the word: Body

the word: Body

From Jessie Thompson, Associate for Youth and Children’s Ministries at St. David of Wales, Portland and adjunct religion professor at Warner Pacific College.

When I teach my Spiritual Formation classes, I often start with my broad beliefs to get folks in the room who have avoided a required class on spirituality until they meet me (much like I did to required math classes), to find accessible language to enter the conversation. I assert, “I believe everyone has a spirituality, conscious or unconscious. Spirituality is not concerned in the first place with religious beliefs or obligations, but with the experience of the sacred precisely as experience.” Then I share the four things I believe to be true about Spirituality:

  1. Spirituality is cultivating a conscious and active relationship to our deepest selves, to the Other, to Creation, and to the Holy.
  2. Spirituality is incarnational—embodied in a particular way of life unique to who we are
  3. Spirituality is both personal and communal, an individual experience and one shaped by the communities of which we are a part and in response to the needs of those communities.
  4. Spirituality is about the journey, process, movement toward greater freedom, wholeness, love, and transformation

I walk students through these four areas and usually everyone can agree with them. After asking them to name who might be the Other in their lives (usually that person you’d rather not cultivate a relationship with), discussing how what we do is our spirituality, thinking through the feedback loop of communities as participants in and with our personal spirituality, and sighing in relief that the spiritual life is a journey towards rather than a destination, students generally relax their tense shoulders and say, “Yeah. I can agree with that.”

Later in the course (after I’ve earned their trust as a safe person to have these new conversations with), I ask, “Looking back at my broad definition of spirituality, describe the spirituality of your body right now. What is your body’s role/relationship to spirituality? What keeps us from believing our bodies have a role/relationship to our spirituality?”

Blank stares usually follow.

For many of us, we don’t often think about our bodies as being connected (if not, central) to our spirituality.  Christianity’s history with human bodies has been a difficult and often negative path. Christian theologians, ministers, and lay people over the centuries have regarded the body as both friend and enemy, as something to be mastered or controlled, and at worse, as something to be escaped for spiritual salvation.  Rather than celebration of the body, Christianity has often made the body a place of guilt and repression, through a dualism of body and spirit/mind which has resulted often in alienation and fear. (If you suddenly felt your body react to that paragraph, you know what I mean.)

The irony of this is that the most significant piece of the Christian narrative is that God became a human (body)!  The world and all the fleshliness in it was (and still is) God’s home!  Jesus’ physical flesh was so important, in all four gospels the story of the woman anointing Jesus’ body was recorded. And God, in that human body, was raised from death to life in the resurrection—not of his mind, but his very flesh and blood body! Folks in those first few centuries spent a lot of time and breath arguing over whether Jesus was raised only in Spirit or also in Flesh. There was something significant about knowing if God in God’s body came back to life.

We read countless stories in the Gospels of the ways God-as-Body (Jesus) sought to address the needs of bodies first, knowing that if someone was in pain or could not use a part of her/his body, she/he would be less likely to be able to hear and respond to the Generous God-Love shared. By healing bodies, Jesus proclaimed the goodness of the flesh and the Imago Dei, the Image of God, in each body he met.

Our bodies matter and there is a distinctive genre of liberation theology known as Body Theology, whose theologians speak of the body as “both the site and recipient of revelation.”  Our bodies are the “site of divine becoming.”  Our bodies have something to say.  We must listen to our bodies speak of God, rather than speaking to our bodies about God.   Body spirituality, body theology is about reclaiming our bodies as good and sacred.

And in true liberation theology, until all bodies (not just able, straight, white, male bodies) have been given a place at the Table as a source of divine becoming, our work as the Body is not done. Only when women’s bodies, gay and lesbian and transgendered bodies, in bodies that are abused or disabled or diseased or aging, in bodies that have suffered addiction or eating disorders or suicide attempts, in bodies that are imprisoned, in overworked bodies, and in the bodies of the marginalized are heard can the divine truly become.

Christianity is a faith that has its believers splashing in water and drinking wine and eating meals together.  It is an embodied faith that embraces the gritty “stuffness” of life and makes meaning (i.e. sign of the cross, baptism, oil of anointing, kneeling, standing, passing the peace, etc.). And in the real act of faith, each week we gather as the Body of Christ, and we consume the blessed, broken, and given Body, and we are called to go back into the world—blessed, broken, and given—to live in our bodies as holders of salvation in the same way Jesus’ body was.

Eucharistic body spirituality is the very identity of who we are as Christ-followers.  If we recall, Jesus had a reputation of being a drunk and a glutton!  Those were very bodily experiences.  If we recall, Jesus desired to be remembered after he was gone in the event of a festive physical meal.  A Eucharistic body spirituality comes from a history of meals as sacred physical space for grace and forgiveness and wholeness to be made known amongst bodies at the meals.

Here are a few simple ways to practice your spirituality through your body:

  • Make every gesture a prayer. Pray the laundry. Pray writing checks to PGE in thanksgiving for warm showers.
  • Slow down and notice yourself brushing your teeth or putting on lotion as a blessing for the gift of your body.
  • Invite someone over for dinner (hint hint). In fact, invite the (Capital ‘O’) Other.
  • Pay attention to the bodies around you. See them as the Imago Dei. Offer kind eyes and prayers of peace.
  • Ask yourself what the prayer of your body is right now. Then stretch out that bodily prayer at your desk, in your home, do a jig at the grocery store, etc.

The practice of praying with our bodies is born of the confidence that our bodies are made in the image of God’s own goodness. As the place where the divine presence dwells, may we, through our daily bodily acts, live more fully into the sacredness of our bodies.