We have reflected on the brokenness of the body in sickness and death and seen the challenges to understand these problems in a balanced manner. In these reflections we have seen an image of theology that can understand that while God provides healing and answers to prayer with our desire to be granted relief from our affliction, a simultaneous acceptance of our sufferings can still be part of the will of God for us particularly when our prayers for physical healing are not answered with that healing that is requested. With that in mind, how can we look more clearly at our sin apart from simplistic statements such as “this is God’s will”? Perhaps there is a solution that comes when we see our body broken as a theological vision.
To first understand our brokenness, we can look to our liturgical traditions that reflect on the healings from Scripture that we discussed in part one. As one example of this, it is important to note the hymns from our Byzantine tradition that are proper to some of the Sundays of Pascha. In the Sundays of the Paralytic and the Man Born Blind, we do not shy from the ugliness of sin and disease. Instead, we see them as portals into heaven, whereby we reflect upon our own spiritual weaknesses. On the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, we sing this: “With eyes that are spiritually blind, I come to You O Christ; and like the man who was blind since birth, I cry out to You with repentance: You are a light shining to those in Darkness”. Kontakion for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind
Here we see that our spiritual blindness is something that is common to all of us. We may be stricken with a broken body that is unable to physically see, but when we approach this Sunday in our liturgical calendar we all challenge ourselves to ask where we may be blind on the spiritual plane. What spiritual truths of goodness or even sin are something that we fail to see? What aspects of reality are we seeing as something that they are not, or perhaps in our spiritual myopia things afar off are hard to discern? Do we have spiritual far-sightedness and are some aspects of our spiritual vision most difficult to see clearly when they come close to us? Do we think that something is good but it is really bad for us, or vice versa? In seeking our spiritual healing from Christ the physician of souls and bodies we can grow by realizing the many ways that we can be blind on a spiritual level.
Similarly, on the Sunday of the Paralytic who was healed we pray: “O Lord, with your divine authority, as You once raised the paralytic, now raise my soul, paralyzed dreadfully with all kinds of sin and disgraceful deeds, that, being saved, I may cry out to You: Glory to Your merciful power: O merciful Christ.” Kontakion for the Sunday of the Paralytic.
Again as was the case with spiritual blindness, we may not be physically unable to walk as was the paralytic, or this may be exactly our physical condition. Spiritually, our theology of the body broken calls us to realize that we all have forms of spiritual paralysis regardless of our physical condition. We can therefore ask ourselves mystical questions such as: What movement should we be making that we are not making? What are we trying to accomplish that does not seem to happen despite our efforts? Here we can see a spiritual paralysis that needs healing from the same Divine Physician.
In speaking of the word body, it is also important that we think about another understanding of the body beyond our own personal bodies. After all, many times we as the Church are called the Body of Christ, with Christ being the head of the Church (e.g., Colossians 1:18). If the theology of the body broken helps us understand our own afflictions, does it also apply to the corporate body of our own parishes, particular Churches, and the entire Catholic Church?
Without entering the realm of a specific judgment or other forms of criticism, we can also apply the theology of the body broken to communities as well as to persons by asking some important questions. After all, if we are spiritually blind as a parish, we may all miss the importance of something that we fail to do or something that we see in an unclear manner. This may be liturgical, moral, or even a basic human element such as our ability to show hospitality. Are we spiritually blind when we as a whole group miss some spiritual truths? Are we spiritually paralyzed as a broader particular Church when we often fail to move throughout our communities as messengers of the Gospel? Does the broadest level of the Catholic Church manifest spiritual illnesses that need healing? Expanding beyond those two Sundays on our liturgical calendar, the theology of the body broken is a wide project which can extend to all of our brokenness, where each affliction or disease that manifests itself physically beyond blindness and paralysis is something that when understood rightly has a spiritual message to our personal or corporate state of affairs. Ultimately we may come to a point in the theology of the body broken where we understand what spiritual cancer is, as would be the case with spiritual arthritis, and beyond. This will not only expand our understanding of spiritual illnesses, it will also benefit how we evaluate ourselves in the journey to union with Christ. Instead of looking at our shortcomings as crimes, when we view them as illnesses we have at least two benefits. First, we can feel less ashamed, guilty or hopeless when we see our weaknesses as illnesses as opposed to treasonous transgressions. Our own suffering factors in to the equation, alongside our true sense of culpability. Second (and more importantly), our personal and corporate failings are things that do not need judgment or programs to fix a guilty or fallen down structure. We instead return once again to that beautiful image of Christ as our Divine Physician of Souls and Bodies.
There is one important qualification to our meditations on the theology of the body broken that is important for us to repeat at this juncture. We should not conclude that a person who is physically blind or paralyzed is somehow more spiritually blind or paralyzed than those who are not physically suffering with that condition. This also does not mean that if you suffer from these physical ailments or any others that you are some kind of example that must be placed in front of the eyes of all. Explaining exactly why sicknesses occur is asking too much of the mystery of life, which goes back to our scriptural studies in the first reflection. We instead see sickness as a mystery that must again be held in the dynamic of something that we seek and ask for healing as we simultaneously understand that the spiritual healing is what matters most. Nevertheless, when we read these hymns and think along this angle of the theology of the body broken, this is not a perspective that shies away from the imperfections of this world by only thinking on the spiritual plane. No, this is a perspective that sees the flaws and sadness brought about by our sin to be an occasion of eye-opening embrace of our fallenness, with the hope of moving beyond that fallenness. The paradox of understanding our weakness, God’s open arms that embrace us, and yet our admission that God is able to take us and mold us as clay in His merciful power that shines as a light in our Darkness answers our longing to be made both whole and loved at the same time. While not denigrating the importance of our flaws, there is something to this idea of acknowledging our own blindness, our own inability to walk, and our own position of illness. It is hope for the today when I am not all put together. We have such a long way to go in our journey to union with Christ, but even in our broken state of affairs, we can see a beautiful story that is being created after that ideal likeness that came to this earth to save us all. Thus, the theology of the body broken is a powerful vision to view our physical and spiritual weaknesses on the path where we are today and where we hope to be tomorrow.
Lastly, let us consider the end of our lives on a personal level, and ask if we are understanding death as linked to sin with the fullness of our tradition. At times we may read passages like Romans 6:23 and feel that death is merely a punishment from our God who is just and free from sin. There is truth to this image, but like all images of the divine we should be wary of missing the fullness of an image. In our Eastern Christian tradition our holy Father Gregory of Nyssa is among many who taught that we should not simply death as simply a punishment. In his Great Catechism he wrote: “Nevertheless one who regards only the dissolution of the body is greatly disturbed, and makes it a hardship that this life of ours should be dissolved by death; it is, he says, the extremity of evil that our being should be quenched by this condition of mortality. Let him, then, observe through this gloomy prospect the excess of the Divine benevolence.“ (The Great Catechism, VIII) The end of this quote is key to understand it fully. In considering our mortality, we see that our evil itself is quenched when we die. Yes, there is the dissolution of our body, but here we are not thinking of death as a destruction in a solely negative sense. Instead, we see here that our mortality is a way to quench and destroy our own evil. Thus, while sin is often considered a sickness, death is conversely a source of life in that our sinfulness can finally cease when we are united to Christ and we are freed from the sinful aspects of our bodily existence. This may sound paradoxical, but perhaps this paradox is precisely the solution. Perhaps we need to again consider our body broken in the light of who we are as the Body of Christ.
As mentioned in our reflection on the problem of suffering and death, our last scriptural example of someone who prayed and did not receive deliverance from death was Christ Himself. Being members of His body, understanding His own lack of deliverance is important, but even more important is to understand Christ’s death in its full context and significance. At the Mystical Supper, Christ proclaimed “this is my body which is broken for you”. (1 Corinthians 11:24) In our Byzantine Tradition, the Paschal Troparion triumphantly proclaims, “Christ is risen from the dead! By death he trampled death, and to those in the tombs He granted life!” Our understanding is that Christ’s death is life-giving precisely in its being a death. If we understand the theology of the body broken, there is an opportunity to see that our own deaths are likewise life giving.
From a very basic human level, a Christian death of the likes of which we pray for in the Divine Liturgy is one where our death can bring friends and family closer together. Many times the opposite may be the case, due (for example) to inheritance squabbles or discussions of how the funeral should be held. While the negative examples can be multiplied ad nauseum, we also can understand that if Christ’s body was broken to bring life, we can understand that our own ultimate breaking of our bodies can be life giving. The Christian example of one who is at peace with prayers being answered by God bringing spiritual but not physical healing may be an example that helps the skepticism in the hearts of others. The forgiveness that is extended in the midst of real pain and suffering can bring one to the foot of the cross where like Christ we can cry out, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Our own death can be a cause of thanksgiving (the root of the word for Eucharist is thanksgiving, after all) because in offering our lives we can show in the most radical way possible that God is worthy of all thanksgiving and praise at even the seemingly darkest moments of our lives. In the theology of the body broken, the most radical form of brokenness can be the most radical form of praise to God, when rightly understood. We have sought to navigate the pitfalls of simplistically analyzing sickness and death for the precise reason of seeing the good that can come in some of the most painful moments. Pitfalls of being overly simplistic about why we are suffering can very easily obscure the vision of our union with Christ in our lives. In contrast, when we can understand the theology of the body broken, we do not cease to pray for healing but we assent to the more mysterious and ultimately triumphant will of God. We see that our union with Christ is such that if He was not spared the cup of offering our lives, then we are called to do the same offering our bodies as a living sacrifice that is wholly acceptable to God, as the letter to the Romans states (Romans 12:1-2).
In conclusion, the theology of the body as understood by St. John Paul II had a very clear focus on the sacramentality of the body in marriage. But if we think of our bodies more broadly as he himself did in his last general audience which was quoted at the outset of these reflections, the problems of suffering and death open up another vista whereby we can understand the spiritual and physical significance of suffering and death. We have seen a balance of accepting our plight in life and imploring the Divine Physician for healing. We have navigated the spiritual significance of suffering of death without making those most directly involved mere signs, but instead real human figures on their journey to healing. The journey to healing is seen as most fundamentally culminating in union with Christ who Himself sought healing and was denied the physical healing of the sake of bringing out the life of the world. Our Byzantine Christine life of prayer resonated completely with this understanding on many levels. Therefore, on a very fundamental level, as Byzantine Christians who have reflected on the theology of the body broken, we are offered a life of prayer which sees God in all things, including our own very broken bodies. We revel in the magnificence of Christ, singing hymns of His victorious resurrection. And yet at the same time, we can look to our flaws and find God in those very flaws as well. It is our prayer that the theology of the body broken as explained here might be the start of a discussion on how the various physical afflictions speak to spiritual realities to understand sin and healing better. More importantly, our prayer is that the theology of the body broken be a vision that accompanies us all to our common destiny of losing our sinful nature and putting on the beautiful vision of divine union with Christ, who Himself was broken that we might have life and healing. Glory to Jesus Christ!