Jesus is God’s body-language, and the Eucharist is Jesus’ body-language.  So it is not surprising that our union with God in Christ should also be mainly a matter of body-language. 

Even when we say that the body is our original home we are often out – like Mr Duffy who “lived at a little distance from his body.”  In James Joyce’s story Duffy was a stranger to himself, even thinking of himself in the third person.  “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.” 

The third person and the past tense: he was alien to himself in space and in time.  Had he not been living in his head he would have been at home in the present, capable of saying ‘I am’ instead of ‘He was’.  But he was “an outcast from life’s feast,” living his life as if it were someone else’s, “regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.”  He came to birth in Joyce’s imagination a hundred years ago, but he is still dragging out a lonely existence in the lives of many Christians. 

As we recede from it, modern European philosophy (in its predominant theme) looks more and more like the ravings of madmen: mind and body so alienated from each other that only God could get them to work together – and this was taken as evidence of God’s existence!  It was as if each person had two separate histories: one a public history of what happens with the body, and the other a private history of the mind; and strange as it now seems, the mind was thought to have the better grip on reality.   Waking up from that dream is like waking up in the morning: you begin to be aware again of the things and people around you.  The dream vanishes, and with it the false spirituality that kept us wrapped up in our thoughts. 

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” put its stamp on the centuries that followed.  He (and his countless disciples) thought he had touched the bedrock of truth with that phrase, but, as Eckhart Tolle wisely remarked, “Instead of the ultimate truth, he had found the root of the ego.”  Most of modern philosophy has been the ego philosophising about itself; and an alarming amount of theology, following suit, has been the ego’s theology. 

It is a great tragedy for Christian spirituality that despite the teaching of Jesus it has seldom adequately challenged the ego – the false self – or even identified it clearly.  On the ground, of course, many Christians have died to the false self, but this kind of dying has not been studied with sufficient curiosity.  In place of such study there have been endless moral exhortations to imitate Christ and the saints.  Meister Eckhart said that when we imitate Christ we should imitate him “spiritually but not physically.”  Crucially he said this involves “observing yourself closely.”  We have to study the self, he said, and forget the self.  We have to observe in detail how our own egos are imprisoning us.  This is the door to freedom.  Study the locks. 

There is a spaciousness in the mind from the moment we begin to respect things more than thoughts.  Thoughts in themselves are not the problem; the problem is compulsive thinking: thinking that is unconsciously driven.  Such thinking is restless and insubstantial. Things, on the other hand, hold their place, and their reality is palpable.  From the moment we begin to see thoughts as a kind of traffic in the mind they lose their power to make us restless and insubstantial like themselves.  We begin to know our connection with everything in the world, and we begin to know what those words of the psalm mean: “God brought me forth into a wide place” (18:19).   

That spaciousness of the mind is called awareness.  You could think of it as all the space left free once compulsive thinking dies down, but in fact it has no discernible boundaries.  It is the innermost part of the Temple that we are – for “we are God’s temple” (1 Cor 3:16).  The Christian teaching is that we are, in Christ, the Holy of Holies.  As it was in the time of Jesus, the Holy of Holies is empty.  This is our true nature.  We are the place of meeting with God. 

Thinking has its place, but the Holy of Holies is not that place.  There is a place in our life for the third person singular and the past tense, but our true nature manifests only in the here and now. 

The body is our anchor in the here and now.  It is always here – it provides you with the very meaning of ‘here’.  And it is always now – breathing, for example, is always in the present: the breath you drew a moment ago is of no use to you now, and the breath you will draw in a moment will not keep you alive now.  The wisdom of the body saves us from the folly of the mind.  The body doesn’t imagine itself to be a private kingdom, as the mind is inclined to do; it is part of the great community of tangible objects; it anchors us in reality.  If like Mr Duffy we live even a short distance from it we are lost. 

First we have to observe ourselves closely, as Meister Eckhart said, in order to see what is keeping us locked in.  Only then are we able to forget about ourselves.  Our true life is not anything we can see in ourselves by introspection.  It cannot be seen because it is where we look out from; it cannot be grasped, just as your hand cannot grasp itself.  Our true life looks through the eyes of Christ, for we are his body.  Our real life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).  We could call this our ‘Christ-nature’ or our ‘Christ-mind’.  These expressions are inspired by St Paul’s letters: Rom 12:4-5; Col 1:18; 1 Cor 2:16; 6:15.  Acts 9:3-5 is also very striking in this context: it seems very likely that it was Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus that led him to his insight on the Body of Christ. 

In Christian circles people are now beginning to speak of the ego – a word more familiar in its adjectival forms.  It is shorthand for self-image: the picture we have of ourselves when we are looking in the wrong direction: in.  It calls for an equally shorthand term for its opposite.  I would suggest (and this was my reason for writing this article): the Christ-mind, or the Christ-nature.

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.