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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Worship of God With Our Bodies
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We have been speaking on the worship of God as our greatest privilege on earth. Now we wish to address ourselves to the worship of God with our bodies. As we mentioned and stressed in previous conferences, these three ways of worshiping God, in our minds, in our wills, in our bodies, are not mutually exclusive. When we worship God we do so as human beings with our minds and our wills and our bodies. Nevertheless, it is helpful to see how we are to specially worship God with our minds then wills and now our bodies. Our scope in this meditation will be to see two things: what Sacred Scripture tells us about honoring God with our bodies and, second, how we are to worship God with our bodies by the right use of our bodily senses especially by the right use of our eyes and ears, of our touch and our tongue.
What does Sacred Scripture tell us about worshiping God with our bodies? It may be surprising how much the Holy Spirit has revealed to us about the adoration and honor, the praise and glory, in a word, the worship that we are to give God with that which makes us distinct from the angels, namely our bodies. Particularly eloquent are the Letters of St. Paul. One reason why Paul writes so much so clearly and sometimes so embarrassingly about worshiping God with our bodies is because Christianity came into a pagan world; and if there is one thing which distinguishes Christianity from paganism, Christianity recognizes that we are to honor God not only in spirit but emphatically with our body.
"I exhort you," St. Paul told the Romans, "to present your bodies as a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed in the newness of your mind." And to the Corinthians, again the Apostle speaking, "We carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed." Paul told this to the Corinthians after he had told them, "Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, since you received him from God. You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for, that is why you should use your body for the glory of God."
Nothing could be plainer from the New Testament, not only from the moral teachings of the Church in the apostolic age and the fact that Christians are to regard their bodies as belonging to God, that they - that's we - are to worship God by honoring our bodies as a sacred possession of God. Even as nothing more clearly identifies the world at enmity with God than to consider the body as something earthy and profane and therefore is to be treated accordingly; that's the world; that's the way the world thinks.
We believers in Christ use the expression 'profaning the body by sins especially of the flesh.' But this 'profaning the body' has no meaning unless our bodies are sacred. You don't profane something which is already profane to begin with; you will only profane what is sacred. And we believe that our bodies are holy because they have been made by God, they are to be used to worship God, and they are destined to possess God after the last day.
Before we go on to examine in some detail on how we are to worship God by the right use of our bodily senses, let's make sure we know it is impossible to exaggerate in today's world how important it is for us to see that the body is holy. It is failure to see this or the denial of the sanctity of the body that's why there are tens of millions of human beings being killed every year. Unless our body is holy, then, we may respect it, we may take care of it, we may watch over it, but we will not treat it as something which belongs to God.
As human beings our bodies are endowed with bodily faculties or senses. They are at once the means by which we come into contact with the material world around us and they are the means by which we reach out to the visible, tangible, sensibly perceptible world in which we live. These bodily senses are so many precious gifts from God which only those can fully appreciate who have never used or have lost their senses. There is no question, if we want to appreciate what a great gift our senses are, all you have to do is have one of those senses, don't say lost, but even impaired.
On the one hand, we are exhorted to use these bodily powers in worshiping God; on the other hand, we are warned not to misuse them by failing to worship God. Before we start on each of these bodily senses, we should remind ourselves that we are, of course, to worship God by the use of our bodily powers: thus we are to use our hands in making the sign of the Cross that is surely worshiping God with our bodily powers. We are to use our hands in folding them and thus worship God. We are to not look around when we are in Church before the Blessed Sacrament. The control of our eyes and the muscles of our face is the worship of God. Every time we genuflect we are using our bodily powers to worship God. And the religions of all history recognize that whoever the god may be in whom the people believe is to be worshiped by the bodies that we have. But our scope of reflection assumes that but goes much deeper.
We are singly out four bodily senses: eyes and ears, touch and tongue. Our eyes are to be used to look at what pleases God, and our eyes are to be closed or turned away from whatever displeases God. In our day, when the media of modern communication are deliberately used, exploited, employed as demonic means to stimulate the passions through picture and the printed word, never before in the history of the human race do we have to guard our eyes with all the weapons, natural and supernatural, at our disposal. Why? Because we have a fallen human nature. The eyes are the windows of the soul through which all the unruly desires of our spirit can be stimulated: pride and lust, anger and greed, envy and sloth and gluttony; and the world knows it and the devil knows it. Concretely and practically, this is somewhere in the main reason for the massive, colossal revolution to which the whole human race is now passing, and somewhere near the heart of the crisis in the Catholic Church.
We are then to worship God with our eyes. But not only by the sacrifice of not seeing what would displease God; we are to use our eyes to see what leads us closer to God, by looking at what draws us nearer and nearer to that One for whom the eyes of our soul were made to see and the eyes of our body to behold in endless eternity.
We are to worship God by the right use of our ears. Again, as with the eyes, and in each case on both levels: first by the sacrifice of what we would like to hear but would lead us away from God; and in today's world there is plenty; but also positively, by listening, which means wanting to hear what would draw us closer to the God who gave us ears that we might use our power of hearing to know him better, love him more, and serve him more faithfully.
One of the most important statements ever made by Christ was made to the crowd he was teaching. After he had finished a long discourse, he told the people: "He who has ears to hear let him hear." That is not a platitude. We all have ears; but we are to use first our judgment and then our wills in discriminating what we should hear and what we should not hear; and then when our mind enlightened by faith tells us: I should hear this, then we don't just hear passively, we listen actively. What a difference between hearing and wanting to hear. And wanting to hear means not only that I am intent with my body to catch the words, I am intent with the ears of my soul to grasp the meaning.
I never tire recommending a little unknown book by St. Augustine entitled "The Teacher." Says Augustine: "No matter whom we are listening to, no matter what teacher may be instructing us, no matter how profound or learned or pious his speech may be, the real Teacher is Jesus Christ dwelling in our souls by his grace." And that is why, if we are to worship God with our ears by hearing, better, with our ears by listening, we should never be hearing alone; make sure that we are united in spirit, so that the ears of our soul are open to the Spirit of God speaking in the depths of our hearts and that God is using the syllables that are going through the atmosphere and titillate our eardrums - a purely material and mechanical experience; that we are united with the Word of God in prayer, so that when we hear whatever we may be hearing, the divine Spirit dwelling in our souls may enable us both to understand what we are hearing and give us the grace to put into practice what we are being told.
If we are to worship God by the right use of our ears we must know whom we should listen to and whom we should not even hear. Do you know how the human race fell? Use all the symbolism you want to, explain, interpret those verses in Genesis as you please, but if you are to remain a Catholic, you must believe that a woman listened to the voice of the devil; and the human race has never been the same since. Eve began to tell Adam what had happened. He loved her, so he listened to her and the rest is a matter of sacred history.
We are to worship God not only with our eyes and ears, to look at and listen to what God wants us to and with his grace to not look at and not listen to what we know would offend his divine majesty. We are to worship God by the right use of our sense of touch. We naturally like what is soft and comfortable; we naturally dislike what is hard and painful. Among the bodily experiences of our sense of touch none in the Bible, from beginning to and, none places a heavier demand on our obedience to God than the right use of our powers of reproduction. Chastity, therefore, is such a typically Christian virtue that, as the Fathers of the Church tell us, along with charity it is, practically speaking, the most constant and for some people the most costly way of worshiping God.
Whoever thinks, even dreams of the control of our sexual inclinations as worshiping God? It was in this context that St. Paul told the Corinthians to realize that their bodies are holy. That's the main reason why the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul: to say that our bodies are holy. Because once we realize, if we realize, in the measure that we realize that our bodies are holy we will then not profane them. Sins of unchastity, St. Paul tells us, are sins of sacrilege: they are profanations of a most sacred possession which God gave us to use, because it is his, according to and only according to his will. That is why there is chastity in marriage, chastity for the unmarried, and with emphasis, consecrated chastity. Consecrated chastity is the virtue of religion whereby we worship God by the use of our bodily powers only, only, only according to the infinite will of God.
Before we close our reflections of worshiping God by using our bodily sense of touch according to his will, remember each time we touch on these ways of worshiping God we say we are to worship God by abstaining from, avoiding, not using a bodily power contrary to the divine will. And that is emphatically worshipping God by the virtue of adoration in submitting our wills, controlling our bodies according to his will. But except for Christ and his Blessed Mother, we would not even know - and here I am speaking about worshiping God by the use of our bodily sense of touch and feeling for his glory - would not even know that God wants those to whom he gives the grace to do so. God wants some, provided he gives the grace, to even sacrifice, a lifetime surrender out of adoration of the infinite majesty of God, the surrender of the single most imperious and demanding and in many ways satisfying pleasure that the human body can experience. Dear Lord, how pleasing is chastity to you.
We are to worship God by the right use of our tongue. Judging from what the Scriptures tell us, it is the one way that we are to worship God which if we do, says the Holy Spirit, we will have been worshiping God in every other way that our bodies can glorify our Creator. Why should this be true? Because if we can use our tongue as God wants us to, we shall be able to master that which controls all our other bodily senses. St. James could not have been plainer: "If anyone does not offend in word he is a perfect man; he is able also with a bridle to lead about the whole body.... With the tongue we bless God and the Father: and with the tongue we curse man, who has been made to the image of God."
Why is the right use of the tongue so important, so indispensable, so fundamental in the worship of God? Because, as Christ told us, "From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." What we say reveals what we are. It is not only what we say, it is how we say it, it is also when we say it, it is also for how long, it is to whom we speak. Let's look at each of these different ways in which Christ's words are verified: that from the abundance of the heart our mouth speaks.
What else can we say except what is inside of us? No one gives what he does not have. If we are kind inside, our speech will be kindly. If we are proud inside, our speech will be proud. If we have envy inside, our speech will be envious. If we are jealous inside, our speech will be jealous. The ancient proverb: Speak, so I may know who you are, is so true. For any number of human and maybe selfish reasons, we may say what's on our minds, but it is very hard to conceal what is really in our hearts: the tone, the volume, the softness, the harshness. What I am doing is examining our collective conscience.
We glorify God and thereby worship him by the time when we say whatever we say. How hard it is to hold the heart, keep it from blurting out when we are provoked. It is remarkable how revealing the length of time that we speak can be. Pride is mainly revealed in our speech. Everybody else except we will recognize how proud we are in how long we talk about the things that make as admirable in our own eyes.
We are to worship God in discriminating to whom we speak. Some people are easy to look at and easy to talk to, others are not. I am worshiping God if calculate my speech not by how much the person I'm talking to pleases me but how much my talking to him or her pleases God. What a difference and it is in direct proportion: those whom we most like we most eagerly, at greatest length, and by spontaneous preference talk to, and others we do not, or talk to only as much and only as long as we have to. That is why there are two recommendations that Sacred Scripture gives us if we are to worship God with our tongues. The first is we never talk before we think, never. That's a divine imperative. And secondly that before we talk and even while we are speaking we are united with God in prayer. I know of no part of human behavior, no aspect of human morality that has more, need of our keeping in constant contact with God than speaking. So that, even as we are talking, the light of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our souls will be guiding what we say and what we should not say, and opening our hearts to those to whom God wants us to, and keeping silence towards those who God knows we should not speak to.
"Lord God, you are the Creator of our bodies. Teach us to use our bodies only for your glory; to restrain our bodily senses in sacrifice; to use our bodily faculties according to your will. Help us to exhaust our bodies in laboring for your honor; to spend ourselves in bodily work as you desire. Help us to accept the pains in our bodies. Lord, they are from you. So that by our patient endurance we may praise you in body and spirit here on earth as a promise of our enjoyment of you after, the last day in body and soul for the endless reaches of eternity. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
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