We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
This oft-misused and misunderstood quote from Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man is, I believe, a perfect example of a mistake we Christians, and spiritual seekers of most stripes, make in our quest for transcendence. It certainly isn't wrong (a truth we cling to as we watch our bodies waste away), but it is misappropriated.
Sting did something similar with The Police’s “Spirits In the Material World”:
Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy
There must be another way.
We are spirits in the material world…
An escapist mentality (which, again, is not necessarily that of Teilhard…or maybe even Sting) is especially prevalent during Lent. We think we’re entering into a period of fasting and austerity for the sake of transcending the flesh. We believe that if we can subdue our bodies, then maybe we can start living as those “spiritual beings having a human experience,” those “spirits in the material world.”
Living from this place, things of the flesh will no longer have any appeal for us. We will no longer feel anger or lust or envy or pride…and we may even lose a few pounds because we don’t even want those greasy cheeseburgers anymore. We will be the masters of our domain!
But while there are glimmers of truth and value in all of this—spiritual beings, subduing the flesh, overcoming sin, etc.—the end result of this line of thinking is almost always perceived failure and frustration. The grace of Good Friday—what Christ did for us on the cross—means next to nothing. And Easter’s resurrection means even less because: 1) we drag it into our agenda of overcoming the flesh by reducing Easter to merely some sort of proof of an afterlife; and 2) we “failed” Lent anyway, so what’s the use! Here we remain, fleshly sinners waiting till next Lent to become “spirits in the material world.”
So where are we getting off track?
For one thing, it’s important to differentiate between sin and temptation. Sin is the possible fruit of temptation, but it need not be realized fruit that buds and is born. Whether it becomes sin or not, temptation is there regardless. Temptation can also give birth to holiness, opening us to more of the life of God in us (there’s some of the true “spiritual beings” stuff). Despite our discomfort with the idea of Jesus actually being tempted with the same vile things that tempt us, it is the truth of the Incarnation. But it's vital to understand that temptation is not sin. So we needn't waste our time thinking temptation is the enemy.
But, to borrow from Sting, “there must be another way.”
The truth is that we never really escape the flesh (until we go to be with the Lord, awaiting a newly-quickened flesh in resurrection; so, again, we never really escape the flesh). Hopes of never again being mindful of pain, lust, hunger, anger, etc., are largely futile. These are parts of our own incarnation, just as they were part of Jesus’ incarnation. And the temptation to indulge or satisfy the dictates of the flesh in ungodly and sinful ways is part of our experience, just as it was part of Jesus’ experience.
St. Paul wrote that, despite his pleas, he was never physically delivered from his “thorn in the flesh” but that, instead, God used it as an opportunity to direct him to God’s power working in his life (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s instruction is that his strength/power is made perfect in the midst of our weakness—or, in a sense, through our weakness. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Is he saying that he indulges his weakness so he can experience Christ’s power? Certainly not! But he is saying that he has left behind notions of fasting his way out of the body and, instead, uses his own incarnated temptations as opportunities to indulge Christ’s power…in his flesh. (“The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” – Gal. 2:20).
So, contrary to popular belief, our perfection does not entail some deliverance from the flesh, its dictates, and temptations. We never gain power enough or discipline enough to become some purely spiritual beings, oblivious to the flesh…nor are we meant to. God forbid! It is God’s power that perfects us by giving us another way of being incarnated.
The dead Christ on the cross kills the power of sin in our lives. And the risen Christ outside the tomb—still incarnated, mind you!—heralds and holds our new life in him. God’s grace is the sufficient deliverance for our flesh, empowering us to resist temptation and forgiving us when we don’t. Visions of rapture direct our souls heavenward while the pain of thorns brings us crashing into our incarnate lives. In the midst of both, God’s grace and power lead us deeper into his kingdom, coming from heaven yet fully, bodily alive in us...“in the material world.”