Kill the Flesh to Acquire a Body
At the end of his long chapter on chastity (Step 15) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, after spending pages discussing the never-ending struggle against sexual temptation, St John changes from his more usual didactic tone to one more pensive and reflective. In a series of questions he probes the mystery of the schism which sunders man from himself.
What is this mystery in me? What is the meaning of this blending of body and soul? How am I constituted a friend and foe to myself? Tell me, tell me, my yoke-fellow, my nature, for I shall not ask anyone else in order to learn about you. How am I to remain unwounded by you? How can I avoid the danger of my nature? For I have already made a vow to Christ to wage war against you. How am I to
overcome your tyranny? For I am resolved to be your master.
Aye, there’s the rub. We are at war with ourselves! The soul is at war with the flesh while the flesh rages to satisfy its lusts. I am at one and the same time, as St John says, friend and foe to myself.
This is, of course, nothing new with St John Climacus. And before someone protests that this is just the corrosive effects of Greek dualistic (spirit vs matter) philosophy on the post-Apostolic Church, he might go back and read the Apostle Paul, who wrote: “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” (Gal. 5.17) St John Climacus, in the 7th century, is only bewailing a battle that Christians before and after him have had to fight, a war of the soul and Spirit against the rebel flesh.
All of this is why, of course, Christians have, from the beginning, taken the ascetic life seriously. Chastity, fasting, almsgiving, sobriety - and with them every essential Christian practice - make sense in the Christian life only because our life in this world is a pitched battle.
But here is the thing: it is not a battle that is ultimately against ourselves but, rather, for ourselves. Like an army seeking to free a city from an occupying force, we are fighting not to destroy our bodies but to liberate them from the sinful passions, what St Paul simply calls “the flesh”. In Fr Sergius Bulgakov’s memorable phrase, we seek to “kill the flesh in order to acquire a body.”
A dualistic view of man is, for a Christian, not the first word and it is not the final word, for Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last, our archetype and our telos. The warfare of Spirit vs flesh that is our present reality feels dualistic only because of sin and its tyranny as an occupying force. To take salvation/liberation from sin seriously is, therefore, to take asceticism seriously. In fact, any spirituality that does not take asceticism seriously is truly dualistic and gnostic (and therefore un-Christian), for it dismisses the role of the body in salvation and makes of salvation something falsely spiritual. Falsely, that is, because true spirituality is a person living in, empowered by, and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, not a disembodied realization of some ethereal, spiritual essence. In other words, all true spirituality is ascetical spirituality and is Paschal spirituality.
We are...always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Cor. 4.10)
Having passed the midpoint of Great Lent and reaching forward to the Lord’s Pascha, let us fight, brothers and sisters, not against ourselves but for ourselves, killing the flesh in order to acquire a body, so that with St Paul, St John Climacus, and all the saints, we might “glorify God in [our] body.” (1 Cor. 6.20)
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
People go to war for the sake of something greater than war. So we also enter this temporal life for the sake of something greater: for eternal life. And as soldiers think with joy about returning home, so also Christians constantly remember the end of their lives and their return to their heavenly fatherland.
-St Nicholai Velimirovich