As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.
Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.
The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]
C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):
“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
It was no different within the earthly realm: a stream was also a naiad, and a tree was also a dryad.
Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:
- Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
- Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
- Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).
This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]
Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.
Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.
One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]
Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).
To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.
To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.
Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.
From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.
Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.
Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.
Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.
In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.
At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.
St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).
Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).
Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):
There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!
Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!
Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.
To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:
Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. [The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 15.32]
Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:
Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the ﬂaming of creation
Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:
Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?
There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matter—from galaxies to nuclei—to love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.
We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.
When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.
Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:
- The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
- Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
- I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.