Sunday, March 27, 2011

Provision for the Flesh

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: these are the monikers by which Scripture presents to us the three great sources of temptation. Lent being a time specially devoted to introspection and refocusing upon the practice of virtue, let us look at what precisely these things mean.

When we talk about the Flesh, we usually mean lust. This is one of what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or more loosely the Deadly Sins; the others being gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Of course, gluttony and sloth may hover vaguely in the background as also being of the Flesh, but usually lust comes first to our minds, particularly a culture such as that of contemporary America, which is so utterly sodden in sex, to the point that not only decency but good taste is affronted.

However, the Flesh does not mean the body. We are accustomed to think of the body when we hear the word, because our bodies are made of flesh. But the real theology behind the word is subtler than that, and illuminates a good deal more about human nature. For a Biblical understanding of the term, let us turn to St. Paul:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. but if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. -- Galatians 5.16-24

Note that, in this list of fleshly things, only four -- immorality (a polite translation of the Greek porneia, which could more vividly be rendered "whoring" but did cover a wide variety of sexual, uh, conduct), licentiousness (for which "immodesty" might be a better equivalent), drunkenness (which probably needs no further explanation), and carousing (which can also be translated "orgies" for the modern) -- only these four are intrinsically connected to bodily activities at all. It might be noted that half deal with gluttony rather than lust; but what I want to look at is all the other terms. The word "impurity" is as vague in Greek as it is in English, though we might suspect a sexual connotation. But the others are all social -- enmity, strife, etc. -- or related to a depraved spirituality, as idolatry and sorcery. The saint is clearly as much concerned with our conduct as souls among souls, as he is with our conduct as bodies among bodies.

And this squares with the Christian faith generally. St. Paul is sometimes taken to be a grim ascetic, and ascetic he certainly was; but, unlike some other patently pessimistic forms of spirituality called Gnostic, Catholic asceticism is really asceticism. That is, it is concerned with askesis: rigorous self-discipline. The Gnostic cults which were largely simultaneous with, and frequently drew upon, Christianity, were not ascetic in this sense at all. They practiced and valued many of the same things, such as celibacy, but they did so for reasons that were opposed to the faith in their very essence. The Gnostics believed, not in self-discipline, but in self-destruction. A Catholic monk and a Gnostic sage might equally whip themselves with cords; but the monk does so for a quite definite set of reasons: to train himself to be ready to endure pain, for instance, or to identify himself with the sufferings of Christ, or as an aversive against some sin. We may think them bad or inadequate reasons, whether in general or in an individual case, but those are the reasons, and they are very different reasons from those of the Gnostic. He too might whip himself with cords; but he would do it to punish the body for being material, or in order to prove that his body was irrelevant to his soul. In other words, his self-torment was based on contempt for the body as such. No Catholic is able theologically to countenance contempt for the body; or if, and to the extent that, he does, he becomes a heretic; for in Jesus, God Himself took on a body. Matter in general is, for a Catholic, sacred because of Creation, and the body especially because of the Incarnation.

So if the body has been sanctified by the Incarnation, and if the Flesh doesn't really need to have to do with the body, then what is the Flesh exactly? It is the sinful nature of man, with the specific character of our natural desires and weaknesses.

This doesn't mean that the Flesh is identical with all things that draw us on to sin, though it would be easy to think so from the preceding definition. The World and the Devil I plan to deal with in my next two posts in more detail; suffice it to say here that both of them, in differing ways, are pressures on us to sin that come from without. The Flesh is the interior pressure toward sin. C. S. Lewis, in his book on prayer titled Letters to Malcolm, notes a desire to peer into the transcendent realms of the spirit, "behind the scenes" of this earthly life, and points out frankly that this desire is properly a desire of the Flesh in the Pauline sense. Human sexuality in its crassest perversions is a sample of the Flesh; but so is the most romantic, and even the most morally observant, Eros, when it is made a substitute for God. Drinking oneself stupid is a sample of the Flesh; so too is dabbling enough in philosophy to sound intelligent and sophisticated, without actually bothering about the questions of whether life is worth living or righteousness worth pursuing. The Flesh can, in one sense, be as spiritual as anything.

The remedy to the Flesh is what the apostle says it is: recourse to the Spirit. The Flesh consists in the corruption, better to say the defection, of our merely natural longings -- longings for pleasures (gluttony), for human relationships (lust), for security (avarice), for peace of mind (sloth), and so forth. The work of the Spirit against the Flesh consists in an invasion of nature by the supernatural, whose work is one but is manifest in a twofold manner; the Person is not divided, nor the natures confused.

Human nature, left to itself after the Fall, is no longer self-sustaining. Of course, really nothing is self-sustaining except God, but human nature now needs supernatural help even to be natural; before the Fall of Man this would not have been the case. Anyway, the curious warp of human nature is that it is directed toward God, but is directed to Him very largely through other things He has made, because He made those things in order to communicate Himself to us. Since we are very limited beings, and God has no limits imposed on Him, this is a pretty obvious thing to do. The Fall (whether one takes Genesis 3 to be historical or not) consisted in seeking certain of these good things God meant for us, but independently of Him, even to the exclusion of Him. In fact, it consisted in seeking them as if they were self-sustaining goods. But, apart from God, creation turned out to be very like an onion: one peels away layer after layer, and there's nothing in it, and one ends in tears. Creation was made from nothing, and the moment it was treated as self-sufficient it quite honestly told us that it had been made from nothing; or, in C. S. Lewis' tragically accurate statement about our history in The Problem of Pain, we began "the whole terrible story of man trying to find something other than God that will make him happy."

As a result of the Fall, we now instinctively look to creation as if it were independently capable of making us happy. That is the Flesh. In order to correct that, we must have recourse to the Spirit; i.e., the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which the first two (in the traditional list of seven) are wisdom and understanding. These two gifts in particular grant us a supernatural perspective, founded in the truth about God and what He has made: they impress upon us that the real and final good we are seeking is God Himself, and that insofar as our pursuit of any other good thing is not directed toward Him, it will make us miserable rather than happy.

The Spirit therefore restores to us the essentially supernatural orientation of humanity. But in so doing, it restores human nature itself to a more natural condition. Take the matter of sex. Chesterton points out, I believe in The Everlasting Man, that about sex in particular men seem to be born mad, and they scarcely reach even sanity until they reach sanctity. Any human being left to pursue sex as his untutored instincts led him would, at best, subject himself to raucous and irresponsible excesses that might easily ruin not only his happiness but his health. Surrendering oneself to the Spirit, however, brings one to one of the two obviously sane approaches to sex: Matrimony, which is what all people everywhere have in some measure recognized as the norm and ideal of sexuality, and also happens to be a Catholic sacrament; or else celibacy -- which, though unpopular with the lascivious superstition of the West, has been recognized by nearly every religion and society as something that is peculiarly suitable to some persons, respectable, even laudable. In reordering us to the supernatural, the Spirit thus gives a natural order even to the natural; a natural order which, we know from experience, cannot sustain itself.

This reorientation of nature from the Spirit is specially set forth in the sacraments, and in none more than the Blessed Sacrament. The very normal human act of eating is transformed, sublimated, into the most intensely spiritual act we ever perform; and it is so transformed without at all ceasing to be the normal human act of eating. Nature is united to supernature. I have quoted before Lewis' passing remark in Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted in part to remind us that the customary mental division we make between the material and the spiritual is neither wholesome nor final. It is no coincidence that we often find ourselves tempted by the Flesh at the altar; it sense the Presence of its nemesis.

And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." But He answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Practice of Lent

Lent has come around again, the period of penitence and reflection that leads up to the fifty days of Easter. No meat on Fridays. Fasting. Almsgiving. The Stations of the Cross. What is it all for?

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them. "Can the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." -- Matt. 9.14-15

Fasting is one of the oldest religious practices of all humanity. It is interesting that, as with sacrifice, the practice is taken into the Abrahamic tradition without question; there is no direct discussion of its purpose -- it is simply part of the assumed nature of religious practice. There are directions on what to do when fasting, or accounts of people being called to a fast, but no reasoned explanation of the practice.

This, American Christians typically find hard to stomach. We do not like the idea that an unexplained, opaque tradition can claim to dictate our behavior. We wish to reserve our consent to those things we understand; we want to know the whys and the wherefores, and to claim the right to dissent from those things that we do not believe in.

Unfortunately, though there is a noble impulse contained in this desire, there is another impulse which is ignoble in the extreme. To try to understand so as to avoid sin is one thing: I am by no means sure that the desire to avoid sin really animates our behavior here, however. Judging from my own examination of conscience, what calls itself independence or principle is very frequently only an ancient voice saying that I have the right to do whatever I please, or nothing if I like that better, that I will not be ordered around, that I will have an explanation so that I may be like God, knowing good and evil.

This illustrates the wisdom of the Church in mandating certain practices as a minimum for the Christian life -- what are called technically the precepts of the Church. This draws criticism occasionally from Protestants, and more frequently from heretical or lazy Catholics; but if we believe seriously that the Church is in any sense from God -- and, whether we accept the theory of Petrine primacy or not, Christ did certainly say that He would found the Church -- then it is not manifestly irrational to suppose that she has the right to discipline her members. This insistence on certain corporate practices, traditions we all observe in common, benefits us in a multitude of ways:

1) It gives us an opportunity to practice obedience. Jesus is recorded in John as saying, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." This theme of obedience as the sacramental manifestation of love is continually harped upon in all of the apostle's writings. And it makes sense. Even on a natural level, is anyone much impressed by a man who claims to love a woman, but consistently puts his own pleasures or his own ego before her desires? Obedience is the natural expression of love. What does this have to do with the Church? Well, the same Gospels that emphasize love record our Lord telling His apostles that anyone who received His word would also receive theirs. It is hypocrisy to claim to love Christ and at the same time pour contempt upon His Mystical Body, which Body, St Paul tells us, is the Church.

Indeed, the unexplained-ness of the traditions of the Catholic Church reminds us, not so much of her authority, as of the factual truth of the Christian religion. When something is a fact, you cannot argue with it; there is no good pleading that you want a simpler solar system or a more accessible geography; you have to take them, as they stand, or shut your eyes to them. G. K. Chesterton wisely drew out one of the most fascinating elements of the image of St Peter being given the keys of the kingdom. A key, he points out, is not a matter of abstraction or of argument. Susceptible to analysis and yet not to dispute, it is indeed complex; the only simple thing about it is that it opens the door.

2) It puts us in touch with the wisdom of the whole Church. Related to this first point is the fact that submitting oneself to these traditions is, literally, following the practice of most Christians (Catholic or otherwise) who have ever lived. These practices were not chosen arbitrarily. In adopting them -- better, in allowing ourselves to be adopted by them -- we are recognizing the wisdom of someone other than ourselves; which, after the first shock, is a refreshing exercise.

3) It sets forth to the World the unity and universality of the Faith. We say, whenever we recite the Creed, that we believe in one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. The oneness and the catholicity of the Church are witnessed to the world every time we abstain from meat on Friday or observe the law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are saying wordlessly, through these actions, that we are part of a people with an identity that is not drawn from this world, but from another world altogether. Though mortifications may be difficult, they are anything but dull, however dully they may be kept by some; they have, could we but see it, all the thrill of rebellion. They particularize our refusal to be ruled by the Flesh at the behest of the World. They do this far more, not less, when we keep them as members of the faith, in union with countless brethren spread throughout space and time, rather than on our own initiative; for anybody can follow his own desires. The elevation of private devotions over public ones as being worthier, because they spring from personal fervor rather than blind submission to authority, is based on a caricature of reality. It has no grounding in the Scriptures (take a look at the ancient Israelite calendar some time), and it smacks of Gnosticism more than Christianity.

But what does fasting do, exactly? Why was it taken into the Jewish tradition in the first place, and thence inherited by Christians? Again, there are several answers.

1) It asserts the spirit's dominance of the body. This, while in some ways one of the less important aspects of a fast, is one of the most obvious. The body -- not to be confused with the Flesh in the Pauline-Johannine sense, that is, our inner selfish nature -- wants things that make it feel good, like a child. Body and soul alike benefit from the reminder that it is the soul that has the right to authority in the person, and both suffer when this authority is never asserted; just as spoiling a child damages the parents, too.

2) It sacramentalizes our repentance and mourning. Passing to Scripture, this is the meaning we see fasting most consistently associated with. As we see in the passage from Matthew above, and frequently in the Old Testament when kings or prophets call for a fast or go into mourning because the whole nation needs to turn back to God, it is assumed that this will be an expression of the heart's movement to the Lord. (Not, note well, an expression of emotion. If anything, it is likelier to order and strengthen the emotions than they are likely to sort fasting out properly.) But when the heart moves, the body should move also, for we are not ghosts in machines but a single whole, a body-and-soul complex. C. S. Lewis says in his novel Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted partly as a reminder that the division we draw between the body and the spirit is neither wholesome nor final. Fasting allows the body to participate in our penitence; and, as Jesus suggests in Matthew, in our remembrance of that great day when the Bridegroom was taken away from us for a time.

3) It brings about a confrontation with the False Self. Why precisely fasting does this, I do not know; though it should be said that it does not do it automatically, but only according to the spirit with which we enter our fast. If we enter it inattentively, and merely on the grounds that the Catholic Church has bound us to fast, we will glean but a little benefit; if we enter it with a desire to show off, whether to others or ourselves, we are already whited sepulchers, empty perhaps of food but full of dead men's bones. But if we enter it humbly, accepting the practice of the Church and trying to allow God to work in us through that medium, we will learn a surprising amount about ourselves, and particularly about the False Self.

Why do I say "the False Self"? To distinguish it from the ordinary confrontation with fleshly desires. Crankiness, for instance, seems to be a catholic experience among Catholics when we fast. This is natural; when the body is refused its habitual pleasures, it goes into hysterics; the Flesh neither knows nor cares what our larger goals are, but simply wants to get what it likes. But all of this lies in the realm of the natural conflict between the Spirit and the Flesh. When we speak of the False Self, we are dealing not with bodily but with spiritual realities. It must always be remembered that our identity in Christ is our real identity, even though it may be less familiar than the identity we lived in before our conversion (whether that conversion was to a newfound faith or to an intentional practice of what we once took for granted). That second identity is the False Self.

This is not necessarily a malicious or vulgar identity; it may, indeed, be very self-disciplined, even very moral -- even, in a sense, very religious. It is, in a way, the Devil: the temptation, not of wicked self-indulgence, the Flesh, nor of a wicked acceptance of the corrupt systems of the World; rather, it is a wicked spirituality. Chesterton's phrase, "things of that extreme evil that they seem innocent to the innocent," is very fitting. Fasting, for whatever reason, seems to awaken the False Self. As for its identifying marks, they are probably unique to each person; provided that we stick like limpets to prayer, I dare say we will know it when we see it.

I wish I could say that there were some dramatic and decisive way of defeating the False Self. Possibly there is, but if there is I do not know anything about it. The only ways I know of dealing with the False Self are the same ways that every sin and tendency to sin is dealt with: Confession, Communion, prayer, spiritual direction, studying Scripture, brotherly fellowship, tithing, Eucharistic Adoration, examination of conscience, the Rosary. Do this and you will live.