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[Published in The Greek Australian Vema, August 2009, 8]

Glimpses of a Symbolic Anthropology

Part One: The Body as a Palimpsest

Doru Costache

Our detractors, recalling the classical adoration of the human body, accuse
Christians of suppressing it. They also maintain that we have reduced human
nature to an abstract (disembodied or spiritual) scheme and exhibit no interest in
the body, other than for chastising it as the source of all evils. This is why, in turn,
our detractors have abandoned the spiritual path and become oblivious to the
soul, claiming that this is the only way they could retrieve the intrinsic value of
the body. And perhaps, yes, they have reached some positive outcomes, the way
the wonderful lotus emerges from a swamp… For in fact, along with absolutising
it, they have simplified the body, reducing it to a function, and together with this
reductionism they have destroyed the human being’s noble – symbolic –

This series will present some reflections on the body and human nature (mostly)
in light of our tradition, aiming at recalling the richness of Christian anthropology.
In passing, whilst dismissing the allegation that we are not capable of valuing the
body, I shall endeavour to depict aspects pertaining to the Orthodox way of
spiritual life and the role the body plays within it.

Far from being ignored or reprimanded, the body holds within the Orthodox
tradition the highest place that can ever be ascribed to God’s creation. More
precisely, the body is consistently interpreted as the very chalice of the Logos
incarnate and the Spirit’s temple, the privileged recipient of the transformative
energy of God. From this point onwards, our entire spiritual assessment and
treatment of the body unfold in light of the paradigm of the incarnation. But these
aspects will be considered in more detail some other time. For now, here are a few
musings on the complex, multi-layered, structure of the body are in order.

In our tradition, the body does not ensnare that strange invisible element called
‘soul’. It is, as Clement – that fascinating Alexandrian – put it, the symphonic
organ of the soul, of the mind, of the heart, and ultimately of the Spirit. The body
is also Aquinas’ materia signata (signed matter), a palimpsest, covered by layers
and levels of writing, signatures and imprints...

It bears our Father’s signature, written within its inner being, whilst God –
according to a pretemporal design – progressively moulded it of the dust of the
earth, making of it the walking tree whose vertical arrow points upwards and the
branches embrace all horizons. It thus constitutes a paradoxical mixture of
humility and glory, as pointed out by our funeral service.

It bears the renewed signatures of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the two ‘divine
hands’ of which St Irenaeus spoke, now reshaping it through baptism, chrismation
and communion. And the body really is elevated to a novel state, that of
becoming a divine-human domain.

It bears the universe’s writing, for we are stardust and our mind – my God! – is full
of stars. Being a microcosm, the body comprises in its very nature the structure of
the universe, reverberating all the songs and hymns that – like in a Pythagorean
routine – the latter has ever intoned.
It bears the writing of the earth, for we are born of our Mother’s flesh. And all her
voices are buried deep inside the ocean of our unconscious, flowing through the
veins with the waves of our very blood.

It bears the writing of our brothers and sisters plants and animals, according to
the testimony of St Gregory of Nyssa, for we are of the same living root and live
their life even though we have become aware of our personal transcendence in
regards to our biological grounds.

It bears the imprint of our distant progenitors, like in Lucian Blaga’s poem on the
voices we hear sometimes in the deepest abyss of our being, voices belonging to
our ancestors. They suddenly wake up inside us, talking through our flesh and
blood, bringing to us memories of different persons as if they were ours…

It bears the signature of our parents, like in that poem by Archbishop Stylianos:
Buried inside us were the sounds
of the words our parents
managed to utter in the moment of intercourse
before they fell silent at the wonder
of budding life

It bears the imprint of our education, for all the books and all the music are there,
living inside, although we have become oblivious to the references, like in
Goethe’s saying that culture is what remains after one has forgotten everything.

It bears the imprint of our personal experiences, like in Aristotle’s quest for true
knowledge which becomes not only our wisdom, but more so our body. Our flesh,
embodied memories… Shaping the body, in fact all our experiences eventually
take flesh within it, becoming alive, part of our ontological legacy.

It bears the writing of our encounters, for we really are what we met or meet.

It bears the writing of our friends, adversaries and the various events, for we are
forever and indelibly imprinted with their mark. Children of the circumstances…

Having such an intricate text(ure), the body is more than a scripture; it is the
Scripture. It should be read as such. Our Torah is a tree of life, chants the
Synagogue. And so is the body.