You, O Lord, have made us human persons
and as such, we long for the bodily presence of those we love.
The theme of community and of bodily presence has been at the forefront during these days of social distancing. The season has provided an opportunity to recall truths concerning of our bodily existence. It has been a time of confirmation for the Christian understanding of fellowship and of human nature.
But lest we mistake one extreme for the other, lest we think the whole story lies in our being near one another, it might be worth revisiting why the body and its blessings cannot be the source of our happiness or Beatitude.
Ultimately, without a respect for solitude, without a true interiority, we shall go hungry in the end, no matter what earthly or spiritual goods we possess.
Interiority is the presence of the soul within and to itself. It is a reflective and often silent recollection. It is a spirituality which penetrates the psyche, one by which we inhabit the presence of God, by which we pass beyond the noise of daily life and take possession of our share in the Spirit of God, who himself went out into the desert and sought solitude for the sake of prayer.
Plato did not get it all Wrong
I am indeed going to argue that Plato got something right. No, not reincarnation or the separable form of animal; yet, he was radically right about the body in two surprising ways.
I understand that this goes against the general caricature of Plato we are raised on, but humor me for a moment.
Plato taught that the love of wisdom (philosophy) entailed the practice of dying. He taught this because he believed that the good and beautiful things we encounter in this life are but images of the one Good and Beautiful God. He also believed that after death there was the hope of meeting this God and beholding him face to face.
He therefore insisted that it was critical that we ceased to treat the images of God (the creation) as God himself. Rather, through philosophy, we should purify our hearts and minds, so that we might hope and tend toward Beatitude.
He in fact taught very clearly in the Phaedo that the true danger of the body had little to do with the evils of material as such, but with the fact that every time we seek out and experience extreme bodily pleasures, we are disposed to proclaim that the body and those things which give it pleasure are the most truly real things–perhaps the only trustworthy things.
It was for this reason that the lover of wisdom must not be a lover of the body. Plato did not despise the body or its pleasures, though he did hold them in contempt insofar as he compared them to the ultimate good he hoped to attain.
But he did so because of one other uncanny truth:
We will not see God or know our Happiness until have passed through Death
While we are in the body, we are not present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
Please drink that in for a moment. While we live this life, lest Christ return, we may have deep communion with him; we indeed can have a share in his life, and truly God is present. Yet, we await a full and perfect union with him.
Right now, we see through a glass darkly. Anyone who speaks otherwise, who tells you that what we have is perfect here and now, is like one who thinks that our own resurrection has already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18). They are like those who insist they have attained (Philippians 3:10-14).
So let me say it again: under the current order, while we are in the body, we are in some manner apart from our Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). All true Christian asceticism is practiced in this light, even as it is practiced in the light of his presence.
Every Christian teaching about self-denial, about putting to death what is earthly in us is based on this. It is based on two facts:
- Created goods (bodily and even spiritual) are not evil, but are not our ultimate end
- They often distract us from our true end, which is God alone
The Pilgrim Tradition
I am not saying anything new, though I am saying something unpopular. I am simply recalling the fact that man is a pilgrim here. We seek a city with foundations, and one of our greatest risks is forgetting this, that we are in a wayfaring strangers here (status viatoris).
What is the implication of recovering this great fact?
A proper grasp of this fact entails recovering a place for longing, for suffering, and for the blessings we experience in this life. It places us in the context of a spiritual exodus and reminds us not to grumble.
It reminds us that longing is itself the condition of making this journey well.
Put succinctly, our longing and suffering remind us that we are pilgrims. Any lament in this life, even for penultimate goods such as holy fellowship and the sacraments, if not framed within this context, threatens to choke out our love and reliance upon God, his providence, and threatens to dull our desire (and thus our hope) of possessing him completely.
All the blessings of this life, good and real as they may be, are to strengthen us in our journey to our true homeland; they are not to bind us down to what shall not last.
I include under this rubric all those things which Augustine would designate for use. Even such goods as that of family, of fellowship, the sacraments, and the privileges of communal worship fall under this in a certain respect–however much they partake of the End itself (Luke 14:26). I mention little of food, of clothing, of all those things which are obviously means, however necessary and fundamental.
Let me be clear, many of these things can be in some sense an end, but none of them is the absolute and unqualified end of man. There is only one end; there is only one Lord; there is only one Beatitude; there is only one unqualified, unlimited, uncreated, unparticipated Good, by which and through which every other good is good, or is at all.
Either we shall attain to the vision of the face of God and know bliss, or we shall fall infinitely short of this blessing, and every other good shall fall away with that hope.
Let the Blessings of this Life have their Place
Perhaps this is precisely what is being recovered for many in this season. Perhaps indeed we are rediscovering the true place for the blessings of this life: those of friendship, of personhood, of communion, and even those of food and drink and raiment.
And so it is perhaps untimely to write what might seem like a philippic upon created goods. But this is no philippic.
Lest we fall into grumbling or fail to redeem the time, we must be very clear that earthly and even spiritual blessings, particularly our longing for them, must be put in their proper order.
This alone gives a prudential framework to any current inconveniences and hardships we are now experiencing. It even means we might recognize the enormous blessing and privilege of having been elected to live through this era in history, to have some share in the cross of Christ!