Pope Benedict, in continuity with Pope St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body (TOB), speaks of three main aspects of the human person: communal, historical, and bodily. Does this mean that these two great popes don’t believe in the spiritual dimension of the person? Of course not. Why, then, is it not mentioned?

The answer lies in the fact that “The body, and only the body, makes visible the invisible realities: the spiritual and the divine” (TOB 19:4). In other words, in our human nature, we are embodied spirits. The only way to separate the body from the spirit is death—when someone passes away. We might also say that the body and soul “separate,” when someone passes into the state of mortal (“unto death”) sin.

Even great spiritual mystics experienced their spirituality bodily. You don’t fast in the desert or pray in remote caves unless you understand that the body and soul are connected. The great mystics speak of the “spiritual journey”—the heart being opened to God. But this spiritual journey was always accompanied by bodily actions. There is never a journey this side of death without the body. Even death is a journey toward greater embodiment as those in heaven await the Resurrection of the Body on the Last Day. The spiritual journey of each of us is a journey in the BODY.

Take, for instance, the Church’s challenge to us of living out the Spiritual Works of Mercy and the Corporal (Bodily) Works of Mercy. To be sure, the emphasis of the former focuses us on our interior life. But could these Spiritual Works of Mercy be lived without the body? Can I instruct the ignorant without my body? (Writing a letter or talking to someone involves my body.) Can I counsel the doubtful without my body? Even praying for the dead involves my body.

Conversely, can I engage in the Corporal Works of Mercy without my spirit? I guess I could bury the dead or visit the sick or imprisoned in a rote, non-loving way, but that would be defeating the point.

In other words, we as ensouled bodies can only live life in a bodily way. We can’t get away from the body. So, in continuity with Catholic Tradition, let us live this Lent in an Incarnational (not mere spiritual) way. For after all, we journey with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word incarnated in the Flesh.

How about allowing our physical sacrifices to graft us onto Christ? What if every morning, we bodily roll out of bed, with a spiritual prayer on our lips for a loved one in need. What if, once a day, we accept a bodily sacrifice, of denying ourselves dessert or alcohol or a warm shower, knowing that in a small way, we are mystically joined to the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Allow your spirit to penetrate your body and your body to affect your spirit. That is an Incarnational journey, leading to the Cross and, ultimately, the Resurrection.

Monica Ashour is co-founder, international speaker, author of 28 books, and President of TOBET.

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Body Is a Gift cover
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