O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Romans 7:24
"By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me? ... I embrace him. And I turn away from him. What is this mystery in me? What is the principle this mixture of body and soul?" (John Climacus Step 15)
Our struggle can earn a crown or punishment, says St. John. The struggle with the flesh is a real struggle that has been a theological hairball for a long time. We say that grace overcomes all things and indeed it does, but why is there still such a struggle. In us are yearnings of the spirit that are in conflict with the passions of the body. Lust, pride, covetousness, wrath, self-pity, and the like wage war against the gentleness, love, patience, and peace of the inner man.
In this struggle is the danger of despair which is a precursor of death and is a sin because the soul marries grief and guilt while rejecting repentance. It is the embrace of condemnation. The darkness overwhelms us and swallows us whole in temptation, trials and defeats. The mortal hollowness collapses under the weight of judgment. Our flesh, unruly as it is, is our eternal companion who will rise with us at the judgment to bear witness to our struggle. The struggle matters and that it is won matters too.
God has given many aids to overcome this situation. There is confession and contrition, a medicine of antiquity. There is the brotherhood where prayers are offered. Additionally there are the scriptures, vigils and contemplation. If we are successful in faith the flesh will enter the glory of Christ with us. If we indulge the flesh, it will bear witness that and lead us to perdition. So the struggle is not the success; rather, it is in the outcome of the struggle we are rewarded. We succeed in faith through grace which enflames, illuminates, and enables our lives. It is Christ who saves us, after all. We are called to make the sojourn here complete by struggling for the spirit and against the flesh for the lifespan of our years. Glory be …
Fr. John Mark McMonagle, D.Min. ’11, is pastor of Saint Brendan the Navigator Western Orthodox Mission, Honeoye Falls, N.Y.