Spirit and flesh…

“I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” (Galatians 5: 16-17)

My, oh my! How I need to hear these words right now! Are there not times of great temptation, when the world is pushing in on you, pursuing you relentlessly with its bangles and charms? There are times when it seems all I can manage just to keep to my prayer schedule, while every day the pure desires of my spirit are betrayed by the words of my mouth and the actions of my flesh. Like St. Paul, I can only cry out, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Rom 7: 15, 19)

But is not this tension part of God’s design for us? Does it not exemplify the life of Christ in the world, the Body of which we are a part? Was not the death of Christ himself, a result of the opposition of flesh against spirit?

The following paragraph is taken from a letter to Diognetus and explains the conflict of being a Christian in the world and the divine purpose behind it.

“Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.”

The church has shown its most tremendous growth in times of struggle and persecution. What the enemy means for destruction, the Lord uses to build up the kingdom. Like a beautiful garden grown on manure, eventually the manure is transformed and no longer resembles the putrid mass it once was. The garden is victorious, and always will be. In the same way, the world is transformed by the sufferings of members of the Body of Christ.

The same transformation takes place in a body that is disciplined by the spirit. The soul shows the most growth when it denies the body its desires for the sake of Christ. “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” What seems to the body to be meant for its destruction, is the foundation for growth in the spirit, which will result in its total glorification at the end of time.

But the body fights this! Like a little child that wants to play with matches, it does not know that it will be burned up by its desires. We can see this very clearly in the world today. Many, many people in worshiping the desires of the flesh, cause death not just to their spirits, but to their bodies as well. This is evident in the increasing incidence of such afflictions as STD’s, addictions, obesity and abortion to name just a few.

But there is hope for the world. We read: It is by the Christians…that the world is held together. This statement echoes Colossians 1:17 which tells us that “in (Christ) all things hold together.” Since we are the Body of Christ on earth this becomes our divinely appointed function. As Christians we endure persecution knowing that God is using it to transform, not just us, not just the church, but the entire world.

Let us remember this as we take up our cross daily, most especially the cross of persecution by today’s popular culture. God will transform the world through our pain as we turn the other cheek, as we do good to those who hurt us, as we bless those who curse us, all for the sake of Jesus Christ whose Body we are. These are the beautiful seeds God wants us to plant in the manure of the world.

The excerpt goes on to say that we are not permitted to excuse ourselves from this function. No fence-sitting please. You are either with me or against me. To accomplish this task, we need extraordinary strength of spirit, which the exercise of bodily discipline gives us. The soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink. Bodily discipline frees us of the weakness of our flesh that we might live in the strength of the spirit.

To find discipline, it helps tremendously to have a rule of life, such as the Rule of 1221*. It gives us the tools we need to strengthen our spirits to accomplish our divinely appointed function in the midst of suffering and persecution. Let us ask God to help us discern if he is calling us to a rule of life, for the sake of our souls, of the church, and of the whole world.

(*Rule of life of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis)

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