Monday, November 12, 2007

Is the Flesh a Drawback to Holiness? (Joan Chittister)

I had an uncle who drank for years. He was an embarrassment to the family. But in the end, when he sobered up, he was the one who worked day and night to help others in pain.

There was a very religious family in the parish: mass every morning, parish work every week, visits to the church every day. When the daughter had her first child out of wedlock, they refused to allow the father of the baby to visit the home.

A couple down the street stopped going to Communion when they began to use birth control. Love was the thing holding the two of them together but love, it seemed, was the problem.

The question is an ancient one, Is the flesh an obstacle to life with God? Is the flesh what makes life impossible? Is the flesh a drawback to holiness?

For many people, religion has something to do with fighting the flesh, taming it, beating it down, bringing it to submission so that the spirit can soar untrammelled by anything so mundane as a body. The flesh becomes the enemy of religion, the impediment to goodness, the pulsing, impulsive, lively gift that we're all meant to fear.

That's where Christianity comes in. Christianity is based on the goodness of flesh. Or to put it another way, If human flesh was good enough for Jesus, who of us can afford to reject it? To be human is to be flesh. To be holy is to glory in it.

The very scandal of Christianity lies in the fact that it sees divinity in humanity. It's a hard idea to swallow, after all. Every major religion recognizes the role of the Creator in the development of life, of course. But in it? Part of it? Identified with it? Gods everywhere look down from the heavens of the world religions and pronounce laws or grapple with demons or pass judgment from on high. Only Christianity argues that the Creator has taken on the flesh and blood of creation in order to bring us to assert the divine in ourselves.

So what is this about renouncing the flesh? How can we call the way God made us inherently bad, as philosophers have done since the time of Aristotle?

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning says of it, "Earth is crammed with heaven."

The flesh, in other words, is all we have. It is our glory. It is our power. It is sweet. It is beautiful. And it is the clay out of which we shape a better tomorrow.

from Life Is for Living: Advent Reflections by Joan Chittister (Benetvision)

Joan Chittister puts it movingly and directly, and with such grace and compassion. How many Christians have suffered over how many years as the result of the triumph of Augustinian thinking over the Celtic sense of the holiness of the whole person, of the whole Creation?


Marshall Scott said...

And so it is that we Episcopalians are a sacramental people - and why we focus so much on the Incarnation (in contrast to, but not in contradiction or rejection of, Crucifixion or Resurrection).

Mike Farley said...

Absolutely, Marshall - and that's one of reason I'm always so pleased to be able to call myself an Anglican again!

Good to meet you, too - thanks for stopping by! I'll look forward to reading your blog - hospital visiting is something I seem to be finding I'm increasingly called to...