The Mystical Body
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’
as Isaiah the prophet said.” (Gospel)
I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monument of pride.
This is wisdom from William James: The deep, important things that most affect us are usually not big and showy, but tiny, perhaps even imperceptible.
We see the truth of this just by looking at the human body. How little of it we see from the outside. Inside a human body are countless hidden, silent processes, all going on at once. Cells are growing and dividing, enzymes are fighting viruses, nerves are carrying messages to and fro, cancerous cells are being attacked by the immune system, even while the hair are greying, the body is digesting food, and is imperceptibly aging. Whether we are healthy or sick at a given moment depends largely on countless, silent, hidden processes.
Moreover, inside all this, there is an even more-complex web of hidden connections between these various processes. Everything is interconnected, no part does anything that doesn’t affect everything else.
This is true too of any social body. Every community or society has a certain visible life that can be seen and whose overt interconnections, to an extent, can be grasped, charted, and written up into textbooks. But, just as with the human body, most of the deep things in a community are under the surface, invisible, silent, available only through another kind of instrument, the intuitive gaze of the mystic, novelist, poet, or artist.
And all of this is even more true of the body of Christ, the community of the baptized, the sincere. Most of the important processes there are also invisible.
Like any other body, partly this body is visible—physical, historical, something that can be observed from the outside. Historical Christianity, the churches, in their concrete history, are the visible body of Christ—people, institutions, buildings, virtue and sin enfleshed in history. But the body of Christ is more than meets the physical eye, a billion times more. As in every body, countless, silent, invisible processes are going on beneath. Inside the body of Christ, as in all bodies, there are deadly viruses, an immune system, cancer-cells, and health-carrying enzymes. What’s deepest inside of life is not visible to the naked eye. Thus, for example, Therese of Lisieux, with her highly-tuned mystical sense, understood her hidden life in a monastery as a part of the immune-system inside the body of Christ. Without ever leaving the small town of Lisieux she touched the lives of millions of people. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that the invisible interconnections inside of a body.
It is this background too that can help give us a sense of the mystical union we have with each other inside “the communion of saints.” What precisely is this? It’s the belief that there exists among us, among all of us who have been baptized, at a level too deep for words, a union that is as real, intimate, and physical as is a sexual union. Wild as this sounds, it is clearly taught in scripture (1 Corinthians, for example, is most explicit) and lies at the root of the Christian understanding of the Eucharist. For the early Christians, celebrating Eucharist together was an act of intimacy akin to sexual union. That was one of the reasons they surrounded the Eucharist with the kind reverence and discretion that judicious lovers employ. For example, they practiced a certain discipline they called the “discipline arcani.” This was a custom within which they didn’t allow anyone who wasn’t fully initiated to be present at the Eucharist, much like healthy lovers who fear exhibitionism.
Beyond this radical intimacy, the union among ourselves in the “communion of saints” is also a presence to each other beyond distance. Inside the body of Christ, we are present to each other and carry each other across the miles. Everything we do, good or bad, affects all the others. For this reason the church teaches that there is no such thing as a private act—of sin, virtue, or anything else. Nothing is private inside a body, everything affects everything. Moreover our union with each other links us, even beyond death. Inside the “communion of saints,” we believe that our loved ones who have died are alive, still with us, and able to communicate with us and we with them.
To believe this is to be both consoled and challenged. Consoled, in knowing that we carry each other in love and union, across all distance, even through death. But challenged too in knowing that everything we do, be it ever so private, is either a bad virus or an healthy enzyme affecting the overall health of the body of Christ and the family of humanity.
**From Saint Louis University