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On not despising matter

30 November, 1999

Donagh O’Shea OP warns against the tendency to think of the material world – especially the body – as something to be despised. Christian spirituality enjoins respect for all creation.

I once heard an American guru give a lecture in Manila. (At any rate he was dressed in saffron, the raiment of a guru.) He was a westerner bringing eastern wisdom to the most western country in the east. He told us that the material world, including one’s own body, was unreal. His own body was perched restlessly and in obvious discomfort on a raised platform; he had rather fleshy jowls bedecked with numerous garlands of flowers, and he spoke with a Californian accent.

The body and the soul
‘The body is only a garment that you put on and take off in successive lives. It’s like putting on your clothes in the morning and taking them off at night. The real you is the soul, not the body. Do you get it? The body is transient. The soul gives rise to an appropriate body in each life. For example, if you are a greedy person you could get the body of a pig in your next incarnation. There are people who even begin to look a little like pigs already’ (Laughter). During the laughter an assistant moved towards a slide-projector (this conference was highly organized) and projected on a very large daylight screen a sequence of pictures of fat men and women, some in close-up, selected for their resemblance to pigs. (More laughter at each picture). ‘See?’ said the guru, chuckling, ‘you get the body you deserve.’

During the interval everyone seemed to be eating, rather ignoring (I thought) the wisdom they had just been exposed to. I mentioned this to a Filipino friend of great good humour, and she reflected on it for a moment. ‘I suppose the guru would consider the food just as unreal as the body!’ she said; ‘everything material is unreal, remember?’ She laughed as she handed me several banana fritters on a paper plate and a glass of fruit juice. Then a jolly (and rather fat) man beside us said, ‘He didn’t look starved himself, did he?’ We could see him in the distance, still perched on his platform like Simon Stylites, and a smiling Sister was handing him up some snacks, merienda. ‘Merienda na tayo!’ they say, always with open smiles. Everyone is included in that universal antiphon of the Philippines, ‘Let’s snack already!’

What about Christ’s body?
After the interval there was question time. A question from the front. ‘In St John’s gospel it says that the Word was made flesh. Does this mean that the Word was made nothing? And Jesus said, “This is my body…” Does this mean, This is something unreal?’ The question was so much to the point that you could imagine it had been ringing round the room from the beginning. About ninety percent of Filipinos are Christian, and a still greater percentage of the present audience was Christian, no doubt, for you would not find any Muslims at such an event. ‘Exactly,’ replied the guru to the question, ‘the body is unreal, the spirit is the essence.’ He seemed to have no awareness of any clash of cultures or religious beliefs, neither around him nor within himself. ‘Exactly,’ he repeated, having nothing to add. Exactly; but it was far from exact. It was even far from inexact. It was just loose talk and totally unconvincing.

To an extraordinary degree the Filipino people are maka-diyos, ‘God oriented’, and equally maka-tao, ‘people-oriented’. Their natural friendliness and good humour (and their urge to share food at every opportunity!) will protect them, no doubt, from bogus gurus and ‘bodiless’ spirituality. But others may not be so naturally protected. ‘There are many false prophets now in the world,’ wrote St John. ‘You can tell the spirits that come from God by this: every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus the Christ has come in the flesh is from God; but any spirit which will not say this of Jesus is not from God’ (I Jn 4).

Heresy of bodiless spirituality
The Christian faith has had to contend with a bodiless spirituality from the beginning. The first Christian heresy was Docetism (from dokeo, ‘to seem’). It was the belief that Christ’s body was not physical but phantasmal. This heresy arose in New Testament times, and the New Testament itself shows evidence of a reaction to it.

John wrote, ‘What we have heard, and what we have seen with our own eyes; what we have watched and touched with our hands. . . this is our subject’ (I Jn, 1). He was clearly going to great pains to say that Christ’s body was real and physical. The belief that all matter (including the body) is unreal, or that it is evil, recurs every few centuries, at different strengths, and bearing a different name each time: manicheism, albigensianism, catharism.. .and what shall we call the teaching of the Californian guru?

But all the above cannot be labelled and packed away in the past or at the lunatic fringe where the false gurus live. It has a wider base, and it affects everyone. There is an ambivalent Christian attitude to the physical world, and the secular world of today has inherited this and exaggerated it spectacularly. ‘Teach us to despise the things of earth and love the things of heaven,’ says the prayer of the Mass – terrena despicere et amare caelestia. ‘Despicere’ means ‘to look down on from above’, and ‘to despise’. But the English translation backpedals here: it says, ‘Teach us to use wisely the things of earth…’ However, no Latin dictionary gives this as a possible meaning of ‘despicere’; it is an interpretation, and a very necessary one. Jesus did not say, ‘look down on or despise.’ In all cases he implied that the material world had something to teach us. He said ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees…look at the birds of the air…Look, a sower went out to sow seed.’ And still the ambivalence is evident in very many areas of Christian life.

A good materialism
We like to charge ourselves today with being materialistic and conformed to the age. But this too is riddled with ambiguity. Is the modern world materialistic? Not if materialistic means ‘in love with matter’. Is it out of love for matter that we are poisoning the air, the land and the seas? Is it love for matter that allows us to produce nuclear waste that will be unsafe for ten thousand years? Is it our love for matter that we human beings have become the most destructive of all species on earth? If we loved matter, our world would look quite different from the way it does. Modern buildings generally are no proof of love for natural substances. And on the domestic scale: look at the material things on your mantelpiece and count how many were made by crafts-people and how many were mass-produced or made of plastic. If we loved matter, the world would look quite different, beginning with our mantelpieces.

Then take modern abstract art. Does it demonstrate a love of material things? On the contrary, it seems to want to get away from them completely, and to begin and end with the artist’s own subjectivity. It washes out the matter and the form of the world. It is especially instructive to look at a religious abstract artist. ‘Through a violent and purifying gush,’ wrote a contemporary religious artist who produces vast abstract paintings, ‘I wish I could bleach this polluted world.’

‘Our world is polluted with ideas, people, images,’ he said in an interview; ‘I try to find a purified world and this for me is the world of mysteries.’ But is it the world of sacred mysteries? He says yes; he is a religious artist. But all received symbols are too much for him; the human figure is an ‘obstacle’ in approaching the mystery of God. ‘I cannot reduce something inconceivable to a mere reality of things.’ His passion is for the transcendence of God.

Rejection of matter in art
In a chapter that is deeply critical of abstract art, the Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov makes this sympathetic comment. ‘The immense demolition job which is inherent in abstract art is a form of asceticism, of purification, of aeration, and we should recognise that fact with respect. Abstract art is an answer to the sought-after purity of the soul, the nostalgia of lost innocence, the desire to find at least a ray or a burst of colour which has not been soiled by an earthly face on which shines both complicity and an equivocal smile. Is not abstract art’s refusal of the forms of the world, by its deep hunger, an uncompromising demand for the wholly other? It cries out “Impossible!” to artistic activity in a closed and atheistic world, in a world of still life and dead matter which is no longer the substance of the resurrection.’ (1)

When particular forms of immanence become stuffy there is a gasping for transcendence; there is a desire to seize what lies hidden by all these forms; there is an urge to demythologise. It is the same for art as for language, as Basil and John Damascene said. (2) But what is left when you demythologise a poem, or a passage of Scripture? Its transcendent ‘message’? No. There is nothing left. It is the very images, stories and myths themselves that point the way to transcendence. Without them there is no pointing and nowhere to go. They, somehow, participate in the divine reality, even in their imperfection; they are transparent, or at least translucent.

Remember the famous passage on the word ‘God’ in Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of human beings have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. We cannot cleanse the word God and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.’

It is the same for material things as for words. They are soiled and mutilated, yes, but for this very reason we may not abandon them, nor abandon ourselves to what Evdokimov called ‘a docetist abstraction and a phantasmagoric game of bodiless shadows.'(ibid p.23) If you cannot paint Christ, if you find his human form ‘an obstacle,’ can you say anything about him either? And if you cannot say anything about him are you not shutting up revelation?

In Greek, symbolos (symbol) and diabolos (devil) come from the same root -bolos (throwing); the symbol puts things together, but the devil’s work is to throw them apart. When we lose faith in the symbolic power of material creation, its transparence to the divine, we plunge ourselves into a world of darkness and alienation.

Words of God
Every creature, said Meister Eckhart, is a word of God; in other words, every creature is a revelation of God, every creature ‘speaks’ God. To seek God is not to shun creatures but to attend carefully to them and to respect them wholeheartedly.

One has to proclaim, first of all, that God is no enemy of material things, but their source. Go to the heart of creatures and they will reveal their source, they will reveal God to you. The trouble is that we seldom go to the heart of anything, but only to the surface; and the surfaces of things can distract us, not only from God but from any depth whatsoever in our life. If it is true that ‘deep calls to deep’ (Ps 41), it is also true that surface calls to surface; the more we relate to the superficial aspects of things, the more superficial we become ourselves. The right way is not to try and break our connection with things (how?) but to relate ever more deeply to them. Creation is transparent, as every theology of the icon proclaims. Every ‘otherworldly’ attitude assumes that it is opaque, and this is a caricature of the Christian contemplative spirit.

How does the world speak to us now of God? Where do our symbols and images come from? They tend to come now, not from the world of nature but from the dream world: they are dredged up from the pit of the tortured human psyche. The world is perceived as dead or meaningless, and there is a flight into the self. We have to prize material things again if we are to find God.

Give the body a chance
Of course you cannot really get away from the material world, for the very good reason that you are part of it; it goes with you as your body. In going to God we cannot sit outside and comment merely, we are dragged in beyond ‘seeming’, beyond docetism, we have to take ‘a piece of our own flesh.’ It is not surprising, incidentally, that so many of today’s major problems are about sexuality: any structural stresses in a person seem to register immediately in that area. The body is then thought to be the origin of these problems, but surely it is not the body but the disordered mind. The body is usually busy with survival, it has its own simplicity, but the mind has the power to torment it. A sick mind – that alienated spook so familiar to us today, disconnected from everything, looking for excitement and distraction like a fidgety schoolboy – sends deranged messages to the body to torment it. We need to give the body a chance; we have much to learn from it, as we have much to learn from every creature, every word of God.

To be open to transcendence while being faithful to what is given: need I say it, this is a terrible task. To keep transcendence and immanence from losing each other… Someone said these should be kept ‘in a delicate balance.’ Delicate. If you were balancing ideas like fine china in a cabinet, you could say delicate. But the question, ‘Where is your God?’ is not so delicate, nor can any answer be. As Jesus hung on the cross his Father seemed to have withdrawn from him and vanished into transcendence: ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ When the Father’s presence was felt again, it was in the utter surprise of the Resurrection.

Thanks to brothers and sisters who upset us by feeling things intensely, we will never settle down in complete comfort with our images, our words, our stories. Life doesn’t lie down, it keeps going. We will wobble from side to side, now towards immanence, now towards transcendence; now to embracing the material creation, now to straining beyond it.

Isn’t that what walking looks like!

Christ’s image was drawn in writing by the apostles and has been preserved up to the present. Whatever is marked there with paper and ink, the same is marked on the icon with varied pigments or some other material medium. For the great Basil says, ‘Whatever the words of the narrative offer, the picture silently shows the same by imitation… ‘

– St John of Damascus, On The Divine Images

(1) The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty, trans. by S. Bigham, Oakwood Publications, pp.93, 1992.

(2) On the Divine Images by John Damascene, trans. D. Anderson, pp 23, 1980.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (March/April 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.