Remember, Man, that you are dust… and unto dust you shall return. (Gen 3: 19)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the penitential season of Lent, when Catholics and many other Christians as well go to church to receive ashes on their foreheads. Traditionally, when the priest or minister placed ashes on your forehead, he or she murmured the phrase, taken from Genesis: Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. These are the words that God speaks to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the Fall.
These days, people prefer a more “positive” message, so many churches say something like, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or, if it’s a Jesuit church, something like, “Practice faith-justice!”
One of the weirdest and most macabre sites in Rome is the famous “bone house,” Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, run for centuries by the Capuchin friars (an offshoot of the Franciscans). It never fails to creep people out… and it’s a great place to bring jaded teenagers who think they’ve seen it all. The entire place is decorated with the bones of long-dead (and not so long dead) friars. It’s difficult to even describe. All the walls, the chandeliers, everything is made out of human bones. If you want to know just how creepy the Catholic cult of relics can get, go visit the Capuchin bone house. But at the very end, you come to a skeleton of a friar, dressed in his monk robes, with this sign in three languages: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
Christian Yoga differs from traditional yoga in that it affirms both the reality of the physical body and the reality of death. Death is not an “illusion.” It is not merely a “gateway.” It is the cessation of physical life and the decay and decomposition of the body. To face that squarely… to look upon the dried up bones of the 4,000 Capuchin friars in the bone house and understand that death is real… is part of a mature spiritual life and one of the purposes of Ash Wednesday. To be a Christian who practices yoga is to cherish the body… to care for it, keep it healthy and use it to reach out to the Divine… and yet to know that, in its present state, it will not last. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Thessalonians, “what we will be” after death “has not yet been revealed to us” but we know that we will be “like him,” like the resurrected Christ. We are not disembodied souls that “depart” the body at death, either to take on a new body or live in a spiritual heaven.
We are our bodies, and any life after death, we affirm, will be as embodied creatures — perhaps, like the resurrected Christ appearing to Doubting Thomas, bearing the scars and wounds we earned in our physical life. Whatever the place we go after death, it will be a physical place where human bodies can exist… perfected, resurrected bodies, perhaps, but bodies just the same. Thus, Christians who practice yoga re-affirm the beauty and joy and essential necessity of our physical bodies… while also knowing, as Christians, that these physical bodies will be transformed into something even more miraculous, even more luminous.