Higher, but not the whole

Christ describes the contemplative life as the better portion, which simultaneously recognizes it as better and that it is still a portion, that is, cut from a larger whole, and which therefore necessarily leaves behind a bona fide spiritual good. Paul develops the same idea with his metaphor of the Mystical body. Denying this denies any spiritual significance to the everyday, which overlooks both the unique sort of transcendence it allows and its value even apart from transcendence. This last point is particularly important in light of Nussbaum’s critiques of (one kind of) transcendence.

To be honest, there are times when I wonder how anyone could be holy without raising a child, since I’ve never experienced anything so effective at showing ones self-centeredness, wrath, lukewarmness, helplessness in the face of contingency, short temper, need for grace, etc. Marriage is a school of virtues too: the fickleness of eros, the difficulty of correction, care for others, holding one’s tongue, the need for openness, etc. there are certainly times when the calm of the monastery looks more like an escape and opportunity for self-delusion than a confrontation with reality i.e. with actual people who didn’t self-select a common life.

That last opinion is nonsense, of course, and trying to exalt marriage and the common life can only lead to a vulgar, homogenized Christianity of either rigid duty, superficial enthusiasm, Spiritual fads, or universalist Christian Last Men. Sure, vows of perfection with dramatic renunciations and hagiographic heroism aren’t for me, but I still want to be in the group that holds them as ideals. But we can have a spiritual ideal without making it the totality of spiritual experience, as the whole idea of the mystical body seems to require.

Even outside the perfection of the religious life over the lay, the doctrine of the mystical body seems raise the possibility that all spiritual experience is finite and limited, and can only be whole in its collective expression. Catholics and Orthodox might see in this a critique of the idea that the Christian life could ever be limited to a theology of “Me and Jesus”, as though the spiritual life of a single person (or even a mere enumeration of isolated individuals) could be all that God wanted.

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