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Life in the Body

Olivier Clement
In our western civilization today we seek to get on firm ground and to
catch our breath by rediscovering the dense reality of our body, perhaps the
only reality left after so many illusions and deceptions. Innumerable tech-
niques, often from the Far East, are supposed to help us recover a positive
awareness of our body within the harmony of cosmic rhythms (for the
body at best has become a silence, an absence, within the rhythms of tech-
nology). Eros seeks liberation, sometimes loses patience, but sometimes
also honestly seeks the truth. "Philosophies of desire" saturate the domi-
nant ideology. Christians faced by this situation are often at a loss,
although Christianity is not entirely exempt from responsibility for it. As
Christians we are right in denouncing the risks: preoccupation with the
explosive power of the body can lead to narcissism which disregards the
other and the faith. But we also must take account of the expectations. The
Orthodox like to speak about the "transfiguration" of the body, the
"temple of the Holy Spirit". But the examples they give of ascetics who
divested themselves of the "tunics of skin" which constitute our biological
condition, becoming "terrestrial angels" free from sexuality and aggressive-
ness can these examples really be of immediate help to us in our daily
groping, apart froni their undeniable power of intercession?
Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, is the religion of m-camation
and of the resurrection of iht flesh. "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ...
who took on fiesh... who rose from the dead. I wait for the resurrection of
the dead. . . " in an expectation whose object is anticipated here below.
From this perspective I shall attempt some reflections, first, about the situa-
tion of the body; second, about the rising body, a concept more modest
than that of the risen body, but nevertheless immense; and third, about the
destiny of desire; for desire and body are closely linked.
I. The situation of the hody
The body simultaneously expresses and masks the person groping to-
wards salvation after the Fall thus creating an ambiguous relation between
person and body.
The body expresses the person. It is not merely a worldly object but
fundamentally someone, the manifestation of a person. It is communica-
tion, expression, language of the spirit, living word of the person. What I
see as the means for my action, what I discover under the eyes of the other.
Dr CLEMENT is Professor at the Institut de theologie orthodoxe de Paris. This paper was
128 delivered at the Congress of the Fratemite orthodoxe in Avignon, France, in Novetnber 1980.
is me in my bodily expression. The body involves the entire human exis-
tence. The corporeal experience is immediate and coincides with my pres-
ence. My body is neither thing nor instrument, but myself vis-a-vis the
world, myself vis-a-vis others.
The biblical distinction between "flesh" and "spirit" has nothing to do
with hellenistic dualism which has had such a profound impact on western
philosophy, in spite of many historical confusions notably in ascesis where
the existential dualism often tended to be objectified. The biblical notion of
the "flesh" means the total person, visible as well as invisible, composed of
the "dust" of the earth which today we understand as a system of bio-
chemical elements and of a personal presence which unifies them. That
is why in Hebrew there is no word for body. The human being is both "ani-
mated fiesh" and "living soul". (Nobody has a soul or has fiesh.) The fiesh
denotes the entire human being, but within the limits of creation. I am a
being of fiesh that is limited; I am not God. Likewise, the fiesh is the
person in fragile liberty. And all this relates to God who "breathed into his
nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7).
Quickened by grace the person is called to be open to it. The human spirit
is therefore not "something", it is this profound "heart", the innermost
centre where the person gathers and opens the created "fiesh" to be vivified
by the breath of God. Thus the fiesh becomes "spiritual". On the other
hand, if a person retreats into himself or herself, the "fiesh" designates the
closed finitude, sealed by death, of a creature separated from God. Even
the spirit becomes carnal. From this perspective the Pauline dialectic
appears as existential but never as ontological dualism. The Apostolic
Fathers (and later also Gregory Palamas) followed biblical thinking closely,
by affirming clearly that the totality of the person had been created in the
image of God. "The entire man and not only a part is created according to
the image", says Irenaeus; "the complete man is an entity which forms a
unity of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father and which is one with the
fiesh modelled according the image of God".'
Nevertheless, things are not that simple. My body is me and at the same
time it is not me. Indeed, often // masks the person rather than revealing
him or her. I have received something which imposes itself on me as if
coming from the outside, part of a cosmic energy given to me, but which
gradually becomes exhausted; a genetic patrimony, family conditioning,
cultural conditioning (we know that a European raised in Japan assumes
an oriental face, because of the usual disposition of the smooth muscles).
After all, psychosomatic medicine which sees a spiritual destiny engraved
in the vicissitudes of the body is the medicine of the rich. There is sickness
due to work (like the silicosis of the miners) and there is sickness due to cul-
ture. More fundamentally, the chaotic dimension of fallen existence can
imprint itself on the cells of an innocent: children are affiicted by cancer.
Hence the uncertainty: an opacity, a resistance, the risk of a gulf shows
itself between my "profound self, the spiritual person, and my bodily exis-
tence. Modesty, of which Vladimir Soloviev spoke so well and in which he
Against Heresies, V, 6, 1. 129
saw one of the foundations of ethics,^ expresses this "change". I recognize
myself, and at the same time I do not recognize myself in my body. I recog-
nize myself or else I would not blush under the stare of the other. Blushing
is not caused by something which is foreign to us. But I am afraid of not
being sufficiently transparent in my body, of being engulfed in something
purely impersonal which only corresponds to the interplay of instincts.
Hence the veiling which leaves only the borders visible, the hands and
especially the face, the most direct expressions of the person. Clothing veils
the impersonal while showing the taste, the mark of a person, so that the
whole outline may become significant, may become a "face". Clothing
symbolizes on the one hand the "fig leaves" and the "garments of skins" of
Grenesis and on the other hand the "vestment of light" of paradise and of
baptism. This shows that the "garments of skins" indicate not only our bio-
logical condition but also the distorted relation between the person and the
The face itself can become a mask, a barrier, an absence from oneself
and the other. The language points to a person who is concealed from the
other as ill-bred.
Weariness, the goddess of contemporary life, inescapable aging, these
weigh the body down or deform it and, depending on one's internal dispo-
sition and especially one's attitude towards death, they are the occasion for
either opacity or transparency. But pain above all carries the potential
"otherness" of the body to its extreme. It is inside me like a foreigner. If it
is not too intense, I can live with it; a harsh reminder of my creaturely
limits. For some to live in this way in the body is like living in a monk's
cell. But if the pain sharpens, the body becomes an obsession. I turn
inwards to listen to my body, I am a prisoner, and my body is someone
else. The most violent pain changes my body into a tomb (as in the Platonic
play on the Greek words soma and sema) or, what is worse, into a torture
chamber. When we attain "the zone of the screaming animal", we can no
longer tolerate any sublimating language. For some there remains a sort of
unspeakable abandon, identifying them with the agonizing Christ...
Thus the body participates in, and represents within myself, the whole
ambiguity of the world. On the one hand, the world is God's creation, full
of goodness and blessing, and in the simplicity of delight the body joins in
the celebration of the world, in the "hymn of the world" (Giono), in the
great divine blessings of Genesis ("And God saw that it was good..."). But
the world also has become the place of death in all its daily forms. The
body then appears as a "body of death", as Paul says. "Who will deliver
me from this body of death" (Rom. 7 :24).
Our life is, therefore, marked by a complex and ambiguous relation
between the person and the body. We are in the world only through our
bodily existence, and yet we constantly transcend it, possibly to the point of
sacrificing it. The martyrdom is fulfilment by consenting to death. Self-real-
ization as personal vocation occurs "by giving his life for his friends." Sol-
zhenitsyn has pointed out this emergence of conscience over against the
130 2 La justification dubien, Paris, 1939.
instinct of conservation: someone overcomes hunger and the desire to sur-
vive by an act of mercy which involves total risk for the sake of another's
In the attempt to live through our conditioning we undergo personal
change. A person is "self-transcendent" (Maurice Clavel), carrying within
himself or herself not only an insatiable desire but also those "palaces of
memory", explored by the young Augustine, that mysterious unity which
throughout our life synthesizes and integrates the moments of time and the
"dust " of the earth. This complex dialectic marks the relation of the body
to others and to the world.
The other is desirable/undesirable and so am I for him or her. In his
Essai sur la pensee hebraique Claude Tresmontant writes: "In love, one
soul immediately recognizes another soul; no body interposes itself
between them; the body is the soul . . . How could I be separated by what I
am? It is not the body but falsehood which separates" (p. 105).
But we also know that to be a body means to be exposed to hurt and
destruction, to torture and rape. For all of us the other with whom we are
faced is finally that irreducible face which summons us to respond. Some
respond and become responsible. Others kill (there are many ways of
killing), but the other escapes me, takes refuge in death at the moment
when I think that I finally "got" him. Hence the observation of Maurice
Blanchot: "Man is indestructible, which means that there is no limit to the
destruction of man".^.
We could speak in analogous terms about the relationship between the
cosmos and the body. The individual as "microcosm and microtheos" is
called to assume the universe in the body (and humanity in the collective
body) in order to sanctify it. Through work as well as through art and con-
templation the body should express the theophantic and dialogical char-
acter of the universe: Adam is called to "name all the living" in terms of his
whole being. Something of this vocation has subsisted in the ancient
African cultures where a person dances the cosmic life. But in this "cosmi-
cizing" act the individual loses his or her personhood. For the relation to
the world also has to do with preying. Man makes the world his prey and
the world pays back in kind. The non-assumed ek-stasy of the body
becomes the involuntary ek-stasy of death, good because it puts an end to
the preying and limits the preying but the person becomes disincar-
nate instead of transfiguring all flesh. As a "bag of skin", irremediably
doomed to wither and to decompose, the body resembles a grain which
does not come to fruition, a dialogue in absolute evil which rejects or
ignores the absolute interlocutor. Here is the challenge, and we cannot ad-
vance further in our refiections except by placing ourselves within the
answer, that is to say within the revelation.
II. The rising body
In the light of the bodily resurrection of Christ into which the liturgy
grafts us, we discover our body as a liturgical body. A Christian can only
L'entretien infini, p. 200. 131
Speak of the body on the basis of the incarnation of the Word, his passion
and resurrection, from inside the Body of Christ. Christ is a divine person
who fully assumes humanity and therefore bodily existence. But without
the least opacity, without the least distance between his bodily nature and
the mystery of his person. His body, woven out of every cosmic matter
which is marked by human pain and genius, is constantly transformed,
through his constant adherence to the Father, into a eucharistic body. This
body of offering and prayer becomes the body of human "pro-existence"
and of cosmic transformation, a gathered, united body of humanity and of
the universe, assumed in the trinitarian communion. It is both cosmic and
fraternal flesh, because it finally finds its truth in the great eucharistic "syn-
The body of Jesus, unlike our body, is not a fragment of humanity and
of the universe to which the individual jealously and desperately clings
(knowing that in the last resort everything slips away); his body is the entire
universe, the entire humanity, assumed by self-giving Lx)ve and hence freed
from opacity and separation. The miracles reported in the Gospels are
signs of this liberating transformation which restores to the bodily nature
its paradisiac dynamism and its luminosity. It would be useful to scrutinize
from this viewpoint the self-designations used by Jesus the door for the
sheep, the vine, the living water, not to mention the bread, both heavenly
and earthly, which nourishes for eternal life. At the same time, Jesus is the
one who discerns the person beyond sin, shame and lostness, if only he or
she turns the face towards him to receive from him pardon and the future.
At the moment when this Body recapitulates all our agonies, in Gethse-
mane and at Golgotha, when God experiences in the flesh all our anxieties
and tortures, when death seems to have the upper hand, then everything is
swallowed by the light: the "body of death" becomes the "body of resurrec-
tion". On the shore of the lake the Risen One lights "a charcoal fire with
fish lying on it" (John 21:9): The lake where the sky is reflected, the red-
dish glow of the charcoal, the odour of the fish being grilled, the meal
shared in friendship that, too is the Kingdom of God. In other words
earth, the whole earth, is "set free from its bondage to decay to obtain the
glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). In the definitive
Adam the precarious flesh, submitted to finitude, deviance and death,
becomes fiesh of resurrection, body of glory. "Do not forget that to live
means glory", said Rilke. In Christ this presentiment becomes truth. The
body is no longer tomb but nuptial chamber. The murdered offers life, a
life without limits, to his murderers.
The most ancient patristic tradition witnesses forcefully to this spiritual
reintegration of the flesh, and this theme was picked up early in the 20th
century by the great Russian religious philosophers from the sophologues
to Merejkovski and Rozanov, as well as by the great French religious phi-
losophers such as Maurice Blondel and Charles Peguy. "For the supernat-
ural is itself natural", wrote the latter in Eve. And in Victor Marie, Comte
Hugo he shows the mystery of the incarnation "as a gathering of the
Eternal in the fiesh, as the completion of a carnal series, as the crowning of
132 a fieshly race. . . as the crowning, the coming to a head of a history which
has arrived at the flesh and at the earth. . . " Boulgakov noted that the earth,
absorbing the blood spurting from the pierced side of Christ on the cross,
had become an immense Grail, and Merejkovski celebrated "the holy fiesh
of the earth". "Why did Christ rise in the fiesh except to show the reality of
the resurrection of the fiesh?", wrote Justin in the second century."*
Through the liturgy we are anchored, and thrust into this living and life-
giving fiesh. And I would say: fieshly liturgy. The Orthodox liturgy is full
of, and inseparable from the sense of mystery and incarnation in which
everyone and all together undergo (or should undergo) the apprenticeship
of their body as a liturgical, sacramental and rising body. The rite, more
precisely the Christian rite, which is not fusion but communion, constitutes
perhaps today the only possibility for exorcising a narcissistic or anxious
sacralization of the body, while possessing therapeutic power through its
traditional gestures and motions (provided we, the Orthodox, watch out lest
they become mechanized or lost; we must, therefore, render them fully con-
The liturgy places us within the Body of Christ, the space or rather the
source of the Breath carrying the world and also the house of the Father. It
is the Body where the trinitarian communion offers itself as human com-
munion; a body of offering in which together we offer ourselves, "our-
selves, each other and our whole life", to the divine fire which, in response
to the epiclesis, invests our whole being, our senses, our bodily existence,
through a non-esthetic, luminous and pacifying beauty, the beauty of the
hymns, of the icons and of a whole incarnating space, centred on the
altar. . .
The liturgy renders time "porous" to the coming kingdom; time also
becomes eschatological. The astral cycle gravitates around the "sun of jus-
tice". The traditional symbolism of day and night is anticipated and turned
around by the resurrection which renders the night luminous; this is the sig-
nificance of the Pascal watch, repeated during the "vigils" each Sunday,
and also of the ascetic "watch", an awakening to Him who is coming.
In the liturgy the body becomes language or rather listening. Sometimes
lying prone, totally bent, the forehead against the ground, a body of
humility becomes humus, good earth, where the grain yields a hundredfold.
Sometimes upright in the freedom of the adopted son, mediator of the vis-
ible and the invisible, of heaven and earth, called to perfect the christolog-
ical syntheses. The faithful welcome one another with the kiss, and all are
welcomed by the icons, the faces opened towards the infinite, the perfect
expressions of persons who are separated neither from God nor from their
fellow creatures.
The sacramentality of things is also accomplished in the liturgy, and
this blessing of the cosmos (taken up, for instance, in the grace said at
table) assumes great importance for our society which instinctively seeks
the invigorating shock of the elements. The bread, the vine, the grains and
cereals are blessed on the eve of feasts; branches and fiowers fill the church
at Pentecost; fruits are blessed on Transfiguration Day; the Feast of
4 Frag. 8. 133
Epiphany is marked by an especially solemn blessing of the waters, some-
times a river or the sea, and the water symbolizes the primordial energy.
The understanding of God who is both beyond the incarnate, permits and
requires the multiplicity of symbols, and poetic expressions of the union of
the divine and the human, the divine and the cosmic, realized in Christ.
Hence the humble importance of candles and lights, sign of the gift of fire,
of creation being consumed in infinity, of the vigilance of prayer, of the
tension, through which matter is stretched towards the Beginning and the
End. Hence also the humble importance of incense, of the smoke which
spreads in space like the prayers of the saints in the space of God; the
humble importance, finally, of the unctions through which the skin
becomes permeated and glossy receiving "the oil of gladness", and also of
the perfumes which reach the soul through the smell, the most carnal, most
terrestrial sense. Thus begins the "pneumatization" of the senses; the heart
awakens through the mediation of the pacified, illuminated senses which
have become means of adoration.
All these symbols and gestures plunge us into the Body of Christ, into
the immemorial stream of the communion of saints, living and dead (who
are not dead), and they represent a time, a space, a composite of gestures of
non-death, of contested and smashed death, inverted by the paschal per-
spective: "through death he has conquered death". Little by little the "body
of death" is transfomed into the body of life; deep anguish becomes confi-
dence, narcissism becomes abandon...
The human being becomes celebration, wholly an instrument of cele-
bration (this is the reason why there are no musical instruments in our
churches), singing with all one's breath, with the whole being, "from the
toes", said a young Frenchman who had lived in Serbian nionasteries. The
music provides the words with the force of praise, the rhythm breaks the
continuity of the talk, opening it to silence. The "modulism" and the "bila-
teralism", so well studied by Marcel Jousse, make the singing into a sort of
internal dance (incidentally, people dance in the churches in Ethiopia, and
for a long time there was dance in the Serbian and Russian churches, espe-
cially at weddings).
Everything in this Christ-like body and in this ecclesial unity has its
origin and culmination in the sacraments where the elements of the world
and the fruits of work become the God-man and hence the rising body of
men and women. Sometimes the elements are taken in their original vir-
ginity as is the case for the baptismal water which causes us to die and to
live, in which we die with Christ in order to rise with him. Baptism grafts us
into the glorified Body of Christ, it sows in us the germ of the body of
glory. Sometimes the elements are transformed by the human genius, they
express the necessary food or the no less necessary feast: the bread and
wine of the eucharist or the holy Chrism, this poem of perfume, this oil
made to bum on us like the secret fiame of Pentecost.
In the eucharist, "cup of the synthesis", God becomes for us food and
drink. In this he fulfills the most fundamental human desire which, on the
one hand, is a stretching out for a life stronger than death and, on the other
134 hand, a nostalgia for the strongest of pleasures, for the first fusional love of
the mother by whose very body the child was nursed. But the incarnate
God remains, according to a masculine symbolism, the Son of the Father,
so that there is communion without regressive dissolution, fusion perhaps,
but without confusion.
In the liturgy we undergo the apprenticeship for a different relation
with others and with the world, the apprenticeship of love of the enemy,
since the victory of Christ over death liberates me from the anguish for
which the other is so often the scapegoat. It is an apprenticeship of the
word, that it may not be purely rational, propaganda or publicity but cap-
able of being eaten like the Word made fiesh; the apprenticeship of con-
templation of beings and things which liberates the glory buried in them
since it can now freely circulate in Christ between earth and heaven.
Thus the liturgy is prophetic. It contests the human relations based on
money, oppression, pride and ignorance of the other. It challenges the rela-
tion which the modem West has established with the cosmos, wanting to
exploit it without respecting and embellishing it. It provides us with the
force to register the demand for communion in our society (remember that
in the ancient Church the liturgy was an occasion for sharing), to register in
the area of work, of art, of culture, a demand for transfiguration. It teaches
us that the body expresses the person, when the person realizes in Christ, in
the unity of the sacramental Body, the "consubstantiality" with all the
The body is called to become a liturgical body by interiorizing the cele-
bration. The fundamental purpose of Orthodox ascesis and spirituality is to
become aware of this rising body, sown by baptism inside the body and
nourished by the eucharist. For in its structure and its rhythms the human
body is constituted to become "the temple of the Holy Spirit" as Paul says.
This involves the two fundamental rhythms of respiration and of blood;
and also the "space of the heart", a "space" which is both corporeal and
The respiratory rhythm is the only one which we can use at will. The
second story of creation in Genesis (2:7) underlines the correspondence
between the Spirit of God, his life-giving breath, and the vital human
breath. The Spirit is etemally "the breath articulating the Word";^ there-
fore, when the human breath articulates the Name of the incamate Word
this is the "prayer of Jesus" it blends with the breath of God and
"breathes the Spirit", as the Byzantine Fathers used to say.
Blood, liquid as water, red and hot as fire, seems to be matter called to
become spirit as it carries, according to the Bible, the mystery of life. Blood
suggests the original waters over which the Spirit moves. But man as mur-
derer spills the blood; and the woman who is not pregnant bleeds periodi-
cally, thereby feeling strongly, as Simone de Beauvoir noted, that "her
body is something other than herself'.^ Christ heals the woman from her
flow of blood, sweeping away the old distinctions of pure and impure. On
the cross he spills the life-giving, eucharistic blood for the salvation of his
5 St John of Damascus, Defide orthox, PG 55, 60 D.
(> The Second Sex, p. 29. 135
murderers that is, for you and me. From now on the divine-human
blood is blended into ours through the sacramental life. The blood of
eternity transforms the very rhythm of our blood into celebration. For the
religious who receives the grace of the "perpetual prayer" the very beat of
the blood now chants the Name of Jesus (Nicolas Cabasilas).
Finally, the heart represents (and partly constitutes) for the Bible and
for the ascetics of the Christian East the innermost centre of the individual,
the uniquely personal depth called to integrate all of the human faculties
into the "sense" or the "sensation of the heart" (Diadochus of Photice).
These are, according to the classification which the Fathers borrowed from
philosophy, the nous which is intelligence and lucidity, epithymia which is
desire, and thymos which is aggressivity, but in the neutral sense as a force
of orientation. The condition of the Fall is characterized by the disintegra-
tion of this "sense of the heart". The heart is the place where the powers of
good confront the powers of darkness. Nevertheless, since even the most
sinful person does not cease to exist "in the image of God", the "abyss of
the heart" aspires to the transcendent, and grace enters him or her secretly
at baptism. The heart thus appears as a sort of "supra-" or "trans-con-
scious", tormented by the desire for God and seeking to bring into con-
sciousness the divine energy received at baptism. For the "psychoanalysts
of existence", notably Victor FrankF (whose thinking owes much to the
experience of the power of the soul, demonstrated by certain prisoners in
the Nazi camps), the deepest human unconscious bespeaks not only unsa-
tisfied desires but God; it is rooted in the irreducible relation of every
person with the transcendent. Neurosis appears, therefore, as the expres-
sion of ignorance or refusal of God. The unconscious is a supraconscious
desiring God. From the same perspective, which is biblical, E. A. Levy-Va-
lensy notes:
Freudianism has shown that man censures the realities of sexual life, because he
is afraid of them... very well. But there is a reciprocal proposition to this the-
orem : even though man sometimes removes himself from sexual life, at other
times he also takes pleasure in it and wallows in it, because he is less afraid of it
than of his own deepest reality.. .^
For the Christian the main problem will be to "lower" his clear con-
science and his intelligence "into his heart" and at the same time to transfi-
gure the force {thymos) and the desire {epithymia) in the crucible of this re-
constituted "heart-spirit". Certain Orthodox religious, notably Paissy
Velitchkovsky, make a slight distinction in localizing this profound heart
and the physiological heart without, however, separating them completely,
as if to suggest that the physiological heart symbolizes and partly incorpo-
rates the profound heart. A neurophysiologist who respects the spiritual
would probably observe that the unity of intelligence and of the heart can
be interpreted by, although not reduced to, the reciprocal integration of the
two hemispheres of the brain, the left being devoted to intellectual activity
and the right to activity of the impulse.
^ Le Dieu inconscient, Paris, 1975.
136 ^ Les voies et les pieges de la psychoanalyse, Paris, 1971, p. 324.
From the re-united "heart-spirit" grace is communicated to the entire
body. The body becomes conscious of God who constantly rises in the
depth of our being; conscious not in terms of narcissism but of blessing, of
the passion-free joy, of the fully incarnate transformation of the "memory
of death" into the "memory of God". The whole Orthodox spirituality is in
truth physics of the body of glory. When "the sense of the heart" is re-
united through the Spirit, it communicates its joy "to the body itself: in it,
says the Psalmist, my fiesh has flowered again",^ so that man senses God
"through the sensation even of his bones".'^ A "painful joy", a "tender-
ness" takes hold of the person, brings softly and discreetly charismatic tears
into the eyes, not of penitence but of gratitude, "the blissful smile of the
soul" (J. Climacus). Recovered childhood, the smile illuminating the tears!
We become priests of the world on the altar of our heart; priests of the
cosmic liturgy. "He offers the universe to God. . . as on an altar"." We
receive the logoi of things in order to gather them in the Logos. We release
the sacramentality of the world. "Everything around me appeared to me
under the aspect of beauty", writes a Russian pilgrim. "Everything prayed,
everything sang the glory of God". Here the body is no longer the specific
volume cut out from space, it becomes as vast as the world, "the world is
inside", says the poet. The breath which vibrates the body is the same
which carries the world.
From this perspective it seems to me that two great tasks await us: First,
in the light of this specifically Christian experience it is essential to practise
a discernment of psycho-somatic methods, -whether eastern or western.
Among them are techniques designed to relax and pacify the individual in
his or her bodily existence by uniting it with cosmic rhythms. There is great
danger that this balancing mastery of the body takes place within an
immanentist and proudly gnostic perspective (the seeking of "powers"), a
perspective in which the meaning of the person and the obedience of the
faith are ignored or despised. But as we have seen. Orthodox monasticism
has absorbed the Platonic anthropology without becoming Platonic, and a
good deal of stoic ascesis also bound to an immanentist and impersonal
view of the divine without becoming Stoic! (We know that the first text
reproduced in the Philocalia is a Stoic treatise.) Today we have to recover
this Patristic approach on the level of the spiritualities of all parts of the
world. People in the west are today so uptight, tense, nervous, confined to
the surface of life that they need to calm themselves and to go more deeply
into the meaning of the body and of the poetry of things before
approaching traditional ascetic practices. These are designed for people of
ancient cultures, cultures of silence and a slow pace. The human tree is
vigorous, it only needs to be trimmed. But people today remind us of a
stunted tree which first needs to be rooted in the earth, in the wind and the
light, before it can be trimmed. Therefore, it is essential to know whether
certain elementary practices of Yoga, the gratuitous contemplation found
9 Diadochus, Chap. Gnost., 25.
'0 Ibid., 14.
" Maximus the Confessor, Mystagogy 4. 137
in Zen, can, with certain modifications, find a place within the large vessel
of the church (sometimes rejection is certainly indicated; for instance, of
"Transcendental Meditation" which is always linked to the invocation of a
Hindu divinity).
Second, it seems to me that we should widen the great Philocalic atti-
tudes beyond a purely monastic technique. Andre Borrely has made a
beginning in his beautiful book Celui qui est pres de moi est pres du feu. A
very humble but vivifying use of the "prayer of Jesus" is being made today.
I believe that we need to give a wider range to the attitude of blessing
which is so often practised in our church. We have to learn to pay attention
to our own bodily nature "to draw the incorporeal into the corporeal",
said John Climacus'^ by living the most humble sensation with grati-
tude, by putting with gratitude our hand on the bark of a tree, by receiving
with gratitude the evening breeze on our sun-burnt skin. Around us things
are both visible and invisible. "They are all emblematic down to the scor-
pion which I am careful not to squash and which I like to see display itself
on the wall. The true measure of a person is in these things: to make their
interiority his own, to partake of their praise, to hear it in them, to formu-
late it in himself'.'^ The "contemplation of nature" in God of which the
ancient ascetic tradition speaks can be of great help at this point.
The rhythm of the breath, the blood, the march, the dance, can become
celebration. "To fast is holy", said Martin Buber, "but to eat can be holi-
ness itself, if we eat with gratitude, liberating the sparks of the divine pres-
ence, of the Shekinah, which reside in the food." It behoves us to find a dif-
ferent relation to the elements which so many young people pursue today,
to the return of a civilization of the body vibrating in the sun, the sea and
the wind, vividly mastered in the ascesis of true dance or of sport. The
kouroi of ancient Greece to whom Christianity has given a face while dis-
daining the body must regain their place in the church, just like the admir-
able shafts of antique columns which, after so many centuries of Christian
prayer, are no longer idols but merely cosmic beauty!
III. The destiny of desire
A study of ascesis will enable us to get a sense of the transfiguration of
desire in the monastic way as well as in the encounter between man and
The meaning of ascesis can only be understood from the perspective of
the rising body, the liturgical body. Ascesis is the effort not voluntary
but involving always a sort of abandon to grace, of attention without ten-
sion to thrust aside the masks which are incorporated into our face, the
neurotic personages which are bound to our person, to tear away the dead
skins, and in confidence and humility, in the obedience of faith, to let the
very life of the risen Christ emerge in us. It is the effort of openness and
aspiration which permits the vivifying Breath to transform the anonymous
body of the species into a body of language of persons and of the
'2 27th degree, 7.
138 ' ' P. Emmanuel, Feuilles volantes.
encounter between persons, so that little by little we change from a posses-
sive body, which treats the world as a prey, to the body of celebration,
which becomes one with the cosmic liturgy.
Ascesis prevents the person from being submerged by "this world",
which is not God's creation but the web of "passions" (in the idolatrous
sense of the word) and of hypnoses which mask God's world. It "unglues"
us from "this world" allowing us to discover the world as God's creation
and language. The narcissistic and predatory person projects himself or
herself on other persons and things and masks their luminous depth. This
obscures the sacramentality of the world and banishes the glory of God.
The world becomes an impenetrable barrier the "wall" which haunts
modem literature and sometimes a magic mirror, the water which closes
over Narcissus. The passions of weight avidity, avarice, of closed and
perverse sensuality retain from things and beings only that which corre-
sponds to them. Tilings and beings are reduced to "what comes to mind",
to "what we can get our teeth into". They become opaque. A repetition of
Adam's deed: eating instead of respecting...
Ascesis limits, therefore, the objectification of beings and things (which
our producer-consumer society accentuates on the collective level), it
allows us to see in them not only objects to be possessed, consumed and
destroyed, but mute "words" of the Word which makes itself heard in the
Bible and gives itself as food in the eucharist. The ascesis of humility and
confidence makes each of us anew like Adam, called to "name" the living
through a vivifying knowledge both rational and spiritual the first
man marvelling before the first woman and entering into the first dialogue
with her.
Ascesis "releases" desire and opens it to the Breath of the "living life".
Our age exalts the positivity of the body and of desire, of the body as a
body of desire. Thus G. Groddeck transfigures the Freudian "Id" to the
point of seeing in it the primordial energy of life. And W. Reich celebrates
this energy the "orgon" in the whole dynamism of the universe but
like Freud sees in it no other authentic expression than the successful
orgasm. For the "philosophers of desire", Deleuze and Guattari, Reich
"introduces a hymn of life into psychoanalysis" but in their materialist
conception of desire people become "machines of desire".
The whole problem is the aim of desire. Already Plato said that desire
wants immortality, contesting death, either by perpetuating the species or
by contemplating the heaven. Christianity completes the revelation of its
significance: desire is the dynamism which God instills in creation so that it
strives towards him. Eros is the expectation of agape. God has two hands,
says Irenaeus, his son and his Spirit. The Spirit torments the creature with a
desire quenched only through the revelation of the Son. The two "hands"
of God are joined in the incarnation. When W. Reich says that eros
quickens the universe he repeats Denys the Areopagite or Dante: "l'amor
que move il sole e l'altre stelle". But when he sees in the orgasm the ulti-
mate accomplishment of desire, he errs and throws humanity back to old
paganisms which are irremediably compromised by the biblical and Chris-
tian revelation of the person. Sexual paroxysm obliterates death only for a 139
moment, for if it is not integrated into respect and tenderness, it throws the
individual into loneliness and grief, into what Paul calls "grief unto death".
To set desire free in a world shut up by death is to make it mad, like a
falcon enraged by the absence of its prey. It is ignorant of its aim; and its
prey, its aim, is God.
This is the reason why the key to the "passions" in the idolatrous
and hypnotic sense of the word is the closed finitude of the person and
the desperate attempt to forget it. The "passions" block desire, directing it
towards the relative which it then destroys in its vain search for the abso-
lute. Only Christ's resurrection opens for desire the true way, reveals it as
the challenge to death, the search for agape.
Now we can understand that the apparent madness of the monk is his
greatest wisdom. In him desire is directly drawn, magnetized and con-
sumed by the face of the Lord in its tragic and fiashing beauty. And in the
light of this face the face of the neighbour is revealed as truly non-posses-
sive and personal. Thus the monk is both "separated from all and united
with all" in the magnificent expression of Evagre. The great religious is,
therefore, never asexual as certain monastic texts (more Manichean than
Christian) might suggest. On the contrary, if a man, he achieves his full
virility, if a woman, her femininity, by integrating the sexual polarity, the
animus and the anima of Jung: the spiritual father acquires a motherly ten-
derness, the spiritual mother a virile force. In the monk eros is not crushed
but transformed and transfigured. Hence John Climacus writes: "May the
physical eros be a model for you in your desire of God","* and further:
"Blessed is he who has a passion for God no less violent than the lover has
for his beloved."'^
Continuity, but also discontinuity: the change of desire through a veri-
table death-resurrection. Here ascesis means obedience, even humiliation,
for the impersonal roaming of erotic desire is a form of "self-idolatry" (St.
Andrew of Crete). But at the same time, ascesis is lifted up by the joy of the
resurrection. "The consubstantial Word of the Father perfects chastity",
says John Climacus. And St. Isaac, the Syrian notes that "the heart is no
longer attacked by the passions... A far stronger desire has carried it
away." '^ Another desire or, rather, a desire changed by the liberating inter-
vention of agape. The monastic way of "divine eros" (in the double sense
of God's love for us and of human love for God) has long been the object
of profound explorations by Orthodox wisdom. Today it is essential to
study the way of the rising body in human love, a task begun by such Rus-
sian religious philosophers as Soloviev, Rozanov and Evdokimov.
Christianity has put an end to the autonomy of sexuality. A Christian
cannot maintain that only the body is involved in a sexual relation with no
concern for the person. Food only passes through the body (although we
should eat and drink "to the glory of God", I Cor. 10:31). But sexuality
implicates the person whose "shape" ("the soul is the shape of the body".
'4 26th degr., 34.
'5 3Othdegr., 11.
140 '6 38th discourse.
said Aristotle) is engraved in the substance of the world so as to transform
it into the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (I Cor. 6:19). For the Christian sexu-
ality must become a dimension of the person, a language of the relation
between persons. The vastness of life becomes interiorized in the encounter
of two persons and through their mediation receives the divine benediction
of the origins, as Jesus recalls it: the amazed face to face of man and
woman becoming "one fiesh" (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:6). This unity of the
fiesh denotes not only the union of the bodies but the interwovenness of
two lives. Only the very old spouses, whose sexuality has left them, know
for sure what it means to "become one fiesh". I would like to make two
further observations.
1. "To fall in love" is one thing, to love truly is another. And I believe
and maintain strongly against the trends of fashion that it is not a good
thing to want the immediate sexual realization of the fact of falling in love.
The "old Christians", the Christians "by birth", by family and background,
will limit themselves at this point to the argument, perhaps with a certain
resentment but, I hope, in obedience to the faith, that it is sin, without real-
izing that nobody today understands them. Therefore, it seems to me as
someone who is both "outside" and "inside", having long lived outside
Christianity, that a few explanations are needed. I would say that to fall in
love and to give immediate sexual expression to this attraction (which is
largely the anonymous game of the species) is to run the risk of remaining
prisoner of ourselves, of our narcissism or of an image going back to child-
hood, perhaps the quest for the mother, perhaps a fusional regression . . . It
is not that sexuality is bad in itself. On the contrary: because it is funda-
mentally good, because it is the participation of two persons in the Breath
which carries the world, because it is the strongest, most violent language
which two beings can use, because it makes them "one fiesh" (even, says
Paul, in relation to a prostitute), it is essential for a man and a woman to
become worthy of this language. Most often in these "brief encounters" we
are not worthy of our sexuality, we receive a language while we have
nothing to say. Sin is not the infringment on a prohibition. The gospel sets
forth the meaning of life, it shows the way, it does not dictate laws. Sin is
that blind encounter, that ignorance of the other in the very act which the
Bible calls "knowledge", it is the face transformed into body while the
body should be transformed into face. A foreboding of sin is sometimes
present in the terrible feeling of grief caused by having lived through a very
important experience without having lived up to it. And even if there is
consent and mutual respect, who knows if a true and durable feeling has
not been evoked in one of the partners whom the separation may cruelly
hurt and destroy?
On the other hand, Christians should know that the sphere of sexuality
is no more cursed than that of power or wealth for which Christ has much
harsher words. In Orthodoxy, and especially, but not exclusively, in Rus-
sian Orthodoxy which has never been very "Victorian", it seems that the
true spiritual fathers know this. They know that there are degrees: from
pure and simple animality which can be glorious but which remains infra-
human, to violence and the will of power doubtless the worst form of 141
sexuality, since the other person is not only ignored but degraded to
nostalgic gratitude and desperate tenderness of two beings who meet at the
gates of death. Read again Solzhenitsyn and other witnesses: a woman, out
of kindness, offers the gift of her presence, perhaps of her body, to a man
who is about to die or to descend to the inferior circles of hell I say that
this woman, this man, one or the other, are Christians, and even if they are
not (which poses a problem), I do not call this "fornication".
However that may be, to love truly means to discover the other in his or
her specific identity. This does not necessarily mean to fall in love. Often it
takes the form of a deep friendship: being at peace with the other, feeling at
ease, being accepted and accepting the other, having the capacity (which is
a unique grace) to help the other mature and deepen, and perhaps to help
him or her one day to age and to die. The otherness of the partner may
even dazzle me to the point of producing the momentary suppression of
desire in the genital sense. The time of "engagement" even if the word is no
longer known; the time of being a "fiance", of offering "trust", confidence
and of engaging one's "faith", according to a magnificent ancient
And when the incarnation of the encounter comes, very naturally and
supematurally (here we shall find the meaning of the sacrament of
marriage), the intuition of the otherness of the partner permits the partners
to unite eros and agape, eros and tenderness, to pay attention to each
other's pleasure, so that pleasure becomes exchange, language beyond
words, "the aggregate of ceremonies which incarnate others", said Sartre
who can be forgiven many things for that page 459 of Being and
Nothingness] This non-separated sexuality will therefore be less solitary
possession than dialogical dispossession, confident abandon, when "the
soul envelops the body", according to a word of Stendhal, taken over by
N ietzsche... Here we can note two signs of a true encounter, of the
awakening and strengthening of a weighty and noble love: the proof of time
and the gift, not of death, but of life.
TJie proof of time: To discover the other as a person means to discover
him or her in duration, not only in the erotic instant and the game of
seduction. It means to assume the other's past, perhaps painfully; to listen
to the stories of each other's childhood and to the confession of mistakes,
out of a respect which does not admit jealousy. And not only to assume
each other's past, but to assume responsibility for the other's future. To
understand the other in the duration of time also means to become patient,
while the fusional passion or "the exchange of two fantasies and the
contact between two epiderms" are necessarily impatient.
The proof of the gift of life. Idolatrous passion is linked to death, it is
both nostalgia of an impossible fusion and war between the sexes. It
exhausts the world and chases the others away. Nothing counts anymore
except to be with the "beloved", to reach with him or her erotic ecstasy.
Tristan and Isolde leave behind a wake of dead people and ruins. In solid
and durable love, however, each offers the other the world in its first
freshness, life and not death. And this dimension of true love becomes part
142 of the mystery of life together and freely offered, of the visitation of those
little unknowns which are our children whom we need to love and to rear
spiritually through long and unselfish service.
Parenthetically, it would be important to develop a theology of
amorous passion for our time, corresponding to the theology of lewdness
so well developed by the ascetes as they were confronted by stark
temptations (for amorous passion cannot be reduced to lewdness). Pierre
Emmanuel, a poet, in his Livre de Vhomme et de lafemme, seems to me to
have already laid out that tragically and dangerously initiatory descent to
hell. "The cosmic passion of lovers, wanting to be one in order to supplant
the One^\ is inseparably an outcome of Paradise and the Fall, Paradise lost.
Passion is the usurpation of the absolute, "demented desire to be everything
for each other". It reduces the lovers "to their common nothingness", an
"all-absorbing nothingness", as the poet specifies who thus comes close to
the sharp remark of Maurice Blondel that "we seek nothingness with an
infinite will" while recoiling from it in horror. In the light of a theology of
the passion of love, many whose life has been marked by painful errors
would understand that in this very experience they have been devoted to
the quest of truth. Incidentally, the great spiritual leaders know this.
2. Today young people, and sometimes the most conscientious among
them, tell us: "We are going to live together. Why get married, legally or in
church? Why let institutions interfere with what is our own secret? And
how can we commit ourselves to stay together forever when each of us will
change and when life lasts much longer in our time?" The answer is that
the sacrament of marriage is not a social affair but a mystery. It has
meaning only within the context of the faith, of the Gospel, of the
assurance that the work of Christ, shown in the Gospels, continues in
church that is what the sacraments are about and that even today
Jesus can change water into wine. But it is not only absurd but criminal in
talking with young people about sexuality to. use the language of judgment,
accusation and menace, to deal with it in terms of what is permitted and
forbidden, when they do not even know whether they believe in God. It
may keep them forever away from God, Christ and the church. The
primary task is that of evangelization. We must lead young people to
understand that we are not orphans shivering in an absurd world with no
other hope for reassurance but the warm fiesh of others (cf. Dostoevski's
brilliant description of the vision of Versilov in The Adolescent). We need
to reveal to them God's revelation, make them understand that he loves
each one of them as he or she is, in order to liberate them and to offer them
consistency and responsibility, as Jesus loved the adulterous woman or the
Samaritan woman who had five husbands and lived with a man who was
not her husband. And if they have a change of heart, if they turn to the
church, not because of social pressure but to be united with Christ, hungry
for his Word and his eucharistic presence, once they attain a certain
intensity of the spiritual life, they would need to hear about chastity as
waiting for true love, about modesty as the affirmation of the person, about
virginity as a possible expression of spiritual integrity, of the child-like
lightness and clarity of the soul. All this without dramatizing their
momentary errors, without focusing the notion of sin on sexuality, 143
particularly when we are so often indifferent to more serious forms of
deviance (think of the three temptations of Jesus in the desert or of the
warnings of the old ascetes concerning slander...)
But there are also young people without any notion of the church as
mystery who love each other passionately, with simplicity and a true purity,
where sexuality realized or not has no autonomy, while it often
assumes a sinister autonomy among "blase" adults, although they are duly
married at city hall and even in church. Such love can be a privileged point
of evangelization, because on a primitive level it often involves a mystical
experience, a sense of unity in the difference, the passionate desire for the
other to exist, even beyond death, a desire for love to be stronger than
death. At this point you can speak to them about Christ's victory over
death, you can testify that at the bottom of things there is love and not
nothingness, and that our God, in his trinitarian openness, constitutes the
secret source of love. And perhaps you can help them, whether young or
not so young, but often psychologically unformed, to look at each other
differently, to free themselves from a too fusional bond, refuge against
nothingness, in order to become truly responsible for each other in the
hope of the resurrection.
It is only when we make evident to the young and the not so young
the sacramentality of love, that we can make them understand the sacrament
of marriage. For the sacrament is the full revelation of the meaning of love.
Man and woman, their precariousness as well as their dynamism, their
doubts as well as their intuitions, are taken up through the sacrament into
the immense reality of Christ's love for his church, of God's love for his
people, and finally of the fullness of love of the Trinity which Christ
communicates to us. This love precedes, founds and renews our love. It is
as if we lived on the surface of an infinite depth of love. "All great love is
crucified love", said Paul Evdokimov. By this cross, this dying that the
other may live, this sacrificial pardon, ingrained habits and promiscuity are
broken and love which renews our poor and failing tenderness rises from
its inexhaustible depth.
Here faithfulness becomes possible. The sacrament, the entry into the
light of Christ, helps me to discover the other as God's image. It deepens
and stabilizes in me the unique grace to know someone else, soul and body,
as a revelation. So that when the other changes, I perceive in him or her
that which does not change. I perceive his or her icon, vocation, as if God
associated me with the love he has for him or her from all eternity, with the
call addressed to him or her from all eternity. The other exists for me not
only within the time of death and discontinuity but also in the risen time of
personal maturation, of being bom for eternity. To be faithful is to obtain
the revelation of the other as an inaccessible and yet communicated secret,
a revelation which nobody but me, in my love for you, can obtain. This
does not mean that there are no problems. There is an ascesis of the couple
as there is one of monastic life, both with the same purpose: to make the
transcendence of the person prevail over nature twisted by the Fall, over
anonymous sexuality, and especially over the narcissism and indifference
144 of the soul. This is why monasticism, provided it is not dualistic and
totalitarian, can be such a big help for dealing with the problems of human
The way of a man and a woman, a couple, leads, therefore, through
many estrangements, returns, falls and pardons, through deserts where only
committed "faith" is left, and yet, suddenly there are gushing springs of
renewed and deeper joy, more stable and more reduced to essentials.
Sometimes there is irreparable failure, and the Orthodox Church
acknowledges it: there has been enduring pomeia, says Jesus, not exactly
adultery but objectivation of sexuality and irreversible drifting of people. A
man and a woman cannot live up to the "mystery" offered by the church.
Orthodoxy receives the bruised in restoring penitence, re-admits them to
communion for which they have more need than the others, and it can
bless a new union. However, great discernment is needed on the part of the
spiritual father and of the bishop. . . But countless couples from generation
to generation have also humbly lived up to the great paradisiac blessing
taken up by Jesus and his church! Countless homes have been and are
places of peace and light!
The begetting of the "body of glory''
Thus all life long and into death (the deaths) the "body of glory" is
outlined through our assimilation to the Body of Christ. Some, while still
living, have consiously descended into the abyss of separation and death,
into mourning and exile, the exile of Adam, the exile of glory, in order
there to find the incarnate and crucified God who descended to hell and
rose, and who raises them. Their body here below is infused by light and
after their death, often only a "dormancy", their relics radiate divine
energy, they are already plots of the new Jerusalem, and touching them
provides healing for many. For most of us with a mixed, modest or tragic
destiny the life of resurrection is sometimes felt in the sweet burning of the
heart, the furtive joy of tears, in those moments of silence and peace when
the heart becomes like a cup filled by the invisible, like a very calm lake
wherein the stars and the faces are refiected. The life of resurrection is
engraved in the transparent face of a monk at prayer, of a musician who
composes, or of a mathematician who in his own way composes also; in
the face of a friend or of a mother watching her sleeping child. I think
especially of certain old wrinkled and crackled faces whose beauty rises
from the heart, streaming with goodness; they are like chrysalides already
crackling so as to liberate the body of glory.
The best way to prepare for death is therefore to come alive. The most
severe agony can mysteriously become part of Christ's "who conquered
death through death". When death, like love, is finally faced in confident
abandon, it takes its place in the long metamorphosis towards the body of
glory: when the person, committed by the church to the "memory" of God,
becomes again part of the Parousia in the fiesh of the earth, but a fiesh
which is freed of all forms of death. It is "spiritual" fiesh, prefigured by the
appearances of Christ between Easter and Ascension or by the
transfiguration of the saints: "spiritual" fiesh of the Mother of God in
whom the sacramentality of the earth is accomplished. 145
Metropolitan Antony Bloom tells of a gravely ill man whom he helped
to find peace and to deepen his relation to Christ by reviewing his life with
him and thus leading him to understand the truth of his personal life in the
light of grace. He concludes: "Entering death he felt so much alive that he
was no longer afraid to die. He knew that life was within him". St Symeon,
the New Theologian writes in exactly the same terms: "I know that I shall
not die since I am inside life, having already fully felt it pulsing inside me".
Since Christ's resurrection a realm of non-death has opened up in the
opacity of the world, ecclesial, sacramental space, where everything can
change into the light. Body of Christ, Christ-like space of the heart. Some
day we shall need to throw ourselves into that abyss of light with the whole
weight of our anguish, our desire, our pain and our joy; with the whole
weight of our love, our life and our carnal death; with the whole weight of
our body. For, contrary to widespread opinion my body is not my self. It is
my self only when it belongs to Christ, when it takes its place in the stream
of life of the communion of saints, in the fountain-head of living water of
the Body of Christ.