Churches Are Not Angels

As “incarnate spirits” all human beings live in and through a body. So do our churches. None of us are angels. Were we pure spirits, we would not have to be concerned about our bodies. We wouldn’t have to eat or sleep or exercise. So we wouldn’t need to work to earn money or pay bills or shop or clean or wash up. But since we are not angels but embodied spirits, we are both spiritual and material. And our nature needs to nurture both body and soul.
We take it for granted nowadays that care for our physical health is a good thing not unrelated to our spiritual well-being. More and more supermarkets carry foods that are called “natural” or “organic.” Some people are willing to pay more for a dozen eggs produced by “cage-free” chickens. Even soap and cosmetics are often selected on the basis of their purity or skin-enriching qualities. It matters to most people how they look, dress and smell. Care for the body is a big deal in contemporary American culture. Care of the soul is also important in today’s world, though it is often put in second place — when there is “free” time.
Our attitudes toward our churches are not much different, though the priority is often reversed. We expect church to be a “spiritual” home, which often translates to, first of all, just being around — like our Guardian Angel — when we need it. We want to be spiritually fed, of course, and, as Catholics, we understand the priority of Mass, prayer and the Bible. Those of us who have faced a crisis in life often turn to the Church for emergency aid in paying a bill or finding a job or a dwelling. But much of the time we are not accustomed to thinking of our parish church as a body which, just like us, needs to keep clean, pay its bills, be given a rest and, from time to time, get a “facial.”
Taking care of the physical well-being of others is considered a virtue. We speak of the “corporal works of mercy” when we give comfort to those who are sick, dying, hungry, thirsty or lonely. Although we are rendering “bodily” assistance in each of these cases, we have no trouble understanding that these are deeply “spiritual” works as well. Operating a homeless shelter or a meal program or a food pantry is a part of the social ministry of many churches. And although we may use these as opportunities to pray with those we serve, we also consider these actions to be a part of living the Gospel even if nothing more is done than a work of charity.
Why then would anyone deem it too crassly “business-like” to take care of the material needs of the “body” of our church, or to plan in a strategic way for its maintenance and development over a three-, five- or 10-year period? Or is it sometimes assumed that, unlike our own bodies, church buildings can just go on and on without being treated and cared for? It takes much care, everyone knows, to maintain a home. Even living alone in a small apartment entails time and costs for energy, food and whatever it takes to keep it clean. Maintenance is a constant challenge. Imagine that multiplied by the thousands when calculating what it takes to take good care of “God’s house” as we sometimes speak of a church to our children and grandchildren.
What we mean is that when we think of our “spiritual home” here on Earth —which is what we all expect our parish church to be — we cannot forget that it is a spiritual home on this Earth and not up in the clouds somewhere. It operates by the same physical and natural laws as our bodies do, subject to heat or cold, wear and tear, use and abuse. Most visits to the supermarket alone entail more than a few dollars. Our churches consume an enormous amount of fuel and other supplies because they are so spacious and must accommodate so many people for so many services. One does not have to be Sir Isaac Newton to realize this.
A body is a body — and must be treated with care and respect — or the soul it contains will not remain with it very long. Let’s keep body and soul alive by depriving neither of all the love and support they need.