By The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley 31 July 2005
Body and Soul
St Simeon Stylites, (c 390-459) in the fifth century after Christ lived on a column, or rather a little platform nailed to the top of a column. Apparently he started on a low one and gradually increased the height of the column to forty cubits high. There he lived, all alone on a pillar, high above the world, giving himself up to praising God and intercessory prayer. His food was sent up to him in a basket which he let down on a rope. History does not record to how he dealt with other bodily functions, but it is safe to say that there wasn’t a bathroom up there.
Simeon became a cult hero in the spiritual world and people on pilgrimages would stop off and see the famous ascetic. He had a copious correspondence with Christians far remote from the Syrian desert where he lived. He was consulted on matters of theological dispute and able to save souls and convert pagans to the Faith from the top of his pole. People would come and talk him about their personal problems. There might be a level of difficulty about confidentiality when you are shouting at someone at the top of a pole.
The reason that Simeon and a load of other people who sat on columns achieved such fame and were objects of veneration was because of the extreme asceticism of their lives. They had chosen to strip away friendships, sex, warmth, comfort, food, in order to concentrate on their relationship with God, and other people: those who couldn’t or didn’t want to make these choices were awed and a bit abashed. Surely someone who had such contempt for their own physical comfort must be better spiritually than every one else? This view is an old and traditional one, that human bodies are bad and need to be controlled, even mortified in order that the souls that live within them can prosper.
There are many stories of people who practised extreme austerity and self-denial. Hair shirts, self-scourging, extreme fasting, total isolation, even self-mutilation, were all practised as a way of mortifying the flesh. Such stories were collected in books of the lives of the saints as being admirable and worthy of being copied. The conclusion was always drawn that the greater the pain the greater the victory over self. It always makes me want to ask questions. If the self-denial is practised in a very public way, it might amount to spiritual one-upmanship and self-advertising, and perhaps be a satisfaction in its own right. Jesus in chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel warned, “be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men.”
It is one of the greatest shames of Christian history that this belief that pain and suffering was somehow pleasing to God, that devout Christians could be callous to the sufferings of others. You only have to think how the Inquisition justified torture on the grounds that it might save the souls of their victims.
Jesus was conscious of the debate about the relationship of the body to the spirit. He spoke of the way that some people had been drawn to John the Baptist, who as you will remember lived what we would call an alternative life style, living in the desert, eating insects and dressing in animal skins. Some people adored this strange prophetic figure, others criticized John for his extreme life style. Jesus remarked that John had been attacked as having a demon for behaving this way, whereas he on the other hand was attacked for not living uncomfortably, eating and drinking normally.
The fact is that Jesus didn’t say that extreme denial of the body was a good thing. He must himself have observed the fasts that were the routine of Jewish practise. But we know that he was willing to break the Law on Sabbath observance and fasting when he felt that human need was more important.
There is no doubt that Jesus practised personal and private austerity, He went into the desert to fast, he practised night vigils of prayer, but they were between him and His father God, not designed to advertise his holiness. Jesus’ lifestyle presents us with perfect balance between the body and the soul. What extreme ascetics failed to grasp was that Jesus showed great love for the bodies of the people he met. He treated their blindness, deafness, menstrual disorders, and lameness with tenderness. He never shrugged his shoulders and argued that a bit of suffering would be good for their souls. He was attentive to the needs of the body. There are so many competing interpretations of the story of Jesus feeding the crowds in the desert. It is clearly a very important incident, being told by Matthew Luke and Mark. You will have heard it spoken of as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, which it is, you may have heard Charlie speak of it as an example of God’s generosity, which I am sure it is. But today I want us to notice it as an example of Jesus’ holistic approach to the people that he was teaching. There is nothing heartless in Jesus’ approach to human hunger. He recognised that for the soul to blossom the body had to be fed, the weariness of human life supported by love. At no point did he tell the disciples that it did not matter if his followers went unfed for a night. He knew that if they were to learn spiritually they must be fed and nurtured. Jesus loved people in their totality mind, body and soul. He loves us with complete acceptance of our humanness and is never unconcerned about our pain.
Cicely Saunders the founder of the hospice movement is an inspiring example of a Christian who drew upon of Jesus’ total love for his people. Saunders trained as a nurse, after an injury she retrained as an almoner in a hospital, someone who gives financial and practical help to patients in need. In her thirties she retrained as a doctor. In her mind was always the problem of managing pain and smoothing the approach of the dying to their death. Initially this was to do with researching the ingestion of morphine through the mouth, establishing that if the pain killer was given before the onset of most acute pain, that relatively small does could manage the pain, improving the suffers ability to think and communicate during their last months or weeks. But Saunders was inspired by her faith and the example of Christ to take a holistic approach to death and dying. Realising that the state of the mind and soul had a huge impact on the approach to their end, she provided chaplains to minister to their spiritual needs, to allow the patients to express any feelings of guilt, the urge to confess, to address any feelings of rage or unworthiness. In founding the hospice movement Cicely Saunders was drawing upon Jesus’ words and his example, shown clearly in episodes from his life like the one we have in the Gospel today. That humans are precious to God in their totality, that each hair of our heads is counted, each cell of our body is valued. This truth is far reaching in its impact upon our lives and our behaviour towards one another. The ability to be callous about other people’s pain, physical or spiritual underpins a great deal of cruelty and violence. A blasé approach to our own God-given bodies leads to self-abuse and spiritual chaos. In Jesus we see the value for the body as the embodiment of his love for the whole of us. The Bible says that God knew us before he formed us in the womb, that he loves his whole creation completely and continues to love it, after its forms change through decay and death, and beyond death itself. Amen