Integration as Holiness
Many of us have been taught—directly or indirectly—that the pursuit of holiness means evolving to something beyond our physical existence; our bodies are dirty or broken, and our physical needs and desires are distractions from spirituality and holiness. Here, Abby Wong-Heffter, a therapist in private practice and member of our Teaching staff, proposes a different way. Abby reflects on the birth of her son and the profound, full-bodied realization that the work of integrating our minds, bodies, and spirits is intimately connected to the movement of holiness.
The day before my son was born a friend asked how she might pray on my behalf. I asked her to petition for presence. I knew from other significant life events (graduations, my wedding day, etc.) that giving birth would inevitably be a very surreal experience, surreal in that it would be difficult to be and stay in the moment. I had prepared for the labor itself through a class offered by my hospital and through many YouTube videos. I learned about hypnobirthing and different ways of breathing and focusing. I learned how to use an exercise ball, tennis ball, the wall, a chair, my husband, as means to move through the contractions. It was my hope that I could be alert and aware of my body’s activity and responses. I decided that I was going to make every attempt to not have an epidural. My husband and I hired a doula for this purpose. I wanted to feel it all, and I wanted to be fully present.
When later asked how I experienced giving birth, I found myself again and again responding with the same sentence: “It was the holiest moment of my life.” Holy. Holy? Every time I spoke it I was taken off guard and surprised. Why was I using that word? I even found myself mulling over my past biblical studies and theological orientation, particularly what I had read in J.I. Packer’s text, Knowing God. He had emphasized holiness as God’s separateness and distinctiveness. As a young Christian I had been taught a form of gnosticism—to live removed or even to loathe physicality. I had strived in my previous iteration of my faith to divorce myself from my body because this is how I understood the pursuit of holiness. Describing my labor as holy didn’t seem to fit this definition. I certainly did not want to bastardize such a…well, holy word. So, I wrestled.
My dilemma was that God did not feel separate while I rode the waves of contractions. More than any other moment in my life there was a nearness, closeness, and presence that I had never previously encountered. My body, mind, and spirit seemed to work in tandem, a kind of unity that felt deeply primal and wildly worshipful. I did not need to “practice” mindfulness or “visualize” my place of beauty or inspiration as my YouTube classes had coached. Instead, visions were bestowed. To preserve what feels so very intimate, I will withhold the actual description of the scenes and places God took me to. But I can offer that the only other time I’ve had an experience even remotely similar to this had been during intercessory prayer, like what we read in Scripture or in the narratives offered by Saints. Truly, the Spirit gave me places and sounds that ushered me to a place of surrender. What was stunning was that it was certainly NOT without very intense pain—pain and exhaustion that I had no imagination how I would endure.*
More than any other moment in my life there was a nearness, closeness, and presence that I had never previously encountered.
Eric Weiner, author of Man Seeks God, once wrote in The New York Times, “I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places. […] They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine.” My labor, as Australian aboriginals put it, was an Every When encounter—time seemed to collapse. So, though my Active Labor and Transition Phase lasted nearly 15 hours, and each breath and contraction was its own physical challenge, it also felt as though I were functioning in my own universe, my own Thin Place, my own Every When.
If holiness is the word I want to use then I might be willing to define it as the experience of being integrated. Maybe this is as close as I will get to being human in the way we mean when we say that Jesus was fully human.
When I offer to my clients my ultimate hope for their healing, I say that I want for them to experience integration. So much of what plagues us, particularly the traumatized people I work with, is a sense that we are at best, at odds with, or at worst, in a war with ourselves. We find our minds seemingly calm and clear but our bodies are dizzy; we feel tightness in our chests and our stomachs are nauseated (somatic anxiety). We “know” (cerebrally, logically, rationally) that the abuse was “not our fault” but we feel dirty and ashamed. Upon sharing a specific moment of our abuse we find ourselves “gone,” no longer in the room, no longer able to feel our bodies or give account of our thoughts. This is a form of living fragmented. We often are maddened that we are physically compromised, dissociated, or living in shame. It is not of our choosing.
What if the work of redemption, the striving for holiness, is actually a way we can move toward a life where we get to feel it all, and instead of it being ruinous, it brings us closer to the face of God? What if holiness and integration are one and the same—when we can encounter the world sensually (taste, touch, hear, see, smell) while using our thinking mind (executive functioning) and listening and trusting with our spirits (to hear the voice of God)?
The visions, the guttural and primal sounds that escaped my lips, the scent of lemon essential oil, the warm water on my skin that eased my aching back, and the firm grasp of my husbands’ hands—these are what invited me into the holy hours of birthing my son. Everything working in tandem. Thanks be to God.
*Jokingly, a few months after my son’s birth, I told a friend that if I was ever going to go through the ordeal of birth again, I would DEFINITELY ask for drugs. My husband was shocked. “I thought that was the holiest moment of your life!” “It was,” I responded. “Then why would you do it differently?” he asked with great puzzlement. “Because, it was also the most painful experience of my life. I only need to encounter that much holiness once,” I proclaimed. Props to all you mothers who gave birth naturally, especially in your home (I gave birth in a hospital). Nothing but honor and respect to you who gave birth with the assistance of an epidural or via C-Section. You do you and be PROUD.