The world, the flesh and the devil were the original “axis of evil.” Of the three, “the flesh” often gets the hardest rap. “Sins of the flesh” entail sins of our senses. “Extracting the last ounce of flesh” refers to dominating power. The “flesh industry” exploits people around pornography. Needless to say, from this perspective, anything that “turns us on” in our flesh is to be rejected. Thus we are told that St. Bernard covered his eyes at the sight of the lakes of Switzerland, lest he experience any sensation in his body that might distract him from God.
Unfortunately, or, I will argue, quite blessedly, because God has made our “flesh” and all its sensations good, everything we sense is sacramental, and the flesh is the gateway to the divine. If the Incarnation is God’s enfleshment in the world, then everything in the world, including our bodies and all of our senses, is more sacramentally seductive than sinfully so. They are outward signs given to us by God to reveal God’s graced inbreaking into our lives.
Our flesh is much more than our skin. It encompasses the whole of our bodies and all of our senses. Through the sensations of our flesh found in sight and sound, taste and touch, as well as through intellect and imagination, we come to know everything in the universe, including the presence of God-with-us. And so we attest to that which Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., celebrated in verse more than a century ago: “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I first studied Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” in college. This paean to creation has since become for me a wonderful summary of God’s embeddedness not only throughout the body of the universe but dwelling within my own fleshly body as well.
As I get older, a certain word stands out: “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” Everything on earth is charged or energized by God’s powerful presence. This invites us to a much deeper appreciation of the seductive sacramentality of everything in the universe, including our bodies and our attractions.
A few years ago, I spoke at a Catholic/Hindu dialogue at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The topic was celibacy. I think I was asked because I had written books on the (un)healthy ways celibacy has (not) been addressed in Catholicism.
The Hindu scholar who presented a paper referred to the arousal of our sexual feelings as “twinges.” It was clear she did not think of these feelings as positive and that she felt they were to be avoided. Her negativity was so evident that in the midst of her presentation I whispered to a friend, “I don’t think she appreciates our Catholic understanding of sacramentality.”
Despite her critical estimation of our “twinges,” I found that the concept helped me to name more clearly my own attractions and to be more aware of what kind of persons elicit those “twinges,” in my flesh. The notion also challenged me to move from fearing the “twinge,” as something that could lead me into sin, to seeing it as something sacramental, an occasion of actual grace. After all, if Jesus was like us “in all things but sin,” did he not also experience attractions, and did he not, in the way he dealt with them, empower us to do the same? Might not this experience of the “twinge” in his flesh and in mine be embraced as he must have experienced it, as a microcosm of the body of the universe being “charged” with God’s grandeur?
It is the charges in our flesh that invite us to “leave our father and mother” and to become “one flesh.” Indeed, in our culture, the process of “two becoming one” occurs through prior stirrings of our flesh. These stirrings motivate and lead us, bringing us to the sacrament of marriage, that further revelation of the divine love.
As I celebrate Lent this year, I find that embracing the God within the body of the universe and within my own flesh is helping me to find a new dimension to the fast that is “required of us” (Isa 58). Rather than fasting from the “twinge,” from our attractions, we are invited to welcome the many ways by which we are being aroused to turn our hearts of flesh toward God in conversion, and fast for the day when everything will be charged and twinged, in our flesh and in the universe, to the reign, the power of our God.