I was innocently reading 2 Corinthians Chapter 3 in my prayer time when a flood of insights started invading me. In this chapter, St. Paul speaks about the dispensation of the Spirit in contrast to the dispensation of the Law. It hit me that God’s eternal plan, the one hidden from eternity and revealed in its fullness through Christ, is the dispensation of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, there is no Incarnation and no Resurrection; there is also no life.
In John 6, Jesus says to his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is to no avail.” Sometimes we interpret this to mean the body is worthless, or even worse, that our bodily flesh is evil. Our flesh is the cause of sin.
But if the flesh were evil, how could Jesus command us to eat his flesh? For Jesus clearly states, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). The flesh, then, in God’s eternal plan is not the source of evil, but of life. In fact, flesh, spirit, and life are connected – and the connection is communion.
Let’s go back “to the beginning” to see how flesh, spirit, and life are connected through communion.
In Genesis 1:2, Sacred Scripture describes the Spirit (or breath) of God hovering over the waters. The Spirit is present at the beginning of creation to bring life to the formless void, a void awaiting God’s spoken Word to take shape. When Spirit and Word are present, God’s artistry in the created world explodes into various shapes: light, darkness, sun, sky, stars, wild animals, sea creatures, winged birds, and embodied humanity as male and female burst forth.
In Genesis 2, spirit and matter come together in a different manner. God’s creative artistry is described more like a potter: God molds Adam into being from the dust of the ground and then His Spirit doesn’t simply hover over Adam, but God breathes His Spirit into Adam. Only after God’s Spirit enters Adam does Scripture say he becomes a “living being.” When flesh and Spirit combine, Adam receives life. And through the presence of spirit within him, he is empowered with a unique capacity – the capacity for personal communion.
This is why Scripture reveals a few verses later that it is “not good for Adam to be alone”: he needs another fleshly being who also has spirit and life, who is also capable of communion. Thus, the advent of Eve provokes Adam’s song of intense joy and delight: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” Finally, he encounters another creature in whom flesh, spirit, and life are intertwined to create the possibility for communion.
I think we sometimes overlook this emphasis on “spirit” in both Genesis 1 and 2. Perhaps it’s because in our ordinary Catholic language we often speak of human persons as body and soul. Only occasionally, such as in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, are human persons also described as body and spirit. For instance, in TOB A59:4, St. John Paul II writes, “But in and of itself, science does not yet develop the consciousness of the body as a sign of the person, as a manifestation of the spirit.”
So, then, which is it? Are we body and soul or are we body and spirit? The answer is…both! We are body, soul, and spirit. As human persons, we are tri-partite beings.
With a shrug you might ask, is this distinction really necessary? Aren’t soul and spirit the same thing?
From a theological viewpoint, the answer is “no.” Soul, or anima in Latin, refers to the animating principle of a thing; it is what makes something alive. Being alive is not distinct to human persons. Daffodils, ants, giant sequoia trees, koala bears, and single-celled amoebas are all living things. They all have an anima, a principle of life within them that distinguishes them from inanimate things such as rocks, trash cans, wrenches, rain, fire, and the buttons on your shirt.
Only persons have both an animating principle (soul) and a spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the distinction between soul and spirit in this way: “Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people ‘wholly’ with ‘spirit and soul and body’ kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality [i.e., a split] into the soul. ‘Spirit’ signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God” (CCC 367) (emphasis added).
This soul/spirit distinction helps us understand better the difference between us and animals. Animals are wonderful companions on the journey of life. They bring comfort and comical antics into our homes. They can even demonstrate a kind of heroic loyalty, but they are not persons. We don’t take Fido on a date to be in “union and communion” with him. Our Siamese cat is not included in the family game of Trivial Pursuit, and our tropical fish don’t join us at the table for Thanksgiving dinner. Dates, games, and holiday dinners are distinctly personal activities made possible through our spirit empowering our ability for communion.
We are reminded of this unique capacity for communion through our personhood at the beginning of every Mass. After the sign of the cross, the celebrant greets us by saying, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” and we respond, “And with your spirit.”
Has it ever struck you as odd that we respond by saying, “And with your spirit?” We used to simply say, “And also with you.” Why this new emphasis on spirit? Because it highlights our nature as body, soul, and spirit and the unique capacity we have to enter into liturgy, into worship, because we are not just matter and soul (i.e., plants or animals), but persons. We are created, as St. John Paul II says in TOB A6:2 to be a “partner of the Absolute.” Through the presence of spirit within us, we can transcend ourselves and enter into communion with other persons, including a personal God.
Perhaps you’ve listened to one of my talks on heaven where I ask a very odd question: “How many types of persons are there?” In response, I often receive blank stares or looks of confusion laced with doubt. The audience is wondering, “Is this the first line of a joke?” Or, “What do you mean by ‘types’ of persons?” Or, “Are you referring to black persons, white persons, Asian persons, etc.?”
Immediate relief crosses their faces when I answer my own question: “Three!” But the mystery is still not solved until I describe the three kinds of persons that exist: Divine Persons (3 Persons in one God); spiritual persons (angels); and human persons (us). And here’s the jackpot: Each of these three kinds of persons/Persons contain spirit as part of their nature and so can enter into communion with each other!
The three Divine Persons exist eternally as a Communion of Persons. Their communion with each other defines our very understanding of the nature of God. Angels graciously exist in the presence of this Divine Communion of Persons and so enter into communion with God; but they also enter into communion with us. Each of us is entrusted to a guardian angel whose mission is to maintain communion with us and protect our communion with God and each other. And marvelously, we can also enter into communion with each Person of the Trinity, with all the heavenly hosts, and with each other.
Let’s be clear: I am not claiming that we are divine or angelic. I am claiming that we are persons, and through the presence of spirit/Spirit, each type of person (Divine, angelic, human) enters into communion with other persons (Divine, angelic, human) according to their specific nature.
Thus, the three Divine Persons enter into a Communion of Persons according to their eternal and unchanging Divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live a shared interiority of total self-giving and receiving of each Other that is the very definition of Life, Love, and the meaning of personhood.
Angelic persons enter into a communion of persons according to their nature as purely rational and immaterial spirits; their communion with the Trinity is an intellectual union established through a free act of the will. This is why Catholic Church teaching presents Satan as a fallen angel, as an immaterial person who rebelled against God’s eternal plan and broke communion with Trinitarian Love and Life and now “prowls about the world seeking the ruin” of human persons.
Finally, as human persons, we also enter into communion according to our specific nature, which is embodied. We are not angelic or divine persons, but embodied persons and so our vocation to communion according to our nature must also be embodied. This vocation means the ultimate meaning of our lives is not a communion of intellects nor a communion of wills, but an embodied communion.
Lo and behold, we have a special name for embodied communion. We call it male and female. (The Incarnation, Eucharist, and Resurrected Body are also embodied communions, but that’s for another day.)
The incredible joy and privilege of being human is the gift of our bodies! Well, not quite. Let me try that again: The incredible joy and privilege of being human is the gift of our bodies united to soul and spirit! While having a rational soul is amazing – we can invent space travel, build skyscrapers, investigate string theory, commit ourselves in marriage, endure suffering, show compassion to “untouchables” on the streets of Calcutta – it does not guarantee us eternal life. Contemporary atheists have wonderfully rational explanations of human existence. They faithfully exercise the powers of their soul to think and freely choose, and yet they still arrive at the rational conclusion that death is the final end.
But love is stronger than death. Death has been conquered not just through spiritual communion, but through embodied communion. Christ’s embodied Person was raised from the dead and glorified by the power of the Spirit. By this same Spirit, our eternal destiny is secured as well. St. Paul says in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Our human capacity for communion endures even after death because the spirit is eternal. The Holy Spirit inflames our spirit with eternal life here and now so that our earthly flesh is being transformed from glory to glory in anticipation of full, embodied communion at Christ’s Second Coming when our bodies are raised and glorified. Flesh, soul, and spirit unite again as in the Garden to give eternal life to our embodied nature for eternal Holy Communion.
And this brings us back to 2 Corinthians 3, but this time to verse 15: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is Spirit.” The glory of the Lord and the glory of being human rests in the glory of personhood – of sharing not only in the rationality of God through our soul, but in the relationality of God through our spirit and its capacity for communion, both on this earth and in eternity.
This week I encourage you to reflect on this wonderful indwelling of the Holy Spirit in your spirit and thus in your flesh, and to intentionally call upon your capacity of spirit to transcend yourself and thus enter into a communion of persons with the Trinity and with others. And remember…you are a body-soul-spirit filled gift!
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS