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The Divine Invention of Man & Marriage Is a Prodigious Mystery
by Alice von Hildebrand
When at age eleven, I took a course on seventeenth-century French literature—French is my beautiful mother tongue—I made the discovery of Pascal, and started reading his Pensées. Not only did he overwhelm me with the beauty of his style, but he also awakened in me a profound philosophical interest. I started memorizing many of his most beautiful thoughts, and I recall reciting them over and over again as I walked along the Belgian seashore where my parents had a summer home.
A portion of one pensée (72) deserves special attention:
Man is to himself the most surprising (prodigieux) object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body (corps) is, still less what the spirit (esprit) is, and least of all how a body should be united to a spirit. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.
It is simple, after all, to be just an animal, or even to be a purely spiritual being. It is so easy to be a chimpanzee: you are born, you eat, you drink, you reproduce, you jump from tree to tree, and that’s all there is to it. Also, it must be marvelous to be an angel, pure spirit, without the limitations of a body.
But we are neither angels nor chimpanzees. Man—whose complex nature deserves to be called a divine invention—is made up of body and soul so deeply linked that to be a human being does not mean to have just a spiritual soul or just a material body, but to possess both in a mysterious combination. The German language expresses this by saying that man has a Leib, whereas animals have a Körper.
For man to have a body made up of matter that can be seen, heard, smelled, and measured, that occupies space, that is divisible and mortal, and also a soul which shares none of these characteristics and continues to exist even after it is brutally separated from its material companion by death—this sheds light on Pascal’s amazement.
Yet body and soul are meant to be so deeply united that even though the soul continues to exist after the body dies and decomposes, it “longs” to be reunited with the body. This is why I suggest that we say of one who has died, “The soul is now in a state of widowhood, waiting for the blessed moment when it will be reunited with the body.” The “resurrection of the body” is an amazing dogma that sheds full light on the mystery called a human being. Indeed, God alone could have invented such an enigmatic creature.
Repeating and repeating Pascal’s words, while the sun was setting over the North Sea, made me keenly aware of both man’s complex nature and his fragility—like the sun sinking, we are heading toward death.
The Seal of Personhood
Genesis is explicit about this when it states that God chose to create man in his image and likeness. That is to say, from the very moment of his existence, man is a person, for God is Person. Man is a very imperfect person, but fully and truly one. One cannot be “more or less” a person. Either one is a person or is not. Those who claim that a baby at the very beginning of its existence is just a clump of tissue that only later turns into a human person are talking metaphysical nonsense. That implies that a being changes its nature, which amounts to magic, rather than sound metaphysics.
Man’s body is not an animal body; it is the body of a person. The implications are profound, for it means that every single bodily activity should bear the seal of personhood. “Whether eating or drinking, let us glorify the Lord,” says St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (10:31). We are not animals linked to a soul; rather, we are personified bodies. Whereas both God and the angels are spiritual and have no bodies, man—this baffling being—is fully a person and nevertheless has a body.
This is what I call “a divine invention.” I can imagine that Lucifer—the incarnation of pride—must have been outraged upon learning that God created beings that are as much persons as he is, but—horror of horrors for a proud pure spirit—persons incarnated in a body. Lucifer must have trembled with indignation at the thought of persons essentially linked to a metaphysical reality that is “low class,” a sort of metaphysical proletariat.
The closeness of body and soul finds an admirable expression in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction as formulated in the Tridentine Liturgy. It is now replaced by a very brief version called the Anointing of the Sick. What is strikingly beautiful in the Tridentine form is that the priest anoints the main parts of the human body: the ears, eyes, tongue, hands, and feet—all the bodily parts that might have been involved in the evil deeds of man. Because man is a person made of body and soul, his bodily activities are morally relevant. An animal cannot be either moral or immoral when it eats, drinks, or reproduces itself. Man, being a person, can.
Body & Soul, Man & Woman
Personhood unifies man in a very mysterious manner. Because our five senses give us information about the material universe (let us recall the terrible struggles of Helen Keller, blind and deaf from the time she was eighteen months old), St. Thomas writes that the union of the soul with a body benefits the soul. But let us not forget how much the soul benefits the body. Bears have a much keener sense of smell than we do, eagles have much sharper eyesight, and dogs an amazing sensitivity to sounds, yet neither bears nor eagles nor dogs can perceive beauty.
In a mysterious and amazing way, a human person is called, in every single bodily activity, to live up to his highly aristocratic title; in other words, man’s body has a dignity that should be expressed in every single bodily activity. “Noblesse oblige.”
This “baffling” fact is still more complicated and mysterious, for in the Latin word homo we find a term that does not just refer to man alone without woman, or to woman alone without man. On the contrary, homo (which of course has associations with masculinity) also refers to the deep bond uniting two different sexes. No man without woman, no woman without man, is homo: they essentially belong together. This sheds some light on the pitiful confusion rampant in our society: the perverse belief that two men or two women can claim to be homo.
To be a human being, therefore, implies being both body and soul and also man and woman: persons of different sexes but equal dignity, and clearly called to complement each other. Now we see clearly why that baffling creature called man is so complicated: not only is he made of body and soul, but of man and woman. No wonder we have such difficulty understanding, not only ourselves, but others as well.
The Harmony Broken
Before original sin, the harmony between soul and body was perfect. They were like two musical instruments singing the same tune. There was also complete harmony between man and woman. Nothing can suitably express the terrible consequences of original sin. Not only did man freely choose to cut himself off from God—something he could not mend without divine help—but also, in well-deserved punishment, his body began to resent being personified. Man’s animal instincts, which until that tragic moment had joyfully submitted to the seal of personhood, began to clamor for their own satisfaction, being no longer under the guidance of the soul.
This would have grave consequences. The resulting temptations were so demanding that, when not resisted, they made life very difficult for the soul. Temptations to gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual indulgence can rob the soul of its peace. Yet, if yielded to, these temptations inevitably make more and more demands, and as a result, many a man soon finds himself in bondage to addictions, which can rob him of his moral freedom. (cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, Book VIII). The conflict can be so fierce that man desperately needs divine help to extricate himself. He cannot do it on his own.
A further consequence of sin is that man discovered the fearful reality of physical suffering. The range is huge: from a splitting headache, to an agonizing toothache, to pain so severe that many are tempted to suicide. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” exclaims St. Paul (Rom. 7:24). In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila eloquently speaks of the crushing weight of a body afflicted by constant sickness. She declares her body to be her archenemy.
Many might assume that the body is the exclusive source of evil, but they would be wrong. No, the worst sin is the sin of pride. The soul can sin without the body, but as soon as bodily activities are sinful, the soul is involved as well. Of course, pride and concupiscence are often happy bedfellows.
When there is disharmony between body and soul, many assume that turning to the other sex will bring them peace. It is my firm conviction that if the body and soul are at war, it inevitably follows that any valid relationship with the other sex will be impossible. We witness this today: hoping to find peace, thousands of young (and not so young) people turn to sex, thinking that will provide it. So they shack up, but are inevitably wounded, disappointed, and close to despair. This is why, according to Gabriel Marcel, we live in a broken world, “sick unto death.” Two sick persons who shack up together will end up wounding each other further.
The Remedy of Suffering
Holy Church, our loving mother, has remedies for these evils. Blessed are those who follow her wise counsel. Concerning bodily temptations, she has, from the very beginning, recommended penance, asceticism, hair shirts, discipline. Reading the lives of many of the saints, one is awed by their ascetic practices. In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila speaks eloquently about the severe ascetical life of St. Peter Alcantara: three small meals a week, a tiny cell in which he slept his few hours sitting, no protection against heat or cold, and even the striking of his own body—what is known as “taking the discipline.”
Simone de Beauvoir accuses the Church of masochism: this is how a fallen-away Catholic—often the worst enemy of the Church—looks at these practices. Certainly we should never undertake them on our own. Our wise mother, the Church, makes it clear that such practices should be engaged in only under the blessed guidance of obedience. In monasteries, the superior or abbot is the one who should give his approval to penances that go beyond what the Rule prescribes.
Some religious orders still practice true penance today: the Carthusians, for example—the only order that was never reformed because it was never deformed—the Poor Clares, the Carmelites. But I wonder if, in some seminaries, asceticism, penance, and sacrifice are very often mentioned. Yet these practices work. St. Benedict used them, when tempted, by throwing himself into a bush of thorns. St. Francis of Assisi, the most popular of all saints, apologized at the end of his life to Brother Ass—as he referred to his body—for having treated him so badly. St. Therese of Lisieux took the discipline and writes that the pain brought tears to her eyes.
When it comes to suffering, the attitude of Holy Church is paradoxical. From the very beginning, she has advocated compassion and love for the sick, and she has established innumerable institutions to alleviate pain. At the same time, she teaches what many do not seem to know today: that suffering has a redeeming value. When one meditates on the death of our Savior, we should realize that, if properly understood, the Cross can bring us closer to him who died for us.
Ruptured Bond of Love
Man’s revolt against God was the first victory achieved by the Evil One, and it encouraged him to turn his attention to the love uniting Adam and Eve. Having himself chosen to exclude love forever, the envious Lucifer now aims at trying to rupture the bond uniting them, so profoundly expressed by Adam: “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”
Lucifer’s devilish wisdom taught him that sin would be the one factor that could separate lovers. To sin together destroys any bond of unity. Eve was to be Lucifer’s special enemy, for her husband had called her “the mother of the living,” and Lucifer, being a murderer from the beginning, hated all life. This is why he launched his attack against the so-called weaker sex.
Alas, he succeeded. The guilty pair, after having first put the blame on the serpent and then on Eve, discovered they were naked. This nakedness symbolizes that they had discarded the beautiful white garment of innocence. They were rightly ashamed, and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a remedy; they covered themselves with leaves.
Instead of begging for forgiveness, our first parents attempted to pass the blame, and they thereby created a chasm between each other. All the beautiful male virtues, such as strength, courage, chivalrousness, objectivity, and nobility, degenerated into their caricatures: brutality, heartlessness, selfishness. The same happened with Eve’s beautiful female characteristics; sensitivity, receptivity, and other-centeredness degenerated into self-centeredness, vanity, and partisanship. I need not go into details. They are but too well known.
The greater punishment was given to the “weaker sex.” She had been given the honor of bringing forth life, yet now this privilege was to be had at a high price: agonizing pains in delivering her child. It is noteworthy that when the Bible speaks of severe pain, it often refers to “a woman in labor.”
In our broken world of today, this drama is clearly reaching a climax. Lucifer has achieved his greatest victory since original sin by convincing women that their privilege is in fact their greatest obstacle to achieving secular greatness. Crime of crimes, horror of horrors, millions of women freely choose to abort their babies, having been convinced that an unborn child is not a human being but a clump of tissue. How this clump of tissue magically becomes a human being—for to change one’s nature is truly magical—remains unexplained.
Once this abomination became widely accepted, we saw the inevitable consequence, namely, that the beautiful union of husband and wife began to degenerate into other monstrosities. Think only of the claim—rampant in our society today—that two men or two women can be married, and that this is their moral right. Sadly, the will to resist this aberration is getting weaker and weaker.
The Madness of Divine Love
Let us face it: the situation, humanly speaking, is desperate. The worst consequence of original sin was that man cut himself off from his Creator. The chasm thus created could not be bridged by man himself. God, who is Love itself, now chose to send his Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and have him incarnated in the womb of the most perfect of all his creatures: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). We all crave greatness; we all try desperately to “ascend” from low to high. God—the infinite, perfect One—does the very opposite: “Et verbum caro factum est.”
Kierkegaard, as always, found admirable words to express this unfathomable divine invention. He writes: “Christianity might be the invention of a crazy god . . . so a man must judge who had kept his wits” (Sickness unto Death, Doubleday, p. 256). To go from glory to lowliness, to go from beatitude to suffering is the madness of divine love. Yet this is confirmed by Isaiah: “He had no form or comeliness . . . he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces . . . and with his stripes we are healed” (53:2f).
Mary, the blessed one among women, is by divine choice the cradle deemed worthy to shelter the God-Man in her womb. This mystery of mysteries opens the door to the reconciliation, not only between God and man, but also between body and soul. For even when she slept, Mary’s very breathing glorified God.
The Incarnation also opened the road to the possibility of a total reconciliation between man and woman. For Mary was not only fecundated by the Holy Spirit; she was also closely bound to the most silent and the most blessed of mere men: Joseph.
Let me end by daring to contemplate the holiness of the bond uniting them. Wisely, the New Testament says nothing about the tenderness, the ardor, the purity of their love. These are things that only in eternity shall we be worthy to contemplate. May the holiness of the holy bond uniting them kindle hope in us, for it gives us the promise that the bond established by God between man and woman can, once again, blossom through grace and lead to the glory of God.