Several years ago, Hollywood made a movie called “City of Angels” about an angel named Seth whose job it was to accompany the spirits of the recently deceased to the afterlife. On one such mission, while waiting in a hospital, he fell in love with a brilliant young woman surgeon. As an angel, Seth has never experienced touch or taste and now, deeply in love, he longs to physically touch and make love to his beloved. But this is his dilemma: As an angel with free will he has the option to let go of his angelic status and become a human person, but only at the cost of renouncing his present immortality as an angel.
It’s a tough choice: Immortality, but no sensual experience, or sensual experience, but with all the contingencies that earthly morality brings — diminishment, aging, sickness, eventual death? He chooses the latter, renouncing his status as an immortal angel for the pleasure that earthly senses can bring.
The vast majority of people watching this movie, I suspect, will laud his choice. Most everything in our hearts moves us to believe that it’s cold and inhuman not to make this choice. The overpowering reality of the senses, especially when in love, can make everything else seem unreal, ethereal and second best. What we experience through our senses — what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell — is what’s real for us. We have our own version of Descartes. For us, the indubitable is: I feel, therefore, I am!
Spirituality, in virtually every major religious tradition, at least in its popular conception, has seemingly said the opposite. Spirit has classically (and sometimes almost dogmatically) been affirmed as above the senses, as higher, superior, a needed guard against the senses. Sensual pleasure, except for how it was occasionally honored in the realm of aesthetics, was perennially denigrated as furtive, superficial and a hindrance to the spiritual life. We took St. Paul’s admonition that the “flesh lusts against the spirit” in the Greek, dualistic sense, where body is bad and spirit is good.
Today, in the secularized world, the opposite seems true. The senses resoundingly trump the spirit. Secularized angels, unlike the religious angels of old, make the same option as Seth. The seeming vagueness of the spirit is no match for the reality of the senses.
So, which is more real?
At the end of the day, it’s a false dichotomy. Our senses and our spirit both offer life, both are very important and neither operates without the other.
As Christians, we believe that we’re both body and soul, flesh and spirit, and that neither can be separated from the other. We’re both mammal and angel, and, in our search for life, meaning, happiness and God, we should not forget that we are both. Our spirit is open to life only through our senses, and our senses provide depth and meaning only because they are animated by spirit.
We all know the few things that man, as mammal, can do, William Auden once wrote. He’s right, but we’re not just mammal; we’re equally part angel and, once we add that to the equation then the very limited joys that mammals can enjoy (animal pleasure), can become unlimited joys for us as human in what we can experience in love, friendship, altruism, aesthetics, sexuality, mysticism, food, drink, humor. Our senses make these real, even as our spirit gives them meaning.
And so, a healthy spirituality needs to honor both the senses and the spirit. The ordinary pleasures of life can be deep or shallow, more mystical or more mammal, depending upon how much we honor what’s spirit and what’s angel within us. Conversely, our spirituality and our prayer lives can be real or more of a fantasy, depending upon how much we incarnate them in what’s sensual and what’s mammal within us.
This holds true in every realm of our lives. For example, sexuality can be deep or shallow, more mystical or more mammal, contingent upon how much of it is soul and how much of it is merely sensual; just as it can be disembodied, sterile and merely fantasy, contingent upon it also being body and not just soul. The same is true of our experience of beauty, be that in our seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or smelling. Any sensual experience can be deep or shallow; depending upon how much soul is in it, just as any experience of beauty can seem unreal and imaginary if it is too divorced from the senses.
Some years ago, I was attending a seminar in anthropology. At one point, the lecturer said this: “What psychology and spirituality keep forgetting is that we are mammals.” As a theologian and spiritual writer (and celibate) the truth of his words hit me hard. He’s right! How easily do we forget this in religious circles. But religious circles are right, too, in consistently reminding us that we are also angels.
Poor Seth, the tormented angel of “City of Angels,” shouldn’t have had to make that choice.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.