Harrowing Of Hell
January 14, 2018

Overcoming the Tyranny of the Body

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr

We just returned from the Holy Land on Wednesday.  It was just a great trip. The group was amazing. This is the fourth pilgrimage I have lead from Epiphany, and I can honestly say each group I’ve been with has been mature, connected, and profound. This group was no different, and this group, like just every group I’ve taken, was no different in that they had some last-minute reservations about going.  Safety was the issue.

There is always some safety issue that crops up that makes Israel look more dangerous than it is.  This time it had to do with the President’s decision to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem.  There were some protests, some tires were burned, and some rocks thrown, but by the time we arrived it had died down.

Bodily safety is a natural concern.  No one wants to get hurt.  But being in Israel doesn’t put a person at any greater bodily risk than being in New York City, or Paris, or swimming in the ocean off the beaches in Cabo, or walking through Pioneer Square.

But putting your body in the Holy Land does put you at risk of something else…  Rowan Williams in his book Where God Happens, reminds us that our body is the only means by which our souls can be saved.  Think about that.  It is provocative: Only the body can save the soul. Williams writes: “It sounds rather shocking put like that, but the point is that the soul left to itself, the inner life or whatever you want to call it, is not capable of transforming itself.  It needs the gifts that only the external life can deliver to be transformed” (115-116).  And so, only the body can save the soul. Pilgrimage facilitates this transformation, incidentally, but we’ll get to that later.

First, I’d like to talk about Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians we hear today.  Paul is a master spiritual director, and in this piece of writing he explains how the body becomes a tyrant when it is set at the center of a person’s life.  The body can be like Jabba the Hutt, an insatiable, greedy, self-centered, demanding little guy that we meet in whatever craving surfaces at any given moment…like: sugar, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, TV, video games, junk food… “Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine,” Jabba shouts, as we reach for our cellphoneto check something, anything, just for the hit.

Not every body-centric life looks like Jabba.  Sometimes it looks like the obsessive gym rat who carves and sculpts his body; Sometimes it looks like the guy who indulges every sexual urge by trolling the Internet; Sometimes it looks like the overindulgent pampering person in perpetual pursuit of spas, massages, and ointments.

We also fret over our bodies, carting them off to the doctor at the first sign of a sniffle, ache, or pain.  And then we indulge our bodies with ice cream or new shoes as a “reward” for having behaved so well at the doctor’s office. We are a chronically body-centric culture.

Paul has a message for us:  The body is not the ends, it is a means to an ends.  The metaphor he uses is the temple. We don’t worship THE temple, we worship IN the temple.

In the same way, we don’t worship our body; we don’t make the bodies preferences the priorities and purposes of our life. The body, Paul notes, is given by God to house the soul.

Today I’d like to talk about this partnership between our body and our soul.

I’d like to do so in two ways:

  • I’d like to talk about the body’s habits and preferences;
  • I’d like to talk about how the soul seeks God through the body.

The body’s habits and preferences; and how the soul seeks God through the body: We begin by looking at the body. To understand the body, it is important to understand its desire for repetition and familiarity.  The body is sort of lazy. It doesn’t want to have to adjust or change or work too hard. So, the familiar is always the more compelling choice, because the body already knows what it needs to do, it already knows what is expected of it.

That is why we love our morning routines, don’t we? Getting up, putting on our slippers, drinking a glass of water, starting the coffee, going off to pray, drinking the coffee… or whatever your routine is… we love them, because they are easy on the body.

It is also why the body loves McDonalds.  McDonalds knows this.  They know the body loves repetition and familiarity. That is why when I’m traveling, and I see a McDonalds’ I’m like… let’s go!  We know a Big Mac will taste like a Big Mac.  Hotel chains know this as well, so do restaurant chains, and big box stores. Which is why every small town in America looks exactly the same.

The liturgical church also knows this. Yet, unlike commercial institutions that seek to make the body the central priority of a person life, so they can feed off us (like cattle); the church sees the body as the means by which we magnify the soul. The body is cared for by the repetition and familiarity of the liturgy, so the soul can commune with God. There is nothing wrong with this.  Knowing the body’s design function allows us to best align our body and our soul. It is important to remember, also, that the body and soul are on the same team, they are inextricably linked together.

The body is made to serve the soul, and it does so by being itself; by longing for repetition and familiarity, but as a means to an end on behalf of the soul. The soul, in turn, learns from the body, which brings us to my second point; how the soul seeks to commune with God through the body.

Here is how it happens; the body is always present in the moment.  It is never in the past, and it is never in the future. It is always perfectly situated in the present; in the here and now; which places it perfectly in the Kingdom of God.

And where the body is, the soul longs to be because that is where the soul meets God, not in the past, not in the future, only right here, right now.  The body provides the Kingdom of God location. The body provides the point on the map where the soul communes with God.

The spiritual exercises are designed to lead our souls, through the body, to this Kingdom of God point on the map. Let me give you an example by looking at one spiritual exercise: meditation.  When I meditate, I listen to my breaths.  The effort causes me to “get out of my head,” meaning it stops me from traveling to the past to relive issues, arguments, or events; and it also prevents me from flitting into the future, to imagined conversations, or achievements, or the like.

Counting breaths locates the soul in the body, so it can reside and rest in the Kingdom of God. Fasting and worship and prayer and study and walking the labyrinth do the same thing.  They are all vehicles through which our soul, by way of the body, meet on the Kingdom of God map. In this way, it is throughout the body, and our body alone, that salvation comes to our souls.

So how does pilgrimage fit into all of this? What a pilgrimage does is break all of the habits of the body, and by doing so reminds us that in the end, only real stability and constancy can be found in our unmovable, unchangeable God.  Pilgrimage breaks the habits of slippers and a cup of coffee by throwing us into entirely different patterns.

The Holy Land does this beautifully. It is a place that assaults the senses: the sights and sounds and smells and languages; the different time zone; the odd clothes, the strange liturgies, and foreign foods. With the body reeling the soul gets to whisper… trust God. You are safe.  You are loved.  God is with you.  Trust God.

That is why I believe pilgrimage is so important. It begins with trusting God with your body. The pilgrim going to the Holy Land must confront bodily safety issues, and then decide, in the face of limited, usually uninformed knowledge, to just go;to just trust God.

That is the beginning of the pilgrimage-when the body and soul override the body’s desire for familiarity and repetition, even in the face of perceived threats, and choose to trust God, and to just go.

The hope, ultimately, for our spiritual journey is to get to a place where we continually and perpetually trust God with each moment of our lives. And when this happens, body and soul co-locate on the kingdom of God map; together, present, right here, right now. And so, the body, as Rowan Williams writes, in this way, brings salvation to the soul.

I don’t know if the soul, after the body dies, continues to be formed and transformed. But here is what I do know; the clock is ticking on the body, and the body saves the soul, so if we are concerned about the health of our souls, then given the reality that our bodies have a limited shelf life, it might be worth spending some time considering the alignment of our bodies with our souls, and how they co-locate in the Kingdom of God.