Hopes and disagreements about post-mortem appearance
In this short essay I will try to reflect on the appearance of the body after the resurrection according to the Catholic Church, using laughter as a starting point. I base my arguments on the possibility of resurrection as consequence of the Adamic Convenant. Resurrection regards our future, whereas laughter regards our present as imperfect beings. However, it is as well a consequence of the fall.1 I am wondering how these two topics interact and also interchange: what about laughter in our future (and of course I mean the future of those who will be lucky enough to go to Paradise), and what about our de- sires for our bodies now? And if laughter has been discarded by the Church especially because it reminded of the lowest and impure parts of the body, because it’s an incontrollable stimulus that comes from within, deforming the features of the face, it might be interest- ing to think why we have to be bodies again (in the hereafter), instead of getting rid of them.
‘But laughter is weakness, corruption, and the foolishness of our flesh. It is the peasant’s entertainment, the drunkard’s license. Even the Church in its wisdom has granted the moment of feast, carnival, fair, this diurnal pollution that releases humours and distracts from other desires and other ambitions… Still, laughter remains base, a defence for the simple, a mystery desecrated for the plebeians.’ 2 This is what monk Jorge says in the last pages of Umberto Eco’s The name of the rose, summarising that point of view that the Church has been reputed to have. He expresses his (the Church’s) despise of the laughter because of its connection to the body. Traditionally the despise has been so much that the question whether Jesus laughed or not during his life used to be a serious problem debated by the early Church Fathers. The body though, in Catholicism, other than being an ‘abominable covering of the soul’3, is also instrument of salvation (it will be saved itself) and therefore it makes it possible to include laughter in Catholic soteriology. Taking into account that humor and the comic are not the same thing, we can say that humor is present in the Bible, but the comic element has been erased by the morals and the behaviour set by Christianity.
Laughter within the Catholic Church is present as a theological aspect rather than as an everyday practice. There are, or actually there used to be, very few rituals that included the exasperation of joy in some Christian celebrations, such as the risus paschalis (meaning Easter laughter). It was a ritual laughter performed during the Easter masses in Middle Ages Germany, symbolising Christ’s victory over death. This seems quite unusual if we frame it in that specific time and in that specific context, but presupposing that this ritual may have a pagan origin, we could also try and think of what a ritual is and why, in this case, the use of laughter for a Christian celebration is not a contradiction. A ritual is a precise scheme of behaviours, performed in a specific time and place: when rules are set, the performed action is thereby carefully controlled, and nothing is left at random. In the case of the risus paschalis, the laughter is not real and it’s very important that it’s not: the actors are not acting the laughter, they are in- stead performing the performance, the faking, the lie. And it is very important that what is being faked (and therefore denied at the same time) is laughter.
The real joy
According to the theologian Guillelmus Parisiensis (13th century), the real joy is stern, rigorous and decorous, and must not be expressed by laughter. It’s something that lifts up rather than bending and shaking and distorting the body. He applies his theories to his vision of paradise as well, in contrast to the Saracen idea of paradise as a gar- den of sexual delights. According to him, in Paradise the souls will not laugh for the reasons that I mentioned above, but will contemplate God and will feel a deep joy inside. Non autem tunc risus erit corporis, sed risus cordis…4 writes Gregorius Magnus about the phrase in Proverbs 31:25 Ridebit in die novissimo.5 According to his interpretation, laughter will overcome its bodily nature and will cease to perturb humankind. The eschatological laughter is the completion of the earthly laughter, and will become one with the benevolent laugh- ter of God: Non est maior laetitia cordis quam quod scimus deum ridere.6
Sacred through profane
And here we come to the issue of laughter in paradise: will it be possible? Is that contemplated? Indeed laughter is an eruptive action and it’s purely associated to the mouth, the bodily, the grotesque. It takes the inside of the body outside, just like ejaculation. It’s from this point that springs the endless dichotomy body/soul, and then corporal/spiritual; the Church places itself in this struggle, which is more an ethic and aesthetic idea of the opposites, contributing with the ideas of profane/sacred, secular/religious.
The aversion of the churchmen against laughter has its peak in the Middle Ages. In order to prevent excesses, the Church developed a position that we can define hostile to laughter as an instrument of control. This results then in a semantic and ideological position, preferable to rules and coercion that would have been broken more easily otherwise. The morals inculcated by the Church led to ideal behaviours and seriousness that I believe are still very strong in Western society, and are taken as the norm in every formal situation and context.
As said before, the dichotomy sacred/profane reveals as the proper counterpart for the Church, in the so called carnivalesque. By this I mean that popular culture developed alongside the religious one, especially at the time when the Church was more powerful. The carnivalesque regards obscenity, inversion, subversion, drunkenness, ex- cess and often it had religion as a subject. If we look closer though, we realise that the carnivalesque is nothing but the double of religion. It’s serving the Church itself in the sense that it’s consecrating it. The carnivalesque and the Church appear to be interdependent and necessary for each other’s existence: the carnivalesque that inverts the social structure could not exist without the reassuring framework of the everyday habits and rules. And the sacred wouldn’t be better reinforced by anything else than its parody.
Laughter is defined as an explosion, most of the time caused by a sudden external impulse. The body ceases to respond to the orders of the mind, causing no little problems to the rigorousness preached by the monastic orders. The moment you lose control of your corporality reveals how much you are outside of it already: as if you were able to look at it from above. As pointed out previously, these moments are nothing but glimpses of the ambivalence present in human life: the question of being a body versus having a body. If you suddenly start laughing or crying and can’t control yourself, you become aware of the power of your own corporality, and how much you are it. But being able to acknowledge this, it means that a certain degree of introspection is connected, or caused, by the possibility of placing yourself outside of the body –– and in this case you have it. The friction caused by this double feeling is the demonstration of a defect in which mankind has been floating since the first sin, after the loss of the privileges of Eden.
Laughter and weeping prove the ambivalence of corporal existence, the fable unity of body and soul, where subjectivity cannot place itself clearly. Therefore, laughter shows an imperfection within the subject (man), that is a consequence of the Adamic Convenant. If laughter is present in the human condition as a consequence of the fall, is it possible to include laughter in Catholic soteriology? How will the duality, expressed by laughter as we said, be solved?
According to St. Bonaventura, scholastic theologian and philosopher, a person can be called such only when formed by body and soul and he points out that the personalitas, the being a person, is linked to the risibilitas, the possibility of the laughter.7 We can argue that laughter is then caused by both the binomial disjunction of body and soul, but it is made possible when the two are together: the non-unity, but the togetherness. This point is quite crucial in relation to the topic we are finally moving towards: the resurrection of the flesh. After one dies, according to Catholic soteriology, he/she is pure soul but in the Judgment Day in which everyone, dead or alive, will be judged once and for all, corpses will resurrect and the flesh together with the soul are going to form one personalitas again. So indeed it seems that in paradise after Judgment day it will be possible to laugh, but no one really mentions it. Some argue that there will be no need for laughter since the joy felt will be spiritual, but indeed there will be dances, music, hugging and kissing.8
So why is all this allowed, but laughter is not forecasted? How come laughter is perceived as too bodily, when the bodies are there them- selves? And if the laughter is not relevant, for sure the physical appearance of the resurrected body is. There is much more written about it than about laughter in paradise. The resurrected bodies are well described by Thomas Aquinas and by St. Augustine among others, and what appears is some kind of cleansed but improved version of man. Some scholars argued that women will happily turn into men, according to what is said in the Bible, that we will be conformed to the image of his Son9, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.10 Sure there will be no marriage or sex in paradise, but St. Augustine assures that women will not change, since they are also God’s creatures.11
Thomas Aquinas identifies four categories of attributes that the resurrected body will have: claritas, agilitas, subtilitas, impassibilitas.
Claritas, meaning radiance, splendor, lightness of color, often trans- lated as beauty. Agilitas, meaning the ability to levitate and to move more quickly and lightly. Subtilitas meaning not to be obstructed by material things, also walking through walls. Impassibilitas, meaning stasis, freedom from passions and also the end of suffer-ing. Apart from these attributes, St. Augustine writes that the body will be spiritualised and whole, complete with organs and every physical feature that one had when living, since even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.12 Even though the features are not meant to change, their purpose is absent, or at least unclear; women for example will not instil desire into men, even if they won’t be deprived of their sexual organs, and there shall not be procreation. Last but not least, St. Augustine is confronted with the problem of anthropophagy, sadly common during his times. What will happen to those who are eaten by their comrades? And more generally, what will happen to those bodies that were not born perfect, or died losing some body parts? According to him in the resurrection they will receive what they have been deprived of. This assumption by no means states that every cripple, dwarf, maimed etc. are wrong, and can aspire to be perfect only after they die.
If we want to hazard one reading of the beauty industry today from a theological viewpoint, probably the ones who choose to modify themselves and actually do it, in the resurrection will either go back to their original features or maybe not, because they are experiencing something that has been impossible until a few decades ago: achieving a preview of how it will be like in paradise. Is it blasphemy? Is it only blasphemy for those who are unjust and don’t deserve it? In February 2015, during the preparation of a meeting organised by the Vatican about female culture and the space of women in society, known with the hashtag #LIFEOFWOMAN, a long debate arose due to a text written by a group of women, that defined plastic surgery as a ‘burqa made of flesh’. These women aimed to criticise the use of female bodies for commercial benefits and said that if used for this purpose, plastic surgery is betraying the true beauty of women, thus standardising their physical appearance. Cardinal Ravasi who had approved the text, had to defend this statement, considered too harsh by many; he was then accused of attacking plastic surgery himself. At the end of the press conference, he admitted that plastic surgery is indeed an interesting issue and probably (in my opinion) it’s not studied enough in connection to theology and to the literature that I mentioned here. The only other example of a churchman who handled the topic of plastic surgery was Pope Pius XII, in a speech that he held in October 1958. Here I quote: ‘Now, there’s no doubt that Christianity and its morals have never condemned self esteem and the neat care of physical beauty as illicit in themselves. (…) Plastic surgery, even being such a small department within the vast and admirable field of general surgery, is an art; not only in the generic sense that it’s a well done work, but for that ‘artistic sense’ which is requested and is manifested in those who are applying themselves to finding ingenious solutions for ever-changing problems; and aiming for an aesthetic solution as well. For two illnesses are never alike, and every case needs an appropriate treatment, always patient and delicate, sometimes brilliant.’13 There are evidently no clear directives about plastic surgery from the Church, apart from some warnings regarding plastic surgery when used in order to enhance one’s power of seduction, but such reasoning can be argued case by case. It seems that the Church is lacking an awareness of today’s corporal practices and, in relation to this, is forgetting what we hope is awaiting us after we die. My aim is to highlight this lack of information, in the hope of having (soon?), an explicit clarification.
‘Il est certain… que le rire humain est intimement lié à l’accident d’une chute ancienne, d’une degradation physique et morale…. Dans le paradis terrestre… le joie n’était pas dans le rire.’ Charles Baudelaire, De l’essence du rire et généralement du comique dans les arts plastiques, Le Portefeuille, 1855, p.5
2Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa, Bompiani, 1980, p. 507
According to Gregorius Magnus.
Jacques le Goff, Nicolas Truong, Une histoire du corps au Moyen-Âge, Liana Lévi, 2003, p. 20 4
‘In fact, it’s not going to be a laughter of the body, but of the heart’. (‘Non autem tunc risus erit corporis, sed risus cordis. Risus enim nunc corporis de lascivia dissolutionis, nam risus cordis tunc da laetitia nascetur securitatis. Cum ergo electi omnes implentur gaudio manifestae con- templationis, quasi ad hilaritatem risus exiliunt in ore mentis’).
Pope Gregorius Magnus, Moralia in Iob, 595 AD
5‘She will laugh in the latter day’, but often translated as ‘She shall rejoyce’, or ‘She smiles at the future.’
6Luther in the sermon of 19 January 1528 on the wedding at Cana
C. Casagrande, ‘Ridere in paradiso. Gaudio, giubilo e riso tra angeli e beati’, in F. Mosetti Casaretto (ed.), Il riso, Edizioni dell’Orso, 2005, p.178
St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, book XXII chapter 17
Comunicato stampa SICPRE, 3 February 2015. Translation of the author
Ann W. Astell, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages,
Cornell University press, 2006.
St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 426 AD.
Charles Baudelaire, De l’essence du rire et généralement du comique dans les arts plastiques, Le portefeuille, 1855.
C. Casagrande, ‘Ridere in paradiso. Gaudio, giubilo e riso tra angeli e beati’, in F. Mosetti Casaretto (ed.), Il riso, Edizioni dell’Orso, 2005
Benedetto Clausi, ‘Il contrastato riso. Giudizi (e pregiudizi) storiografici sul cri-stianesimo antico’, in Clementina Mazzucco (ed.), Riso e comicità nel cristianesimo antico, Edizioni dell’Orso, 2007 Comunicato stampa SICPRE, 3 February 2015
Simon Critchley, On humour, Routledge, 2002
Alfonso Di Nola, ‘Ma ridono anche le scimmie’, in Corriere della sera, 7 September 1988 Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa, Bompiani, 1980
Pope Gregorius Magnus, Moralia in Iob, 595 AD
Mark Hoppenheimer, ‘Catholics, Plastic Surgery, and “the Truth of the Feminine Self”’, in ‘The New York Times’, 13 March 2015
Jacques le Goff, Nicolas Truong, Une histoire du corps au Moyen-Âge, Liana Lévi, 2003 Various authors, The Holy Bible, King James version
Caroline Walker Bynum, Resurrection of the body, Columbia University press, 2013
1 Beautifying sickness, Endometriosis, 2015 2 Beautifying sickness, Hernia, 2015