Sunday, February 21, 2016

The natural unity of our bodies and our souls

On Mark 2:1-12 
Second Sunday of the Great Fast
Our Holy Father Gregory Palamas

When we look at each other – especially when we look at strangers or people on the street – we often don’t really see the person before us. We might see someone in our way, someone we have to wait behind in line at the grocery story, or we might see the apparent poverty of a beggar, or the struggles of a blind person preparing to cross at a busy intersection.

We may tend to see the condition of human bodies, while having little regard for human spirits. We may be attracted to some and repelled by others. We may automatically judge one other on the basis of appearance.

We may keep our heads down in a crowd, afraid of making eye contact, because sometimes that’s the moment when we see a bit more than the body, which can be unnerving or make demands upon us. Jesus even says that “the eye is the lamp of the body,” which, if sound, fills the whole body with light. So when we look another in the eye, sometimes we see not only a body, but also catch a glimpse of the light (or the darkness) that fills a body.

But when Jesus looks at us, he always sees us entirely as we are. When four men lay down their paralyzed friend before him on a pallet, Jesus sees the man. If it had been one of us, most would first have seen the man’s paralysis. But that is not what Jesus first sees. Rather, he sees their faith, and he says to the man immediately, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  

When Jesus looks at the scribes sitting there, he doesn’t only see their silent lips, but sees in his spirit that they question him in their hearts. Again, he sees the whole person before him, whether they are filled with light or with or darkness. He knows us inside and outside. He knows us in spirit and in body. 

Jesus then demonstrates that he does also see the paralytic’s need for healing and he tells the man to rise, take up his pallet, and go home. So Jesus is able to see the whole man and he can see that he needs two kinds of healing. He needs healing of both body and soul. He needs to rise and walk, but he first needs forgiveness of his sins.  

These things do not exist in isolation from one another. As long as we are living this life, we need continual healing of both body and soul. We need repentance, which is therapy for our soul, as much as we need any kind of physical therapy for our bodies. Our need for forgiveness and our need for healing are really the same need, because our bodies and our souls are not two separate things but one thing, mysteriously interconnected.

Our holy father Gregory Palamas, who we always remember and celebrate on this second Sunday of the Great Fast, recognizes the gift of healing as one of those charisms of the Spirit that “operate through the body.” He writes,

“Healings and miracles never take place unless the soul of the one exercising either gift be in a state of intense mental prayer and his body in perfect tune with his soul…. The communication [of the Spirit] takes place… not only during the mental prayer of the soul, but also at moments when the body is operating.”[i]

Our bodies and souls work in conjunction to bring God’s healing into our lives.
Palamas writes about this in his work on “the Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies.” The Hesychasts’ prayer does not disregard the body, but incorporates both breath and posture into prayer. We pray in spirit and in body. And we experience God in spirit and in body. Because we are spirit and body. And because God, who is spirit, has become man, who is body and spirit. 

We are body and spirit at the same time. Our bodies and souls are meant for each other. We are a psychosomatic unity. We are not only bodies animated by electrical impulses and controlled by our brains, as the materialists would have it. Nor are we only immaterial spirits inhabiting or trapped in bodies that confine us until our release from them at death, when they will pass away, as the Platonists and Gnostics would have it.

A soul is the life of a body and the human soul is also an immortal and everlasting spirit, which means that the body – though it dies, and thus experiences an entirely unnatural separation from its soul – will naturally rise again and live forever. There will be resurrection. It’s not the resurrection that is unnatural; it is death that is unnatural. Resurrection is a natural response to the unnatural reality of death.

Our veneration of relics – of the dead bodies of the saints – of the relics of St. Gregory Palamas – is not merely a remembrance of what they were but also an expectation of what they will be again. Our bodies will rise again. Our bodies have a place in everlasting union with our immortal souls.

I emphasize this because both materialism and disregard for the body have strong footholds in our culture and even among some people in the church. These ideas deny or ignore the resurrection and the natural unity of our bodies and our souls. And it is essential to our faith to get right this this understanding of our human nature – this Christian anthropology. 

If you gloss over the importance of our bodies as well as our souls, you miss the whole purpose of Christ’s resurrection. You miss what he has accomplished for us by rising from the dead in his body – which is our salvation - our salvation - the salvation of us who are bodies and are souls and are spirits.

Let me give some examples of the disregard for our bodies found all around us. First, one from our culture: a few times I’ve seen this new-agey bumper sticker (maybe you have too), which states, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Second, one from among Christians: C.S. Lewis is often misquoted as saying: ““You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” When you see this quote floating around the internet, be aware that he never said this.[ii]

These quotes are both half-truths. It is true that we are spirits. It is true that we are souls. I don’t merely have a soul, I am a soul: that much is true. But I am also a body. It is the way that God has made us from the beginning. And it is part of the human nature that God takes on in his incarnation.

Finally, an example regarding attitudes toward fasting. The great fast is a great time for reflecting on the importance of both body and spirit in human nature. A coworker of mine and I were discussing the great fast and she told me about how, at a local community she used to belong to, they would emphasize that we are to fast from fear. They’re not wrong that we are to fast from fear. Paul told us to have no anxiety about anything. And John teaches us that perfect love casts out fear. This kind of fear, as opposed the holy fear of the Lord, is born from a failure to trust in God. To that I would add that we are to fast also from all the other sins and vices of the spirit: malice, envy, rage, despair and so on. 

But we must not emphasize these things over and against the fast of the body, I don’t think. Whatever good we do in spirit, we must echo with our bodies. Because we’re not spirits trapped in flesh, we’re flesh with spirit breathed in by God. Physical matter isn’t a problem and it isn’t an illusion. Rather, it is a means by which God unites us to himself.

[i] “The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies,” 13. The Triads, 53.

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