I made the case in the first part of this series that to be in the body, at least in this life, is to be apart from God.
But how can we be apart from the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)?
I do not mean that he is not near to us. Nor do I mean that his power is in any way limited by our bodies, bodies and matter which he himself brought out of nothing.
What I do mean is that God does not generally or randomly violate the order of nature which he has instituted. Part of that order means, that for most people (other than perhaps Moses, Paul, and a few others), none of us in this life will see God face to face (see him in his essence) or know him as he knows us.
This has profound implications for our wayfaring status, our earthly pilgrimage. It implies certain limits and a certain ordering significance for our desires.
Why would God institute such an order and place us under such limits? And what do these limits tell us about the longings we experience?
The Order of Things–Life in the Body
In a recent talk, Dr. Jack Mulder of Hope College shared his thoughts on the function of the body as both a boundary and a point of communion. He was following Joseph Ratzinger, for whom the body, as a “form of corporeality… [is] a bridge and a boundary.”¹
The body is both a boundary and a meeting place. That is, the body is what separates us, one from another; yet it is simultaneously the means and instrument by which we manifest our presence to one another, by which we communicate and commune with other people.
The body is therefore what makes us individuals, while also being a sign or expression of the reality of those around us and even, to a degree, their inner life.
Dr. Mulder reminded listeners that the modern idea of rights is largely based on a conception of this boundary, the mine-ness of the body. One can read an excellent history of this in Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights.
One of the things this limiting function of the body implies is that if I am here, I cannot be there. I exist in a place and not in all places. Therefore my full and perfect presence can be lost to another human being, just as theirs can be to me. My communion with other men and women is vulnerable and imperfect. We have indeed been rediscovering this recently in social isolation. The avatars of our video conferencing world do not suffice to replace the body.
But this longing for presence is not simply something which will go away when social isolation ends. Those who have known what it is to be alone in a crowd can testify to this.
Longing for presence is something which is central to our experience in this life. There is a presence for which we are properly to be in a state of longing, the presence of one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and yet further than we often dare register.
We are indeed not home.
As sweet as communion can be in this life, this state of longing is not simply something we overcome, not even through a rich spirituality. It is quite the opposite. A rich spirituality will certainly entail deeper longing, deeper awareness of absence, even as it grasps those deeper consolations which are intimately connected to those desires.
True spirituality seeks in some sense to recover and consecrate this loss. True spirituality stretches out into the silence in which God is present, in which he speaks, and in which he whispers of a hope of a communion more perfect than this, than we can even imagine.
The Body as a Limit
Our bodies have much to do with this fact.
God does not generally change the order of nature or simply do violence to it. That is, he generally respects, perfects and works with nature without destroying it. The principle of the incarnation is the proof of this, that he came to redeem man, all of him. He came to redeem every power, every faculty, every affection, so that everything that man is might be in some manner consecrated to and united to God–so that he might be all and in all (Deut. 6:5).
For example, it is unusual in the case of someone who wishes to learn botany to be mystically illuminated by God, though it can happen. Ordinarily, they must experience and study flowers.
Similarly, even God himself is known through Scripture, the Church, and preaching. He appeals to us not merely spiritually, but through the senses and faculties which he created.
This means that while we are in the body, that is in this life, and do not possess a spiritual body, we learn by seeing, touching, hearing, and thinking. And this means that we do not see God face to face in this order, but apprehend him by faith.
To put it more strongly, even Platonically, Christians do not see God himself right now because we are currently in the body. It is not that this body is evil, but that it is not the principle of such a vision and never ever can be. Count up the senses, list the mental faculties, which of them shall or can see the essence of God in any ordinary mode of operation.
…And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
We are made to live human lives even if by a special communion and grace in this era of the natural body.
Back to Plato?
The body is thus a boundary right now, a limit, and an order. The body means I am here and not there. It means you are there and not here. It means that we are human persons made for bodily communion and that if you are not present with me, and I truly love you, I long to be with you in the body.
And it means that if I love God, I long to be with him and see his face.
Therefore the disorder of this current era, the desires and longings for human communion, are not something new, but an intensification and reminder of something fundamental about reality–that we are not home.
That we are capable of isolation, injury and loss, that we experience the distance and longing of distance, that the sheer idea of a friend does not suffice, all fall under this order of the body.
Virtues for this Current Order
But because we are not only body, because we are also spirit, and because we commune with God by faith, our longing is itself the potential to reach beyond the boundaries of the self, that is, if we permit our longing to take the form or pattern supplied by the virtues of faith hope and love.
The wounds of separation, of suffering, of loneliness and affliction, reveal that at our core there is a longing to love and to be loved, to know most intimately and to be known. Thus the fruit of our boundaries, the gift of our limits and vulnerability, is that they teach us to pray, to cry out, and to seek solidarity in prayer and in deed.
And in loving we find consolation.
And in silence we find a companion.
It is in the wounds of Christ, in his human vulnerability, that a space is created for us, that we may enter into into the body soul and Spirit of our Savior. And it is in our wounds that he can make himself present in profound ways.
This wound of being a creature made for perfect communion, that is, the wound of limit and lack which must be ever present in this life, is perhaps felt more profoundly today.
It is through this wound that our prayer with confidence may ascend. And it is in this wound, this innermost place of the soul, that God meets us–that we discover we are not abandoned, that their is a silence greater than the static of our lives, and in that silence is the infinity sweet presence of God in whom we find all good things.
God will not violate the order of nature, but he will transform it. He will and he has entered into it to transfigure it. But he changes things in this order, by a hidden light, a light which shines in darkness. For those who seek his face in prayer, in solitude, in deed, in desire, he shall shine forth.
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
Hide not your face from me.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living!
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
Psalm 27:8-9, 13-14
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
¹Heim, Maximilian Heinrich., Benedicto, and Michael J. Miller. Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology: Fundamentals of Ecclesiology with Reference to Lumen Gentium. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.