Readings (Year C):
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Reflection: Taste and see the goodness of God
We often think of spirituality as something that happens in some invisible, hard-to-define part of ourselves we call our souls. Meanwhile, we have often been taught that our bodies are the source of all our sinful troubles. St. Augustine referred to sin as an “infection” from our physical bodies, a disease that can corrupt our souls if we’re not careful. Until we stop living “according to the lump of clay”—Augustine’s term for our flesh and blood—we will never be spiritual; only when we “put away that lump” can we, according to Augustine, “investigate spiritual things.”
Ever since Augustine, many of us have continued to believe that if we could just separate our souls from our bodies’ unruly urges and appetites, we could become more truly spiritual. But today’s reading from Psalm 34 indicates a different perspective.
“Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” the psalmist writes. In other words, use your physical senses to appreciate God. The flavor of homemade bread, the rosy light of a sunrise, the scent of new-mown grass, the feel of a lover’s touch, or the notes of a classic rock song—all these are possible points of connection with the divine. Instead of being sinful lumps of clay that weigh down our souls, our bodies and all their physical sensations can offer us opportunities to draw closer to God.
Today’s psalm does speak about the soul—“Let my soul glory in the Lord,” says verse 2—but the Hebrew word nephesh, which our English Bibles translate as “soul,” has a different meaning from the one we’re accustomed to. In English, according to Webster’s dictionary, soul refers to the “immaterial essence” or “spiritual principle” that’s contained within the human body—it’s “the spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, which separates from the body at death.” Nephesh, however, means a range of things, none of which have anything to do with an intangible “essence” that’s separate from the life of the body. Instead, my Hebrew lexicon lists these meanings for nephesh: Breath. Anything that has blood (including animals). The seat of our physical appetites, including hunger and thirst, and our emotions and desires. And finally, the Self, unified and eternal (not divided up into mind, body, and soul, as we so often do).
The concept of some sort of ethereal spiritual essence trapped inside a body would have been foreign to ancient biblical thought. When the psalmist wrote that the nephesh glories in God, he (or she) wasn’t talking about a disembodied, spiritual experience. Instead, it’s our physical existence—our breath, our blood, our physical urges, and our emotions all unified into one—that does the glorying of God.
So today, taste and see the goodness of God. Experience God with the entirety of your existence. Love the one who created your physical being, with all its amazing capacities as well as its limitations. And then use your body to carry God’s love out into the world where others can see it and touch it, where they too can taste it and hear it and breathe it in.