Our modern way of spiritualizing of faith out of all earthly recognition is not just an evasion of the unchurched. It has rooted itself deep in Christian culture. To many, faith deals with the realms of the spiritual and does not involve the realm of the physical. The single important thing about Christ is that he was divine—his humanity doesn’t matter much.
We have perhaps not become, as some argue, Gnostics (although there is a family resemblance). We are far too fond of our creature comforts to condemn our bodies as evil, as that heresy did, even if we pretend not to be. Rather, we just now assume that those comforts are spiritually insignificant. This leaves us heedless of our bodies’ significance as the one and only “place” in which we meet God.
We do not live outside our experience of embodiedness and relatedness with other bodies. We do not live apart from sex. All we know how to do any more is to put up barriers and proscriptions: “NO sex before marriage.” “NO homosexual activity or feelings.” “NO abortion.” We are at a loss to find wisdom in Scripture or Christian tradition for how to do sex well (though the medieval church is admittedly not the place to look for that wisdom, either!) And we certainly do not know how to use the rich imagery of marriage and sexuality to talk about our own relationship with God, as Bernard of Clairvaux (and Origen long before him) did. We do not know how to see the mother- as well as the father-dimension of God, as Julian of Norwich did.
We do not live apart from the pleasures of the table. All we know how to do any more is to put up barriers and proscriptions: “NO overeating,” “NO laziness and lack of exercise.” We do not know how to find scriptural or traditional warrants for the good, positive use of food. And we certainly don’t use the rich imagery of convivial feasting to talk about our own relationship with God both in heaven and here on earth, as Margery Kempe did, or anyone else in the Middle Ages talking about the marriage supper of the lamb or savoring the wine of the Eucharist, with its potential for intoxication, as a created good.
We do not live apart from emotion–strong emotion. All we know how to do any more is to try to channel all of that emotion to God; sometimes quietly, in private devotion or sitting in solemn reverence in the sanctuary, and sometimes more expressively, in charismatic worship. We don’t know what to do with it in our relationships, other than to counsel sober good sense and careful reining-in of the “passions.” And of course, that’s wise. The passions are dynamite. But if God wants to work in our everyday emotional lives, our relationships and pleasures and temptations and sins, well, we don’t know anything about that. Sounds dangerous. Better keep that stuff to church services and prayer closets. We certainly don’t know about the outrageous joy of Francis of Assisi and his merry band: I am reminded of Francis’s friend Friar Masseo, of whom the Little Flowers of Saint Francis says that he was “filled with such grace of the yearned-for virtue of humility, and of the light of God, that . . . he was ever blithe of heart. And many times he made a joyous sound like the cooing of a dove. ‘Coo, coo, coo.’” And (in a more earthy key) of the Cistercian Aelred of Riveaulx, who took surpassing joy in the fellowship of his order, so that he said “Without friends there is absolutely no pleasure in life.”
And because we think these things–sex, food, emotion–have to do only with biological matters of reproduction and sustenance, or with unfortunate physical tendencies that cloud our judgment and confuse our ability to see truth, and that they have no spiritual significance, we live our lives with God as a giant game of pretend. We pretend that the only part of us that matters is our “spiritual” part. We pretend we can sustain relationship with Him by attending only to that part. We pretend that a vertical relationship is enough, and that our horizontal relationships with spouses, children, parents, co-workers will simply sort themselves out if we spend enough time alone in our prayer closets—as if “alone” is the only place God can be met.
And because of all this, we cannot take seriously the power of disciplines such as celibacy (temporary or lifelong) or fasting (brief or protracted) or stability within one community. Since the body is not a place where spirituality gets done, mortifying the body is not part of our spirituality. Fasting is no gift to God, for the material has no significance. Keeping the heart for God by abstaining from sex is no important spiritual discipline, for God does not care about what we do with our bodies in the intimacy of our bedrooms (as long as we follow a few rules). Keeping fidelity to one community is no way to serve God, because the social dimension lacks spiritual significance. He is a God of the spiritual things, not of the material things. He is a God who seems to have come, in Jesus, as a spiritual being, not truly as a material (which is to say fully human) being. So that bodily realm has no spiritual significance for us. It is not evil, as the Gnostics held. It is simply irrelevant.
And because this is in fact not true—rather, devastatingly false—divorce rates are the same for Christians as for non-Christians. We have no lower rate of obesity than do non-Christians (perhaps worse, as a study some time ago of Southern Baptists suggested—because eating is the one vice left to a group that has historically been hedged around with the “NO” signs). We do not make art worth looking at. We do not write poems worth reading. We do not build churches worth walking into or worshiping in. We do not give council to married people worth hearing. We do not understand how to pass on our faith to our children, the “fruit of our loins” (to use the colorful, and very earthy, biblical image).
If we think our material existence is irrelevant, then of course we do not study how to live bodily “as unto God.” On the one hand, our devotion is not “full boisterous” and we do not engage in “dalliance” with our Lord, as was the case with the medieval lay mystic (and mother, and businesswoman) Margery Kempe. In our worship, we abstain from kneeling, prostrating ourselves, crossing ourselves, incense, art, vestments, and all that other “medieval” stuff. After all, that stuff would drag us back down into our embodiedness–into the material world that as we scientific moderns know has no spiritual significance.
On the other hand, we do not take seriously the ascetic disciplines that address our pressing, spiritually engaged bodies in ways that turn them always back to our Lord. And, it should be said, we have forgotten “the Art of Dying Well” that was so well understood and lavishly explained in the late M.A. especially. If our bodily lives lack spiritual significance, then so too do our bodily deaths. And again, because we downgrade our horizontal relatedness in the quest for vertical relatedness, we find the idea of mystical communion and fellowship with “saints” who have gone on before us both irrelevant and indeed irreverent.
This reflection on the spiritual significance of material creation is a taste of the ending as we begin. This book leads to and culminates in what I have found to be the wisest piece of medieval wisdom: that Creation and Incarnation are not rote doctrines to be learned, committed to memory, and ignored in our daily practice, but rather are practical linchpins of what it is to lead a good human life in the light of the Gospel.
 “The Little Flowers” & The Life of St Francis (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1912), 61.
 Aelred of Riveaulx, Spiritual Friendship.