Do our bodies lead us to God or keep us from God? Yes.

monks thwacking selves with boards - Monty PythonToday I begin posting bits of the “Monasticism and asceticism” chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. 

Why this is the hardest topic in this book for me, and maybe the most important one for American Christians today

There is no chapter in this book where I am “preaching to myself” more than this one. I fear that living in a place as comfortably materialistic and hedonistic as America makes our need for some form of ascetic discipline even more urgent than it has been in other ages and places. I feel the force of Neil Postman’s book title (if not the book itself), Amusing Ourselves to Death. How easy it is just to sit in front of the glowing screen, sipping the extra-large high-fructose corn syrup beverage, after the manner of the bloated inmates of the Buy ‘n’ Large corporation’s starliner Axiom in the movie Wall-E.

I have struggled to really “own” my faith, and part of that has been that I have had little clear sense of how the faith should be changing the way I work, do leisure, raise my family, and so forth. But mine is not just a failure of knowledge. It is a failure of commitment and discipline. So, honestly, I don’t want monasticism to hold any truth for me. I want it to be wrong. And I suspect this is true of many moderns who dismiss medieval monasticism without examining it—going no further than the Monty Python caricature of monks filing through the streets, intoning the missal passage Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem and thwacking themselves on the forehead with boards.[1]

Living the embodied life – sacramentalism and asceticism needed

A former colleague of mine at Bethel Seminary, who is a therapist in a practice known for serving Christians sympathetically, tells about what for him has become an all-too-familiar story. A couple comes in, and one of them has become so enamored with church that they want to spend all their time basking in the spiritual experiences they are having there. At home, they are distant, short, dismissive of the needs of their spouse. They have become quite literally “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.” And the result is a crisis in their marriage. The non-spirit-struck spouse feels abandoned, uncared for – their emotional needs are unmet. My friend calls this a sort of “super-spiritualizing syndrome.”

Many modern Christians fail to acknowledge the spiritual importance of our embodied, which is to say holistically human lives – physical, emotional, intellectual – by convincing ourselves that they do not matter spiritually. The result is that we fail to “be Christian” in our ordinary lives. We will “be Christian” in only a very distant, spiritual sense—one that has little impact in our embodied, social lives (and is little help to our spouses, children, friends).

When, as I contended in the creation chapter, we ignore the fulfillments of our human needs and desires—in either case treating them as irrelevant to the life of the spirit—then we cannot come to see how the life of human desire, with all its working and earning and spending, loving and begetting and caring, can become for us a sacrament, leading us to raise our eyes to honor and enjoy the God who made all of these good things. Our “super-spiritualizing syndrome” blocks us from the sacramental function of the material world, and conversely, becoming alive to the sacramental dignity of all creation is one very good way to overcome the syndrome.

What, then, can solve the opposite problem – idolatrous materialism? The sacramental principle says that anybody who examines her embodied life closely and honestly finds much in it that leads her to God. But honesty about our humanness also reveals something else, to those with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” Quite simply, it reveals that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

[1] Many ignorant moderns make self-flagellation the symbol of monasticism. But it rarely crops up in the sources. Benedict doesn’t mention it at all and in general warns against untenable extremes in monastic practice. Francis was certainly capable of it, but he did not impose any ascetic burden besides poverty on his order, wisely understanding that each person’s path and disciplines must be tailored to their own circumstances and led by their own sense of the Spirit.

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