Friday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 477



I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.

Today's first reading from Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans may be one of the most often cited passages in the Bible, and the most difficult to understand. We hear the heart-cry of a man who ponders his own inner distress; it speaks to the inner distress of everyone called to live the Gospel; but it uses words like body, flesh, and members that are only partly understood.
Many centuries have passed since Paul wrote his letter in Greek to a sympathetic Roman congregation and his words have passed through multiple definitions.
We have inherited from the Greeks the notion of a soul which occupies and animates a body. When the soul leaves the body it collapses and dies. For the Greeks the soul, because it managed and outlasted the body, was superior. The stoics especially saw the body as the animal component which should be disciplined and controlled; they sneered at people who surrendered to their animal appetites. The true philosopher never overindulged in any pleasure except, perhaps, that of the mind.
The 19th century saw the last scientific studies of that theory. Some doctors supposed that the amputee's "phantom pains" indicated the soul (whose limb had not been amputated) still communicated with the mind. The ghostly arm still felt pain when the physical arm was missing. Other physicians carefully compared the weight of a man before and after he died to see how much the soul weighs. Eventually they concluded there is no such thing. They supposed If it cannot be measured it doesn't exist. 
Modern advances in studies of the brain also challenge our traditional notions of the body and soul. Today there are serious discussions about the brain and the mind. The brain is in the skull but where is the mind? Can the mind exist apart from the brain, and is the mind the soul? How do they interact?
Millions of people routinely use mind-altering substances, most of them perfectly legal and unquestionably recommended by conscientious physicians. These substances help them lead more virtuous lives, or at least less obnoxious. Teachers of small children expect the parents to make sure their wards are properly medicated before they arrive in the classroom. We have also seen significant personality changes in people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Even their moral/ethical behavior changes.
Where do these new questions about the body, mind, brain and soul lead us as we ponder the Letter to the Romans? 
Our Catholic tradition assures us despite Saint Paul's uneasiness, flesh is not evil. God was humbled when he took on human flesh, but he was not tainted with evil. Our Sacrament of Marriage celebrates the goodness of sexuality with its intense desires and promising fruitfulness. Could the conception of a human being not be holy?
But we also know the bewilderment and frustration of Saint Paul who intends to do good and yet perversely does evil. Despite my intense affection I hurt my beloved. Despite my best intentions and all the warnings and all my carefully-made plans, I did exactly what I intended not to do! Why did I do that?
Sometimes we have planned unrealistically. The overeater decided to eat nothing for several days; the alcoholic intended only to visit his friends in the tavern; the angry person was not as calm as he appeared to himself.
And often we are powerless in the face of a higher power and must finally appeal to the Highest Power. Our good intentions are useless unless we are perfectly obedient to God who steps in and takes charge of our impulses and desires.
The chapter ends when Saint Paul arrives at his own resolution:
Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

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