This article also appeared over at Patheos (click on the link and to the right of my piece you can see a whole list of articles for their discussion this week on religion & the body):
Here I am.
This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped.
I live here.
This is my soul’s address.
-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Two summers ago I was traveling in Austria and visited the tiny village of Hallstatt. Perched between a mountain and a lake, Hallstatt is best known for its early Celtic heritage and the treasures of ancient remains discovered there. But next to the Catholic Church is a tiny chapel, a bone chapel. You see, the cemetery is so small that bones had to be removed periodically to make room for the newly dead. The skulls were bleached in the sun and then lovingly hand-painted by family members with names, dates, and decorations. Standing in the room with 600 adorned skulls was a transcendent experience. I was brushing against my own mortality, confronted with my own vulnerable body made up of bone and fragile tissue, and at the same time witnessing the beauty of what remains. I imagined what it would be like to hold the bones of my beloved in my hands and to take paint to them as an act of cherishing and remembrance.
While traveling across Europe, I discovered that many of the churches and cathedrals have skulls carved from marble scattered through the building. I appreciated those reminders of mortality, the skulls dwelling in the sacred space alongside winged angels. I especially loved the skull with the Bishop’s mitre, a reminder that no one is spared death.
When my mother died, I was with her the last five days or her life and even there at the moment of her final breath. My most visceral memory is massaging her limbs with hospital lotion as she lay unconscious and we waited for her to die. I was so intimate with death in that room, blessing me and wounding me in the same thrust. I lost my fear of death and bodies no longer living because of the excruciating holiness of that time.
St. Benedict wrote in his Rule to “keep death daily before your eyes.” He knew that life was so profoundly precious that we needed to stay rooted in our own mortality so we might remember to cherish our moments. Helen Nottage is a young ceramicist in England who creates sculptures of the human form in varying stages of decay. At an earlier time in my life I would have been repulsed by these images, but now I look on her images in wonder, finding beauty in her careful attention to the details of the body decaying. They make me uncomfortable too, knowing this will be me one day. Yet in following St. Benedict’s sage advice, confronting my own death does not fill me with fear. It makes me cleave to my life, plunging me into the wonder of this moment. I pull my husband closer, I make certain to hug my friends, I am grateful for each day as gift.
We are always in a process of decay, something our culture urges us to resist at every possible turn. Just like the waning of the moon, the season of autumn, and the luminous threshold when day descends into night, we are invited to embrace the beauty of our entire human reality, the dying and the living, the dark and light, the falling apart and becoming whole again.
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 will one day become dust, but also sprang from my mother in a burst of desire for life. In all this attention we give to the perfection of the body, we undermine our capacity to become body-words of love. We forget that we are called to 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, not wise enough on their own
Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi) writes about embodied trust:
“Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky. . . teaches that there are three kinds of emunah (elemental trust): trusting mind, trusting heart, and trusting body. And the highest of these is emunat ha-evarim, trusting with one’s limbs, where deep trust penetrates every fibre of one’s being. The classic example he offers is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. In that moment of leaping, he writes, the children of Israel trusted fully in the One, and therefore the holy spirit rested upon them and sang in them and song burst forth not only from their lips but in their very limbs.”
Emunat ha-evarim — trusting with one’s limbs — what an amazing image. Trusting with our limbs means resisting the messages we are sold daily about ways to fix our fragility. It means welcoming in joy and suffering into our experience. It means learning to stop resisting our exquisite tenderness.
We can deny the profound vulnerability of bodies, but then we miss the chance to become body-words of love at life’s most vulnerable moments. Many times I helped my mother with simple tasks in the years before she died. The act of slipping socks over her feet became my song of love to her. A friend’s baby is sick with fever and vomiting and she cares for her and tends to her needs. The soothing hands of a mother stroking damp skin becomes a balm for the body’s tenderness. All across this world right now are people pressing themselves to those who have been wounded, trusting that being a body-word of love is an act of healing, if not cure.
In the midst of so much exquisite fragility and tenderness, I am reminded too of the delight my body brings. In the pleasure of a long hot bath, the wondrous touch of my beloved, a nourishing meal, the feel of rain or sunlight on skin, the warmth of my dog pressed up against me. The marvelous wonder of bodies makes me dizzy with delight.
In this act of honoring bodies, we also honor the Greater Body. If we took bodies absolutely seriously, these very delicate containers of flesh and fluid, wouldn’t we also begin to love the wider body more deeply of which we are a part – the communion of all people and creation? Tending to those tender places of our own embodied life means we can extend more compassion to all those, whose bodies are suffering through hunger, illness, environmental devastation. The One Great Body which pulses and breathes with the presence of the Creator. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “breathing together of all things.”
Perhaps learning to live in our bodies — to truly embrace both the profound dignity and pleasure, as well as the exquisite tenderness and often excruciating vulnerablity – is the most important work we can do, the deepest spiritual practice we can take on. To make sure the needs of bodies are cared for: that all bodies are well-nourished and touched in loving ways, given shelter and medicine they need, and not blown to bits with guns and bombs and other violence or neglect.
In Christian tradition, we believe that God entered the world in the most fragile way possible – as a tiny newborn infant to homeless parents among the animals of a stable. Through Jesus’ life and ministry we see him repeatedly tending to the needs of the physical body, offering food and healing, receiving anointing with oil. He enters deeply into the vulnerability of the body in death, his body broken, torn apart. And even in resurrected life, his body still carries the wounds of his earthly existence.
“GIVE ME A WORD“
The Abbey is giving away Four Fabulous Gifts on Friday – stop by my New Year’s post and share your word for the year. There have been over 120 words already posted and just reading through them is amazing! Feel free to add your own to the comments section as a way of declaring your commitment.
© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts