I remember the first time I shook hands with our neighbor in Italy. While we were moving in, she greeted us with some cooked food and fresh produce. She wasn’t very old, but her hands let me know right away that she had worked the ground herself to provide what she gave us. Her husband was the same. When they talked about gardening it was not theory, it was practiced knowledge. They would not tell me what I should do, they would tell me what they did to get results. They were much more likely to show someone how to do something than to tell them.
Over time, human beings begin to embody their lifestyle and practices. While such things as grief, poverty, wealth, or faith may need to be confirmed through talking with someone, these things get into us both physically and spiritually; and it is generational. We know this and hear it in such phrases as, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” (Or her children.) We use this fact in TV shows and movies where the plot follows a family or people who are in a new environment where they clearly do not fit.
Physical habits impress on our bodies over time. It may be something beneficial or something harmful. It may be caused by too much or too little sleep, food, or exercise. There is no escaping that we embody our practices. Other habits, sometimes generational ones also affect our bodies. Growing up in a stressful environment can affect our bodies over time and can take a monumental effort to overcome.
Our spiritual habits are also embodied. What we believe about God affects how we interact with others. It may be possible to recite doctrine and quote scripture, but what one believes will always override what one says when it comes to doing. It is possible to thank God for mercy, yet not be merciful. It is possible to demand forgiveness (by one’s own definition) and refuse to forgive. However, what we do with our bodies will betray us.
Near the beginning of Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis encourages us to not only learn what things mean but to do them, “Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ. What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone.”
When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees because they were condemning him and his disciples for associating with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ he challenged them, “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at a table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when He heard it, He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt. 9:9-13, RSV).
There is no doubt that the Pharisees could define mercy and sacrifice, but by their actions they were not embodying that knowledge. I had a friend who recently said to me, “You cannot understand Christianity if you are not doing it.” I think he is right. Speaking and doing go together. Theory and practice are useless without each other. Learn, do, and understand.