A material world

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

To pray and to engage in worship is to recognize the limits of the physical. In prayer and worship the spirit in us seeks the Spirit upholding creation. This is the spirit St Paul tells the Corinthians ‘searches everything, even the depths of our hearts.’ In the ministry of Our Lord we see the material world subject to power of the Spirit; walking on water, the Transfiguration, the raising of the dead, the multiplication of fish and bread all reveal the power of the creator to recreate and reorder the material world. The two foundations of an orthodox faith, the Virgin Birth and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, proclaim that the saving love of God cannot be limited by any physical dimension. The spiritual is real and everlasting; the material is transient and will pass away.

In the lives of some saints we read of their capacity to fast and pray and to work furiously for the Kingdom without rest or sleep. The lives of St Francis or St Gilbert of Sempringham spring to mind, but in my own ministry I have encountered men and women whose constitution is far more spiritual than physical. Our body is, after all, a tent to be folded up when it is finished with (another image from St Paul). It seems to me that the possibilities of prayer – communion with God, and the priorities of our lives – are shaped to a great extent by the way we view the material world.

We say that we live in a time of ‘rampant materialism’, and there must be some truth in this. Whether we like it or not, our view of spirituality is bound to be affected, even corrupted, by this prevailing world view. This means that to pursue holiness is profoundly counter-cultural; there is an ‘institutional prejudice’ against the spiritual which is found even in the life of the Church where liberal theology exalts the material over the spiritual. Red hot

issues in sexuality, euthanasia, abortion and gender issues take on different perspective when the material is made subject to the spiritual imperative of seeking and dwelling in eternal life. This obsession with the body, particularly in the area of sexual ethics, can become profoundly unchristian.

The sacramental life of the Church teaches us how to approach the material world. It is not an end in itself. It is given as a gift to open up the eternal life and goodness of the creator. This is the bedrock of Ignatian Spirituality; in his ‘First Principle and Foundation’ Ignatius argues that ‘Man is created to serve and reverence God and by this means save his soul. Everything else is created to help man to this end.’ The task of prayer is to discern which parts of the material world can aid us in the journey to our end which has no end. This will mean testing our approach to every aspect of the material, examining our management of appetites, and getting to grips with how we order our homes and domestic economy. Remember, as my grandmother used to say, ‘there are no pockets in shrouds!’