The reading from the Second Nocturn for today’s Matins. It provides an interesting insight on why the Fathers of the Church took Platonist musings on embodiment seriously. It was not on authority of the Plato or any of his followers, but on authority of St. Paul. The patristic understanding of the body finds its origin in Scripture not Platonism. The reason, it seems to me that many ‘biblical’ scholars today would harp on the platonic origins of patristic views of the body is that the philosophy of the age has changed. Our culture of have and have more of worldy goods inflames rather than heals “the passions.” Passion is to be undulged in not overcome. The body is celebrated as a means to consume, not as a means to commune (with God).
The Lesson is taken from the Book of Moral Reflections by St. Gregory the Pope
We refresh the body lest it should grow too weak and fail us ; we strengthen it with exercises, lest it become infirm from inactivity ; and straightway we give it rest, lest it faint through weariness ; we succour it with raiment, lest the cold should blight it ; and we strip it of the raiment wherewith we have clothed it, lest the heat should afflict it. In all these so many offices what do we but serve the corruptible? Upon what is all this care spent but upon that whereover is always impending the doom of weakness and change?
Well therefore saith Paul : For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope ; because itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. The creature was not of its own will made subject to vanity ; for when man had of his own free will abdicated his state of unchangeable blessedness, the just sentence of death was passed upon him, and whether he willed or not, he became subject to the state of change and corruption. But the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption, when it shall rise again incorruptible, and be made partaker of the glory of the children of God.
Here in this life, then, the elect are still subject to sorrow, being yet bound by the sentence of corruption ; but when we shall have put off this corruptible, we shall be loosed from that sentence, and shall sorrow no more. For though we earnestly desire to appear before God, we are still hindered by the burden of this dying body. Rightly then are we called prisoners, since we are not free to go whither we will, that is to say, to God ; and therefore the prisoner Paul, yearning after the things which are eternal, and still weighed down with the burden of this corruptible, did rightly cry out : I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ. He would not have had this desire to be set free, if he had not felt himself bound down.
The body is ‘bound down’ not because of its embodiment, but because of its enslavement to sin and the distortion it has suffered from that enslavement. The ascetic understanding and treatment of the body does not make embodiment the enemy, but enslavement to sin. The approval and experience of the body as a “tomb” as “sōmatos tou thanatou” (Rom. 7, 24) is scriptural. It is not a leap from “body of death” (Rom. 7, 24) to “body as tomb.” St. Paul speaks from ascetic experience about the body’s enslavement to sin as “body of death.” Those in opposition of the patristic understanding of the body perhaps lack the experience of the body as “tomb” or as enslaved to sin because they have not (yet) entered upon the beginning of the Christian life: the stage of “purification.” Without “purification” there is no illumination, and no unification (with God) either. Knowledge does not come from the mere perusal of Scripture, but from reading Scripture and applying it in one’s actions. This holistic approach to Scripture is what is found in the Fathers and what is (often) lacking in the cerebral commentaries and meagre insights of today. It is also lacking in many Protestant traditions today insofar as the Reformation separated Scripture from action and life. In a Protestant service, for example, the “Word of God” addresses the congregants from the pulpit in words addressed to the intellect, denuded of any sacramental and ceremonial grounding. It seems to me that this rationalist, and essentially Reformed way of treating Scripture must be overcome if we are to benefit from reading Scripture.
The Rev. Richard Hurrell Froude, whose life exemplified much of true Catholicism famously wrote:
“… the Reformation was a limb badly set ; it must be broken again, in order to be righted.”
Remains Vol i, Part 1, p. 433.
The Reformation and the cerebral, disincarnate understanding of Scripture of today are connected in an evolutionary line. In proclaiming “Scripture alone” all Scripture was almost entirely lost, in separating grace from the Sacraments grace was largly barred from reception, in announcing “faith alone” the life of faith was almost lost. The limb must indeed be once more be broken so that it can be reset and St. Gregory’s lesson above provides an excellent starting point …