Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Mystery of Man in Spirit and Matter

Frank Sheed


"What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” 

~Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 2:6-8 

Man: Body and Soul

In his “simple study of the Catholic faith” entitled A Map of Life, Frank Sheed remarks on both the spiritual and material aspects of man: “Of God’s creatures, there are some that are pure spirits—angels—with no material part. There are some that are purely material—animals, plants, stones, and the rest—with no spiritual part. Between them is man. In him alone spirit and matter are united: by his soul, he is a spirit as the angels are; by his body, he is part of the material universe.” Man’s situation is unique among God’s creation in that his material body is inseparably linked with a rational, spiritual soul; no other creature has been given such dignity. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, reiterates the Psalmist: “thou hast crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet”. Everything that is “under his feet,” namely all material matter, has been put in subjection to man, and is directed toward his glory and honor (in God, of course).

Genesis 2:7

“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

The body-soul union that is unique to man is expressed beautifully in the book of Genesis. Our catechism explains that “the human body shares in the dignity of the ‘image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the spirit” (CCC 364). In addition it notes that “the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body” and that “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC 365). What is true, then, of man in the flesh is always unified in some way with man in the soul.

Life’s Purpose and Perfection

With this in mind, consider the perfection of material things. All material objects have a purpose that corresponds to their perfection. To use an object in a way that is contrary to its purpose is disordered and, in some cases, sinful. Sheed uses the example of a man’s grooming razor: if the razor is used to cut the hair off one’s face then it has been used in a properly ordered way and completes its purpose. If, however, the tiny grooming razor is used to saw logs in half, it would fail miserably and amount to nothing more than misuse. As you can see, knowing an object’s purpose enables one to use it correctly so that it can achieve its perfection. If this principle is true of material objects, it must be true that, in man, his perfection is found in light of the unity of the material body with the eternal soul, for body and soul, together, make up human nature. Man, as both a material and spiritual being, has a perfection that can only be achieved in realizing the purpose of his inseparable body-soul nature. Man’s purpose inherits new meaning when we remember that he is made in the image of God. This unity of body and soul into one human nature constitutes the imago dei and elevates man’s purpose and perfection into something that, in its totality, is inconceivably holy and perfect. Man’s purpose and perfection is nothing less than beatitude with God: “the Son of God became man,” Saint Athanasius said, “so that we might become God.” Man’s perfection is found outside of himself and in his Maker so that, through Christ, we might become partakers in the Divine Life. Man can only achieve his perfection by recognizing this purpose and living in a way that helps him achieve that perfection: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Human Freedom

This principle is true in light of man’s freedom as well. Man is corporeally limited in this world: we cannot fly, run at the speed of light, or pick up buildings, among other things. These limitations shed light on the nature of man in his entirety, soul and body together. Because man’s soul is inseparably linked to his body, man has spiritual limitations as well. Men often mistake the word “freedom” for “doing whatever one wants” or “not being bound by rules.” As Sheed points out, however, “there is no such thing as freedom from [the laws] (whether spiritual or material), but only freedom within them.” Just as we are not free to run at the speed of light or pick up buildings, so we are not free to murder or steal. Man’s perfection is achieved when we recognize our purpose in life and live in a way that brings us into that perfection. Just as a razor can be misused and, as Sheed says, “fit only for the scrap-heap,” so man, if directed toward something other than his purpose, can live imperfectly and unhappily.