I’ve been in discernment for ordination as a priest for some time now, and I’ve found a good deal of this period of waiting incredibly meaningful. But any institutionalized discernment process, such as that in the Church of England, involves filling out a great deal of paperwork and answering an endless stream of questions: some bizarre, some banal, some, very occasionally, useful. Tiresome queries can generate significant responses, even when we least expect it. For example, I was asked recently:
What are your main leisure interests and hobbies? What attracts you to them?
I found these questions more than a little useful because they revealed several things to me. First, I don’t think of myself as having many “leisure interests and hobbies.” I’m busy, but most of my activities are related to my sense of vocation or to practical aspects of life. Second, I find it exceedingly hard to explain why I enjoy activities that seem, at least to me, obviously attractive, such as making music, cooking, or cycling. Third, and more profoundly, my answers uncovered a number of personality quirks and theological attitudes embedded in my activities.
Consider the description I gave of why I enjoy cycling: “It occasionally grants a sense of freedom from the limitations of one’s body, limitations which are felt so acutely when engaging in other forms of exercise.”
When I first wrote this response, I thought nothing of it. Upon later review, however, I was a little worried. (After all, what do discernment processes tend to foster but a lot of intense navel-gazing?)
I asked: Does that response reveal something of my inner Platonist, that dangerous philosopher always standing at the ready, prepared to swallow up my theological convictions?
Maybe not. As it is the season of Easter and I am reading through Augustine’s City of God along with other members of Covenant, I was reminded of a frequent emphasis in patristic and medieval reflections on the resurrection, namely, that our future life will be marked by the sort of freedom of movement I suggested we can glimpse while cycling, a facility and lightness. Our current life in the flesh is marked by weightiness: the solid physical weight we carry around, the effort it takes to move ourselves, and a moral sluggishness related to the fallen character of our bodies. As Augustine says, “The body is not moved so easily to go where the soul wishes …. For the weight of the body is tardy and burdensome” (Sermon 277.5-6).
What cycling can give us — or, at least, give me — is something of a foretaste of what it would be like for the body to move at a pace that matches the desires of the soul. Rather than feeling our minds distended by a disjunction between our desires and abilities, we can begin to feel the freedom of achieving our goal more rapidly, not apart from the body moving itself, but with more swiftness and levity than can normally be attained. Effortless movement — this is a joy familiar to the cyclist.
I have no doubt that this sounds a little strange to some readers, but a theological emphasis on the weightiness of our current flesh is hardly unbiblical. Augustine, while arguing against a Platonist view of the body, notes:
We are … weighed down by the corruptible body; but, because we know that the cause of this weight is not the very nature and substance of the body but rather its corruption, we want not to be stripped of the body but instead to be clothed with its immortality (1 Cor. 15:54). For at that point, too, the body will still be there; but, because it will no longer be corruptible, it will not weigh us down. Now, therefore, “the corruptible body weighs down the soul, and this earthly dwelling presses down the mind that thinks many thoughts” (Wisdom 9:15). But those who hold that all the evils of the soul stem from the body are wrong. (Augustine, City of God XIV.3)
In other words: we suffer now in this flesh, not because embodiment itself is evil, but because our current corruptible flesh does not reflect what human nature was and is meant to be. We suffer the decay resulting from the sin of Adam and hope to share the vitality brought by the righteousness of Christ.
As Christians, we do not despise embodiment, but we seek a glorified body, one glimpsed in the resurrection appearances, one described by Paul, one that is quite different from the one we have now. To be precise, we hope that Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21). We seek to be made like him, subject to his power, and we will be made like him when we see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
Augustine, like many others, finds significance in the stories of Christ’s sudden appearances within locked rooms after his resurrection. He takes the principle that “we will be like him” to argue that we too will have such ease and lightness of movement in the life to come that we will be able to appear wherever we wish, anywhere on earth or in heaven. In Scripture, corruptibility equals a kind of gravitas, and, for the Fathers, incorruptibility implies levitas. What this says about the material of the body is often unclear in the patristic period and beyond. The resurrection body is most often thought to be made of matter, but the precise character of its materiality is an object of dispute and often thought to lie outside the bounds of creaturely rationality.
The Fathers and medieval authors often resort instead to metaphors, comparing the resurrection body to a reassembled statue, a clay pot, or a newly grown seed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:36-38). Gregory of Nyssa provides one of the more interesting images:
You will behold this bodily envelopment, which is now dissolved in death, woven again out of the same atoms, not indeed into this organization with its gross and heavy texture, but with its threads worked up into something more subtle and ethereal. (De anima et resurrectione)
For Gregory, the earthly body is something like rough and ready country clothing, sewn by a dubious tailor passing off his cheap third-hand fabric as genuine Harris Tweed. But the resurrection body resembles a fine Italian suit. Both are, no doubt, made of wool, but no one can deny their difference. The former certainly passes for clothing and may be appropriate for mucking around in the dirt or for shooting (with some undistinguished companions). But the latter is more elegant, properly fitted, with a sleek line, good color, and a hint of gloss: suitable attire for the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Heaviness and its discontents
It would be easy to mock such late antique and medieval reflections. At their most extreme end, there is a surprisingly literal emphasis upon the gross physicality of our bodies. They sometimes make it sound as if we all ought to be engaged in a program of severe fasting, simply to attain a lighter figure. “Lightness is next to godliness,” it seems, and being overweight is thought to lead automatically to a grossness of thought.
There’s more than a little wisdom and beauty, however, in their reflections. Many common experiences highlight the body’s “heaviness,” its ability to impede our effectiveness and slow down our thinking and feeling. This may be especially obvious to many of us as we grow older: a thirty-year-old or sixty-year-old does not bounce back from illness, strain, or fatigue in the same way a younger person does.
In the round of fasting and feasting that comes with the Church’s calendar, the weight of the body especially reveals itself. I am never more aware of my “earthly dwelling” than in Lent and Eastertide. I usually abstain from meat, alcohol, or both throughout those glorious forty days of fasting, and it would be an understatement to say that I notice the effects of this practice on my mind and body: the fatigue sets in quickly, followed by a few weeks of mental clarity, along with a joyous sense of freedom from the cycle of death and consumption. Finally, by Holy Week, I am truly wearied, unable to reach a sense of normality; and this is a fairly light fast, by historic standards. After Easter Sunday, though, with the resumption of a regular diet, I am often taken aback by my sense of renewed vigor. In all of this, I experience the weight of the corruptible body; the earthly dwelling presses on my mind from all directions, both in exhaustion and in refreshment.
The same is true of my experience of aging and illness. I notice the pains that take longer to dissipate, along with the diminishment of physical energy that marks each year. There are the minor scars that accumulate, wrinkles that appear and deepen, hair that disappears or grays.
Finally, we must all notice this mortal weight that surrounds us in the daily trappings of life, the routines that mark every hour: waking and sleeping, eating and drinking, clothing and cleaning and caring for oneself, going to work long hours, maintaining relationships, keeping up on what’s happening in the world, concerning oneself with the plight of one’s neighbor. All these things are a joy at times, but at others they are a burden that sits heavily across the shoulders, that furrows the brow, that weakens the knees. If there were no Sabbath rest for the people of God, at the weekend and at the end of the ages, who could bear such cares? They bury us all in the end.
For this reason, I sympathize with those lost souls who buy in to the current culture of youth and health: plastic surgery, bizarre diets, regular nutrient injections, ridiculous workout routines, testosterone or HGH supplements, credulous hope in new technologies, outrageous skincare regimens, myriad distractions, Viagra, Rogaine, yet another makeover, you name it. They’re trying to stave off this mortal weight; they are trying to be other than they are now; they’re trying to find a way to overcome mortality. These efforts reflect, however dimly, something of the great good of the human imagination and the great good they seek. Augustine speaks of this ingenuity:
Even when it turns its desire to superfluous or, worse, to dangerous and harmful things, the extraordinary power of mind and reason shows what a great good it has by virtue of its nature, the good that enables it to discover, to learn, and to practice such arts. (City of God 22.24)
In trying to stay young forever, perhaps we’re rather like Adam and Eve, whose sin was not so much in desiring the wrong thing (likeness to God), but for attempting to achieve it in the wrong way and at the wrong time. We don’t have the patience to wait for God to bestow perfect harmony, proportion, health, maturity, and beauty upon us. We try to attain the resurrection now, all too quickly and not through God’s means. Fasting, prayer, labor in the vineyard, attention to the Word, participation in the sacraments, sacrificial love for our neighbor: these are God’s means for transforming the body in this life and for preparing for the life to come. But we try to manipulate ourselves and our world by such a variety of destructive measures that we simply add to our weight. We increase our worries; we do not lessen them. We tie heavy burdens on the backs of others and on ourselves.
This is not the freedom of the children of God. It is no foretaste of the kingdom.
We should be on the lookout for those moments of grace when the heaviness of the world slips away, even for an instant, when something of the glory to come shines forth in our midst, when the features of the resurrection are present. Those moments may come at unexpected times and with unexpected people. They may come in quotidian affairs: cycling, singing, making a meal for another. They will certainly come in the sacraments of the Church, in the practices of the one body.
This means, however, that we must have the patience to allow the resurrection to shine forth; we cannot force its arrival, any more than we can force the moon to gleam through the clouds before the dawning of the day.
We must also have confidence that it shall appear: now, in mere flashes, but on that day in an eternal weight of glory that is startlingly light and easy and restful. Then we shall no longer ponder the peculiarity of incorruptible flesh. Then, all strivings shall cease.
Dear friends, we are children of God now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we know that when Christ is revealed, we will be like him. For we will see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
The featured image is a statue of Atlas in the royal palace of Amsterdam. The photo was taken by Dominik Bartsch (2011) and is licensed under Creative Commons.