A Well Ordered Exterior

Many of the effects of contemplation, like all Christian prayer, involve setting up storage in Heaven (Mt 6:20). They concern the Church and the world at large.

On the other hand, another of the effects of contemplation is to reorganize and reintegrate our whole person. The human being who prays becomes rooted more totally and absolutely in Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and these Three impart a new order and organization to everything about him or her.

That includes the body.

Contemplation is something that happens to persons who are, as we say today, embodied. Perhaps it would be more accurate to note that the body is in the soul (as Saint Hildegard says), but regardless of the way we phrase things, it is true that any reorganization, reintegrating, and reordering of our whole person will involve a reorganization, reintegrating, and reordering of our body also.

This is an effect well known in Christian spiritual literature. The Western Church tends to call it transformation in Christ; the Eastern Church tends to call it transfiguration of the body, in reference to Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Mt 17:1–9; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 9:28–36; 2 Pt 1:16–18). The earliest recorded lives and hagiographies of the saints are replete with examples. Some of the better-known examples include the following: the account of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas speaks of a simultaneous “calmness,” “radiance,” and “intensity of gaze which made people avert their eyes”; Saint Antony of Egypt was described as having joy and the disposition of his soul visible on his face and in his movements; and it was said of Saint Macarius of Egypt that, like Moses (Ex 34:29), “the glory of the Lord shone on his face.”

But this Spirit-given transfiguration doesn’t have to be something marvellous and great. It can be something simple. It can be something small. It can “only” be the integration of the body into the Spirit’s goodness. It may simply be something extra in a smile, a comportment, the gestures, the hard-earned physical posture which comes from attention to others, an interiority flowing outwards in the eyes, a non-human confidence lived in humility etched into the lines of the face, or any other configuration of God and human nature in this wounded world – in short, as Saint Jane Frances de Chantal puts it,

a well-ordered exterior, the basis of which depends on the practice of the presence of God.

This organization and ordering of our exterior, our body, our gestures, and everything down to the tips of our fingers, comes from closeness to God. Grace can, if we have eyes for it, be seen. It is invisible but breaking into the visible world. That’s transfiguration, the taking of the body further up and further into the depths and riches of the soul and the Spirit.

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