Almost alone among Christians, Catholics maintain a tight (even unitary) relation between what is physical and what is not. We avoid any thought of material things being innately bad and immaterial things somehow being superior. A good case can be made that this is the central disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism, especially the Evangelical branch.
There’s an aspect of this which might seem minor, but it’s not. Here is a quote from St. Thomas More (the fellow who stood up to Henry VIII in England and was beheaded for his stand).
A reverent attitude of the body, though it takes its origin and character from the soul, increases by a kind of reflex the soul’s own reverence and devotion to God.
What Thomas More is saying is that the motive for physical gesture and posture in worship or devotion starts out in the non-physical, in my soul and intellect and will. This motive is expressed in my body as, for example, I bow or genuflect or kneel or make the sign of the cross. Then there is sort of a rebound or reflex from my postured body that reinforces the motive that started things in the first place. That’s actually pretty subtle and common sensible at the same time. My posture or my gesture affects and even effects my spiritual person.
A couple of personal examples of what St. Thomas More is talking about
Before I was reconciled to the Catholic Church, the church I attended made no provision for gesture or posture in worship. The only two postures we had were standing up or sitting down. We stood up or sat down according to what the song leader told us to do. One thing that meant is that walking into the church building (we called it the auditorium) was no different in gesture than walking into a grocery store. You just walked in and looked for someone to talk to or a place to sit. And that omission of any reverent posture or gesture upon entering the auditorium contributed in a subtle-yet-significant way to the attitude that the space was no different than any other. Which at least for me resulted in a frame of mind and spirituality which was also not too much different than when I was at the library.
It’s quite different now that I’m Catholic.
As a Catholic, when I enter the church, a gesture immediately reminds me of my baptism and its significance in my life. Because of baptism, I belong to Jesus, I am “in him” to use St. Paul’s remarkably intimate language. I enter the church and I make the sign of the cross with blessed water on my hand. And it changes things, it really does. This gesture starts in my soul, moves to my hand, recollects me before God as I whisper his Trinitarian name – then it sort of boomerangs back to my mind and soul and helps prepare me to mingle my worship with other Christians and with angels in heaven. It is a simple gesture that manages to relate me to the passion of Jesus, the fellowship of the church, and the communion of saints. Big stuff!
Here’s another. It’s a gesture of the priest, not me, yet his gesture has power for me. I always sneak a peek when Father does this because of the effect it has on me. At the end of some Masses, usually on “special” Sundays, he will tell us to bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing. Then he raises his hands over the whole congregation and invokes a three-part blessing on us all, as we respond “amen” each time. It is so priestly and pastoral and gentle and solemn. God’s priest, the one authorized by Jesus to act on his behalf, lifts his hands in blessing over me and my brothers and sisters, speaking words we share with tens of thousands of Catholic parishes across the world that day. I don’t know… the gesture reminds me of Moses and Jesus and Rome – I am blessed and sent on my way with an almost magnificent gesture – somehow this gesture simultaneously pulls my awareness into the congregation and into my own personal relation to God. I don’t understand the power of this gesture, but I cannot deny it.
Here is more from a good article on these things from a good Catholic blog.
So it appears that Thomas More is correct. My soul tells my body to assume a reverent, worshipful posture. My body does as it is told, and this posture reinforces in a wonderful way what prompted it to happen in the first place. What I am spiritually is influenced directly and within my own person by my body.
I just want to make what could seem a weird connection to chastity and to prostitution
If the sign of the cross can affect my entire outlook, both physical and spiritual, then just think about what St. Paul says about prostitution. Please notice that Paul writes this to Christians, not to pagans:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! [Or] do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body. I Corinthians 6:16-20
To the Church of Christ in Corinth he addresses the problem of sexual sin and he urges chastity. Does anyone doubt that in our own time, a time of what seems like unbridled sexual activity with an attitude of entitlement to “write my own rules”, does anyone doubt there are those who sin in this way within the Church today?
What Paul writes applies to all forms of sexual impurity. What he writes also applies to the soul-body-soul cycle that Thomas More describes. Whether it’s masturbation, or pornography, or sex outside marriage, the rule is the same. The sinful motive that arises in your mind and then prompts the sin you do with your body, completes a cycle by reinforcing the very motive that started things in the first place. Paul says this sort of sin is unlike any of the others – it is a sin against one’s own body.
If you are in a cycle like this even while you are a Christian, don’t kid yourself. Break the cycle now. Reinforce the righteous motives in your soul by using your body only for what is righteous. Do you wonder what constitutes righteous behavior in matters of sex and chastity? Do you need forgiveness and helpful advice? Talk to your priest. He won’t be shocked. He loves you and knows how to help. Would you rather start with the internet? Here is the “chastity” section on Catholic Answers. Or if you deal with a same-sex attraction, here is another good website.
Reverent gestures dispose both mind and body toward God in a virtuous interaction.
Sexual immorality draws both mind and body away from God.
Use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.