Human flesh, like all forms of flesh, is locatable in timespace. We can measure it, we can map it, we can clock its movements. The same may be said for material inanimate entities, yet an important difference remains. We inhabit the world as beings who desire and need, who feel pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. We interact with creaturely others in manifold ways impossible for the lifeless:
[Human locatibility] means, also, an erotic relation, one of desire or delight or their opposites, to timespace. The spatial location of inanimate bodies is evenly distributed, mappable geometrically by coordinates and representable with mathematical precision on a grid. But the being-in-place of human flesh is always uneven, stumbling, incapable of adequate representation on a grid. For human flesh, there is holy ground and unhallowable, the soft and welcoming place and the place of despair; and the distance between such places is not capable of measure by rule or by grid. When the flesh is located by GPS at a place in the world, and represented by a glowing dot on the Google-mapped screen of a smartphone, it is being shown as an inanimate, even if moving, body; showing it—locating it—as flesh rather than as inanimate body is beyond the skill of software. That would require a device that could show timespace gathered and furled and concentrated and distended, a panorama of shrines and altars and places of pilgrimage as well as of death pits and bomb sites and concentration camps. Flesh genuflects here, is embraced there, is fed elsewhere and flees in horror through desert places elsewhere again. The map of its locatedness would be more like a weather map of isobars unevenly concentrated into zones of high pressure and low than like a gridded plan on which all places are like. Inanimate body is undifferentiatedly present in all the furled and folded spaces of the flesh—the flowing Google-mapped dot of location is the same for all of them, even though the flesh knows the difference. (Decreation, pp. 161-162)
To be flesh is to desire. Electrons do not desire; concrete blocks do not desire; corpses do not desire. “The extent to which we are fleshly rather than inanimate-bodily is the extent to which timespace is given to us under the signs of desire and delight” (p. 162). Yet we should not, Griffiths suggests, think of desire as internal to the human individual. We are not self-enclosed monadic beings driven “to ingest, touch, and enter into the world” (p. 162). Desire, rather, must be planted within us by the caress of the other:
The flesh’s eros is received as gift, not possessed as aspiration: it is only by being caressed, for example, that fleshly creatures are capable of caressing; it is not that we are brought into being as caressers, awaiting occasion for the exercise of that potency. No, in order to be lovers, those capable of caressing (rather than merely touching) the flesh of another, we need first to receive the other’s caress. That is, the lover becomes such only by receiving the gift of himself as beloved. (p. 162)
Griffiths reminds us of our intrinsic relationality: “The key point is that the flesh’s trembles of desire before the flesh of others are possible for it only if and as it is first desired” (p. 163). In the womb we feel the warmth of amniotic fluid and are nourished by our mother’s placenta. At birth we suckle at her breasts, delight in her kisses, are comforted by her voice. “Absent the maternal caress,” Griffiths continues, “the eros of the baby’s flesh remains surd, unvoiced and inactive, a possibility unrealized” (p. 163). Without our mother’s nurturing touch we would fail to realize our humanity as flesh. As we mature and become ready for adult love, again we must first be touched and embraced. We must be loved that we may love, kissed that we may kiss. “Kissing is not a possibility for the unkissed,” Griffiths provocatively declares. To the extent our caress is self-generated it is “a simulacrum of eros rather than the real thing” (p. 163). This would seem to pose a causality dilemma. Who awakens love first, Romeo or Juliet?
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
You kiss by the book.
Perhaps the conundrum is irresolvable, or perhaps there can be a simultaneity of virginal caress. All who have fallen in love know the mystery. Lovers do not analyze from a neutral distance. They long for maximal union and are transported in each other’s presence. Boundaries dissolve in the ecstasy of orgasmic joy. A few moments become an eternity—would that it might last an eternity. Yet the ecstasy passes, and the lovers suffer the anguish of separation. Desperately they begin afresh to renew their intimacy, knowing that their finitude limits their passion. “This is the monstrosity of love, lady,” Troilus tells Cresida—“that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” Griffiths comments: “The desire is boundless because human flesh can and does seek fleshly intimacy in an infinite number of ways; the act is a slave to limit because there isn’t a world or time to explore all these ways” (Christian Flesh, p. 21).
And so with our desire for union with our Creator: God takes the initiative, not just abstractly in the ways described by our theology books, but audibly, tactilely, physically. The gospel must first be spoken to us before we may believe. God addresses us in in the sacramental caresses of covenantal promise, the pouring of water, the anointing of oil, the breaking of bread and the drinking from the common cup. Through prayer and asceticism we seek the intimacy of contemplative union. If the blessing is granted, it is but temporary. We suffer the Lord’s withdrawal and fervently pray for his return. In the words of St Silouan: “The love of the Lord is such a burning love that the soul that has once tasted thereof has no other desire; and if she loses this love, or if grace decreases, what prayers she pours out then before God in her hunger to possess His grace again!”
In the Devastation the love of flesh for flesh is threatened by mortality and fragility. We live our daily lives in this knowledge and fear.
We are mortal. We do not live forever. We know that one day we and our loved ones will die—against desire and will—and return to the nothingness. We know that one day our promises of abiding love must fail. Either we will abandon those we love or they will abandon us. We are helpless before the reality of death. Our flesh journeys toward inanimation, subject to the abiding tendency to become corpse, to become mere matter. With every passing day we lose our hold on existence. We become weaker. Our memory fails. Our bodies betray us. And when we die, our flesh-now-inanimate-body decays and dissolves into the elements—hence the classical definition of death as the separation of body and soul. The reality is clearly stated by Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). The mortality of fallen flesh represents a critical difference between devastated flesh and heavenly flesh. “Immortal flesh is strictly unimaginable for us,” Griffiths elaborates: “we have and can have no imaginative grasp of what immortal flesh might be like, for all our experience of flesh ours and that of others, is deeply inflected with movement toward death” (Decreation, pp. 164-165).
We are fragile. At any moment the universe may act to deprive, injure, or extinguish life, whether by violence or disease. As children we may think we are invulnerable, yet we quickly learn that we are not. Pain is our harsh teacher. We may fantasize about acquiring the powers of Superman, but eventually we are forced to acknowledge that we are not. All of reality is our kryptonite. And so we guard ourselves against injury and avoid needless risk, both physical and emotional. Life demands self-protection, yet our self-protection becomes a curse. We slink from life to preserve life. We marvel at the daredevils who are willing to drive fast cars and walk the tightrope. We envy the paramours who are willing to break social convention and risk disapprobation, at the same time questioning their sanity. How foolhardy and selfish they are; yet we privately acknowledge that they also seem to experience a fullness of vitality denied to the wise and careful and moral. If only we could love like Anna Karenina or Yuri Zhivago. But then we remember: all the great stories of love end in disappointment and tragedy—not only because of our mortality and not only because of our fragility. There is a third element that characterizes and deforms the desires of the flesh—concupiscence.
We are concupiscent. We inherit a disorder of desire— desire gone wrong, desire that transgresses boundaries, that seeks to expropriate and possess, desire that wounds by its caress. The egregious examples come immediately to mind—rape, murder, torture, intimidation. Each aims at “the pseudo-pleasure of gratification” (CF, p. 124); each relies on coercion and violence. “They also share,” as Griffiths observes, “a tendency toward solipsism: concupiscent flesh is concerned principally, and sometimes only, with its own gratification, which is to say not at all with the gifts it may give or the damage it may do to the recipient of our wounding caress” (p. 125). The murderer, rapist, torturer, bully do not care about the damage they inflict on their victims, except insofar as the pain and humiliation satisfies their perverted needs:
Expropriation, violence, tactility, solipsism: these are the hallmarks of the concupiscent caress, which also, and unavoidably, wounds what it touches. In its ideal type, the concupiscent caress erases what it touches. That is its proper goal. Complete possession entails erasure of the other as other by its absorption without remainder into the fleshly ambit of the concupiscent one. If anything of the other remains outside that ambit, as a genuine other, then it hasn’t been fully expropriated, fully taken from the public sphere into that of private ownership. Expropriation-as-erasure can be brought about by ingestion: to eat the flesh of the one you caress, to make that caress exactly a matter of lips and tongue and teeth and throat, is to remove its otherness by incorporating it into yourself. Killing without eating has something of the same effect. Flesh concupiscently caressed to the point of taking its life has also been expropriated in the sense that nothing of it remains in the public sphere: it has become a corpse, beyond the possibility of returning the caress or receiving itself as flesh from the caress. What concupiscent caresses seek, and what they can never finally have, is the erasure of everything within reach (the flesh concerns itself as flesh only with what’s within reach) that might initiate or return the caress. Were anything of that kind to remain, with it would remain something alive that is not wholly owned, and that would exactly mean that flesh’s concupiscence had found a limit. It always, fortunately, does: no flesh has the capacity to make the world into a simple occasion for its own gratification. (p. 125)
The extreme examples, however, only put before us the pure instances of concupiscence; but to one degree or another, it infects all human desire. We damage and are damaged. We wound by our kisses. Even in, especially in, those intimate moments when we unite ourselves to our beloved in desire and love, we injure by our incapacity to fully bestow the gift of self. Flesh fails to become flesh.
And so we yearn for heavenly bodies and the transfiguration of eros, for that ecstasy of life that cannot be broken by death.