If you’ve been a Catholic for longer than five minutes, you probably take for granted terms like the “spiritual life,” or “spirituality.” A close friend might have asked you recently: “How has your spiritual life been going?” And perhaps you have a “spiritual director” to whom you go to for counsel regarding “spiritual matters.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we need to abandon these terms or phrases. But, with all of this “spiritual” talk, it is no wonder that so many Catholics forget or do not intuitively see how the body relates to their “spiritual journey.”
On the one hand, there are those who want to entirely “compartmentalize” physical and spiritual natures—the body versus the soul—and simply believe that the two are not related to one another in any significant way. But, even worse, others might be tempted to conclude that the body is a positive obstacle or enemy to their spiritual growth or holiness, perhaps especially when they are actively struggling against “sins of the flesh.”
Thankfully, the Theology of the Body offers us timely wisdom that can help us to better understand how the body holds an important and dignified role in our relationship with God.
First, the Theology of the Body is a reminder that the human person is a unity of body and spirit, created in God’s image and likeness. This means that God intended the human body to participate in the life of the spirit, and therefore, as an integral part of human nature, the body is necessarily tied to how the human person finds union and communion with God.
Our life of holiness must involve the “wholeness” of who we are as human persons, and this means that our spiritual life should never be abstracted or divorced from our bodily nature. God did not create us to be angels or purely spiritual beings. And Christ’s bodily resurrection confirms and testifies that after death, we too will eventually be reunited with our bodies at the end of time. (So, please join the cause for ending any silly heretical talk about humans
“becoming angels” in heaven!)
But then, how exactly do our bodies relate to the spiritual life? First, I think it is helpful to remember that as humans, our mode of knowledge, that is, the way we come to understand anything or anyone is first through the body. Infants and young children demonstrate this in a radical way as they constantly touch, taste, and feel the objects around them as they learn about the external world. Children must also experience love and nourishment through the physical presence of their mother, father, and other family members.
Catholic liturgy too, of course, teaches us through the body. We are constantly shifting from sitting, kneeling, and standing through the Mass, and each of these postures serves to draw our hearts and minds to the reality occurring. Sitting during the readings is a receptive posture of learning. Standing during the Gospel is a sign of respect for Our Lord. Kneeling during the consecration of the Eucharist is a posture of deep humility, reverence, and worship.
Even ascetical practices—those acts of bodily self-denial—are also important for drawing us closer to God. For instance, the Church requires that we fast at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion, and this experience of bodily hunger reminds us of our deeper spiritual hunger—our real need for spiritual sustenance.
Outside of the liturgy, however, we should remember how our body still bears upon our spiritual life. When we pray, we should ensure that our bodies are properly disposed. This doesn’t mean you have to kneel every time you pray. But it might mean that you have a place in your home that is physically “set apart,” with some simple religious art and a prayer candle—outward signs that will engage your bodily senses and thereby aid you to “lift up your heart” to the Lord.
Also, it will be difficult to focus on prayer if you are overly exhausted, or conversely, “charged” with excess bodily energy. This means that going to bed on time, exercising, and cultivating a healthy diet can all be ways of supporting your spiritual life. And considering how our contemporary culture makes it so easy for us to neglect healthy rest, exercise, and diet habits, it seems that today one might practice asceticism largely through intentionally cultivating these bodily disciplines.
Ultimately, we must remember that God has revealed Himself to us in the most radical way through Christ’s Incarnation, institution of the Holy Eucharist, and Sacrifice on the Cross. When Christ institutes the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, He commands the apostles to “do this in Remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). And in John 6:53, Christ states that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” In this way, Christ is offering us His entire Self – His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—and through this, He makes communion with God possible and accessible for us as embodied creatures. Jesus Christ becomes then the perfect mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). By taking on human flesh and laying down His Body for us, Jesus reveals how God desires to have total union with each of us. He does not merely want our “souls,” to be united to Him—but our entire being: body and spirit.
Certainly, therefore, we must be bodily present to receive the sacraments and to worship God at Mass. This is also why we should find opportunities, as St. John Paul II did so often, to spend time praying before Christ’s physical presence in the Blessed Sacrament. “Spiritual holiness” then, for us as human persons, is always connected to the body and our bodily actions. As St. Paul aptly says: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
So, I encourage you to reflect now on the following question: “How is your life of embodied spirituality going?”
Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.