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Humans Really Are Odd Beings

Adam and Eve really did have it easy.  They were so comfortable in their human skin.  More to the point, they were comfortable in their human skin which had a spiritual soul.  This did not seem odd or cause them any kind of dilemma, stress, or confusion.  They were created to be perfectly at ease living, as it were, with each leg in a different world, material and spiritual, temporal and eternal.

It’s not so easy for us.  Since Adam and Eve lost that natural ease of combining two different realms of existence in one human being, life for us humans has become decidedly more complex.

This difficulty we struggle with struck me anew as I was reading Christopher Dawson’s book, The Dividing of Christendom.  It’s an account of what happened in Europe leading up to, including, and after the Reformation.  What struck me most forcefully were not the Reformation itself and all its consequences.  What struck me was the struggle the Catholic Church had with the world.

St. John has some critical things to say about the world:

Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world (1 Jn 2:15-16).

Reading the history of the Church in the latter Middle Ages, it is difficult not to notice that many people in the Church, from popes to peasants, were ensnared by these three sins St. John lists.  And, yes, who of us does not struggle with these temptations even today?  It is said that we should be in the world but not of it.  That’s easier said than done, don’t you find?

The trouble is we are made of the same stuff as the world is made.  We are material beings as well as spiritual beings and we rely on material things for our very existence.  We have to go out into that world to make a living.  The temptation is to go to either extreme, to buy into the material world for all we are worth, or to see everything material in the world as evil.

Clearly, St. John did not mean that the material world was evil, for God created the world and declared it was good.  Anything God creates must be good.  So the key word must be “love.”  “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”  This doesn’t mean we can’t take pleasure in the things of this world, because God created us to be able to experience pleasure in His creation, nor does it mean we can’t desire them, because this too is natural to us as God created us.

What it does mean is that we can’t desire material things or pleasure more than we desire God, we can’t have an inordinate (out of the proper order) desire for things or pleasure.  God calls us to be detached from the material world, to be willing to give up anything for Him.  But this is a delicate dance for most human beings.  We are dependent upon the material world, and yet we are not to be attached to it.  That is difficult.  For one thing, we are “attached” by the very fact that we are material.  As a silly example, I am literally attached to the earth by gravity.  I am also attached to food in order to live.  The key is that our hearts are not to be attached.

This brings us back to the word “love.”  We usually think of love as a thing of the heart, and so it is in this case.  If we “love the things of this world,” we have given our hearts to them, and our hearts should be given ultimately to God, not purely material creations or pleasures.

Going back to Dawson’s book, it struck me that just as I struggle between living a material existence and a spiritual existence, so does the Church, not just in the Middle Ages but in all ages.  She too must live in the world without being of the world.  Of course, the Mystical Body of Christ is spiritual, but the Body of Christ is also material.  We see it at every Mass.  We also see it in the Church, that organization made up of people.  We can make either of two mistakes by either over focusing on the spiritual side of the Church, as if that was all there was to “Church,” or by focusing too much on the material side.

One of the beauties of the Catholic Church is that she does embrace God’s material creation as something good.  She uses art, music, and architecture, not as if they were necessary evils, but in their full, material beauty and goodness.  She also uses the material world in her sacraments, rituals, and liturgy.  She combines the two worlds of material creation and spirit, but it is a delicate dance for her too.

This dance became quite a great struggle during the Middle Ages, as Christopher Dawson points out.  The Church’s partner, either the state or some ruling prince, was often a very aggressive partner, wanting to control the whole dance.  For her part, sometimes the Church was too willing a partner or tried to control the whole dance herself.

The Church has learned from that experience, but the dance must still go on.  The dangers are still there, both from nations where the Church is still seen as something to be controlled, and on the part of Church faithful where there is an over emphasis on the material side of her nature.

The size of a congregation or the size of the actual church does not indicate how holy it is.  The world measures success, God measures holiness.  The human desire to better things can become troublesome.  We want better evangelization, better choirs, better administration of parishes and dioceses, better homilies, better social services, better churches and grounds, better schools.  But what is better?  Does it mean holier?  The Church, after all, is meant to be the means of our holiness.

While holiness might not require material resources, evangelization and the life of the Church do.  The Church too lives with a leg in both worlds.  What a mystery.  Why did God design it like this?  I don’t know, but I think it is beautiful that God has made His Church to resemble our condition so closely.  And it only makes sense, because the Church is the Body of His Son, and he asked His Son to share our predicament — the predicament that was not God’s creation, but was brought about through sin.  And the Son did, because He loves us odd beings.

(© 2011 Pat Gillespie)


Pat Gillespie is a retired teacher who loves reading, thinking and writing about the Catholic Faith. He lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia with his wife Lynda.
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  • This article makes me think of the 80’s fantasy flick “Ladyhawke” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer. The story is that the two are lovers whose relationship is secret until it is revealed to an evil Bishop by a priest breaking the seal of the confessional. The Bishop becomes insanely jealous, because he desires Pfeiffer’s character too, and inflicts a curse on the lovers so that they cannot have each other, either. Each day at sunrise, Pfeiffer is transformed into a hawk, and at sunset, Hauer changes into a black wolf.

    The story, which I am told is based on a medieval legend, says a lot about the medievals’ appreciation of the sacramental power of the priesthood. The bishop’s power is so real that a curse from him can actually change the physical forms of his victims. While this element of the story is clearly fantastic, how many moderns really believe in the power of the priest to make real changes, either by imparting a permanent character to the spirits of human beings (through Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination), or by changing the bread and wine into the Eucharist?

    The movie also portrays a keen sense of the humanity of the cursed couple. In a beautiful scene toward the end of the film, the sun is rising as Pfeiffer lays on the ground next to the wolf. The light first touches the wolf, and he is transformed into her lover; she reaches out to him and tries to touch him, but before she can, the sun touches her and she is transformed into the hawk. The scene conveys a heartbreaking sense of loss as well as the “already-but-not-yet” sense of the glory of our lives, with Heaven already present to us by faith but still unreachable until the day we come to our consummation.

    In the end of the movie, Pfeiffer and Hauer are restored to their usual selves and go on to live a happy life, presumably comfortable in their own skins. I would think that, for the rest of their lives, they would also have had a powerful sense of the transcendent mystery of our existence. And if you haven’t seen Ladyhawke in a few years, renting it is a good way to spend a couple bucks.