Orthodox Survival Course, Class Class 62: Returning to Ourselves, Session 3 – the Idolatry of the Body

Listen to the audio podcast of this talk at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/osc-62

And when he came to himself…he arose, and came to his father – Luke 15:17, 20

Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. – I Corinthians 9: 24-27

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Returning to Ourselves, Session 3

We are going to continue our series of talks on the various errors that all of us have imbibed from our childhood, as the result of growing up in the delusional mental matrix of the contemporary world. As we know, these errors have been implanted in us by that Great Stereopticon that Richard Weaver talks about in Ideas Have Consequences: the vast, all-encompassing mechanism of education, the media, the academic, scientific, and medical establishment, the traumatizing 24/7 theater of absurd political drama, and so forth, which the anti-Christian global elite use to brainwash the masses into desiring – or at least accepting – a New Age of some kind of promised materialistic utopia under totalitarian control. The problem here is that on one level, in one part of our minds, so to speak, we want to love Christ and we want to be sincere Orthodox Christians; on another level, in another part of our minds, we either consciously or unconsciously believe in, or at least acquiesce to, ideas that are completely incompatible with being Christians, and it is these ideas that actually determine a lot of our day to day priorities and choices, whether we are aware of it or not.

As explained in Classes 60 and 61, I’m calling this part of our course “Returning to Ourselves,” because its purpose is to bring to our awareness these errors that take us far down the prodigal path leading away from our heavenly inheritance, so that we can return to our true selves and deeply repent of becoming “citizens of a far country,” the anti-Christian world of contemporary society, and thereby return to our true allegiance as citizens of the heavenly kingdom. According to the words of Christ, though we are in the world, we are not of the world. To live this reality energetically and not simply possess it potentially – so that our Baptism is for our salvation and not unto our condemnation – we must act energetically to root out the sin of worldliness, which cuts us off from God.

In our last class, we pointed out that worldliness is really an entire ensemble of errors, all of which are related, but are also distinct and can be analyzed separately. We then discussed one of these errors, which is the delusion of worldly immortality and the forgetfulness of death, and its correction, which is the constant remembrance of death. Today we shall begin our discussion about the idolatry of the body, and the correction for idolatry of the body, which is love for the salvation of the soul energized in the life of the mind and of the spirit, along with godly and prudent care for the body. Right now, as we speak in the spring of 2021, we are beginning the season of Great Lent, and therefore disciplining the body as a foundation for disciplining the mind and soul should be uppermost in our minds. So it is a very appropriate time to begin our discussion of this topic!

As an introduction to today’s topic, I’d like to paraphrase one of my favorite accounts from the Desert Fathers. Once a monk traveled to see a great elder, in order to receive “a word,” that is, a life-giving spiritual instruction. He came to the elder and said, “Abba, teach me about spiritual things.” But the elder would not even look at him, much less talk to him. Downcast, he went to the disciples of the elder and said, “Why will the abba not speak with me?” So they went to the elder to intercede for the visitor. When questioned, the elder said, “He asked me about heavenly things – I don’t know anything about that!” When the disciples told the visiting monk the elder’s reply, the light bulb went off: He was asking for something too advanced – how could he learn about the higher reaches of prayer and heavenly realities if he had not even yet mastered the basic, earthly disciplines in order to master his bodily passions? So he returned to the elder and said, “Abba, teach me how to control the passions of the body.” At that point the elder turned to him smiling and said, “Ah, now open your mouth, and I will fill it with good things!”

Our bodies are a great gift from God, part of His creation that He pronounced “Very good!” on the Sixth Day. But we must realize that 1. They are to serve the rational soul, and not vice versa, and 2. Because of sin, the body, like the soul, is subject to manifold passions. In the correct order of spiritual life, we must begin by understanding what the body really is and then bring it under subjection to the soul. The soul in turn must be ruled by its highest faculty, the nous – the spiritual intellect – which in its turn is ruled by God’s holy will and taught by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Then all will be in order, and we will be at peace with God, with other men, with creation, and with ourselves. But the path to attaining such a blessed state must begin with the ABC’s of spiritual life, and that means we have to start humbly, dealing with that part of ourselves which, if we are honest, is not only the most basic but the most real to us: our bodies.

Quick Review: What is Idolatry?

Idolatry is, simply put, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. As we all know, this does not mean only setting up a statue and doing pagan rituals. Our idols are any of the created things to which we enslave ourselves, forgetting their original purpose, distorting their character, and, exaggerating their importance, giving them undue emphasis in our lives, and making sacrifices to them: For these false gods, people sacrifice their time, their energy, their sacred duties to the Church, their family and to society, and, ultimately, they sacrifice themselves to these idols, rejecting God and losing their salvation. They kill that which is higher within themselves as a sacrifice to appease that which is lower within themselves, and by so doing they kill themselves.

When we place the demands of the body over the needs of the soul, this is a form of idolatry.

Body Worship: Making a god out of dust and ashes

Most people would say that they don’t want “Big Brother” to control their lives, but in fact they never escape this control, because they worship their bodies, and “Big Brother” easily dominates them by guaranteeing freedom from physical pain on the one hand and unrestrained carnal pleasure on the other hand. Man is part angel and part animal, and the angelic part – the soul – is the higher part and should rule the lower part. But contemporary man, blinded by the lie of philosophical materialism – the idea that the material world is all there is – and irrationally consuming himself in the tormenting, endless, and futile pursuit of uninterrupted pleasure and total freedom from physical suffering, has cast aside his angelic character and lives entirely like an animal – or, rather, as something lower than the animals, since they in their innocence fulfill their telos, the purpose for which God created them, while carnal men disobey God’s command to lead spiritual lives, and by living exclusively carnal lives, actually become – in their actions, though not in their essence – demons in the flesh.

The Church, of course, provides us the cure for this terrible disease, which is the true teaching about our human nature and what constitutes a a truly human life, along with the power to lead this life, which is the infinite, uncreated grace of God so abundantly available to us in the life of the Church. I think that a lot of us are realizing that at some point in our lifetime “Big Brother” may take away our outward freedom. But if we have been freed from our passions and sins, he can never take away our inner freedom, the eternal and invincible freedom of the sons of God. Let us remind ourselves of what the Scriptures and the Fathers teach us about our body-soul organism, and in light of this teaching, we shall see clearly how the priorities and choices based on the idolatry of the body take away our freedom by blinding us to our true nature and our vocation to holiness.

The Creation of Man

First, then, we need to go back and refresh ourselves with the beautiful truth of what our composite nature of soul and body – God’s most beautiful creation – really is, and this will make us peaceful, happy, and confident as we prepare to take action, because we will remember the firm foundation of Truth on which we stand, which, ultimately, is Truth Himself, the Incarnate Word of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s put aside, for a few minutes, all of our anxiety about the defilement we are suffering in the present and take a refreshing plunge into that great sea of truth, the Biblical and Patristic teaching, which washes us clean of the all the defilement put into our minds by the great philosophical error about our origins, which goes by the name of Darwinism.

The Great Stereopticon has implanted this gigantic error of Darwinism in men’s minds, so that even Orthodox Christians are tempted to believe the myth of microbe-to-man biological evolution, and the idea that we are descended from apes. It’s easy to see how, if you accept this teaching, you will think that the bodily life is all there is, neglect your soul, and become obsessed with the needs – or just the desires – of the body to the point of falling prey to the spiritual and intellectual idiocy which characterizes today’s mainstream culture. Darwinism is the philosophical foundation in modern times for the this idiocy; it is actually an entire ensemble of errors, characterized by, among other errors, the idolatry of the body.

Thank God, in recent years, more and more courageous scientists are constantly coming out to challenge the false science of evolution, which is really not an up-to-date scientific theory at all, but rather a 19th century hoax propagated by militant atheists in the service of the Revolution, men who hated the God of the Bible before they invented the pseudo-science of evolution explicitly in order to fight Him, and not the other way around. Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence against evolution, not to mention the Church’s unbroken teaching going back to God’s revelation of the Creation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, even Orthodox Christians are confused by the lies of Darwinism, because they have had them pounded into their heads in the schools and the media since childhood. Sadly, there are even officially sanctioned modernist “Orthodox” teachers who twist themselves into pretzels struggling to accommodate the pure truth of divine revelation and legitimate science to this absurd and worn-out theory, which is actually just a bunch of pseudo-sophisticated nonsense. Yet it continues to dominate public discourse, because those in power, for their own reasons, promote the researchers and professors who teach it, and they marginalize those who don’t, even to the point of destroying their careers an ruining their lives. Then they use the vast power of the Great Stereopticon to propagate the fairy tales that their well-paid establishment academics are willing to invent in order to earn their thirty pieces of silver. On the other hand, thanks be to God, we still have true teachers, both in the realm of the natural and physical sciences, as well as in theology, philosophy, and history, who absolutely refuse the lies of Darwinism and actively fight them.

One of these true teachers in our Orthodox world was the man who inspired these Survival classes to begin with, Fr. Seraphim Rose, whose Creation, Genesis, and Early Man provides a comprehensive and trustworthy resource for studying the teaching of the Fathers on the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. In Chapter Four, “On the Creation of Man,” Fr. Seraphim quotes St. Gregory the Theologian’s Second Oration on Pascha (Oration 45), in which the great Theologian states clearly that intelligent essences, such as angels and the soul, are higher than the material creation and more akin to the divine nature:

“He gave being to the world of thought [i.e., the world of intellectual beings, angels], as far as I can reason on these matters, and estimate great things in my own poor language. Then, when His first Creation was in good order, He conceives a second world, material and visible; and this a system of earth and sky and all that is in the midst of them; an admirable creation indeed when we look at the fair form of every part, but yet more worthy of admiration when we consider the harmony and union of the whole, and how each part fits in with every other in fair order…This was to show that He could call into being not only a nature akin to Himself [i.e., the angelic, invisible world], but also one altogether alien to Him. For akin to the Deity are those natures which are intellectual, and only to be comprehended by mind; but all of which sense can take cognizance are utterly alien to It; and of these the furthest removed from It are those which are entirely destitute of soul and the power of motion.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa also states that the soul is that part of man that is more akin to God, in this passage from his treatise On the Making of Man:

“…While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned – of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female: for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life. That the intellectual element, however, takes precedence over the other, we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction…”

The editor of Fr. Seraphim’s book, in a footnote, also quotes St. Gregory Palamas and his disciple, Nicetas Stethatos, regarding this question of the relative dignity of the soul and the body. In his treatise On Spiritual Knowledge, which can be found in Volume Four of the Philokalia, Nicetas Stethatos writes, “Only in ignorance would one claim that man is created in the image of God with respect to the organic nature of his body. He is in the image by virtue of the spiritual nature of his nous [i.e., the spiritual intellect, which is the highest faculty of the soul].” St. Gregory, in Topics of Natural and Theological Science (also in the Philokalia), writes, “To know that we have been created in God’s image prevents us from deifying even the noetic world. ‘Image’ here refers not to the body but to the nature of the nous.”

Man, then, has a compound nature of soul and body, in which the rational part, akin to the angelic intelligences – the soul – is the higher and ruling part, while the irrational part, akin to the animals – the body – is the lower part, which receives its dignity from being united to the soul and therefore should serve and obey the soul. Before I go on, however, I want to clarify a couple of things:

First: As St. Gregory Palamas writes, just because the soul is higher than the body, we must not make an idol out of the soul or the intellect. God created our bodies from the dust of the earth, and He also created our souls, including our nous, though not from the earth, but ex nihilo, from nothing. Our souls are not a piece of God, an emanation from the Divine nature, which was somehow trapped in the body, as is taught by the gnostics and Oriental religions. Just because they are more akin to God does not mean that they are somehow part of God. Just as we must not make an idol out of the body, we also must not make an idol out of the soul.

Second: Though, as St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, the soul takes precedence over the body, this is an ontological not a chronological precedence; i.e., the soul take precedence by virtue of what it is, not because it was created prior to the body. Both came into being in the same instant, and neither ever existed apart from the other. The pre-existence of souls, a teaching we see in Plato, Origen, the gnostics, and the Oriental religions, is a very serious error, and it was one of the errors for which Origen was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Souls do not pre-exist, and they do not pass from one body to another (transmigration). Because of death, which is the fruit of sin, the soul has to leave the body for awhile, to await the General Resurrection, but this is unnatural for man, an aberration, not God’s original plan for us. Man is ontologically a body-soul unity: It was as a body-soul unity that each of us came into being, and it will be as a union of body and soul that each of us will live forever after the Second Coming and General Resurrection, whether in eternal happiness or eternal torment.

Third: We must absolutely deny the error of Cartesianism. Rene Descartes, among his other errors, taught that man is, in his famous phrase, a “ghost in a machine” – that the real “me” is my soul, especially my mind, and that the body is this separate thing a mere glorified machine, that the soul happens to live inside of. This kind of radical dualism leads to the two philosophical errors of Rationalism and Empiricism (see Class 18), as well as the heresies of various pseudo-spiritual sects like the gnostics, the Manicheans, the Cathars, the Bogomils, and so forth, who on the one hand pretend to be purely “spiritual” and so deny the reality of the Incarnation, reject the Holy Mysteries, and denigrate marriage as “carnal” and “unspiritual,” while on the other hand giving in to periodic orgies of the worst bodily excess, because for them the body is totally irrelevant, totally unrelated to “spirituality,” and so it is not important what you do with it.

By the grace and mercy of God, we Orthodox Christians are not Cartesians, and we know the truth: Our human nature, and each of us personally, is an organic body-soul unity, and this is why Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His Incarnation, took on both a real human body and a real human soul, to free both body and soul from sin, the devil, death, and hell, and restore us to blessed incorruption and immortality. The entire sacramental economy of the Church ministers to the soul through actions performed by and upon the body, and every divine Mystery of the Church is given for the “health and salvation of the servant of God,” in body and soul. So the Church, obviously, does not denigrate the body – the resurrection of the body and its ultimate glorification in the Kingdom of heaven is a dogma of the Church!

The Church, however, also does not idolize the body: Orthodoxy teaches us to put the body in its proper place, as subservient to the rational and immortal soul. When we reverse this hierarchy, we forget the soul, and treat our bodies like little gods on earth. On the one hand, perhaps we pamper our bodies and ultimately destroy them with excessive comfort, indolence, and pleasures. On the other hand, we perhaps (even at the same time!) fixate on our bodily health and spend countless hours and energy on exercising or finding the most perfect foods or obsessively searching out the latest medical treatments, in order to eke out a few more years of our corruptible and doomed biological existence in this temporary life. (Or we do both! Motivated by our lower passions, we mistreat our bodies through gluttony and other bodily sins, and then, angry at ourselves, we become motivated by our vanity to do some kind of worldly “self-help” program to “become a better person.” But both behaviors are sinful – both involve obsessing on our bodies and temporary well-being.) Thus we reverse the hierarchy in man established by God, in which spiritual concerns come first, intellectual concerns come next, and bodily concerns come last. The body is to serve the rational soul, and not vice versa. When we reverse this hierarchy, we disobey God and leave the path of salvation.

Two Forms of Body Worship: Hedonism and Epicureanism

For most people nowadays, body worship takes the form of sheer hedonism, which is the pursuit of pleasure, pure and simple. This involves the obvious, gross sins like gluttony, drunkenness, drug addiction, sexual sins, and so forth. Of course, the entire culture of consumerism and sexual license surrounds us with incentives to do this, and nowadays everyone is affected by it. But even when people get disgusted with themselves for wallowing in the mire of their carnal passions and resolve to change, nowadays what most of these people turn to as the alternative is a form of Epicureanism; that is, they use therapies and methods – exercise programs, diets, therapies, support groups, self-help books, etc. – which motivate them by the promise of a happier life in this world, a life of worldly but moderate pleasures, a feeling of psychosomatic well-being. The ancient philosopher Epicurus, from whom this school of philosophy takes its name, was a materialist: he believed that the material world is all there is, and that the universe is the result of a mindless and random concourse of atoms, just as today’s evolutionists believe. Since this life is all there is, one should pursue pleasure, but since the desire for of constant and extreme pleasure can never be satisfied, and since at some point the pursuit of greater and greater pleasure leads to physical and psychic illness, one needs to moderate and refine one’s pleasures, in order to lead a contented and virtuous life. Instead of promiscuous sexual activity, one fornicates discreetly now and then, but not so often or so carelessly as to threaten one’s health or one’s career. Instead of gorging oneself on McDonald’s hamburgers and becoming morbidly obese, one watches gourmet cooking shows, shops for the best foods, and makes small but exquisite meals to be enjoyed with fine wine. One is still pre-occupied with the body, but in a more intelligent way. One disciplines the body, but only in order to please the body. Pleasure remains the basis for contentment and, what is worse, this self-deceit disguises itself as virtue!

What is missing here, of course, is the Cross. I am not saying that we should not eat healthy food or enjoy a traditional and properly cooked meal, but that the pursuit of such things can also become an idol, no less an idol than the grossly sinful addiction to large amounts of bad food, and perhaps more dangerous because it is less obviously sinful. When Orthodox Christians resolve to fight their passions, it must be in order to please God, putting aside worldly ways of thinking and living, no matter how refined and respectable, in order to take up our cross and follow our Lord to Golgotha. We should do everything for his sake.

When the Holy Fathers teach us to live moderately, not going to an unhealthy extreme of asceticism on the right hand or the indulgence of the passions on the left hand, they do so not to advocate a sophisticated, Epicurean pursuit of pleasure, as if that were something spiritual, but rather in order to teach us to employ prudence as we advance on the path of a self-denying Christian life, gradually denying ourselves more and more as we grow in our love for God and neighbor. We have to advance in bodily discipline wisely, under the guidance of the Church, and humbly recognizing the limits imposed by our particular bodily constitutions and by the specific kinds of spiritual gifts, of charismata – graces – that the Lord gives each one of us, which vary greatly from one person to another. We don’t practice moderation in order to enjoy ourselves more, like the Epicureans, but in order to grow closer to God.

Health and Fitness: What is the Orthodox Approach?

So we all know that we destroy ourselves when we overeat, smoke, commit sins of impurity, get drunk, and so forth. But the devil has a different weapon for different kinds of people: those whom he cannot destroy through the gross passions of self-indulgence, he destroys through a sinful pre-occupation with physical health and appearance. The vast, multi-billion dollar industries devoted to fitness and physical beauty do not exist to help us save our souls and bodies for eternity, but rather to trap us in an endless cycle of gross consumerism and self-indulgence alternating with humanistically inspired disciplines for self-improvement, which are in reality just more refined forms of the same consumerism and self-indulgence!

What, then, is the Orthodox approach to health, fitness, and physical appearance? It is to regard ourselves as stewards of our bodies, which belong to God. We do not destroy God’s gift of the body by carelessness, but neither do we become preoccupied with it. We should aim at a moderate regime of exercise, a moderate diet, and, in general, have a moderate concern for our physical health, without the pursuit of fitness or health dominating our priorities. We neither neglect our personal appearance, nor do we become obsessed over it, but rather aim at the humble – and real! – beauty of truly pious people: an intelligent cleanliness with a modest and dignified appearance in our bodies and our clothing. That is, we should so develop and adorn our bodies in order to attract the grace of God, not to attract the passionate admiration of men. A disciplined life of prayer and fasting, with a proper number of prostrations added to our daily prayer rule, according to our strength, forms the basis for our spiritual health and, by extension, also psychological and physical health. Time and concern attached to other activities, such as exercise, diet regimes, and so forth, form a secondary priority after the exercise of the traditional Orthodox discipline.

Next Class –

In our next class, we plan to continue our discussion of the idolatry of the body by critiquing specific aspects of contemporary society that trap us in this problem, and by offering practical ideas to help us form an alternative, Orthodox way of life that puts our priorities in the right order, and sets the body, soul, and spirit in right order to each other.

May God grant!

Lagniappe – A hymn for Great Lent:

Here is the text and translation of the Vespers Hymn for Great Lent from the ancient Roman rite. It is attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist, who reposed in the year 604. http://preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Hymni/AudiBC.html (For you Gregorian chant buffs and Western Rite Orthodox: You can find it on p. 539 of the Liber Usualis.)

AUDI, benigne Conditor,
nostras preces cum fletibus,
sacrata in abstinentia 1
fusas quadragenaria.
O MERCIFUL Creator, hear!
To us in pity bow Thine ear:
accept the tearful prayer we raise
in this our fast of forty days.
Scrutator alme cordium,
infirma tu scis virium;
ad te reversis exhibe
remissionis gratiam.
Our hearts are open, Lord, to Thee:
Thou knowest our infirmity;
pour out on all who seek Thy face
abundance of Thy pardoning grace.
Multum quidem peccavimus,
sed parce confitentibus,
tuique laude nominis 2
confer medelam languidis.
Our sins are many, this we know;
spare us, good Lord, Thy mercy show;
and for the honor of Thy name
our fainting souls to life reclaim.
Sic corpus extra conteri
dona per abstinentiam,
ieiunet ut mens sobria
a labe prorsus criminum. 3
Give us self-control that springs
from discipline of outward things,
that fasting inward secretly
the soul may purely dwell with Thee.
Praesta, beata Trinitas,
concede, simplex Unitas,
ut fructuosa sint tuis
haec parcitatis munera. Amen.
We pray Thee, Holy Trinity,
one God, unchanging Unity,
that we from this our abstinence
may reap the fruits of penitence. Amen.

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