On the importance of the physical
in Catholic spirituality and sacramental life
These days there seems to be a great interest in the
spiritual life. Many people make the claim to be "spiritual", and its
expression takes many forms. Most book shops in the Anglophone world now
have a section labelled "Spirituality", and the content of these
sections is often a vast array of competing titles, many of which have a
New Age or self-help flavour and propose a variety of theories of the
human person and the spiritual life.
In every understanding of the spiritual life we may come
across, there is either an explicit or an implicit understanding of the
human person. How we understand the human person has a bearing on how we
understand the spiritual life and what its objectives are. Each
"spirituality" we may come across will also have its own doctrinal
framework, and the spiritual practices that each proposes will be based
around those ideas.
Books about Catholic spirituality are now few and far
between in mainstream bookshops, and represent just one among many
competing belief systems in such a section. And yet as Catholics we
would claim that our concept of the spiritual life is rich and varied,
offering something above and beyond its "competitors". This is rooted in
two things: the Catholic understanding of the human person, and the
doctrines of the Church.
What is distinctive about the Catholic approach to the
spiritual life is the importance that it gives to the physical. This is
rooted in the notion that as human beings we are a unity of body and
soul. We see this beautifully expressed in the Book of Genesis, where we
have an image of God creating the first man from the "dust of the
ground, and breath[ing] into his nostrils the breath of life".1
St Thomas Aquinas, taking his lead from Aristotle, believed that the
soul is the form of the human person, "the first thing by which the body
lives".2 Without the soul, the body cannot carry out its
But at the same time, St. Thomas held that the soul has
no natural existence outside the body.3 This close union
between body and soul is the reality of what each and every human being
is. If we accept this truth, then it follows that it will have an impact
on how we conceive of the spiritual life. We can see that the spiritual
life is not about an escape from my physical reality, as some New Age
perspectives might propose, but about accepting and making use of that
If we consider Creation as a whole, we can learn from
both observation of the world and revelation that there are three levels
of the created order. The first of these is the purely material, as in
the case of the objects that we see in the world around us. There is
also creation that is purely spiritual, as in the case of the angels. As
humans we are matter and spirit united, and our encounters with the
world are influenced by this fact. We should not then be surprised that
this reality is also fully utilised in God's dealings with us.
The most concrete way in which we see the importance of
the physical comes by looking at the doctrine of the Incarnation. The
fact that God makes himself known to us in Jesus the Christ raises the
importance of the physical and material world to a new level. The Gospel
accounts are entirely focused on the person of Jesus Christ; on what he
said and on what he did, and on the significance of his words and his
And Christ's saving work is continued in the Church, in
particular when the sacraments are celebrated. It is then significant
that through the mystery of the Incarnation, the second person of the
Trinity, the Divine Word, became flesh in Jesus. Through the hypostatic
union he reveals to us the mystery of he Divine life, which is not
accessible by means of observing the world around us. The hypostatic
union means that the human acts of Christ are divine acts, which "bring
salvation" and are "causes of grace".4
The sacraments are an important part of the way in which
God communicates his grace, his own life to us. And when we consider our
physical reality, we can see how fitting it is that God should give us
his grace in precisely this way. Indeed, for St. Thomas, it is essential
that a sacrament has a component that requires the use of the senses.5
When we think of the seven sacraments, and look at their rites, we think
immediately of visible signs, such as the laying on of hands, the
washing with water, the marking with oil and so on.
But sacraments are more than just signs: they are signs
which bring about effects. As the old penny Catechism has it, "a
sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace... by which grace is given
to our souls".6 The external signs, which involve hearing,
seeing and often the sense of touch, are effective because they both
impart grace and makes things vivid to us. In the case of the
sacraments, it is our faith which becomes vivid.7
When reading St. Thomas' treatment of the sacraments, we
can see how he places emphasis also on the words that accompany the
symbols of the sacraments.8 This is not surprising, since the
sacraments are a means of communicating the Divine life to the people of
If we choose to reject the importance of the physical,
as is the case for much of the New Age spiritualities, then the
sacramental economy ceases to be relevant. And this is problematic in
several ways. Rejecting the material can easily lead to the same kind of
dualistic ideas that St Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in the
thirteenth century to preach against, namely a belief that the material
world is somehow a bad thing.
However, to hold such a
view is to go against the sense of the material, sensible world that we
get from reading the creation narratives, namely that what God created
was indeed good. Our bodies and senses, far from being an unfortunate
hindrance, are a natural part of the way we were made.
This is not to say that the
fall does not have consequences that damage our ability to use our
bodies and senses in the way that is wholesome and good. There is a need
for grace, which builds on our fallen nature and redeems it. This is why
the salvific grace that comes to us in the sacraments is so necessary
and comes to us in such an apt way. Receiving the sacraments is truly an
encounter with Christ, and is thus a powerful part of spiritual growth
It is also important that
we remember that encountering Christ cannot be seen as a solely
individual experience. The celebration of the sacraments is always an
action of Christ through the church. So if we accept the importance of
the sacraments in the spiritual life, we also accept the importance of
being part of the believing community that is the Church. Rather than
the individualistic and private spirituality that New Age spiritualities
can often encourage, Catholic spirituality must instead be communitarian
and corporate in order to be true to its name.
This means that the
spiritual life cannot simply be reduced to a vertical "I-Thou"
relationship, but requires interaction and relationship with other
members of the Church, the people that form the mystical body of Christ.
So for the individual
Catholic, the spiritual life necessarily has an ecclesial dimension. The
private prayer and devotion of an individual is fed and nourished by
being part of a believing community, and by participating in the
sacramental life of that community, and can not be separate from that.
There is a need for us to recognise how relationships with others are an
important part of being human, and the sacraments help to shape our
relations with others, and build up the whole Church as the body of
Christ. Indeed, another aspect of taking the physical existence of the
human being seriously is taking the social existence of the human being
seriously, which means living life as a member of the body of the
In our efforts to
evangelise, then, we should always be sure that we give special
attention to the role of the sacraments in the spiritual life, bearing
witness to the fact that the sacraments meet the reality of who and what
we are as human beings. A sacramental spirituality
one which is realistic about who and what we are as human beings and
which shows how that reality is used by God in our salvation
will surely be attractive to those who are
sincerely trying to search for God.
The sacraments speak
powerfully of a God who communicates his life to us, taking us as we are
and building us up and shaping us through his Son. And in making the
power of the sacraments more widely known, we have the perfect response
to the spiritual hunger that we see in our world today.
1 Cf. Gen 2:7.
2 St Thomas
Aquinas. Summa Theologiae Ia, qu. 76. art. 1.
Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, p. 13.
Theologiae IIIa, qu. 60, art. 4. Note especially:
'Est autem homini connaturale ut per
sensibilia perveniat in cognitionem intelligibilia'.
6 See 'A Catechism of Christian Doctrine',
republished by CTS in 1999.
See Selman, St Thomas Aquinas: Teacher
of Truth, p. 65.
8 This is
treated in IIIa, qu. 60, art. 6, 7 and 8.