The body speaks a language, a language about the deep vocation and destiny of the human person, and, indeed, about the nature of the whole of reality itself. This truth has hopefully become much clearer throughout these reflections, but I would like to try and open it up even more before our gaze. How can we begin? The first step, perhaps, is to recognize that there is a profound connection between meaning and the body. In our contemporary, post-Cartesian culture, we struggle to understand this, or even to consider it. We tend to assume that truth lies in the abstract realm of thought, or at least in the spirit, or perhaps in the inner consciousness of the subjective “I,” or even in the ideal realm of moral obligation and the commandments of law. But for truth to lie in the body? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? But in fact it is simply a profound and fundamental truth.

The truth of the body is precisely the truth that brings any seed of truth in the above approaches together into harmony, harmony in the concreteness of the real as God has given it, and in which he communicates himself. For abstract thought is important, thought that takes the particular information given to us through our senses, and reflects upon it in such a way that the mind truly discovers, and comes to understand, universal principles and essences of things. So too, the spirit is important, as the very living capacity for conscious thought, consideration, free choice, and therefore for love and relationship. For the spirit, in its deepest meaning, is precisely the expression of our personhood, transcending the mere animal realm, in our orientation towards loving relationship, first of all with God, and, secondarily, with other persons and with all that he has made. As the beautiful explanation of the spirit says: To be spirit means to be open to all that exists. Spirit is boundless openness to enter into relationship with everything that is, to welcome it into oneself—into one’s subjective “I”—in knowledge and love. Indeed, knowledge is not best understood as a form of possession, but as a form of relation, as a primal form of intimacy between myself and reality, in which it comes to live in me, in my own inner subjective life, enriching me and filling my consciousness with its presence, and I, also, am expanded out to reality in a communion that involves a dilation and surrender of myself to the call of what is real.

And all of this does not occur divorced from the body, or in opposition to the body, but is rather meant to occur in and through the body, according to the body’s very language. For, after all, how can I be in this spirit-contact of knowledge and love with what is real unless I welcome the gift of reality in and through my senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell? Indeed, my whole bodily being is, in a way, a form of relation. It is ceaseless dependence upon what I receive from the outside: air, food, sunlight, communication, etc. And it is continual surrender of self. It is receiving and giving, welcoming in and giving out, inhalation and exhalation. This is true from the most basic bodily processes to the most refined exercise of the spiritual faculties of mind, will, and affectivity. It is true in the act of breathing, in the act of sight, in the forms of verbal communication; it is true in the often unconscious and yet very vivid expression of “body language” in the narrow sense, in which our very gestures and expressions manifest this living flow of relationship; it is true in the forms of tenderness and physical touch that unite persons with the world as a whole (such as petting animals, or treating even non-living things with respect and care) and especially with other persons, from a simply hand on the shoulder, or an embrace or kiss, to the act of sexual union, to a mother nursing her child or a man laying down his life for his friend. All of this occurs in and through the body, not as opposed to the spirit but as the living locus of the life of the spirit, and as the vehicle by which spirit communicates with spirit.

Yes, it is true that, in this fallen existence, the aspirations and capacities of the spirit burst beyond the temporal capacities of the body, frail and corruptible as it is. The desire to know the truth surpasses our capacity to experience tangibly in the body, or to conceptualize on the basis of this experience; our desire for intimacy in mutual self-giving bursts beyond the body’s capacity to receive another or to bestow oneself. Our thirst for beauty and goodness transcends all the goodness and beauty that can be experienced in the body. And this is why the spirit also has “senses,” corresponding with the five senses of the body and operating within and through them, while also transcending them to reach out to those things that cannot be directly sensed in the body (at least in our temporal state). This is why the inner heart has an impulse towards ecstasy, towards moving out beyond all things, all appearance and phenomena, to make contact with the innermost essence of things, and, above all, with the mystery of God himself, in unmediated contact with the innermost secret of his divine life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this aspiration is not wrong; it is not presumptuous, since God created us for precisely such a contact. But it must be founded in humility, and be born precisely from the awareness of our status as creatures, as children of God fashioned of the union of body and spirit, of the dust of the ground and the breath of life.

And thus this impulse, this mystical impulse towards direct and unmediated contact with the whole of reality, and above all with the transcendent Author of all reality, does not aim at distancing us from our creaturely condition, nor from the richness of our bodiliness. Rather, it seeks to gather all of this up, to heal it, and to carry it into intimacy with God. Thus the body too has its place here. Therefore, the living flame of spirit, in its impulse towards God, also “spiritualizes” the body itself; or better, God, approaching the longing human spirit, touches us in such a way that the Holy Spirit grafts himself into our spirit in a harmonious intimacy, and in this way divinizes our being, making us like God in intimacy and love. And this divinizing spiritualization also spiritualizes our very body, our very flesh, to be a living locus of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Thus we can taste already, even if imperfectly, what it is to have a “spiritual body,” as Saint Paul says (1 Cor 15:44). This is a body that is a “temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within” (1 Cor 6:9), and also a garden for the Bridegroom, in which he rejoices in the beauty of the bride, and here consummates with her the nuptials for which he created and redeemed her (cf. Sg 4:9-5:1).

Here body and spirit taste something of the harmony that God originally intended for his children, and which will be utterly restored, in a way beyond imagination, in the new creation at the end of time. Here the aspirations of the spirit permeate the body, and the body is lifted up to participate in the life of the spirit. Here the energies of both dimensions of our being, body and spirit, flow together in a single life of personal consciousness and love. This is what spiritualization means; and yet this spiritualization of the body also corresponds with an incarnation of the spirit. The two movements are inseparable facets of the same reality, two aspects of a single mystery. As the body is lifted up in harmony with the spirit, so the spirit fills the experiences of the body. In this temporal life, of course, there are inherent limitations to this experience of harmonization between body and spirit, fractured as this unity is by sin, suffering, and death. Only in the new creation will boundless and complete harmony be achieved. But nonetheless this harmony between body and spirit can more and more be tasted and experienced, through the healing and re-creating activity of grace within us. We can more and more feel the body aligning with the desires of the inner heart, with the aspirations of the spirit, rather than militating against them through its lower appetites, which until healed and integrated tend to urge us on towards unhealthy expressions of concupiscence (the lust of the flesh and of the eyes). On the other hand, the spirit descends from its tendency towards dis-incarnation and engages with reality in and through the rich experience of the body, in all the humility of docile receptivity to what is given, to what is real, communicated through the body’s contact with the universe (contrary to the pride of life which would flee from this).

And this dual movement of spiritualization and incarnation enriches the experience of both body and spirit—or, more accurately, enriches the experience of the person, of the subject, who lives and experiences as a single “I” in both body and spirit. Here the experiences of the senses and the body become fully personalized, as the individual person, by consenting to live in the body, is now fully “present,” as it were, to their own bodily existence in humility and love. And this body, by the full conscious, spiritual presence of the person, in turn participates in the aspirations of the heart, of the spirit, which is open to all that is. And this openness in fact corresponds already, from the beginning, with the innate orientation of the body itself, which is always “hungry” and “thirsty” for contact with the whole of reality. And the coming-together of body and spirit in a joint movement to God, and, in God, to all that is insofar as it is bathed in the light of his truth, is what brings about the healing and harmonization of the heart’s desire. Here bodily and spiritual experience come together, united, in the inner sanctuary of the “I.” And they do so only through the grace and presence of the “Thou” who, through grace and love, lives within us and recreates us from the inside, and yet who also ceaselessly approaches us from the outside, unveiling to us anew the beauty of his face.

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Let me turn from these more philosophical reflections to the words of Scripture, which will hopefully help to distill these realities more deeply into our hearts and our experience. It is very telling, in fact, that the Semitic languages—born of a culture in which the person was not understood as a spirit inhabiting a body, but rather as a single individual living as a body-person—do not speak in terms that are abstract, but rather in profoundly concrete language. Even our contemporary abstract language, unintelligible to many people, reaches its origins back into this more concrete way of speaking, at least at times. But for the Jews, things were viscerally tangible in the body, even as formulated in speech. In a word (pun intended), their verbal language was in contact with the experience and language of the body, and not divorced from it. Let me give a beautiful example by quoting some words from Joseph Ratzinger, from his book Mary, The Church at the Source. After this I will try to expound all this more deeply and explicitly. He writes:

The image of the grieving [leidend] Mother, who in her suffering had become sheer compassion [Mitleid] and who now holds the dead Christ on her lap has become especially dear to Christian piety. In the compassionate Mother, suffers of all ages have found the purest reflection of the divine compassion that is the only true consolation. For, looked at in its deepest essence, all pain, all suffering is solitude, loss of love, the wrecked happiness of the rejected. Only the “com,” the “with,” can heal pain. (p. 76-77)

The Hebrew text of the Old Testament does not draw on psychology to speak about God’s compassionate suffering with man. Rather, in accordance with the concreteness of Semitic thought, it designates it with a word whose basic meaning refers to a bodily organ, namely, rahamim. Taken in the singular, rahamim means the mother’s womb. Just as “heart” stands for feeling, and “loins” and “kidneys” stand for desire and pain, the womb becomes the term for being with another; it becomes the deepest reference to man’s capacity to stand for another, to take the other into himself, to suffer him [erleiden], and in this long-suffering to give him life. The Old Testament, with a word taken from the language of the body, tells us how God shelters us in himself, how he bears us in himself with compassionate love.

The languages into which the Gospel entered when it came to the pagan world did not have such modes of expression. But the image of the Pieta, the Mother grieving [leidend] for her Son, became the vivid translation of this word: In her, God’s maternal affliction [Leiden] is open to view. In her we can behold it and touch it. She is the compassio of God, displayed in a human being who has let herself be drawn wholly into God’s mystery. It is because human life is at all times suffering that the image of the suffering Mother, the image of the rahamim of God, is of such importance for Christianity. The Pieta completes the picture of the Cross, because Mary is the accepted Cross, the Cross communicating itself in love, the Cross that now allows us to experience in her compassion the compassion of God. In this way the Mother’s affliction is Easter affliction, which already inaugurates the transformation of death into the redemptive being-with of love. Only apparently have we distanced ourselves from the “rejoice” with which the narrative of Mary begins. For the joy announced to her is not the banal joy clung to in forgetfulness of the abysses of our being and so condemned to plunge into the void. It is the real joy that gives us the courage to venture the exodus of love into the burning holiness of God. It is the true joy that pain does not destroy but first brings to its maturity. Only the joy that stands the test of pain and is stronger than affliction is authentic. (p. 78-79)

The basic point is this: when the Hebrew language sought to express God’s inexpressible compassion, it did so not with an abstract term, but with the image of a mother’s womb. For the womb is the bodily organ that welcomes a child from another, and yet also completes and nurtures it within oneself, bearing it and “suffering” it until, through the intermingling of joy and pain, it is brought forth into a new form of life. The womb thus, as a “body-language,” communicates much more than an abstract term like “compassion,” that is, unless the term compassion traces its way back to the living vividness of incarnate experience, to which it points. Jesus himself understood this well, understood our need to live and love in and through the body, to feel desire also in the body, and sorrow and compassion also in the body (for only in this way can it bring about the fruit of healing, transformation, and maturity which gives birth to a deep and abiding joy).* He spoke of his own Passion and Resurrection in these terms to his disciples: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into this world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:21-22).

Yes, only in this way can suffering be redeemed, and, in being redeemed, also become a redemptive force in the world, just as the pain of a mother if fruitful for the sake of her child. Yes, for suffering is such a profound paradox, an unintelligible mystery which affects every human life, asking a profound question which only God, in his compassion, can adequately answer. Only in God can the enigma of suffering find its answer, not only in the abstract, but in the concreteness of the body, the emotions, the mind, the spirit—in whole human person—who aches in the tension between a fallen world and the bliss of eternal life. And this is because Christ himself came and took all suffering to himself, and bore it with us and for us—and Mary, in her feminine receptivity and according to her creaturely limitations, did so with him—such that the birthing-pains of the Cross gave birth to the new and undying life of the Resurrection.

We see the same visceral body-language in the Psalms, for example, which express the prayer of the human heart, not in conceptual categories, but above all in language taken from the senses, and in images and analogies born from a deep contemplative contact with the visible universe and the fabric of creation. And this is one of the reasons why they have the capacity to speak so deeply, and so widely, to millions of different persons in different cultures and circumstances throughout time. They speak from the core of universal human experience in the body, and of the feelings and emotions that are proper to all of us. They help to give voice to those deep things within us, in body and spirit, in a language that resonates deeply with out most original way of experiencing the world, and our lives within it. We could even say that the Psalms, and in fact Scripture as a whole, is woven through and through with the fabric of the “original experiences” that we have already spoken about: solitude, nakedness, and unity (or interiority, vulnerability, and intimacy). And yet it speaks of these, not as concepts, but in all the richness of living experience, helping us to feel them and live them in all their depth.

This, too, shows just how inadequate is a prayer that remains merely or even primarily in the conceptual realm of thoughts and ideas. Rather, we have been created—and we innately long—to pray with our whole body, and with all of our feelings and emotions, from the deepest to the most superficial. This is why recollection in reading the Bible is so fruitful, while a distracted, cursory, or hurried reading does not allow the sacred text to unfold its inner beauty and depth. For it can only speak its depth whenever it finds a corresponding depth in us, a living space of receptive attention in which to echo and find a fitting response. Of course, concepts, ideas, and abstract discursive thought are also essential, and they are a necessary facet of the path to truth. As John Paul said: “We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it rises” (Fides et Ratio, 83). Indeed, a deeper intellectual and mental contact with reality through reading, study, or philosophical thought—and by philosophical I mean the term in its most original sense, not as a specialized field of study but as “the love of wisdom” innate in every human person created with an aspiration for truth—by all of this, our eyes and hearts are unsealed more deeply to make contact with reality, in and through the body, precisely in a way of more profound depth.

This love of wisdom, deep in the inmost recesses of our searching minds, follows also and necessarily along the trajectory of the experience of our embodiment and our call, in the body, to image the very life of God. If it does not follow this path, it cannot find its ultimate fulfillment. For in thought alone we do not find perfect rest, though thought and knowledge in the mind is an essential element of happiness. Rather, the “beatific vision” of which the Church speaks, this face-to-face encounter with the Trinity in which, unmediated, we gaze upon his beauty and experience the utter fulfillment of all our desires—this reality is not something occurring merely in the mind, in the spirit, but rather pervading and harnessing our entire psycho-physical being down to the least operation of our senses. And if this is true, if, as Saint Paul says, “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body” (1 Cor 6:13), then the body too must be prepared for this encounter. Thus, as the mystics have spoken of a “dark night of the spirit” in which the innermost dispositions of the heart, bathed in the piercing light of God’s love, are purified to their very depths, and thus made fit for union with the Trinity, so too it is necessary to speak of a “dark night of the body.” I do not mean here a more superficial purification, a healing of those more surface wounds or tendencies towards the supposedly “lesser” of the deadly sins rooted in carnal concupiscence. No, I mean a healing and irradiation of our consciousness specifically directed to our way of living and experiencing our bodiliness. For each person this will look different, depending upon their inclinations, wounds, and struggles, but for all the orientation of this healing is towards precisely that “divinizing spiritualization” which I spoke of above. It is oriented, in other words, towards the confluence (the flowing-together) of the energies of the body and the spirit in a single life of love, rooted wholly in the innermost subjective “I,” who, for his or her part, is wholly surrendered into the embrace of the divine “Thou.”

For some persons, the path of this healing of the body will lead primarily through a liberation from lust and objectification, in which other persons are seen and experienced—in those deep spontaneous movements of emotion, sensation, and arousal—as objects of use for the sake of pleasure or possession. The same is true in relation to non-personal beings, living or non-living, which can also be experienced under the guise of their ability to give pleasure or a sense of security through ownership or control. Here a purification of the deepest wellsprings of the heart, precisely in their inseparable union with the sensations and feelings of the body, needs to occur, such that the very first stirrings of such feelings are aligned with the spirit, which, in turn, is aligned with reality. This does not in any way mean that the body loses the richness of its contact with the sensible world, or that the person in some way becomes “insensible,” unmoved emotionally or tangibly by their encounter with beauty, goodness, or even sensible pleasure in this world. Rather, it means a deepened capacity to feel, on all levels of one’s being, and yet to feel, not in a way that submerges the person in the passion of the flesh, or carries the person away on a trajectory in which freedom and self-mastery are lost, but rather in a way that the person is fully present in the feeling, and the feeling reverberates fully in the person. As John Paul says, the goal of this spiritualization is “the perfect sensitivity of the senses, their perfect harmonization with the activity of the human spirit in truth and in freedom” (TOB 72:4), in which “one could also speak of a perfect system of powers in the reciprocal relations between what is spiritual and what is bodily in man” (67:1). This means that the spirit will “fully permeate the body and the powers of the spirit will permeate the energies of the body” (67:1).

We can affirm that some persons, on the other hand, rather than needing to be purified of a tendency to lust and pleasure-seeking (though that may also be the case to a degree), will need to walk through a reawakening to the value and beauty of the body, from the highest to the lowest levels. This is the case because what is dead, what has not been allowed to live, cannot be healed and directed towards its healthy expression. It must first come back to life, must first be allowed to live, so that then the energies of grace can flow in and through it. But whenever one has adopted the ascetical path spoken of in the previous part—the way of mortifying (killing) the emotions and feelings of the body, etc.—then these facets of our being cannot be so directed as to be aligned with the movements of our hearts, nor with the Spirit alive within us, who wants to breathe with his sweetness and love through all of us, from the inner recesses of the Spirit to the very subtlest stirrings of sensation or emotion.

This path of rehabilitation may appear very surprising to many persons, particularly to the one walking it. This is because such a path may well lead them through experiences of such vulnerability, such radical trust in God, that it is indeed a “night” for them, a night of naked faith, hope, and love clinging to the goodness and love of God in the midst of darkness. And it is precisely through humbly walking in this way, casting all of his or her cares upon the tenderness of the Father, into the embrace of Christ, and into the shelter of the Spirit, that the person can be made whole. And precisely because this path leads them to the resurrection of the very things which they thought that, in the name of holiness, they had to kill, it is the most vulnerable path of all. It invites them to confront the very fears that hemmed them in for many years, to walk into the very places of which they were afraid, but precisely in response to the deeper voice of their heart trying to come out into the open and to be set free, and in response to the promise of life spoken by the God of Life. How vulnerable, and yet how beautiful is this path! For life is always more vulnerable than death. Love is always more vulnerable than isolated self-protection. Love, love with the whole of one’s being as given by God, is always a risk. But the risk is precisely the path to wholeness, as vulnerability is precisely the only path to the full flowering of intimacy.

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*Often in the Western tradition of Christianity, there has been an unhealthy and excessive focus on suffering to the detriment of human wholeness, and of God’s desire for us, in our whole body-spirit being, to be complete and happy. This has also accompanied a one-sided emphasis on the Passion of Jesus to the detriment of his Resurrection, which, after all, is the greater mystery that reveals the ultimate meaning of the Passion itself (just as the birth of the child gives meaning to the labor-pains), and which is the definitive in-breaking of the divine life and love into our world. All this is to say that suffering is not meant to be borne by a blind act of the will, by uncomprehending trust and submission to God. Rather, suffering is an invitation for the deepest questions and vulnerabilities of the heart to come out into the open, and, laid bare before God, to open up a deeper collaboration between the human person and God, both in the living of love in each moment, and in compassionate concern for all of God’s suffering children. Yes, and first of all, suffering must be redeemed for me before I am able to live it fully as a gift for others. In other words, I must first let myself be found by God in my pain, before I can find others in theirs. And God desires that suffering does not lead to defeat, to a loss of self, to perpetuate wounding—even if certain wounds borne in this life, such as from abuse, trauma, or profound moral evil, are fully healed only in heaven. Rather, through Christ, he can transform suffering itself into a path of healing and a journey into wholeness, in which suffering itself is made redemptive for my own sake, birthing joy, and also, from this space, flows out as a redemptive force for others.