The cherubim stood guard, a sword of fire blocked its entrance, and paradise was lost.
But when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they not only forfeited sanctifying grace, they also lost four special gifts from God, according to Church tradition: the inability to suffer, immortality, freedom from disordered desires, and knowledge of God, creation, and the moral law necessary for happiness. In other words, as one writer has well put it, before the Fall, Adam was more like Superman than Tarzan.
What was that like? Genesis tells us precious little about the Garden of Eden, but the Old Testament offers us clues elsewhere based on how biblical writers used the word eden, which is not only a name of a place, but also the Hebrew word for luxury, delight, and pleasure.
It’s used in this sense several times in the Old Testament in a wide variety of contexts. In Genesis 18:12, Sarah, after learning she was to have a child at an old age asked, “After I am grown old and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?” In 2 Samuel 1 it refers to the luxurious scarlet in which Saul was clothed and in Jeremiah 51 it refers to delicacies Nebuchadnezzar had gorged himself on. Sexual pleasure, luxurious clothing, fancy food—all are but shadows of the pleasure that was Eden.
Why did we lose it all? The obvious answer seems to be that by sinning, Adam and Eve no longer deserved the blessings of paradise—removal of these gifts seems a fitting punishment. But the loss of these gifts also appears to be a necessary consequence of sin.
That is clearest in the case of immortality. While everyone wants to live longer, few want this life to go on forever: immortality without grace would be a nightmare, as St. Ambrose wrote:
For of a truth death was no necessary part of the divine operation, since for those who were placed in paradise a continual succession of all good things streamed forth; but because of transgression the life of man, condemned to lengthened labour, began to be wretched with intolerable groaning; so that it was fitting that an end should be set to the evils, and that death should restore what life had lost. For immortality, unless grace breathed upon it, would be rather a burden than an advantage. (On the Death of Satyrus, Book 2, Chapter 47)
Of course, while the body dies and is buried, the soul goes on. This points to the deeper reason why our immortality was lost: the Fall caused division and discord between the body and the soul. Once the body lost its harmonious connection to the soul, its ability to share in the immortality of the soul ended.
This harmony, which existed not only between body and soul but also within each one, is referred to as integrity—not in the sense of good character, but in other sense we mean when we speak of the “structural integrity” of a ship. “It is called ‘integrity’ because it effected a harmonious relation between flesh and spirit by completely subordinating man’s lower passions to his reason,” writes Father John Hardon. Thus, the first man and woman were free of disordered desires, also known as concupiscence.
But this is exactly what happened when Adam and Eve consumed the forbidden fruit: the lower passions had overruled reason. As Aquinas puts it, the powers of the soul fell into disorder. Another commentator, George Haydock, faults Eve for “consulting only her senses” which made the fruit appear to her as “very desirable.”
The disorder in the soul was mirrored in the body, according to Aquinas:
Wherefore, original justice being forfeited through the sin of our first parent; just as human nature was stricken in the soul by the disorder among the powers, as stated above (3; 82, 3), so also it became subject to corruption, by reason of disorder in the body. (Summa Theologica, II-I, 85, 5)
So, even though the connection between body and soul was no longer harmonious, the connection remained. But now the body would share in the defects of the soul: the disorder in the soul was mirrored in the corruption of the body. This is why we have lost the inability to experience suffering (technically known as “impassibility”). Instead, as we all know too well, our bodies are susceptible to disease, injury, and decay—all ultimately leading to death.
The loss of special knowledge does not seem to have aroused as much discussion in tradition. But the reason for its loss seems an obvious one: in choosing to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve showed rank disregard for the knowledge that God had given them—they were expressing a preference for knowledge that could be acquired, rather than given to them. (Haydock calls this “experimental knowledge.”)
For Christians, Eden is a source of sorrow but also hope. Looking back, we rue the loss of these special gifts (formally known as “preternatural gifts”). But we also look forward in time to heaven, when the faithful will be restored to their former greatness in God. As Psalm 36 says,
O how hast thou multiplied thy mercy, O God! But the children of men shall put their trust under the covert of thy wings. They shall be inebriated with the plenty of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of thy pleasure. For with thee is the fountain of life; and in thy light we shall see light. (Psalm 36:8-10, Douay-Rheims)
Notably, the word for pleasure in the above text is eden. The psalm speaks of this in the future tense, but, in the wake of the Incarnation, we know that heaven has already broken into earth: our journey into eden begins in this life. In Christ, we know God. In uniting ourselves to our wounded Savior, our wounded nature is healed. And, in the Eucharist, we receive the antidote to the poisonous fruit—the “medicine of immortality.”
image credit: shutterstock