Sanctified Body and Soul Through the Incarnation

Author: Robert Gay

Sanctified Body and Soul Through the Incarnation

Robert Gay
Dominican friar, Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, England

On the importance of the physical in Catholic spirituality and sacramental life

These days there seems to be a great interest in the spiritual life. Many people make the claim to be "spiritual", and its expression takes many forms. Most book shops in the Anglophone world now have a section labelled "Spirituality", and the content of these sections is often a vast array of competing titles, many of which have a New Age or self-help flavour and propose a variety of theories of the human person and the spiritual life.

In every understanding of the spiritual life we may come across, there is either an explicit or an implicit understanding of the human person. How we understand the human person has a bearing on how we understand the spiritual life and what its objectives are. Each "spirituality" we may come across will also have its own doctrinal framework, and the spiritual practices that each proposes will be based around those ideas.

Books about Catholic spirituality are now few and far between in mainstream bookshops, and represent just one among many competing belief systems in such a section. And yet as Catholics we would claim that our concept of the spiritual life is rich and varied, offering something above and beyond its "competitors". This is rooted in two things: the Catholic understanding of the human person, and the doctrines of the Church.

What is distinctive about the Catholic approach to the spiritual life is the importance that it gives to the physical. This is rooted in the notion that as human beings we are a unity of body and soul. We see this beautifully expressed in the Book of Genesis, where we have an image of God creating the first man from the "dust of the ground, and breath[ing] into his nostrils the breath of life".1 St Thomas Aquinas, taking his lead from Aristotle, believed that the soul is the form of the human person, "the first thing by which the body lives".2 Without the soul, the body cannot carry out its proper functions.

But at the same time, St. Thomas held that the soul has no natural existence outside the body.3 This close union between body and soul is the reality of what each and every human being is. If we accept this truth, then it follows that it will have an impact on how we conceive of the spiritual life. We can see that the spiritual life is not about an escape from my physical reality, as some New Age perspectives might propose, but about accepting and making use of that reality.

If we consider Creation as a whole, we can learn from both observation of the world and revelation that there are three levels of the created order. The first of these is the purely material, as in the case of the objects that we see in the world around us. There is also creation that is purely spiritual, as in the case of the angels. As humans we are matter and spirit united, and our encounters with the world are influenced by this fact. We should not then be surprised that this reality is also fully utilised in God's dealings with us.

The most concrete way in which we see the importance of the physical comes by looking at the doctrine of the Incarnation. The fact that God makes himself known to us in Jesus the Christ raises the importance of the physical and material world to a new level. The Gospel accounts are entirely focused on the person of Jesus Christ; on what he said and on what he did, and on the significance of his words and his deeds.

And Christ's saving work is continued in the Church, in particular when the sacraments are celebrated. It is then significant that through the mystery of the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity, the Divine Word, became flesh in Jesus. Through the hypostatic union he reveals to us the mystery of he Divine life, which is not accessible by means of observing the world around us. The hypostatic union means that the human acts of Christ are divine acts, which "bring salvation" and are "causes of grace".4

The sacraments are an important part of the way in which God communicates his grace, his own life to us. And when we consider our physical reality, we can see how fitting it is that God should give us his grace in precisely this way. Indeed, for St. Thomas, it is essential that a sacrament has a component that requires the use of the senses.5 When we think of the seven sacraments, and look at their rites, we think immediately of visible signs, such as the laying on of hands, the washing with water, the marking with oil and so on.

But sacraments are more than just signs: they are signs which bring about effects. As the old penny Catechism has it, "a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace... by which grace is given to our souls".6 The external signs, which involve hearing, seeing and often the sense of touch, are effective because they both impart grace and makes things vivid to us. In the case of the sacraments, it is our faith which becomes vivid.7

When reading St. Thomas' treatment of the sacraments, we can see how he places emphasis also on the words that accompany the symbols of the sacraments.8 This is not surprising, since the sacraments are a means of communicating the Divine life to the people of God.

If we choose to reject the importance of the physical, as is the case for much of the New Age spiritualities, then the sacramental economy ceases to be relevant. And this is problematic in several ways. Rejecting the material can easily lead to the same kind of dualistic ideas that St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in the thirteenth century to preach against, namely a belief that the material world is somehow a bad thing.

However, to hold such a view is to go against the sense of the material, sensible world that we get from reading the creation narratives, namely that what God created was indeed good. Our bodies and senses, far from being an unfortunate hindrance, are a natural part of the way we were made.

This is not to say that the fall does not have consequences that damage our ability to use our bodies and senses in the way that is wholesome and good. There is a need for grace, which builds on our fallen nature and redeems it. This is why the salvific grace that comes to us in the sacraments is so necessary and comes to us in such an apt way. Receiving the sacraments is truly an encounter with Christ, and is thus a powerful part of spiritual growth and development.

It is also important that we remember that encountering Christ cannot be seen as a solely individual experience. The celebration of the sacraments is always an action of Christ through the church. So if we accept the importance of the sacraments in the spiritual life, we also accept the importance of being part of the believing community that is the Church. Rather than the individualistic and private spirituality that New Age spiritualities can often encourage, Catholic spirituality must instead be communitarian and corporate in order to be true to its name.

This means that the spiritual life cannot simply be reduced to a vertical "I-Thou" relationship, but requires interaction and relationship with other members of the Church, the people that form the mystical body of Christ.

So for the individual Catholic, the spiritual life necessarily has an ecclesial dimension. The private prayer and devotion of an individual is fed and nourished by being part of a believing community, and by participating in the sacramental life of that community, and can not be separate from that. There is a need for us to recognise how relationships with others are an important part of being human, and the sacraments help to shape our relations with others, and build up the whole Church as the body of Christ. Indeed, another aspect of taking the physical existence of the human being seriously is taking the social existence of the human being seriously, which means living life as a member of the body of the Church.

In our efforts to evangelise, then, we should always be sure that we give special attention to the role of the sacraments in the spiritual life, bearing witness to the fact that the sacraments meet the reality of who and what we are as human beings. A sacramental spirituality — one which is realistic about who and what we are as human beings and which shows how that reality is used by God in our salvation — will surely be attractive to those who are sincerely trying to search for God.

The sacraments speak powerfully of a God who communicates his life to us, taking us as we are and building us up and shaping us through his Son. And in making the power of the sacraments more widely known, we have the perfect response to the spiritual hunger that we see in our world today.


1 Cf. Gen 2:7.

2 St Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae Ia, qu. 76. art. 1. 7.

4 Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God,p. 13.

5Summa Theologiae IIIa, qu. 60, art. 4. Note especially: 'Est autem homini connaturale ut per sensibilia perveniat in cognitionem intelligibilia'.

6 See 'A Catechism of Christian Doctrine', republished by CTS in 1999.

7See Selman, St Thomas Aquinas: Teacher of Truth,p. 65.

8 This is treated in IIIa, qu. 60, art. 6, 7 and 8.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 August 2009, page 10

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