Here we are, one month into the New Year. (Is it still even a “New” year? Or is it just the year now?) How many of you made resolutions? You don’t have to raise your hands, but feel free to. I won’t know one way or the other.
How many of those resolutions had to do with getting in shape (e.g. eating less, exercising more, losing weight, etc.)?
How have you been doing so far?
If you have been doing well, congratulations! If you have been doing poorly, I am sorry to hear that, but don’t get discouraged. Every day is a new day, and past failure is not an excuse for present apathy.
This morning I was praying and I had a thought return to me that has sustained me for many years now, in keeping on with physical training. I share it in the hopes that if you are keeping up with your physical training goals it will add a new layer to that training, or if you are not, it will provide you another reason to keep trying.
The thought was basically Romans 12:1. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”
Of course you might think, “How does my getting sweaty and feeling like I want to puke while I slowly light all my muscles on fire from the inside honor God?”
It is a reasonable question, but may I say, it is reasonable from the presupposition of Cartesian dualism.
What does that mean? It means that that question comes from one of our society’s hidden, unquestioned assumptions that who we “really are” is spiritual or mental, and the body is kind of an afterthought. It is the house of “me,” but not really me in the sense that my Ego is me. This notion is often traced back to Descarte’s famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” but really it is much older than that. You can find it throughout the Manichean traditions and even a bit in Plato.
But in Catholic theology the human person is regarded as a psychosomatic entity, or as my childhood pastor and mentor Fr. Morelle put it, a “bodysoul” creature. Neither a soul trapped in a body, nor a body somehow entangled with a soul, but a creature that is inextricably and by design both body and soul. We may think of it as enfleshed spirit, or spiritualized matter, and either model has its value but neither is complete.
What does this have to do with my beach muscles, or lack thereof?
Well, it has to do with Medieval cosmology and its relation to the purpose of Man in the Universe.
Medieval thinkers posited a heirarchical order of being, with non-living matter on the bottom and God at the top. The ladder of being ascended in order: non-living matter, (some sources include fire here), plants, animals, humans, (demons), angels and God.
This is a simple, intuitive and elegant model of the universe with very ancient origins, appropriated by Catholic scholars to explain Man’s position in the universe. “Above” us on the ladder is the spiritual universe. “Below” us is the physical universe, which is a shadowy, less real realm. We serve as the crucial link between the two realms. We are the “bodysoul” that unites the kingdom of seraphim and cherubim and all the choruses of angels with the world of elephants, amoebas and elements.
The purpose of both realms is to worship God, for from Him we come forth and to Him we return, Blessed Be He Forever. Each realm worships Him in its own way. Angels worship by sheer, terrifying direct knowledge, obedience and freedom. Material things worship by obeying unfreely the physical and biological laws that govern them.
Humans alone (that we know of) worship God in both our physicality and our spirituality. We obey physical and biological laws, but we also worship by knowledge, obedience and freedom.
So, of all the creatures in the universe, we are the only ones who can worship God freely by physical actions. This is why the Church places so much store in physical morality, over and against the Manichean heresies that claimed that what the body does did not matter, because it was mere matter and the spirit was separate from it.
One of the ways in which we worship God with our bodies is by enjoying the capabilities of those bodies, whether this be by our sexuality, athletics, dancing, hiking or what not. We alone can interface with a physical universe of incredible complexity and beauty, enjoy it and offer gratitude for it. We are the only spiritual beings with bodies.
It just seems a shame to me to be one of the only such creatures in the universe, and yet never know or care what that wonderful body is capable of.
Anyway, that’s my thought.