It can be tempting to think of saints as people with such an intimate relationship with God that they experienced none of the struggles common to the rest of us. Of course, even a cursory examination of the lives of the saints will disabuse such an opinion.
One of those who endured such difficulties was Saint Paul. In this paper, I will explore Saint Paul’s remarkable observation about his own struggle with sin and how that struggle is reflective of humanity’s fallen nature.
Without question, Saint Paul is one of the most important and influential of all the saints. His writings comprise a considerable part of the Gospels and have significantly influenced the growth and development of the Church. Himself, a convert to Catholicism, Paul traveled the known world. During these travels, he preached ceaselessly despite encountering significant opposition.
Paul’s letters (called epistles) were instrumental in addressing various theological questions and disputes that developed in the early Church. One such letter, the Epistle to the Romans, contains an extraordinary testament to the difficulties that every Christian encounters.
Saint Paul writes, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:15-20).
This statement comes from someone who was a true believer. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul was a devout (one might say, zealous) adherent to Judaism. This was not a man who had doubts about God or what sin was, or what was necessary for salvation. Despite his devotion to God, Paul fights himself to do what he ought.
Paul’s observation of doing battle against the self speaks to the conflict in every human heart and appears to mirror Jesus’ own words. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-43).
How does Catholicism understand this very human problem? First, the concept of the soul and body in conflict is metaphorical. Catholicism does not subscribe to a Gnostic worldview. Gnosticism posited that the body and anything related to the physical world were evil. Catholicism rejects this view, believing that all of God’s creation is good.
So, what are we to understand in this battle between the soul and the body? It is not as though the body thinks or wills independently of the soul. Instead, the conflict involves the rational and spiritual faculties on the one hand and the emotional and instinctive faculties of the human person on the other. Here again, Saint Paul’s words are illuminating. “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17).
It should be pointed out that soul and body were never intended to be in conflict. God so constructed the human person so that the soul rules over the body, subordinating and moderating the instinctive appetites. An effect of original sin was to destroy this proper ordering of soul and body. The result is a conflict between the two. If original sin is viewed as an act of rebellion against God, then the conflict between the body and soul is an effect of that rebellion. Just as the soul rebelled against God, so now the body rebels against the soul.
Nevertheless, the fact that one feels or experiences this conflict between the body (flesh) and the soul is actually a positive sign.
It is only because we have become aware of God’s presence in our lives that there is a conflict. The person whose spirit has abdicated to the flesh does not experience the conflict. Such a person has closed himself off to Grace. Only when we open ourselves to Grace do we become aware of God. This awareness leads one to realize that the soul is meant for union with God. Such a union can only occur when the flesh is subordinated to the soul.
A question may arise. If we have been baptized, have faith in God, are prayerful, and seek to do the will of God, why are we still susceptible to the sins of the flesh?
Catholicism asserts that the answer is what is called concupiscence. In the context of sins of the flesh, concupiscence refers to the inordinate love of sensual pleasure resulting from original sin. Said differently, while baptism has cleansed us of original sin, the effects of original sin remain.
Therefore, as long as we remain “in the body,” we will be engaged in this conflict. For most of us, that will mean times when we, as Paul writes, do that which we should not do. While the struggle against the “flesh” is a lifetime work, God has provided means to assist us in this fight.
The sacrament of reconciliation provides a remedy for when we fall to sin. I say when because, as fallen and fallible creatures, we are all sinners. The Eucharist unites us with God and imbues the soul with the Grace necessary to engage in its struggle against the flesh.
Finally, the ancient practice of mortification has been proven to be an effective strategy in denying the sinful appetites of the body. The various types of mortification are designed to discipline ourselves by properly ordering the soul and the body.
Original sin has created a rebellion within our own souls. Torn between the carnal appetites of the flesh and the spirit’s longing for the transcendent God, we must be ever vigilant of evil, both from without and from within.