Sacraments and Sanity

Someone commented on my blog saying that organized religion was for weak, shallow, frightened people because we are all spiritual beings all the time and we shouldn’t limit our higher awareness with petty rules and regulations. Such people are not fully evolved, and how could be be so sad and stupid?

Apart from being just about the most arrogant and disdainful comment I’ve ever received, there are some serious problems with this way of thought, which is another version of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” meme. This way of thinking worries me quite a lot because I think it is a sign of insanity.

Here’s what I mean:

Are we “spiritual beings”? Last time I checked I had a body. I do physical things: I eat, drink, blow my nose, sneeze, defecate and urinate. I have aches and pains. I have hair where I don’t want it and no hair where I do want it. I get hungry and thirsty and tired. I’m too fat and have warts and have to wear hearing aids and contact lenses and you don’t want to see me in swimming trunks…

Furthermore, I’m very aware of living in a physical world. I stub my toe and bump my head. I forget my keys and my pants don’t fit and my shoes wear out.

However, like every heresy–”We are spiritual beings” is partly true. I am physical but I’m spiritual too. I’m half ape and half angel.

The reason I worry about the sanity of people who think they are “spiritual beings” is because they are clearly not totally spiritual beings, and I think insanity is the sad sickness of losing one’s grasp on the basic realities. Does the person who says, “We are spiritual beings” really believe that? If he does, then he believes himself to be an angel, and if I meet someone who says to me in breathless tones, “I’m an angel Father!” I’m going to ask them to please fly away and leave me alone.

No. The reality is that we have physical bodies and we live in a physical world. That is why organized religion is important: not to restrain the narrow down our spiritual capabilities, but to channel them, discipline them and help them to blossom. I don’t just pray; I fast and pray. That’s because I have both a body and soul.

Of course organized religion can descend into petty legalism, dull routine and narrow mindedness. So can any philosophy or love affair.

The  trick is to remember what it all is for. The pianist learns to play scales and practices every day in order one day to step out onto a stage and play Rachmaninov or Chopin in such a way that the soul soars. The athlete takes instruction, practices daily and denies himself in order one day to run a race that makes people gasp with glory and win the medal. The scientist studies the facts and does the experiments and learns from the masters who have gone before in order to make that world changing discovery through which the human spirit soars. The artist learns to draw and studies the masters of ages gone by and paints every day and produces much that is worthless so that one day he may paint the painting that lifts the human heart to heights unknown.

This is something we call common sense. This practical acceptance that practice makes perfect is something we understand in every other walk of life. Why should it not also be true in matters of the spirit?

And so it is. In the spiritual life too, practice makes perfect. We have bodies and souls. One influences and affects the other, and that is finally why the sacraments correct the insanity of saying we are “spiritual beings” only.

In the sacraments the spiritual and the physical are met. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. The sacrament effects what it signifies. There through oil and water and wine and bread and human love and forgiveness and the gentleness and soil of human hands the spiritual is known and made real.

A sacrament is fully spiritual and fully physical at the same time.

Like love.

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  • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

    father- I think this is one of your best posts- the Catholic Church (and other liturgical Christian churches) is so good with melting the spiritual and physical together.

    I don’t think Madonna (the singer) realized what she was singing when she said “We are living in a material world…”

  • Dr. Eric

    Are we really “half ape and half angel”? Then, couldn’t we cut out the ape parts and just keep the angel parts? Aren’t we really 100% ape and 100% angel? We have a body that will die and rot like an ape but we have a soul that will live forever like an angel. Not quite like the hypostatic union, but similar? Christ is fully 100% God and fully 100% man.

  • Matt

    We are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience.

  • Spinster Beth

    What’s REALLY sad is that individual goes around posting his views on blogs that don’t share his viewpoint. Why bother doing that? How intolerant of him.

  • Lucy

    Great post. Now I have something to say to the less than religiously minded when they belt out that we don’t need to go to a physical church.

  • David

    Dr. Eric is 100% correct. Also, Fr. Longenecker, do you think mocking your opponents is the best thing to do? If, as Francis said, we are known as Christians by our love, it would seem the better path to try and understand the reasons for an ignorant (even if rude) post. To ridicule someone as sad, stupid helps no one. It doesn’t use the hermeneutics of charity that every Christian should use. It doesn’t help that person toward the truth. And, frankly, it does not paint you in the greatest light. We must always fight against the sense of triumphalism the Second Vatican Council warns us about. Proclaiming truth cannot be done in a condescending manner if that communication is to be successful. We all slip up and poorly engage others who have unjustly attacked us; however, we are always called to respond by effectively willing the good of that other, no matter what they have done to us.

  • Robyn

    absolutely LOVED this post!

  • Tom in South Jersey

    Actually the concept that we are spirits having a human experience isn’t quite correct either. One of the things that set Christianity apart from other religions is that we expect to experience a resurrection of the body. We are designed from the start to be both human and spirit.

    We also need to keep in mind that Lucifer and his minions were spirits, and look where the lack of religion took them. There are few things as dangerous as a spirit with little guidance and direction from anyone but themselves.

    I enjoy reading this blog and the comments from those who follow it. May God bless each and everyone of you.

  • Susan

    This post exactly expresses the goodness I find in my church’s liturgy, and have tried to express, not only to non-churchgoers, but to non-liturgical church goers. The liturgy is like a dance that we enter into – physically as well as spiritually and intellectually. And in it, we are dancing with God and all the saints of heaven and earth.