The Ineffability of the Mystical Body of Christ

The Church was established by Christ as an extension and continuation of his incarnation and his mission. Just as a natural body is formed of different organs and systems, each with their own function, so is the Church bound together by a combination of people and places that are interdependent on each other. A treasured title for our Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. This is rooted in St. Paul’s words where he speaks of Christians, “You are the Body of Christ, member for member” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and where he speaks of Christ: “the head of the Body, the Church.” (Colossians 1:18) This Mystical Body of Christ is the supernatural union of all Christians into a spiritual body with Jesus Christ as its head. The body is mystical because it is not fully understood. It is unknowable and knowable. It is revealed by God but far from truly being understood by human reason. Its mystical essence is accepted through faith that is beyond the intellectual capacity of the mind.

The body is made up of countless Christians from all walks of life the world over. St. Paul writes: “For just as in one body we have many organs, yet not all the organs have the same function, so we, the aggregate, are one body in Christ, but individually, we stand in the relation of part to part.” (Romans 12: 4–5) Supernaturally, the Mystical Body of Christ is the most noble, most sublime, and most divine entity on this earth. With the help of grace, it is up to us to make it so. As St. Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

To keep the Mystical Body of Christ healthy and thriving on this earth is our responsibility. In 1 Corinthians 2:16, St. Paul makes a statement concerning all Christians: “We have the mind of Christ.” Having the mind of Christ means sharing the plan, purpose, mission and perspective of Christ with others. We share Jesus’ perspective regarding humanity and pray and work for the salvation of their souls. We depend and have confidence in God, and perform our duties and responsibilities with the compassion of Christ. There are so many ways to serve that it is impossible to count them as we strive to promote the mission of Christ. Our types of service may change as we relocate, learn more, or advance in years. We try, each in our own unique way, directly or indirectly, to assist in the spiritual well-being of others. No one form of service is better or more important than another. From sweeping someone’s floor to teaching a catechism class, all our efforts are sustained by the love of Christ.

The primary function of the Mystical Body of Christ is to praise the Triune God, and to help people grow in holiness and get to heaven. The Mystical Body promotes a way of life that sustains Christian morals, purpose, and direction toward that which is the most beautiful and the most sacred to the human person in this life. A Catholic life lived rightly can be seen as an intimate walk with God. G.K. Chesterton compared the Church to a house with a thousand doors. Above each door are the words “Hope to all who enter here.” Inside these doors are a diversity of people, places, and much, much more. At the center of this house is Jesus with his loving heart and open arms, saying, “Come to me.” Ever exploring the rooms in this extraordinary, ineffable house, the Christian realizes the futility of holding on to past hurts or grievances that may have been caused by Church members and pays attention to the unending mystical discoveries within these rooms.

The Mystical Body of Christ is so much more than an institution, a set of legalistic rules, or hierarchy. Christians should not be overwhelmed with the mechanics of the Church or the disgraceful actions of some of her members. It is unfortunate that people can remain permanently angry about one or more aspects of the Mystical Body of Christ because of some dispute with a member of the parish staff, or others engaged in church service. Negative ruminations can drain energy, destroy hope, and increase bitterness. If all the facts were known, it could be possible that there was no reason for the dispute in the first place. What were the real reasons behind a dispute? Could it be ignorance, misinformation, or a strong attachment to one’s own opinion? It takes courage to uncover authentic truth. When deeply hurt by a member of the clergy, religious or laity of the Church, it takes a high degree of inner strength to say, and to truly believe, the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” To let go of the hurts that have been done to us is not easy. However, Jesus calls us to forgive. Forgiving is essential for soul health and keeps us moving forward in faith and looking up in hope.

The Cells

The apostle Paul wrote that the Body of Christ is made up of many parts. Each Christian is like a cell within Christ’s Mystical Body. The Blood of Christ pulsates from his Heart to nourish and energize each Christian. Grace is everywhere and when we are receptive to it, we live in Christian hope, contribute to the good of humanity, and know we are sinners. Jesus is the Shepherd, and we are the straying sheep. God is the Father, and we are his wayward children. The Mystical Body of Christ has never been a country club for a select few, but always a rehabilitation center for all sinners.

The Church is like a family whose members have deficits of one kind or another. Family members can be frustrating, scandalous, irritating, grumpy, or possess other negative traits, because no person on this earth is perfect. When negative traits get out of hand, family members do not give up, but seek to help each other. Jesus, as head of his Mystical Body, is always one with his Church and is always ready to assist us. Benedict XVI said, “Despite human weakness, despite difficulties and trials, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and the Lord will never fail to give his aid in sustaining the Church on her journey.” The Catholic Church is a fascinating, ancient, complex, living, global, mystical, jocular, solemn, enchanting place to grow in holiness.

Jesus’ heart beats for humanity’s salvation, but it is also pierced by humanity’s sins. Choices by each one of us contribute to the building up or the breaking down of the cells within the Mystical Body. To choose the latter is to add to the diseased cells in the body of Christ. Common sins, such as lying, vindictiveness, grudges, vicious anger, selfishness, impatience, or malicious gossip weaken the Body of Christ on earth. However, diseased cells can be cured. To choose healing over destruction requires ongoing effort through prayer, spiritual exercises, spiritual direction, and regular reception of the sacraments.

Those who are homebound or have a serious chronic disease can be very healthy cells in the Mystical Body of Christ. When Christians offer their pain to Jesus, they share his suffering for the salvation of souls. The life of a chronically ill Christian in a hospital bed can build up the body of Christ. When we have an appreciation for the transcendent purpose behind suffering, and live in hope, suffering loses its sting and advances the salvation of humanity. When pain is endured for Jesus’ sake, it lifts one’s heart to know that this causes grace to work somewhere unknown to us. Within the Mystical Body of Christ, those who suffer help to save souls. There is a union of the goodness and mercy of God with painful and sinful humanity.

“As in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole body. . . .” (Pius XII) As we look around, we can see how good begets good and evil begets evil. All external signs of virtue and sin began from within. The more we live the virtues the more we desire to grow in virtue. The more we sin, the easier it is to commit greater sin. We are the ones who support or enfeeble the Mystical Body of Christ. Virtue brings us closer to God, and unites and strengthens us. Sin pulls us away from God, separates us from our authentic selves and alienates us from others. Every virtue and every sin has personal and social ramifications.

A few words of praise illustrate the social implications of virtue: Once upon a time there were two teenage brothers. One was shy, quiet, and rather unsure of himself. However, he had talent in painting nature scenes. His older brother was outgoing, self-assured, and knew no stranger. He made it a habit never to criticize his brother’s artwork and occasionally encouraged him in developing his talent. He complimented his brother’s current painting. He did not say merely, “That is really good.” Rather, he pointed out the reasons why the picture was unique and beautiful. The shy artist smiled brightly as he told other people about his brother’s compliment. With smiles, those people repeated the story to others and bought the artist’s paintings. The brother’s sincere words helped the young artist to believe in himself, become more confident, paint more pictures, and win prizes for his creations at art exhibits. People’s lives can be forever changed for the better by a sincere compliment by someone who believes in them.

As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are the channels for Jesus’ message and mission today. It isn’t the what of externals around us, but the who of Jesus within us that radiates Jesus’ love and concern to others. He is the light and we convey his light to those around us. This is primarily manifest not by what we do but how we do it; in other words, by our example. The Mystical Body is a living organism energized and guided by the Holy Spirit as its members embrace and promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Personal holiness is the most vital entity in our lives, and with it, we can say with Mary: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the following books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, Living Through Cancer: A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns, and Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. Her latest book, Courage Through Chronic Disease, was published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Her articles have been in Spirituality, Mount Carmel, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Review for Religious, Spiritual Life, Human Development, and other Catholic journals. Carolyn's reflections can be found online at


  1. I think this a beautiful exposition of this truth .