely united with the interior life at the very heart of the human person, the soul. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that ". . . the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the 'form' of the body. . . . It is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living human body" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 365).
Because body and soul are one, Saint Paul, contemplating the Cross of Christ, writes, "You have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body" (I Corinthians 6:20). As our bodies are washed with the waters of Baptism, our whole being dies and rises with Christ. Through our bodies, we assimilate the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the Eucharist and in the depth of our being are united ever more closely to the Church, the Body of Christ. And this wondrous mystery which begins here on earth, will deepen beyond all imaging as we, who shall undergo the resurrection of the body, enter into eternal life.
Of course, the culture of which we are a part, endlessly concentrates on the body as well. Rightfully it warns against unhealthy habits such as overeating and a sedentary lifestyle (such as mine!). But its view of the body usually remains one-dimensional. It sees the body mainly as an exterior reality. The unbreakable link between physical health and spiritual health is only dimly and occasionally seen.
For many, the body's capacity for union with the other is virtually meaningless, except as a means of physical pleasure. In assessing our appearance and our health, we are taught to blame our bodies for their weaknesses and inadequacies. What our culture easily overlooks is the deep inner life of each person which is both hidden and revealed through the body. It tends to reduce the body to a surface, a material thing, whereas the Church raises the body up as the path and means to infinite life and love.
In fact, the more we are aware that our bodies are completely united with our souls, the more respectful we will be of our bodies. We will understand better that we are, as Saint Paul taught, "temples of the Holy Spirit." Respecting the dignity of our bodies enables us to respect the dignity of other "en-fleshed souls," including the bodies of the sick, the aged, and the deformed.
Once we truly see that the human body is the hinge of our salvation, we will never be content to reduce the human body to a mere object of gratification. Nor will we be able to overlook the wonder of tiny human bodies forming in the wombs of their mothers. And we will grow in our capacity to understand the hearts of family members and loved ones whose spiritual state is expressed in various ways both in health and in sickness.
This appreciation of the human person as an "en-fleshed soul" - a truth revealed in the incarnation of Christ - is what drives the Church to insist on protection and respect for the human person from the moment of conception until natural death. Respect for each human being as "an en-fleshed soul" impels the Church to serve the sick, the homeless, the hungry, and the troubled. That same truth compels the Church to insist that human sexuality is endowed by God with the dual and interwoven meanings and capacities to express love and, in that love, to bring new life into the world - a teaching that is deeply counter-cultural.
I hope you will plan to take part in this eyeopening conference on the "Theology of the Body." Details can be found on the diocesan website (www.bridgeportdiocese.com/jubilee.shtml), and a news article is on page 18. Leading speakers will help us replace misleading caricatures of the Church's teaching on life and love with a new and deeper vision of the dignity and destiny that is ours as "en-fleshed souls" called to eternal friendship with God, and union with one another in the Church. I look forward to seeing you at yet another 50th Jubilee event!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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