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Hallowing the Flesh

Strict Protestants, Manicheans and over-Augustinian Catholics take the view that the flesh is just bad news. And they have a number of Scripture quotes to throw at us: ‘All flesh is grass’, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” … OK, more than a few in fact. There are hundreds.

But St Thomas favoured Aristotle over Plato, and so did, on the whole, the mainstream of the western Catholic tradition. The same St Paul who opposes flesh and spirit (Gal 5:13-18, echoing Mark 14:38 ) also resists a dichotomy of body and soul whose separation at death is a mere temporary aberration, awaiting the correction of the general resurrection of the dead. Indeed, the human body, for the same St Paul, can be an instrument for God’s glory here and now (1 Corinthians 6:20).

The flesh is good news, because the human body is a precious reliquary for the human soul and an icon of it. In fact, they are just aspects of the same reality.

Human bodies are, or can be, very beautiful. That’s no surprise if they somehow bear testimony to God’s desire to mould us in his own image. The human body then, all things being equal, ought to be a source of divine inspiration to us. Ay, there’s the rub …

Original sin gave a new (presumably temporary) dimension to human physical beauty. It made it a kind of snare. Like many other beautiful things it can lead us to evil as well as to good. When Adam and Eve, a man and a woman, discovered original sin, they also discovered that a man and a woman standing naked together in a beautiful garden had a new and troubling connotation. They were ashamed of their nakedness not just before God, but before each other, as man and woman. Ever since, while segregated nakedness has in some contexts survived without any sexual connotation, nakedness of the two sexes together quickly retreated from the public sphere and became either something holy or scandalous.

One theologian (Father Paul Quay, SJ, in The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality, Ignatius Press) has suggested that the problem of masculine and feminine nakedness is that men’s nakedness seems to imply strength and readiness for violent attack while female bodies suggest vulnerability to that attack. Man towers while woman cowers. One can see how in most cultures, precisely because of this vulnerability of the female body, it is women who have historically been expected to make all the effort of modesty. It is sometimes presented as a question of men being protected from women’s charms, but it has historically been just as much about women protecting themselves from men.

This primeval wound, as well as the primeval attraction, between man and woman, has done more than merely give a different significance to their bodies when they are together. It has had an impact on the way in which the body is viewed in all contexts, and this tendency, many thousands of years after the Fall, seems to be accelerating today. The body is becoming increasingly instrumentalised. My body, and your body, are now objects for consumption, rather than the beautiful expression of individual beings, body and soul, created in the likeness of God.

What an exhilarating experience it was then for me to attend two exhibitions in the National Gallery, London, this Christmas, both exploring ways in which the human body can communicate profound meaning. I have been meaning to set down my thoughts about them for some time, and it has been the thoughts and emotions of the recent Holy Week that have brought these images back to me.

The first of these two exhibitions was Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s The Hoerengracht, a walk through Amsterdam’s red light district. In the characteristic low light, one walks around streets of minature houses, with various plastercasts of real prostitutes, painted in glossy polychrome, waiting for their customers in their depressing little bedrooms, each equipped with wash basin, make-up and a few empty cigarette packets. None of them is with a customer. They are all in a permanent pose of silent waiting (though there is a discreet soundtrack playing, with street noises) which provides a sort of eery atmosphere of religious contemplation.

Each woman wears a kind of window over her face – fixed into the base of a biscuit tin, so that each of those heavily made-up faces is like a television set, providing a barrier between the prostitute and her client. In this particularly disturbing context of sexual power and vulnerability, one is not sure who that psychological protection is for: for the woman, or for the man? Perhaps, when sex is reduced to this, both parties experience the need interiorly to retreat from the act and totally instrumentalise their bodies.

Feeling somewhat sullied, I moved into the next exhibition at the National Gallery, the one I had in fact made to effort to come and see. Whereas the Kienholzs’ exhibit was free, The Sacred made Real cost me about the same price as my lunch that day. But it was worth every penny. Situated in the basement of the Salisbury Wing, the low lighting of this exhbition was deliberately calculated to recreate the atmosphere of candles in an ancient church. The gallery had brought together in one collection an amazing collection of Spanish polychrome religious sculpture of the 16th and 17th centuries, coupled with paintings from the same era. Each art form, we learned, informed the other …

It seems that the regulations of the different guilds of artisans meant that the men who carved the statues were not allowed to paint them, although some daring artists broke the rules. In an obsessive search for autheniticity real hair, real bones and real teeth sometimes adorned these statues, incredibly lifelike, their glass eyes filled with simulated emotion.

In the artificial crypt of the National Gallery I gazed on the polychrome statues of Spain, ridiculed by many art critics over the centuries, and hopelessly out of fashion in the rest of seventeenth century Europe. And as I did so, drinking in the anatomical detail of the coagulated blood cloying around St John the Baptist’s severed head, the glistening, salty tears dripping from a delicate madonna, the blue and purple veins and arteries bearing witness to the last traces of oxygen in the macerated body of a newly dead Christ, I felt my own flesh purged of its grosser connations, like a penitent coming out of confession.

My favourite statue of them all was one of St Mary Magdalene. All the flesh on show was her face, shoulders, arms and feet. But what a face! And then the wonder at discovering that her sackcloth dress was painstakingly carved out of wood, to the last, delicate thread: the same care and love had been lavished on the drab and penitential shroud that covered her body as might have been given to the body itself, had modesty permitted its display. And so the body was honoured, even when totally hidden. So, not only was there a beautiful theology of nakedness, but even a theology of clothèdness.

The other thing I have known, closest to the experience of passing through the Kienholz Hoerengracht to the work of Zubarán and his contemporaries, was a time, last year, when my friend Professor Anthony O’Hear helped me and a few friends through Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us out of Hell, out of Purgatory and then into the dazzling light of Paradise, up into the pure Empyrean, the fire wherein the Most High dwells in unapproachable light. In fact, the statues stopped just short of that, but that is where they were leading us: onwards and upwards.

Although I am remembering it all in Eastertide, it was a fine mediation for Christmas too, which is when I saw it, and when, two thousand years ago, Almighty God made a new creation that recapitulated all the original beauty of our father Adam: “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld His glory.”

“Lord, by the mysteries of your incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension, bless my body and soul and make me a worthy temple for your Holy Spirit. Amen.”


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