Glorify God with your Body

Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, April 1999 / first lecture by Bishop Kallistos

Sacraments of Healing: In April 1999, at the end of Bright Week, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia led a retreat for members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Our host was the parish of St. Etienne and St. Germain in the village of Vezelay, France. This is the first of six lectures. Bishop Kallistos is Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and leads the Greek parish in the same city. His books include The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way.

First let me apologize for arriving late. I missed my train at the Gare de Lyon, and then I got on the wrong train, one that wasn’t going to stop at La Roch-Migennes but was going to Dijon. They stopped in La Roch-Migennes especially for me. That’s the first time I’ve had that experience. I am thinking in very high terms of the French railway. I can’t imagine the British railways making an unscheduled stop.

Our theme in our time together here at Vezelay is Sacraments of Healing. Please think of the word sacrament and what it signifies. Saint Nicholas Cabasilas says, “It is the sacraments that constitute our life in Christ.” Let us this weekend root our thinking in the sacraments. Saint Nicholas Cabasilas also called the sacraments “windows into this dark world.”

Yes, it is a dark world. I am sure for all of us present that our celebration of Pascha has been overshadowed by the immense human tragedy in Kosovo. I recall how the bombing commenced on the feast on the Annunciation, according to the new calendar. It continued throughout the Holy Week and Pascha and there is no sign of it ending. We think of all the refugees. How many people’s lives have been utterly wrecked?

But though we live in a dark world, there are windows into it. Let us remember the Greek term for sacrament — mysterion, mystery. This has a whole range of associations that the Latin word sacramentum doesn’t have. A mystery, in the true religious sense, is not simply an enigma, an unexplained problem. A mystery is something which is revealed for our understanding, yet never totally revealed because it reaches into the infinity of God. The mystery of all mysteries is the incarnation of Christ; therefore all other sacraments of the church are founded upon that.

The second word in my title which we shall need to keep in mind during these days is healing — Sacraments of Healing. Healing means wholeness. I am broken and fragmented. Healing means a recovery of unity. Let us each think that I cannot bring peace and unity to the world unless I am at peace and unity with myself. “Acquire the spirit of peace,” says Saint Seraphim of Sarov, “and thousands around you will find salvation.” If I don’t have the spirit of peace within myself, if I am inwardly divided, I shall spread that division around me to others. Great divisions in the world between nations and states spring from many divisions within the human heart of each one of us.

Tonight I want to start with the human person. How I am to understand my unity as a person? What models do I have when I think of the healing of my total self?

I would like to share with you a patristic model, a recurrent model in the Fathers that can be summed up in the words microcosm and mediate. Human beings are a complex unity. My personhood is a single whole, but a whole that embraces many aspects. As humans we stand at the center and crossroads of the creation. Saint John Chrysostom thinks of the human person as bridge and bond. In a Sufi phrase quoted by Pico della Mirandola, the human person is “the marriage song of the world.” Each of us then, is a little universe, a microcosm, each of us is imago mundi — an icon of the world. Each reflects within herself or himself the manifold diversity of the created order. This was a recurrent theme in various pagan authors and was taken over by the early Fathers.

“Understand,” says Origen, “that you have within yourself on a small scale a second universe. Within you there is a sun, there is a moon, there are also stars.” This theme is developed in a celebrated passage by Saint Gregory Nazianzen, the Theologian. In his 38th Oration, he distinguishes the two main levels of the created order. On one hand, there is the spiritual or invisible order, on the other there is the material or physical order. Angels belong only to the first order. They are bodiless, spiritual beings. In Saint Gregory’s view, animals belong to the second order — the material and physical. You, uniquely in God’s creation, exist on both levels at once. Anthropos, man, the human person alone, has a twofold nature, both material and spiritual. Saint Gregory goes on to speak of ourselves as earthly yet heavenly, temporal yet immortal, visible yet intelligible, midway between majesty and lowliness, one selfsame being yet both spirit and flesh. Wishing to form a single creature from two levels of creation from both visible and invisible nature, says Gregory, the Creator Logos fashioned the human person. Taking a body from matter that He has previously created and placing in it the breath of life that comes from himself, which scripture terms the intelligent soul and the image of God, He formed anthropos, the human person, as a second universe — a great universe in a little one.

Now because we stand in this way on the crossroads of creation, because each of us, in the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor, is a laboratory or workshop that contains everything in a most comprehensive fashion, we have a special vocation, and that is to mediate and to unify. Standing at the crossroads, earthly yet heavenly, body yet soul, our human vocation is to reconcile and harmonize the differing levels of reality in which we participate. Our vocation is to spiritualize the material, without thereby dematerializing it. That is why reconciliation and peace are such a fundamental aspect of our personhood.

But having said that humans are a microcosmic image of the world, we have not yet said the most important thing. The most important thing about our personhood it is not that we are an image of the world but it is that we are created in the image of God. We are a created expression of God’s infinite and uncreated self-expression. Indeed Saint Gregory of Nyssa even cast scorn on the idea of a human being as the image of the world, as a microcosm. This, he says, is to glorify humans with the characteristics of the gnat and the flea. No, he says, our true glory is that we are in God’s image, that we reflect the divine. Saint Maximus the Confessor develops this by saying that we are called not only to unify the different levels of the created order, but we are also called to join earth and heaven and to unite the created and the uncreated.

So, made in the divine image each of us is not only microcosmos, but microtheos, a phrase used by Nicholas Berdyaev. We are not only imago mundi but also imago dei — image of God. These are our two vocations — not just to unify the creation, but to offer creation back to God. As king and priest of creation formed to the image of God, the human person offers the world back to God and so transfigures it.

Now, you may have noticed that when I quoted Gregory Nazianzen, I said God formed the human person as a second universe, a great universe in a little one. But perhaps you thought, “He’s got it the wrong way around, this person who persuaded the French railways to make an unscheduled stop. This triumph over the railway has gone to his head!”

But, in fact that is what Gregory said. The great universe is not the world around us, not the galaxy light years away from us. The great universe is the inner space of the heart. This is what Gregory said. We are not so much microcosmos as megalocosmos. Incomparably greater than the outside universe is the depth within each human heart.

Our vocation is not just to unify but also as microtheos, as image of God, it’s our task to render the world transparent — diaphanic, or rather theophanic — to make God’s presence shine through it.

Now if we have that kind of ideal of human personhood, what practical consequences does this have? The inner logic of the model we have been exploring surely requires a holistic view of the human person. We cannot fulfill our vocation as bridge builders, as unifiers, as cosmic priests, unless we see our own selves as a single undivided whole. More specifically, we can act as bond and mediator within the creation, rendering the material spiritual only if we see our body as an essential part of our selves, only if we view our personhood as an integral unity of body and soul. Severing our links with the material environment, we cease to mediate.

Here at once we see the very grave spiritual implications of the present pollution of the environment, what we humans are doing toward the cosmic temple which God has given us to dwell in. The fact that we are degrading the world around us in a very alarming manner shows a terrifying failure to realize our vocation as mediators. So we need, if we are to be truly human, to come to terms with our own body — with its rhythm, its mysteries, its dreams — and through our body then to come to terms with the material world.

Let’s think for a little about the way in which we can and should be using our body, and let’s think about how we use our bodies in worship. Christianity is a liturgical religion. Worship comes first, doctrine and moral rules come afterwards. Surely it is one of the strengths of our Orthodox Church that we still attach immense importance to symbolical action involving our body and material things. All too often in the western world people have lost the power of symbolical thinking — not entirely, but quite frequently. It is surely a deep impoverishment.

I would plead that as Orthodox Christians we shouldn’t allow ourselves to diminish the value of symbols or lose the participation of our bodies in worship. Sadly, one finds examples of such a loss. I was in US last month and enjoyed that visit very much, but was saddened to see that many Orthodox churches have been taken over by pews. Have you reflected on the horrid effect that pews have on worship? People in pews can no longer make prostrations or even make deep bows. They just stand or sit and thus become an audience instead of active participants. In a pew it is not easy to make a proper sign of the cross with a deep bow. Now you might say that this is not so important and that pews are there for convenience and that people today just can’t stand up for very long. But traditionally the Church has provided stalls and benches on the sides or a few chairs here and there. Those who need to sit can then come forward to make prostrations. But our tradition is not one of neat rows.

Let us also take care not to diminish our Orthodox tradition of fasting. Fasting is one way in which the body participates in prayer. Fasting is not simply the observation of certain rigid rules and dietary restrictions. The real purpose of fasting is the renewal of prayer and of our personal relationship with God and our fellow humans. To fast and simply become ill-humored defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. “What is the purpose of not eating meat,” asks Saint Basil, “if instead you devour your brother or sister?” Through fasting, through learning to do without certain foods you take for granted, through eating more simply, we renew the participation of our bodies. The body is the messenger of the soul. The purpose of fasting is to give us freedom for prayer. Lent is a school of freedom, a season freeing us from dependence on physical power. Indeed through fasting we are able to see the beauty and wonder of the food that we eat. Fasting helps us not to take food for granted.

Consider too the physical aspect of baptism, the act of immersion in water. Let us not diminish the materiality of this sacramental sign. Baptism should involve the whole body. It should represent drowning — a “joyous, devout drenching,” in Philip Larkin’s phrase.

And let us not diminish the fact that we use bread and wine in the Eucharist.

Let us renew for ourselves an understanding of the sacramental value of oil in relation to healing. This may be difficult for those coming from cultures in which olive oil is not part of daily life, as opposed to those who live in the Mediterranean. When I travel down to France and see the first olive tree, my spirit rises! I like the use of oil in our vigil service on Saturday evenings. No pilgrimage is complete unless you are anointed with oil from the lamps at the shrine. Surely we should anoint the sick with oil more than once a year, during Holy Week.

I value very much the gesture of the laying on of hands. We see this in ordination but also in our Orthodox practice of confession. The priest confers forgiveness not from a distance but by placing his stole over the penitent and then lays his hands on the penitent’s head. This is an ancient gesture associated with healing found frequently in the New Testament.

In the early period, the seventh and eighth centuries, we have evidence that this gesture took a reverse form. At the moment of absolution, the person making confession put his hands on the neck of the priest, symbolizing that the burden was being taken away, now being carried on the shoulders of another. The priest took it on himself. It’s a very serious thing to hear people’s confessions!

Another way in which the body has been diminished in western Orthodox practice in some places can be seen in modern funeral customs. When I am to preside at a funeral, I am sometimes asked not to have an open coffin. There is to be no last kiss. They prefer to see the body at the funeral parlor — not a very liturgical place! I’ve been told, “We couldn’t do that, it would be too frightening for the children.” Something has gone terribly wrong in our understanding of death if we find the body of a person whom we have loved to be somehow repellant and frightening. Surely the dead body of someone whom we love is not to be hidden away in those final hours before burial as something causing distress and disgust. Surely we should surround the dead body with love. I’m sure that children will not be frightened if our Orthodox funeral customs are properly explained. The practice of kissing the dead body is extremely ancient. We find it mentioned at least as early as the year 500 in the writings of the Dionysios the Aerogopite, and perhaps the custom is far more ancient than that.

So in all these ways and many others, let us give full value to our material bodies and their part in worship. “The body is divinized along with the soul,” says Saint Maximus the Confessor. “The flesh also is transformed,” says Saint Gregory Palamas. “It is raised on high together with the soul and together with the soul it enjoys communion with God becoming his domain and dwelling place.” “In the age to come,” adds Palamas, “the body will share with the soul ineffable blessings.”

Clearly the body must share in these blessings, as far as possible, here and now.

Of the great neo-Platonist philosopher, Plotinus, it is said by his biographer Porphyry that he “was ashamed of being in the body and did not want anybody to celebrate his birthday.” The occasion of his being born into this world in a body was, for him, a cause of lamentation rather than joy. He wouldn’t let anyone paint his portrait. “My appearance,” he said, “is not important.”

But this is not the Christian attitude. I am my body and my body is me. The body is to be transfigured along with the soul. Divine grace is to be shown in and through our bodies.

In the University of London there used to be a professor of the philosophy of religion, H.G. Lewis, not to be confused with C.S. Lewis, who was much inclined, in a Platonist manner, to emphasize the contrast between body and soul. His students used to say of him that “he didn’t go for a walk but rather that he took his body for a walk.”

This is not the true Christian view. We are not a ghost in a machine but, on the contrary, we are called to glorify God with our body. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” writes Saint Paul (1 Cor 6:19-20). In Romans 12 he says, “Offer your body as a living sacrifice to God.” In the words of the great prophet William Blake, “Man has no body distinct from his soul, for that called ‘body’ is the portion of the soul discerned by the five senses.”

Let me add one more comment. Our human personhood is a mystery. We do not fully understand our own selves. Sophocles observed in Antigone, “There are many strange things and none stranger than the human person.” Not just in our theology do we need an apophatic dimension, but we need it also in our anthropology.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa gives a specific reason for the fact that we do not understand ourselves. He connects it with the truth that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and the image, he says, is only truly such insofar as it expresses the attributes of the archetype. One of the characteristics of the Godhead is to be in its essence beyond our understanding. The human person is a created icon of the uncreated God, and since God is incomprehensible, so is the human person.

So I ask you this evening to renew in your hearts your sense of wonder before the mystery of your own personhood. As it says in Psalm 138: “I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.”

This text may not be reproduced without permission of Bishop Kallistos. The transcription was made by Christine Nelson and Jim and Nancy Forest.

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