From Emile Mersch's The Theology of the Mystical Body,

an Excerpt from Chapter 5




"Every corporeal creature tends to likeness with man, since thereby it is assimilated to supreme goodness."

St. Thomas, In II Sent., d. 11 q. 2, a. 3 ad 3

An understanding of the nature of man is necessary for an understanding of the whole Christ and of the mystical body. Too often the notion of man is restricted to that of his body, with an added corrective imposed by spiritual principles; we are told that this figure, with a stature of such and such dimensions, this biped, is capable of certain immaterial activities. This inadequate conception eventually engenders a deficient notion of Christ and the Church.

We wish to show that man is quite different from anything that can be represented by sense, imagination, and even concepts. Man is a certain immensity. In his relations to the universe he is more than a part: he is a center, a totality, a culmination with respect to the whole of mankind, he is likewise more than a mere part: he is a recapitulation, a totality of a special order. This is what we must now make clear.


Science supposes and at every turn asserts that the universe is one. Does not science continually revert to the claim that it can express everything in one synoptic table, in a coherent collection of laws, and perhaps in a single law? The great postulates it builds on, such as the postulates of the conservation of energy and of universal invariance, are affirmations of unity. Even the idea that physical laws are but statistical laws is reduced to the view that the multiplicity present in disorder ends up by producing order and unity.

Apart from this unity, another fact striking the observer is that the universe everywhere appears to be joined in a hundred different ways. Every part in the whole is so affected and modified by attractions, influences, and vibrations emanating from every other part that it seems to be the resultant of all the rest, like a sort of soft clay on which the universe has left its impression, or a sort of microcosm within the macrocosm.

The impression thus stamped varies with the degree of perfection of each object. The universe is inscribed on inorganic things in a purely external way, as a garden is reflected in balls of silvered glass strung above it. In living beings endowed with immanence, it is inscribed within the immanence, though imperfectly and materially in the case of lower organisms. We perceive this in the phenomenon of assimilation. Eating is a transfer of an organism's external surroundings to its interior, to the point of identification. All external matter is potentially internal for a living being. A single plant of corn-poppy or wild mignonette could absorb and transform-into itself the entire terrestrial globe in some ten years-supposing, of course, that the whole were assimilable and that the plant's seeds were suitably distributed. After this, the whole solar system would be an affair of several years, and all sidereal matter of a few more: twenty at the most.

But this is negligible in comparison with what takes place in the higher animals. On its higher levels life, confronting the universe, shows itself yet more grasping; or rather the universe, in the living beings it contains, is seen more clearly to be in gestation 'of itself. The power of sensation, for example, is more rapid than the power of assimilation. It annexes the universe, not grain by grain or mouthful by mouthful, but at a single stroke, and by a movement so easy that it cae be repeated over and over without being noticed. We may describe sensation as an exploit that consists in appropriating entire regions, oceans, and heavens by merely opening the eyes. For the animal that seems surrounded on all sides, it is a fantastic sortie outside itself and a triumphant return-in the limited capacity the animal has of dwelling within itself-in which it brings back the whole universe as booty. Yet this is only a hint of what occurs in the act of understanding. Sensation may succeed in grasping the universe, but it cannot grasp itself.

There is in the universe a part of that universe, well comprised within the aggregate, closely connected with the animal kingdom in which it finds place, a true part of the universe in virtue of its body, But by its soul it is able to express the whole universe in the perfectly undivided act by which it folds over on itself; it can express the universe in its own being, in its own reality which, much more truly than irrational beings, is the whole universe in miniature within the great universe-if, indeed, we are bound to add the qualification, "in miniature." 1 This being is man.

In man, therefore, the striving toward unity that is found everywhere in the universe comes to a head. The human act of thinking in which the universe is confronted with itself, though now as understood and unified, is not exclusively a human activity; it is a cosmic function. The unity pervading the mass does not have its principle anywhere else, because it does not properly exist anywhere else. In man alone it succeeds in finding itself and realizing its inherent potentialities. Therefore, if it is internal to man, it is internal to the world; it is the unity of the world.

What is true of knowledge is also true of action; what begins in the universe culminates in man. Determinism reigns throughout the universe; its parts move one another, but nothing in it ultimately moves itself, so that we cannot see whence the movement comes. Undoubtedly science has never proved that this determinism is absolute. Nor has philosophy, in our opinion, ever established it. Philosophy requires that the universe, to exist, must be one in its own way, that is, in the way of an aggregate, through connections and ties, and hence by a unity resembling the unity described by determinism. But it also requires that this unity should be imperfect, as the being of the universe is imperfect, and therefore that the determinism in' the universe should be imperfect. In any case, we have to note that this determinism, so far as it exists, is a unity that joins all the parts of the world together by a thousand bonds of steel.

The idea is ancient. Aristotle, PhysicsVIII, 2 (252b26), refers to man as a microcosm. Cf. St. Thomas, Summa, la, q. 9 1, a. 1; q. 96, a. i. But we must be no less careful to note that this unity, such, as it is, does not find its explanation or its principle in itself any more than it has its totality from itself. If everything is determined by the rest; nothing is determined by itself; the determinant, being always somewhere else, is everywhere absent, and we ask how anything can be determined in such absence of a determinant.

The unity of determinism is achieved only in the liberty in which it finds the adequate grounds of its existence and its definitive form. In the immense flux of things moved by other things, eddies and whirlpools arise in which the movement strives to turn back on itself and grasp itself. This takes place, to a limited extent, even in inorganic bodies, which have their characteristic reactions; it takes place particularly in living beings, which, in their phenomena of growth and reproduction, and still more in their phenomena of sensation, have the power of self-movement.

But these movements remain external to themselves. They do not release themselves or assign their types to themselves, and they are not their own terminus. The vital cycle does not close down on itself, but issues in a new living being that begins the cycle all over again. Sensation has its culmination, not in itself, but in the reaction it calls forth; the eddy is lost in the current, and the unity that embraces some phenomena does not embrace itself.

Only the free act can do this: the act that is conscious, that is its own beginning and end to the extent it is free, that is complete in being one: liberum est quod est causa sui. Thus we come to perceive that without man the universe is truncated and inexplicable, it has no center, no ultimate, no issue. It is nowhere conscious; therefore at no point does it take possession of its own being, and so it does not exist intrinsically. Can we call that the full realization of existence? Nowhere is it free; hence at no point does it assimilate its being by receiving its natural law into itself.

Accordingly, since creation comes to a successful issue in man alone, we may say that man is its end. Man is the intrinsic end of the world, and is the relatively last end for the world. God is the transcendent and absolutely ultimate end, but the world tends to God only in man. "Since a thing is assimilated to the best [i.e., God] by coming to resemble what is better than itself, every corporeal creature tends, as best it may, to a likeness of the intellectual creature, which attains divine goodness in a more perfect way. And therefore the human form, namely, the rational soul, is said to be the ultimate end aimed at by lower nature." (St. Thomas)


Man's deep-rooted dependence on the universe emerges clearly from a study of the life of his body and his soul.

To compose a complete history of man's body, we should have to go back to the time when its components were as yet buried in the waters of the original sources and in the minerals of geological, strata. We should have to begin with primeval chaos, just as, to compile the sacred history of the God-man, the divine Author began His narrative with the creation of heaven and earth. To give an adequate description of man's body, we have to describe the kingdom of animal organisms. Man lives like them, and indeed cannot live without them. For he is unable to assimilate many of the elements of inorganic nature, which must first be adapted and transformed by other living beings.

Related to the whole universe through his animal life and the inorganic elements of his body, man is also related to that universe through his soul. The human intellect, wholly spiritual though it is, is not without affinity to the material universe. The human soul is the form of the body; and when it exercises the intellect in the act of knowledge, the soul is the form of the body as knowing, that is, it is the form of sensations and imaginations.

The soul, which during the present life does not exist without body, does not know without the body; and the body, which requires the universe for its existence, is actuated in its organic apprehensions by the vibrations and influences of the universe. In order that the soul may know, even that it may know itself, this whole mechanism has to go into action. The soul's thought is, in a very real sense, the thought of the universe, the thought that emanates from crags and from clouds, from biochemistry and from geology, but that does not take form except in the unique part of the universe which is man. Is it not a scholastic principle that the concept is the joint product of sense and intellect?

Thus man does not deal with the universe as with a stranger, but as with himself, with an aspect of himself. He seeks himself there, and there he finds himself.




Emile Mersch: The Human Consciousness of Christ and the Consciousness of Christians

Emile Mersch: The Perfecting of Christ's Human Nature by the Incarnation

Emile Mersch: Theological Theory