I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. (Job 29:15)
The Gospel lesson of John 9:1-38 tells us about Christ healing a man who had been born blind. We are also given in the healing miracles a chance to reflect on the nature of the human body and its relationship to the spiritual life. I happen to be reading Jean-Claude Larchet’s newly published THEOLOGY OF THE BODY and will quote a few passages that struck me as a powerful witness to the meaning of today’s Gospel lesson of Christ healing the blind man. Larchet writes:
“Without the soul, the body can accomplish nothing. Likewise the soul without the body, though for different reasons: the body needs the soul in order to live and move, whereas the soul needs the body in order to reveal itself, to express itself, and to act on the external world. For the body is the servant, the vehicle or instrument of the soul, essential to the exercise of its functions of relating to the world and manifesting its faculties in the conditions of the earthly existence. In this setting, all of the soul’s activities, insofar as they reveal themselves, can only exist through the body. Moreover, they remain unexpressed if the necessary bodily organs are unable to function properly. Such is the case with some illnesses that prevent these organs from expressing certain of the soul’s capacities, something for which they had naturally been ordered.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 18-19)
So it is that each of us is a composite of soul and body, neither of these two substances alone make a human – it is only their union which cause a human being to come into existence. Both are necessary for each of us to be fully human; neither substance can act alone without the other. Whatever affects one affects the other. Sin whether originating in the will or the body affects the whole human, body and soul. And as Larchet notes when illness affects any part of the body, the soul’s capacities are denigrated. Without the body’s physical eyes to see, the soul’s ability to navigate in the world is also affected, suffering limitation. And so when Christ heals the man born blind, He is restoring or recreating the man’s full humanity – gifting this man so that his soul can fully experience the abundant life of grace.
In the Psalms it is idols, not humans which are portrayed as being blind and not even as capable as any human being.
“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.” (Psalm 135:15-17)
The idols are lifeless, and lack not just one bodily function or sense, but all of them. On the other hand, the Law of the Lord, just like the Holy Spirit, enlivens every soul and gives sight even to the blind:
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…” (Psalm 19:7-8)
Each and every organ in the body serves a particular role in allowing us to fully experience God in this world and also to totally serve the Lord.
“Like Scripture, the Fathers often point out the role played in our spiritual life by the different members of the body. They stress that their purpose is not merely physiological but also one of enabling us, in superlative fashion, to attune ourselves to God and unite ourselves with him. This is above all the case with the senses, which should contribute to our perception of God in all sensible phenomena. Thus, the eyes should enable us to see God in the harmony and beauty of creation and so to praise him and give him thanks. The ears should enable us to ‘listen to the divine word and God’s laws,’ but also to hear God in all the world’s sounds. The sense of smell should enable us to detect in every creature the ‘good odor of God’ (2 Cor 2:15); the sense of taste to discern in all food ‘how good the Lord is’ (Ps 33:9). . . . Thus the spiritual function of the hands is to carry out for and in God whatever is necessary in order to do his will, to act on behalf of justice, to reach out to him in prayer (cf. Ps 87:10; Ps 143:6; Tim 2:8). The task of the feet is to serve God by allowing us to go to where we may do good. The tongue should proclaim the Good News and sing of God’s glory. The heart is to be the place of prayer; the lungs are to produce the breath that regulates and supports it.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 28-29)
And though we can both experience and accomplish goodness in and through the body and its organs and part, it is also true that the same body can be used to experience and accomplish evil.
“A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing. There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers.” (Proverbs 6:12-19)
Our bodies are fully capable of experiencing the Holy Spirit and theosis. It is not only the soul which has a relationship to God’s Spirit for the body is created to be a divine temple for the Spirit. And as we see in the quotes above, there is an important relationship between certain parts of the body and the Holy Spirit. Thus, at Chrismation, we anoint the head, ears, eyes, lips, nose, breast, hands and feet of the new Christian, saying each time, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
“At the same time, the Fathers refer to the spiritual benefits that our body obtains from being directed towards God in this way, for, acting under the direction of the soul and in collaboration with it, the body too receives the grace of the Holy Spirit. ‘For as God created the sky and the earth as a dwelling place for man,’ notes St. Macarius of Egypt, ‘so he also created man’s body and soul as a fit dwelling for himself to dwell in and take pleasure in the body, having for a beautiful bride the beloved soul, made according to his own image.’ This is simply to repeat in another form St. Paul’s assertion that the body is the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19).” (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 29)
God created our bodies to be the very means by which we can accomplish His will and grow in virtue and holiness.
“For the Fathers, it is by means of the virtues that we can become like God, and it is in this likeness to God, acquired by a collaboration between free will and the grace given us that we can ultimately become a partaker of divine life – a participation to which we are both destined by our nature and called by personal vocation.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 27)
We become like God not by escaping our bodies, but by willfully making them instruments of goodness. We become virtuous and holy in and through our bodies – and all who do with, in and through our bodies are potential means for us to unite ourselves to God. We have the task to choose wisely what we do so as to invite the Holy Spirit into our bodies.