You can’t connect with the spirit without connecting to the body

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  • October 4, 2011

“If a man comes to me in confession and says he cannot care for his children properly because of his low wages, it is not enough for me to tell him to say his rosary and offer it up. To be apostolic, I must do what I can to have his wages raised.”
- Bishop F.A. Marrocco, 1951; The Light from One Candle, Rita Larsen Marrocco, 2002.

One evening, Laura passed by a Christian church on her way to kill herself. The church was offering a neighbourhood meal that evening, as it often did. Joe, standing on the front porch, called out, “Hi Laura, are you coming for supper?” As she explained afterwards, the astonishing fact that someone remembered her name and face and invited her in changed her life. She did go in for supper, and her life was saved.

Joe didn’t, at that moment, invite Laura to confession or to Mass, but he extended the most Christian of invitations by welcoming her to supper. In his offer of physical sustenance, he answered a spiritual need too. Can we expect people to experience the Eucharist if they don’t know what a meal is? Can we care for the soul but ignore the body?

It’s the Christian heresy that won’t go away: that the soul needs to get free of the body. We may worry about the opposite danger — that we’ll live only on the physical level and never get to the spiritual. In practice, that danger is more easily recognized and weeded out than the danger of making us into bodiless spirits.

My appreciation of the body-spirit dynamism comes naturally, having known it through the ministry of my uncle, Bishop Marrocco. A man of prayer and insight, well-read in doctrine and theology, he was well able to convey Church teaching to both lay people and non-Church people. To him, it was obvious that being a Christian meant working to improve people’s lives, both immediately and systemically; that responding to them spiritually included responding to them practically.

Are we quicker to say “I’ll pray for you” or to engage in issues like welfare, the minimum wage and social justice? Do we see the two as intimately connected with each other? Pope Leo XIII did. He helped give us the eight-hour work day and the Church’s commitment to actively promote justice, including decent working conditions for everyone. Every pope since has applied to his own day Leo’s visionary 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

In North America, where disembodied spirituality seems rampant, September and October can help us. On Sept. 26 (Canada) and Oct. 19 (General Roman Calendar), we commemorate our North American martyrs: eight French Jesuits who lived and died with the Huron people in Canada. They understood that the body, the material, is the medium of Christian witness, for Christ’s followers as for Christ Himself. Jean de Brébeuf’s down-to-earth rules on interacting with the Hurons demonstrate how thoroughly he appreciated the importance of coming to know and love the people one aims to serve. “You must have a sincere affection for the Huron,” he wrote, “looking upon them as ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, and as our brethren with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives.” He gives guidelines on living with them respectfully, not as angels but as human beings, from “Be careful not to annoy anyone in the canoe with your hat; it would be better to take your night cap,” to “It is well at first to take everything they offer, although you may not be able to eat it at all.” Christ is taught not outside our material lives, but within them; not in Paradise, but in our own messy world.

For us, salvation doesn’t mean the spirit freed from the body — as it does for many religions and philosophies, including Gnosticism. God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ risen from the dead in the body, is a keystone of Christian witness. What does it mean for us?

Joe lived the Eucharist by stepping into Laura’s life and inviting her in to a meal. The Jesuits were living the Eucharist by canoeing, eating, working and dying with the Huron people. It’s said that the Iroquois who tortured and killed Fr. Brébeuf ate his heart afterward because they admired and wanted to partake of his spirit. It’s a strange distortion of Christ’s command to eat His body and drink His blood, which itself was a startling act that scandalized non-Christians in early-Church days.

We sometimes forget that it’s shocking. Eucharist is at once deeply spiritual and intimately physical. This is true of the Church’s entire sacramental life, one of its greatest gifts to its people. All the sacraments carry with them a command to change the world into what they witness, the reconciliation of spirit and matter.

Christ Himself, the great sacrament of the Church, makes this possible.

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