This is another offering from the Abbey archives, written three years ago for my Patheos column, I edited the opening slightly and offer it here to you as a love note for Valentine's:
Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
even the great whale,
throbs with song. —Mary Oliver, from "Humpbacks"
About three years ago, before moving to Ireland, I completed a training to teach yoga. I began the program because I had practiced yoga for many years and longed to dive more deeply into it. I expected to fall in love with my own body even more in the process; what I didn't expect was how much I would fall in love with other people's bodies as well. As I walked around the studio and students are in their various poses I see the incredible variety in body types, shapes, sizes, flexibility, and bone structure. My training involves hands-on adjustments, which are less about "fixing" a pose and more about either offering a deeper experience of it or providing a sense of loving presence with a student through a shoulder rub or simply laying my hands on their back.
When students are in savasana, or corpse pose, which is always the final pose in any physical yoga practice, I go around and place my hands gently on their heads one at a time and I offer silent blessings for them and their bodies. I don't know most of their stories so I ask for healing in whatever is keeping them from being fully alive and fully present to their beautiful physical selves.
When I was twenty-one, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative auto-immune illness. The only other person in my life I knew with this disease was my mother and it had ravaged her body. I was devastated. I felt deeply betrayed by my body. In an auto-immune illness the immune system begins to attack its own tissue. Six years later I had to take a year off from work and go on disability because of the pain and inflammation. That was the year I first walked into a yoga class and was one of the paths I took back to loving my body.
Sexuality isn't just about our sexual relationships with another person, but about our capacity to engage in intimacy with the world through our physicality. Theologian James Nelson writes:
Our human sexuality is a language as we are both called and given permission to become body-words of love. Indeed our sexuality—in its fullest and richest sense—is both the physiological and psychological grounding of our capacity to love.
Body-words of love. That phrase takes my breath away. How do I allow my very body to become the fullest expression of love and tenderness in the world? This body with its aches and its loveliness. This body that has experienced searing pain. This body that will one day become dust, but also sprang from my mother in a burst of desire for life.
In all the attention we give to the perfection of the body in our culture, we undermine our capacity to become body-words of love. We forget that we are called to both the joy and the sorrow woven together. No surgery can excise our mortality. No procedure can remind us of our sheer giftedness, gift given to each other. The effect of our obsessions with our bodies is that we grow in our distrust of our physical selves.
We are not offered ways to be with our bodies in the full range of their glorious beings—the joys, delights, pain, and disappointments. We are not encouraged to trust our bodies in this culture, for they forever need improving. We can buy an endless variety of products and programs geared solely at responding to the message that our bodies are somehow not good enough, not beautiful enough, or not wise enough on their own.
Last week I had a dream where I went to the doctor and discovered I was pregnant. But the doctor told me that I wasn't nourishing myself enough to sustain the pregnancy. I awoke thinking of Mary Oliver's words above: "nothing will ever dazzle you / like the dreams of your body." I am dazzled by this invitation from my body to be even more nourishing and loving than I already am. I take the invitation very seriously. I began immediately to ponder ways I could offer my body the deepest kind of nourishment in tangible ways.
The dreams of my body are about breathing so deeply that every cell expands and shimmers; they are about resting into a generous multiplicity of sabbath moments each day, of swimming through warm and buoyant water, walking through a thick grove of trees, feeling wind across my skin, experiencing the fire of my passions kindling within. My body is dreaming of space for all of these and for the yet unknown dreams, the ones that pulse deep within me and with time and space will emerge in their own beauty and power. Our bodies long to be in intimacy with the world around us.
Valentine's Day is that highly commercialized holiday of chocolates, flowers, and Hallmark cards. In many ways it has become another way to mark how inadequate we feel about ourselves if we are without a partner, or about our relationships and how to express love if we are partnered.
February 14th does offer us another invitation, however—to consider the call to become "body-words of love."
I understand this invitation as beginning with myself and then allowing that felt love of my own body to radiate out into the world and offer loving presence to others.
How many of us treat our bodies with the lavish attention they deserve? What does it mean to treat our bodies like the temples they really are? What is the damage caused by the endless messages we receive each day about our bodies' inadequacies? What if for one day we could put to rest the damaging stories we tell ourselves about how our bodies don't measure up? What if we could bring our full presence to our bodies' needs instead of endlessly ignoring them?
St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), an orthodox monk who later became an Archbishop, upheld the doctrine that the human body played an important part in prayer rooted in the Incarnation; that is, the whole person, united in body and soul, was created in the image of God, and Christ, by taking a human body at the Incarnation, has "made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification."
I am in love with this image: What if our bodies truly were an "inexhaustible source of sanctification" and we treated them as such? To sanctify is to bless or make holy, to set apart for sacred use. To consider our bodies a blessing is another way to become "body-words of love."
This Valentine's write a love letter to your body, offering both gratitude and forgiveness. Instead of using words, offer it in food, in warmth, in touch.
The body loves slowness. Instead of rushing from place to place until you crash into bed exhausted, allow holy pauses to breathe deeply, take a long bath as an act of offering, lavish yourself with oil. Prepare a nourishing meal for just yourself. Eat chocolate, but make sure it is the deepest, darkest, richest kind you can find and eat it with as much attention as you can summon. Make an appointment for a massage and receive some loving touch imagining that you are being anointed for blessing others. The senses are the gateway into the body's wisdom.
Body Examen Prayer
The Examen prayer was created by St. Ignatius of Loyola and invites us to reflect on our day and focus on two essential questions: where did I experience desolation and consolation? I have adapted the prayer here as a meditation on the body. Consider taking this on as a daily practice for the rest of February or perhaps for the season of Lent
Allow some time to settle into silence and draw your breath down into your body. See if with each inhale you can imagine receiving the gift of life breath sustaining you each moment. With each exhale, imagine you are releasing all the thoughts and judgments that take you away from your body. Then bring your breath to any places of holding or tightness.
From a place of stillness, reflect on this past day. Ask yourself, when today did I experience pain in my body? When today did I neglect or abuse my body? Notice what memory stirs and be with it with compassion and gentleness, allowing space for this experience. Breathe in the possibility of forgiveness, breathe out release.
Then ask yourself, when have I experienced joy in my body? When did I deeply honor and nourish my body? Again notice what memory stirs and sit with it, savoring this moment, entering into it fully again with your body. Breathe in love, breathe out gratitude.
When your prayer feels complete for this day allow some time to journal and notice what memories and experiences stirred for you. Keeping track of these over time will reveal patterns for you that can help foster greater freedom.
Join our community for a soul-nourishing online retreat for Lent:
The Soul's Slow Ripening: Monastic Wisdom for Discernment begins this Wednesday!