What does our body crave?
Most people might say food, air, warmth, sleep, and sexual pleasure.
But there is something more, an even deeper longing.
Our bodies crave eternity.
Here is how Henri Nouwen puts it in his book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom:
Your body needs to be held and hold, to be touched and to touch. None of these needs is to be despised, denied, or repressed. But you have to keep searching for your body’s deeper need, the need for genuine love. … Every human body has been given a new hope, of belonging eternally to the God who created it. Thanks to the Incarnation, you can bring your body home.
That the body wants to be in heaven is a fundamental truth of Christianity. We proclaim it every Sunday when we affirm the resurrection of the body in the creed. But it’s easy to think of the body as just being along for the ride, lifted up with the soul, much like our bodies themselves wear garments.
Nouwen, on the other hand, phrases this desire as active, as deeply embedded in our bodies.
The truth of his approach is can be appreciated by first remembering that man is a soul and body. If we are called to seek heaven, then it is with our souls and bodies that we must pursue this end. As Christ Himself says in the gospel, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
But is our body really part of who we are? St. Thomas Aquinas answers with a resounding yes. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he explains that the body is related to certain powers of understanding of the soul:
The fact however that the very act of understanding in the human soul needs certain powers that work through bodily organs, namely, phantasy and sense, is a clear proof that the said soul is naturally united to the body to make up the human species.
According to Aquinas, our bodies aid in our process of knowing, which involves a certain trial and error. This is consistent with the character of our wills, which, unlike those of the angels, are changeable.
Modern science has confirmed the connection between the body and cognition. As one writer for the Association for Psychological Science reports,
[E]merging evidence suggests that how our bodies engage with the environment around them has significant influence on how we see, feel, learn, and communicate.
‘Embodied cognition’ is even its own field of study in psychology. It has been used to explain everything from how a baseball outfielder is able to catch a fly ball to how teachers’ hand gestures help their students learn math. The body’s influence on the mind is evident by the very vocabulary we use to explain our perception of the world around us. As Scientific American explains,
This is why we say that something is ‘over our heads’ to express the idea that we do not understand; we are drawing upon the physical inability to not see something over our heads and the mental feeling of uncertainty. Or why we understand warmth with affection; as infants and children the subjective judgment of affection almost always corresponded with the sensation of warmth, thus giving way to metaphors such as ‘I’m warming up to her.’
When we talk about our mind, its capacity for understanding, or our personal need for affection we cannot exclude the body from these realities. We speak about how our minds our drawn up to God, how our faith seeks a deeper understanding of Him, and how our longing for affection ultimately can only be satisfied by His love. Aquinas’ theology of the body and modern science both say these realities must extend to the body.
Put another way, our longing for God is rooted in our bodies. As the prophet Jeremiah says,
If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).
Further confirmation of this truth comes from Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. Here is what he says about the role of the body in heavenly affairs:
The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a body, by means of his visible masculinity and femininity. The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.
John Paul II, following St. Paul’s lead, teaches that the nuptial union teaches us about the relationship between Christ and His Church. It is heaven’s language, God’s own way of speaking to us about our deepest calling and final destiny.
One could argue that the body is just the messenger to the soul, meant to stir within ourselves a longing for the divine that it itself does not experience. But our bodies could not communicate to us a desire that they themselves do not experience. Truly the body that aches for the love of a spouse is ultimately crying out for the joy of heaven.
But even here on earth the body both seeks and finds God. This is evident from St. Paul’s teaching that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Traditionally, the Holy Spirit is called the dulcis Hospes animae—the sweet guest of the soul. This theology of the hospitality of the body presupposes that our bodies, properly purified and disposed, want to host the Holy Spirit. God, as the Church teaches, does not force Himself upon us. He knocks at the door of our souls and bodies, asking to be let in.
The paramount example of this reception of the Holy Spirit, of course, is Mary herself. The Church recognizes Mary as being espoused to the Holy Spirit. Her encounter and longing for God involved her whole being. Only through the total surrender of herself—soul and body—was the Incarnation possible.
In a way, thanks to her Yes to God, all of creation now shares in her longing. As St. Paul writes in Romans,
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).
When man experienced the fall, our bodies, along with our souls, suffered horribly. So also, our bodies, just like our souls, long for salvation. Which is another way of saying they too groan for God.