The human body shares in the dignity of the “image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit (USCCB 2014, para 363).
Thousands of years ago, when the timeless phrase “made in the image and likeness” of God entered into the vernacular for His people, so became the reality that as beings begotten by Our Creator, everything from the hair on our head to the nails on our toes were of spiritual origin. As Pierre Tielhard de Chardin once uttered, “We are not human beings have a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
And this human experience, which begins well before each of us is revealed to the world, is composed of primary dimensions, which although of their own unique expression, are ultimately parts of one body and one soul, forged as a temple of the Spirit. Although theologians and philosophers have quibbled over the centuries about just how these dimensions are manifested, they ultimately can be conceived as physical, psychological, and social expressions all part of a spiritual being. Failure to recognize the imperative for holiness found in the pursuit of wholeness not only carries spiritual consequences, but also worldly ones.
While it is aptly argued that some of this is beyond our control, the reality is that as broken, sinful human beings, we repeatedly choose power over harmony, convenience over health, and immediate pleasures over authentic joy. When this repeatedly occurs at an individual, familial, and community level, we not only find ourselves further removed from God’s design for the temple of His Spirit, but also increasingly distant from the existence that we desire.
Consider the following realities we face today, in just how each of these dimensions are manifesting themselves on a world scale. Depression is the number one cause of illness and disability in 10- to 19-year-olds worldwide. Suicide ranks third in causes of death for teens in the US (at rates 2.5 times beyond what they were in the Great Depression). Mental and substance use disorders are the leading cause of nonfatal illness worldwide, trumping that of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, diabetes, and transport injuries. One-third of adults today [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent did so. More than 2 in 3 adults in the US are overweight or have obesity (almost 3 out of 4 men). Worldwide, acts of intimate partner violence (IPV) are estimated to be a greater cause of poor health than traffic accidents and malaria combined (and well over 1/5 of women in the US have reported it). Child deaths from abuse and neglect in the US continue to increase to 1,670 in 2015, up from 1,580 in 2014; an average of almost 5 children per day (one of the worst rates of industrialized countries).
If this wasn’t enough, we are sleeping 20% less than we did a century ago, which is associated with a myriad of negative physical, psychological, and social outcomes. If current trends hold out, our generation represented by children born since 2000 is estimated to have a 35% chance of developing diabetes and to represent the first generation in the United States since the Civil War to have a life expectancy shorter than that of their parents. Average church attendance has dropped (during the previous weekend when polled) from 42% in 1965 to 26% in 1994, and has continued to decrease. We have become a people of many broken parts, all screaming for wholiness.
Yet as I argued in a previous article, 90% of what is published in Catholic circles (and secular circles, for that matter) has little to do with our whole, everyday lives. As Leo Tolstoy once noted, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Yet if we believe the ancient Christian principle of wholeness, we are faced with the reality that one of the most spiritual things we might do (individually and communally) might be the least controversial and most mundane of all—like reclaiming the sacredness of our sleep by recognizing just how important it is to God’s design.
Yet even beyond the palpable, recognizable aspects of holiness within wholeness lies the seven heavenly virtues by which we are called to live. Consider that while each of them is spiritual in origin and process, each also is uniquely human in their modes of expression. Going back to the idea that we are beings of physical, psychological, social, and ultimately spiritual means, it is worth considering just how the seven heavenly virtues run right through these dimensions. Fortitude, temperance, justice, prudence, faith, hope, and love are each experienced in such a holistic way that it is almost difficult to distinguish of what dimension they reside. In fact, it could easily be argued that each virtue, in its fullest expression, embodies a whole response. Without this, it isn’t that we can’t feel, think, speak, or act in virtuous ways, but we only exemplify the virtue when our whole being runs through it.
If wholeness is a prerequisite for a virtuous embodiment, then it would seem that vices would be a failure of being whole, and ultimately a distortion of the parts. And this is exactly what we see when we look at the seven deadly sins. Consider that envy and wrath are a primary failure of the social dimension while gluttony and sloth are a principal breakdown of the physical dimension as greed, lust, and ultimately pride are letdowns of the psychological experience. Take for example envy. Instead of desiring the good for another, envy drives us to turn inward, away from social fabric of our lives. When we are gluttonous, we seek out foods or other goods for immediate physical pleasure, and neglect to utilize food or other resources in providing for a healthy resistance. While I recognize that this simplifies the complex nature of our human experiences, the critical notion to consider is that when we as human beings increasingly become a distortion of our parts, and not a composite of our whole being, we are headed down a road of worldly and spiritual ruin. Of course, none of us will ever be whole in this world, as complete wholiness requires a supernatural source by which we are not in control. But no doubt God and the natural world he created puts a premium on our efforts to try.
Yet we might consider, as we grow angry and anxious about all the parts of our world that seem to be going in the wrong direction, it behooves all of us to take an introspective look and consider just how much we are becoming “the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.” And while some reading this might feel bogged down, or discouraged by what seems an impossible struggle, the reality is that when we pursue holiness through wholeness, our capacity for peace, purpose, joy, and love can grow infinitely, even though the adventure itself will never be without trials along the way. This is the promise and the truth that comes with pursuing God’s design for all of us.
Imbued with the grace of God, but always a co-partner with Our Creator, each of us and our world is faced with a choice. Do we pursue the path of holiness through wholeness, or have we resigned to be a people of parts, who are willing to trade away the God’s whole image for ourselves in exchange for that which will keep us unsatisfied for all of our days?