Sunday, April 13, 2008

Master Your Flesh

The 40th Day memorial service for Barbara, which we had yesterday, was harder to bear than her funeral. (Apparently this is a common experience, I’ve discovered by comparing notes with others.) At the funeral, one is still in shock. Forty days later, it has all sunk in.

It either didn’t help or else helped a lot (depending upon whether it’s your flesh or your spirit you’re listening to) that today was also the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. That sunburned, weathered, emaciated, unkempt, naked, clairvoyant, prematurely old woman is probably my favorite saint and she was a favorite of Barbara’s, too. I began weeping the moment I kissed her dear icon.

Mother Mary of Egypt was a prostitute. One day, from curiosity, she went on tour to Jerusalem, paying for her passage by offering herself to the sailors. When she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she found she could not. She tried several times, but each time, something prevented her from entering. Catching sight of an icon of the Theotokos, she heard the Mother of God tell her that if she would cross to the far side of the Jordan, she would find glorious rest there. The next day she departed for the desert, where she lived the rest of her life in repentance and in mind-boggling, heart-wrenching austerity. Read her entire, wonderful story here.

Our Holy Mother Mary receiving Communion from St. Zosimas, whose cloak she wears.

Her awesome austerity reminded me of that of St. Symeon the Stylite. His austerity was so severe as to be scandalous in his own time no less than it is today. Due to his reputation for great wisdom, compassion, and holiness, he always had a great many visitors. He built a small tower, just big enough for one person, to give himself some physical distance from them. Later he built an even taller tower, as the crowds, by the thousands every day, came seeking his advice, asking him to settle quarrels, hungering for his preaching, having their sicknesses healed by his prayers. That tower was basically an elevated, rimmed platform, where he lived the rest of his life, never coming down. (You have to ponder that awhile before all the implications sink in.) He was exposed to sun, wind, rain, and snow. Worms lived in the sores of his body, and fell to the ground as he moved, and were regarded by the pilgrims below as precious pearls, which they gathered up. (By some accounts, they actually did turn into pearls.) By the time the Saint died, he had lived atop that tower, or "pillar", for 30 years.

Were these saints fanatics? No. They simply did what they found they needed to do in order to master their flesh.

By “flesh,” Christian parlance does not refer simply to the body, but to all that happens to us physically, materially, and to all the ways in which we respond to those with our “fleshly mind,” which is to say merely animal mind.

Now our flesh makes certain demands upon us. It wants food, drink, warmth, shelter, clothing, sex, assorted other pleasures, health, convenience, comfort, and the list goes on and on.

The Christian vocation is to follow the Lord Jesus Who, ignoring bodily suffering, willed to donate His all to us, even to die in the flesh for us. To live the Christian life is to rise above our mere bodily, animal existence, not to let ourselves remain slaves to it, but make it serve us as it was created to do, to struggle to master it, to walk in the freedom of the human spirit. If we do not do this, we shall remain forever alien to God, Who is Spirit. If we do not do this, we shall remain forever alienated from our own spirit, created in God's Image. If we live fleshly lives, we will die when our flesh does. We must come out from the flesh. We simply must.

Saints Mary and Symeon both were only doing what they found, in their cases, to be necessary for subjugating their bodies. Some saints are able to master their flesh without quite such harsh austerity. Perhaps you and I will be among those latter.

I wouldn’t care to bet on it, though. More likely, without ascetical endeavor comparable to theirs, we’ll end up a lot less spiritual, less holy, less free, less loving, less wise, less intimate with Christ, and less gifted than they were.

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Therefore, brethren, we are debtors--not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Romans 8:1-17)



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