In today’s Gospel Reading from Mass, we hear the Lord Jesus say, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
The passage is one of a few central portions of the Bible that have inspired and sustained various ascetical disciplines and penitential practices in the life of the Church. With this in mind, maybe it’s worth diving into the thinking and theology of such self-abnegation. What is this all about?
Is the Christian view of the human body consistent with the various neo-sects that see it as a necessary evil, or as raw material for manipulation and mistreatment? As Christians, do we seek a flight from the body, believing it to be nothing of particular value?
It appears Saint Paul dabbled in such negative views of the body. Or did he?
In his writings, the saint describes the battle between the spirit and the flesh. It seems pretty straight forward. In such a view, the body weighs down the soul and the soul needs liberation from the body. As such, the two wage war. But is that what Saint Paul was talking about?
The Lord Jesus tells us that the most dangerous things are those that are born from the soul. If we take this teaching at face value, it would seem that the body is the victim in a war between the spirit and the flesh. But this doesn’t seem right either.
Well, linguistics and cultural understandings of the day help us to add some clarity to the teachings of Saint Paul. The belated apostle saw the body and soul as existing within our personhood. They are both good, but both are fallen. And both can cooperate with grace for redemption.
As such, body and soul rise or fall together. The complementarity of the two is not where the battle exists. The place of the real battle, and the place for ascetical practices in opening us up to the workings of grace, is between “the flesh” and the spirit.
When placed with the article “the,” the flesh takes on a different and broader biblical definition. The flesh, in this context, is not synonymous with the body. Rather, it’s the term that’s used for dis-ordered and wayward desires. The flesh is the drive within us to do what we know is wrong or misplaced. The flesh could involve sexuality, but also power, jealousy, anger, and greed.
With this understanding, what are we to make of the numerous ascetics of the Christian faith? For example, what are we to make of Benedict’s horarium or Francis of Assisi’s radical poverty or Ignatius of Loyola’s indifference? Does John of the Cross summarize the authentic human view when he wrote that we are to deprive ourselves of the “gratification of the appetite in all things,” giving up all the delights of hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting and touching, with the result of finding ourselves in a “darkness and void”?
In response, the Christian tradition would explain that such disciplines of the body are not seen as ends in themselves, but rather as acts directed toward both the body and the soul. As complementary portions of our personhood, ascetical disciplines directed at the body are intended to realign, mature, and channel both the body and soul toward positive growth in goodness and beauty. The practices are meant for both the body and soul as they mutually fight against “the flesh.”
The purpose of Christian asceticism, therefore, is an integration of the various dimensions of our personhood into a well-balanced being, so that each dimension of our personhood can become what it was created to be and assist us in living a full and abundant life.
This is the reason for the call of the Lord Jesus to pick up and carry our cross. It is the cross, our dying to the flesh within us, that allows us to flourish as human beings, grow deeper in virtue, and thrive as the children of God.
The cross is central to our redemption from darkness. It is for this reason that Pope Francis encouraged us all: “It will be good if today, when we go home, we would take 5, 10, 15 minutes in front of the crucifix, either the one we have in our house or on the rosary: look at it, it is our sign of defeat, it provokes persecutions, it destroys us; it is also our sign of victory because it is where God was victorious.”