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Heavenly Bodies

Anybody who was ever young, especially if he or she was once an athlete, will, in aging, find the decline of bodily powers and fitness at least somewhat disappointing, if not actually distressing.

I came across a book recently with the – to me – insanely provocative title, Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To. The hardcover flap copy includes the more modest assertion that “Aging is a disease, and that disease is treatable,” which still strikes me as ill-conceived (are growth and change really diseases?), and then this: “Recent experiments in genetic reprogramming suggest that in the near future we may not just be able to feel younger but actually become younger.”

Putting aside the utterly scary notion of genetic reprogramming, isn’t it logically imbecilic to suggest that anything can become younger? Well, I haven’t actually read the book, so I should move on.

Except . . . I did peek at the “Conclusion,” which includes an attack on the 2003 report (Beyond Therapy) of the President’s Council on Bioethics, which members included such distinguished commentators as Leon Kass, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Charles Krauthammer, and James Q. Wilson, all of whom the author of Lifespan characterizes as “zealots” engaged in “deadly hogwash” for promoting acceptance of human life as a continuum from birth and growth to aging and death.

For what it’s worth, we know by empirical experience that all of us humans really do grow, age, and die. I have observed men and women who have fought against these inevitabilities, and, in every case – even if their interventions have been successful – it has only been in the short run. In many cases, their efforts have been wholly futile and not infrequently embarrassing.

I’m not suggesting it’s un-Christian to stay as fit and healthy as possible, only that the pursuit of youth is a fool’s errand. One ought to age gracefully because age we will.

Behind much of the frantic pursuit of life-extension is the fear of death; even the hatred of it. And you would hate it if you believed that this life and this body are all we’ll ever have. But it’s an understatement to stay that such a belief is un-Christian.

My body is officially old now and breaking down. (N.B., I’m down but not out.) Since 2012, I’ve had six surgical procedures under various kinds of anesthesia, plus a cardiac stent, chemotherapy, and radiation (for different cancers in 2018 and 2019). Through it all, doctors have commented on how well I’ve tolerated the treatments.

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But I’m having trouble “coming back” in 2020. One friend said, “It’s like you keep getting beaned by wild pitches.” It feels that way. I recover, but not to where I was before – even with lifestyle changes and vigorous exercise.

I also look at death, which I’ve long seen as a friend, with even more affection these days. See you soon enough, buddy!

And that has everything to do with faith. There’s no better explanation of why this should be so than in Paul’s first letter to the Christians of Corinth (chapter 15). Not only does Paul assert, infallibly, the resurrection of the body, he does so with an eloquence and clarity of language that rivals (and surely influenced) Dante, Aquinas, Shakespeare, and a myriad of other writers and artists.

The most spectacular of all the promises of Christ is the resurrection of the body. Jesus, as Paul puts it, is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20) and when He comes again, all those sleepers will awaken, just as Christ did on the third day, rising – as He did – body intact.

I say “intact,” but that’s not exactly right. For anyone interred for long in a cemetery, let alone in a columbarium, the body won’t be as it was in life. Whether at the resurrection there will be a horror-movie moment of mouldering corpses reanimated, I don’t know.

It doesn’t matter, because it’s clear we’ll be taking renewed bodies into heaven. As Paul wrote:

The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. . .(15: 41-43)

The splendor of these imperishable, glorious, powerful bodies will not, in the heavenly city, necessarily exist to perform again all the old earthly functions, although it’s clear that our bodies will be human, just as Christ’s was (and remains) after His Resurrection.

The earthly body possesses irresistible powers. I’m not referring simply to our physical passions – the sort that may lead us into temptation. Those we can, with prayerful discipline, resist. I’m talking about the bundle of biological necessities over which we have little or no control: breathing and sleeping; eating and drinking. Until death, the body never ceases to seek its own nature, which is why, no matter how much pain and despair people have experienced, nobody ever committed suicide by holding his breath.

Often people insist, jokingly, “I have needs!” But – and this is food for thought – what will we say when that’s no longer true? When every imaginable need is fulfilled in every eternal moment.

 

*Image: The Last Judgment by Michelangelo, 1536-41 [Sistine Chapel, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City]. Painted a quarter-century after completion of the Chapel ceiling, the fresco over the altar shows the resurrected ascending or descending to their just fates. (The bust of Michelangelo below was by his student, Daniele da Volterra, and sculpted from life.)

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.