Sacramental Realism: The Healing for Mind-Body Dualism and Monistic Materialism

It was the late 80s and I was writing a paper for my Corinthians class, an exegesis from 1 Corinthians 10, and specifically the verses “the cup is a participation (koinonia) in his blood” and “the bread is a participation (koinoia) in his body.”  I had been raised to understand the elements of bread and wine (or in our group of churches, grape juice, “the fruit of the vine”) were mere symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood, that there was no change in the elements in the Lord’s Supper, and, further, that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial of a past event, which event (Christ’s death, burial and resurrection) was the sole means of our salvation.  These verses in 1 Corinthians 10, however, cut right through that.  Only the slightest of research led me to understand that this was the belief of the earliest Christians (for which see St Ignatios of Antioch, and St Irenaeus of Lyons, among others).  Some years later, I learned that the belief that the Eucharist was a memorial and the elements were symbols and not really Christ’s Body and Blood was a belief that was no earlier than, and sprang from the dream of, one man: Zwingli.  That simple class assignment was the fulcrum which leveraged me right in to Orthodoxy, though I meandered a bit first.

After more than a decade of living in the light of the Sacraments, I recognize that accepting the reality of the Sacraments, that is to say, that they really are a participation in God, not merely symbolically but really and in all ways, body and soul, brings healing to the whole person, and even without a class in dogma, the Sacraments heal certain distortions of mind and heart.  Here, particularly, I wish to write of how the Sacrament (or as the Orthodox prefer to say, the Mystery) of the Eucharist is healing for the bent thought systems of mind-body dualism and monistic materialism.  I’m not going to be very technical or philosophically precise (though I hope to be accurate and correct), because the healing spoken of here is not merely of a certain form of rational thinking, but extends to ways of living.  That is to say, mind-body dualism and monistic materialism are ways of living that are counter to the way of life provided by the Sacraments, and the Sacraments heal in such a way that this distorted way of living is made whole.

The understanding that the mind (or, if you will, the soul, or spirit) and the body are divided entities, and in some conceptions are even opposed to one another, derives from forms of Platonism and Gnosticism.  It is sometimes popular put that the body houses the soul (or spirit), like a container.  At funerals one might hear such talk as, “the real Jack has departed this world, leaving only this body.”   But in the Christian conception, while the soul and body are different entities, they are not divided, they are, in fact, united, a single entity, a person, meant to work in harmony, with the symphony of their various energies working together by grace to be more and more conformed to the image of God in which human beings are made.  We do not divide, and we do not oppose, body from soul.

More particularly, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we are given a reality which unites the material elements of bread and wine with the immaterial aspects of the divine.  The human body delivered to death and the human blood shed, were real and human.  But they were united, in the Person of Jesus Christ, to his divine nature.  And in the bread and wine, we, also through their transfiguration and through our participation by grace, in our material bodies and immaterial souls, are united to the divine Person of Christ.

There is no opposition between the material (and created) and the immaterial.  We have access to God in Christ, through the human nature he took on and the human body in which he still dwells as he sits at the right hand of God in glory.  And our human bodies, through the grace-filled union with him, become temples of the Holy Spirit.

If we oppose the material and the immaterial, if we oppose body to soul and soul to body, we, as did many forms of the Gnostic groups, devalue the material, demean it, discount it.  The body then becomes a burden, and we either punish it, or we indulge it, depending on our views of how best to purge the material energies of our bodies.  At death, more and more people have determined to burn the body, to cremate it, and then to dispose of it however they will.  But even if not in cremation, others mount the body on and bury the body with cars, or motorcycles.  Viewings of such bodies are almost as though we are passing through a taxidermist shop, or a wax museum.  There is no longer any dignity left to the body.  It is treated and disposed of as we will.

Even if life the body, rather than accepted for itself, in humility and with gratitude, is made to confirm to our desires about what the body should be: from tattooing, to various surgical enhancements, hair dyes to cover over greying hair, false nails and eyelashes, and so on.  I don’t wish to be too harsh here, as some adornments with makeup and various hair styles are innocuous and simple.  But I speak to the trend, which is to treat the body as a thing, and not as one part of the person.

But the reality of the Sacrament of Holy Communion also heals a way of life that distorts the human person in another way: a monistic materialism that thinks of the human being as nothing but the material elements of which it is made.  Thoughts are nothing more than the biological, electro-chemical signals generated by bodily processes.  Love and hope and joy, are emotional states related to various levels of and interactions of hormones within the body.  The body is viewed as a machine, which we may, if we desire, keep alive via medical technology, even in the face of a death that has, for all intents and purposes occurred, but which we mask by having machines breathe for the body, circulate its blood, and otherwise support other functions.

But whereas dualism distorts and denigrates the understanding and lived experience of the body, monistic materialism distorts and denigrates the understanding and lived experience of the soul.  Particularly at the end of life, when the body is ready to leave the soul, so-called “heroic” measures to keep the body alive can be, if I may say it this way, torturous and painful to the soul, which is ready to depart to its particular place of waiting for the final judgment.  

Indeed, the focus on the body, and its health and well-being, without also being attentive to the soul and its well-being, leads to a puny and paltry soul that remains sick and wearied by the passions with which it is infected in part through the body.  This is an experience the addict knows well.  Through the chemical distortions inflicted on the body through the soul’s choices, the body is led further into bondage.  But since body and soul are joined inseparably into a single person, this bondage of the body to distorted reactions to various chemical stimuli leads also to a bondage of the soul, and just as the body experiences the sickness of addiction, the soul experiences the sickness of the bondage of its free will to the impulses of the body.  I speak of addiction because it is such a clear example, but it need not be drug or alcohol addictions, it can be simple unrestrained giving way to impulses to eat and drink what we want when we want.  But addictions and the bondage of the soul to the passions of the body are not the only distortions, the body, too, can be held in bondage to the passions and distortions of the soul: anger and rage, despair, and pride.

In both these distortions, we can experience the healing of the Sacrament of Holy Communion which joins and reshapes the unity of body and soul, as a single person relating and participating both bodily and within the soul, in God’s grace, and united, in Christ, by sharing in his human nature, to God, the created with the Creator.

When our body-soul dualism is healed, we know and experience the unity as our full selves given us by God, that we are both body and soul (or spirit), and that union means both a respect and even veneration of the body as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, but also a respect for the soul, and recognizing that care of the body is a means of eliminating toil and sorrow for the soul.  When the time of our end comes, we don’t hold on to the body beyond all reason, but humbly accept the time of our departure, and “allow” the temporary separation of body and soul to await the resurrection.  Nor, while we live, do we lack in respect for the body, following the fasting seasons and practices of the Church so that we keep the body in subjection to the soul, but also allow the body to share in the graces of the soul, the development of its virtues and the union of the nous within the soul with Christ, and the flood of grace illuminating the nous, and the soul, and the body by its participation.

I have spoken less of knowledge in the technical sense, and more in the experiential sense.  I have not spoken with much technical or philosophical or even theological rigor, though I hope I have set my sails to the right wind.  The distortions of both the dualism and the monism of which I speak here can be seen all around us.  While we would do well, those of us with the ability to do so, to speak to these distortions and to argue from Orthodox philosophical and theological standpoints, what all of us need is not so much the analysis of these ideas, but the experience of their healing.  And that is done in the Sacrament, or, as I noted above, perhaps more correctly, the Mystery of the Eucharist.  For it is a Mystery which is ineffable, and beyond our comprehension.  But it is not beyond our experience, and in it lies our healing.

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