04 June 2008

Do not fear death

St. Peter of Verona, OP: 2 Tim 2.3-13 and Luke 12.4-9
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

What do you think the Church is trying to tell us by giving us three martyrs’ feasts in a row? Marcellinus and Peter, Charles and his Companions, and now the Dominican, Peter of Verona. After all, isn’t this the “lean, mean green season”?! Beside showing us how to make the sacristan’s life a little easier, what is the Church teaching us by parading before us in the Eucharist the sacrificial deaths of so many men and women? Yes, the faith is worth dying for. Yes, we might be called upon to make the ultimate witness for Christ. Yes, our blood, if spilled while proclaiming the Gospel against it detractors will be the seed of a greater Church. But perhaps more subtly, the Church is teaching us the proper relationship between the body and soul, the flesh and the spirit. Perhaps we are being asked to remember that our bodies are not only temples of the Spirit, but they are also essential in understanding ourselves as persons, that is, as deliberative creatures moved by intellect and will. The gift of a body is the gift of time and space, a grace enfleshed that provides us with a way of abiding now in the Spirit so that we might have one opportunity after another—here and now—to will with the will of the Father and to come to Him body and soul on the last day.

So important is the body to our spirituality that Jesus has to remind us that we need not fear the death of the body: “I say to you who are my friends: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and can do no more.” We might read this to mean that the body is unimportant to our spiritual growth; however, the exact opposite is true. Jesus goes on to note that we need not fear those who can kill us because the One Who made us never neglects us: “In very truth, even the hairs on your head are counted.” Though your body may be killed now, you—body and soul—will come to live with God after the resurrection. Not just your soul, not just your body but YOU—body and soul, spirit enfleshed.

The Dominicans were founded by St. Dominic to fight against the Albigensian heresy infesting southern France in the 13th century. Essentially, the Cathars held and taught that the body is an anchor in the world, a rotting corpse holding the soul captive. By starving themselves and engaging in painful, often torturous acts of asceticism, these folks believed that they were freeing the soul to soar to God! St. Dominic argued forcefully with these heretics and convinced some of them that God’s creation is essentially good, that the body is not only fundamentally good but absolutely necessary in coming to spiritual perfection. An ascetic practice (e.g. fasting) is properly understood as means of achieving rational control of the passions not as a way of punishing the body for sin. After all, isn’t the soul implicated in sin as well? Merely causing oneself bodily pain is not in itself a healthy spiritual practice.

So, what is Jesus worried about in today’s Gospel? At the very least, he is worried that we might flinch in the face of martyrdom, fearing the death of the body and allowing that fear to overwhelm his commandment to love, overwhelming his commandment to us to love others by witnessing to God’s mercy. Instead, he tells us to refocus our fear and fear more the one who can cast us into Gehenna for our unfaithfulness: acknowledge him before men and he will acknowledge us before God, fail to acknowledge him and he will say, “I never knew you.” The martyrs we have celebrated these past three days acknowledged him before men to their deaths, the deaths of their bodies, not a final death but merely a temporary end to their time in this world.

I said earlier that our bodies provide us with our best chance of growing in holiness because the possession of a body grants us the time and space we need to learn how to cooperate with God’s grace, the gifts He gives us to grow in holiness. We are not angels, pure spirit, fixed at creation in the divine perfection. We are men, body and soul, in need of instruction and patience, in need of a holy fear, a sense of wonder and awe at what we have been given. When we turn ourselves—bodies and souls—to the One Who made us to love Him, we see that we are not neglected, never forgotten, always in His presence, even in death, until we come to Him whole and perfected on the last day.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:03 PM

    So true, and I think that the inherent weakness of our bodies teach us humility and patience - and these virtues are needed for holiness.