By all accounts, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop of the early church, didn’t have it easy. His episcopal duties generally took three forms: spreading the Gospel as a missionary in hostile territory, helping his community endure waves of persecution that came as the mood struck various Roman emperors, and dealing with an array of exotic heresies that might be thought of as the Roman Empire’s equivalent of the New Age.
Born in the first half of the second century, the young Irenaeus had heard the preaching of the renowned bishop of Smyrna, Saint Polycarp. Polycarp was already an old man by that time; he had been born in the first century and was said to have been a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist. Polycarp was eventually burned at the stake and it is assumed that Irenaeus also died a martyr’s death.
If ever there was someone who had a right to feel embattled and pessimistic, consumed by a sense of futility and the darkness of human nature, it was Irenaeus. But in his famous treatise Against the Heretics, written in the year 185, the bishop of Lyons uttered these astonishing words: “Gloria Dei vivens homo.”
“The glory of God is man fully alive.”
What does that mean? Irenaeus wrote those words in the context of his attack on the heresy of Gnosticism, which held that the created order—matter itself—was evil and that salvation could only come through a secret knowledge of how to escape into a purely spiritual realm. The Gnostics tended to assert that Jesus was not fully incarnate as a human being but something more like a ghostly projection—like the hologram of Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie.
However distant and alien the Gnostics may appear to our modern sensibilities, their way of thinking has a familiar ring. For some it seems more holy to stress the spirit over the flesh—Heaven over Earth.
So, yes, Irenaeus’s belief that the glory of God is man fully alive sounds a little scandalous to our ears. Most of us tend to be pretty down on the human, whether we are religious or not.
But what if these conditions are, in the end, gifts—the very means by which we become fully alive? The religious sense, which seems inherent in human nature, grows out of the awareness of our dependence—the fragility but also the beauty of our embodied nature. Was anyone ever more alive and at one with himself than that greatest of all beggars, St. Francis of Assisi, when he wallowed in the dirt and knew the joy of being a beggar?
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton came to embrace this vision of the goodness of our embodied, human life, but it involved something of a journey. It’s not hard to understand why.
Before the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics, most of humanity lived in a world dominated by death and disease. Elizabeth was no exception; she lost innumerable family members to tuberculosis, including her husband and two daughters, and her father to cholera. She herself died of tuberculosis at the comparatively young age of 46.
Faced with unremitting loss, it is little wonder that devout Christians tended to focus on Heaven rather than earthly existence. Even Elizabeth herself was tempted to do so and this came to a head after the agonizing loss of her daughters, Anna Maria and Bec. Tormented with visions of the hideous nature of their deaths, their mother came close to despair. On the one hand, she rejoiced that her daughters were now in Paradise and free from suffering; on the other, she was haunted that their dreadful suffering had been in vain.
As Catherine O’Donnell says in her biography:
“Human suffering seemed endless but insufficient; it could never make up for sin, never earn God’s grace. Yet without that grace, suffering and life itself were unbearable.”
It was Father Bruté, her spiritual director, who helped heal this rift between the body and the soul by encouraging her to engage “the emotions and senses as well as the mind.” In other words, to embrace her deeply human grief and fear and horror at death while also trusting in God’s mercy and grace.
In this way, Father Bruté helped Elizabeth see that what she needed was not only a vision of Heaven but also the capacity to see God’s grace irradiating the world that is, that if we are to be redeemed it must be in and through the way we are.
Near the end of her life, Elizabeth wrote:
“The body and the soul should be friends, not rivals: the Christian should remember that he is a man, the man that he is a Christian.”
This loving reconciliation between the body and soul was hard won, but it was a measure of St. Elizabeth Ann’s lifelong, courageous struggle to be fully alive in the Lord.
Like Mother Seton after the death of her beloved daughters, we too need to tap into the religious sense, to acknowledge the frailty and dependency of the flesh but also to be grateful for that gift—to allow this humanity that God created to become fully alive.
To paraphrase Hans Rookmaaker, “Christ did not come to make us Christians; he came to make us human beings.”
Suzanne M. Wolfe grew up in Manchester, England, and received a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Oxford, where she co-founded the C.S. Lewis Society. She served as Writer in Residence at Seattle Pacific University and taught literature and creative writing there for nearly two decades. Wolfe is the author of four novels: The Course of All Treasons (Crooked Lane, 2020), A Murder by Any Name (Crooked Lane, 2018), The Confessions of X (HarperCollins/Nelson, 2016, winner of the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award), and Unveiling (Paraclete Press, 2004; revised edition, 2018, winner of the Award of Merit from the Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards). She and her husband, Greg Wolfe, have co-authored many books on literature and prayer including Books That Build Character: How to Teach Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (with William Kirk Kilpatrick, Simon & Schuster, 1994), and Bless This House: Prayers For Children and Families (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Her essays and blog posts have appeared in Convivium and other publications. She and her husband are the parents of four grown children and have three grandchildren.
Image: Saint Irenaeus stained glass window by Lucien Bégule, 1901, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons