July 21, 2006

Keeping Body & Soul Together

It's funny how creatures composed of body and spirit have such a tendency to emphasize either body or spirit. In other words, we tend to become either materialists or gnostics. And perhaps in response to modernity, sometimes it seems even the Church tends to de-emphasize some of neat parallels of body & spirit that she once proudly proclaimed.

For example, while all Christians are comfortable with Mary being the fleshy mother of Jesus - the conduit from which Christ's body flowed - most are squeamish about any suggestion that she is a conduit of Christ's grace. She is allowed to be a mediator in the flesh but not the Spirit.

I was reading the Catechism of Trent recently and came across a term I'd never heard before in terms of the sacrament of Baptism: "spiritual affinity", a relationship* generated between the baptized and his or her sponsor, as well as between the baptized and the baptizer. I find this especially appealing because I was baptized by my great uncle and I welcomed this closer connection. Aquinas wrote,
Just as in carnal generation a person is born of a father and mother, so in spiritual generation a person is born again a son of God as Father, and of the Church as Mother. Now while he who confers the sacrament stands in the place of God, whose instrument and minister he is, he who raises a baptized person from the sacred font, or holds the candidate for Confirmation, stands in the place of the Church. Therefore spiritual relationship is contracted with both.
And they used to take it seriously enough that you couldn't marry your sponsor or your baptizer. The spiritual was that visible for them, flesh and spirit so undivided.

I think part of the reason we're so much more suspicious of the spiritual is our great fear is to be wrong and there is obviously less visible evidence for spiritual matters than temporal. Richard Neuhaus writes of the risk on a much grander scale - of his conversion to Catholicism:
The apostle John tells us that "perfect love casts out fear." One finally makes a decision based either on fear and suspicion or on love and trust. It is true that by taking the first way one may avoid great error; but, if the decision is wrong, one has suffered the loss of an immeasurably greater good. With respect to the big decisions in life, we each choose our own form of risk. Modern agnosticism assumes that our desires are an obstacle to finding the truth. But our desires may also be a guide to truth: They may lead us to discovery that what we desire is the truth.
It's interesting that the desire for a relationship with a great uncle I so admire might be more a guide rather than a hindrance to truth.


* - An interesting aside:
The earliest citation of the word gossip is as a noun and is dated 1040: "One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism. In relation to a person baptized: a godfather or godmother; a sponsor" ("gossip" n.1) (via Jennifer Hellwarth).

[from the OED] "godsibb masc. (f. god GOD + sib(b adj., akin, related: see SIB a.) One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism."

...which morphed into "A familiar acquaintance, friend, chum." then into "A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler."

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