Is the body an obstacle to the spiritual life?

Should we control our passions? How should we see our body?

Father Dominique Salin, a Jesuit and professor at the Center Sèvres, answers Sophie de Villeneuve’s questions.

We remember the temptations of San Antonio, against which he fought hard. And how many saints, and not the least, have submitted to mortifications to control their bodies. Today, the Church no longer advocates such excesses, but the body can still seem like an obstacle to our spiritual life.

What place should we give our body in our life as Christians?

It is not a question that concerns only Christians. It is a question according to the trends of the time, since it invites us to take care of our body, to cultivate it and to harmonize it. There is even a kind of law that plans and terrifies: you have to have a presentable body, a beautiful body, so you have to master it through bodybuilding, the gym, fasting, you have to be thin, etc.

Does mastering mean mastering our body?

Dominate him and, if I understand your allusion to the mortifications of the desert monks correctly, subdue him? Mastering one’s own body, avoiding being overwhelmed, avoiding being overwhelmed by one’s own body, yes, but mistreating one’s own body, no. But you will tell me that Christianity invites us to despise our bodies, not to pamper them but to make them suffer with flagellations, hair shirts, fasting, that is part of the Church’s tradition, you will tell me. But the Church also has a tradition of measurement, of discernment that does not necessarily exist in all traditions. And look at other religious traditions, like Hinduism, that tradition of yogis to drive nails into their bodies, to sleep on beds of nails, to drag Shiva’s chariot with huge hooks on their shoulders that make you drip with blood… Abuse of the body may exist in other places and is not in the fundamental Christian tradition.

Does it mean that the body has a place in the Christian tradition?

The body has its place. It is true that in the Western tradition there can be a certain form of contempt for the body, a temptation to spiritualism that we can see playing out today. This tradition of contempt for the body and that what counts is the soul does not come from Judaism or Christianity. It comes from the pagan Greek tradition that preceded Christianity. The great historian Peter Brown has shown it in his book Le renoncement à la chair, le corps et la société aux l? origine. He shows that it is Hellenism, Greek thought, Greek spirituality and Greek philosophy that invite us to consider the body as a prison for the soul and that we must above all take care of the soul.

Is it then a bit of Greek poison that has crept into the Christian tradition?

We can say it and the Christian tradition has assumed it, with errors and deviations. But the important thing is to control the passions more than the body.

But passions cross the body…

But not only that, ambition, success, the desire to shine, arrogance, envy, jealousy… do not go through the body. And this is very important, even more than sexuality.

In my teacher Ignacio de Loyola I found some phrases:

“You have to apply yourself more to taming the soul than the body, to subdue the passions more than the bones”, although he himself, after his conversion, had scourged himself, had indulged in terrible excesses from which he drew the consequences. Here again:

“In brilliant and cultured people, self-contempt and contempt for esteem should take precedence over mashing the body.” “We do not own our body, God is,” so mashing cannot afford everyone in the same way, discernment is necessary.

“The body is not our property.” In early Christianity there was the illusion that man could control his body, especially in regard to chastity, and achieve perfect self-control. This was denounced very early, beginning in the second century, as a heresy by the Church, and was called encratism, from the Greek word meaning dominion.

And is it heresy?

Of course, and experience shows us that this is absolutely impossible.

So what can we do with the body in our spiritual life?

We must make our body our friend, we must tame it and let ourselves be tamed by it, it is very important.

What does it mean to be your friend?

That is, not consider it a priori as an enemy, but turn it into an ally. My body is not something external to me, my body is me, as contemporary anthropology, phenomenology and philosophy underline. Today we say “I am my body”, we no longer say “I have a body”.

So we have to take care of our body?

Absolutely, and it is Saint Paul who says it when he speaks of a man’s love for his wife: “He must love his wife as his own flesh.” The word flesh in the sense that it is animated by the soul and both are really inseparable as long as we are alive. Nietzsche’s famous phrase: “What does your body say about your soul?” Like it or not, our body says something about our personality.

Through the eyes?

Someone who lives in peace with himself, with his passions, it is evident. Some people, when you look at them, you know that they are fulfilled or, on the contrary, that they are frustrated. Look at the way they walk, the way they look or not look, the way they carry their heads…

Does it require work?

This requires a lot of work, it is what we call asceticism, so we do self-control exercises.

Where and how is it done?

This is done by paying attention to my reactions. At the end of the day I do a little test, I look at the moments in which I have let myself be carried away by my anger, my irritation, my impatience and I try to correct myself. It is a long process, a long road that we should not undertake alone, we must let ourselves be guided by an experienced person asking for advice. In the end, self-control leads to a certain freedom, a certain newly found spontaneity.

It is not necessarily about dominating our body, but about dominating our being, our passions…

Mastery is a harmony between the body and what is best in my desire. It is an ideal that is not unattainable and we all know people who seem to have achieved it.

Can this be the goal of a lifetime?

It is the goal of a life, it is never achieved, it is never finished. It can become an objective and a goal that can be achieved.

Is the body an obstacle to the spiritual life?