Coming Home to Our Bodies
During Advent we remember and reflect on the stunning belief that the God of the universe took on flesh and became a human in lowly, surprising circumstances. But is the embodiment itself a lowly act, or is it an affirmation and celebration of humanity—including the body? Here, Simona Chitescu Weik, a poet, PhD candidate, and past Training Certificate participant, writes about the prevalent divisions between body and soul, the damaging messages those divisions foster, and how a new message is born with the incarnation of God.
My daughter is the most embodied person I know. What I mean is that there is no division between her self—her mind, her emotions—and her body. Take the way she moves to music, not self-consciously but intuitively as if rhythm and sound are a language stitched to her very core, or the way she describes her hurts sometimes so epically spun, other times in monosyllables, guttural sounds, gestures. She is present to herself, one with her body, and delighted almost constantly by its possibilities. Granted, she is two and developmentally speaking certain divisions are only starting to occur, for example her self separated from my (mother) self, or the other division, the one that haunts me every single day, reality (experience, object) and language (symbol). But I digress.
I’m convinced the reason we are given the privilege of caring for children (in whatever capacity they are in our lives) is to remind us of what it means to be truly human, to remember the Garden, to remember that when we are born the thing that is truest about us is the sacred imago dei, the expression of the divine inscribed on our faces, our bodies, the substance of our inner selves whatever you may choose to call her, perhaps soul or mind. We have lost connection to that place. So, to be born again is to re-turn to the expression of humanity that we see in the Garden, dynamic, vulnerable, joyful, worshipful, embodied. As Westerners, we are no strangers to division, to binary categories (light/dark, good/evil, human/divine). We often frame our reality in terms of opposites, or in terms of what something isn’t, but this is part of our ancient Greek inheritance and it has gotten us in trouble. This isn’t the space where I want to unspin this web, but perhaps you too have come to places in your experience where the binary category has failed you, where the complexities of relationships, events, choices have left you reaching for a different frame of references, one where your choice was not either/or, but the tension itself between two seemingly opposing forces was the place where you had to settle. I call these liminal spaces.
Liminal: occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
One of those places for me, as long as I can recall, was the threshold between body and soul. As a young girl raised in a conservative, evangelical paradigm in Communist Romania, I internalized the premise that in a hierarchy of value, my soul/spirit (at that time I didn’t know there was a distinction) was far more important than my body. It was my “real” self. That evolved into a very simplistic binary of the soul is good, the body is bad* (sound familiar?). In my mind, the soul was a garden to be cultivated and in fact, my clearest memory of my father’s response to something “bad” I had done was “Do you want to grow up like a weed? A young girl should be cultivated like a rare flower.” And my response to a father I adored was to spend the better part of my life cultivating my mind/soul, the most “important” part of my self—to the detriment of my body for which there was little category or space in my understanding. At best, I thought my body a nuisance, a burden, something that tethered me to earth when I wanted to journey amongst the galaxies by means of intellect and imagination. It was my Sisyphus’s rock.
I am still grieving this deeply, because it wasn’t until I reached thirty that I began to unravel the detritus of messages and twisted beliefs about my body and began to face my hatred, pride, and ambivalence about my femininity and beauty. I had been proud of my disconnection from this deeply substantial, deeply wise part of myself. I had been afraid of how she** spoke to me through hunger, desire, pain, how she told the truth in moments where a lie was more convenient to believe. I often named her Judas. What have you named your body in the moments you thought she/he had betrayed you, exposed you, asked something of you? When you realized that what you’ve tried to forget is inscribed in the most tangible place of all, this glorious husk that carries you, reveals your face (embodied identity) to the world, and gifts you with the capacity of joy and pleasure through touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste?
What have you named your body in the moments you thought she/he had betrayed you, exposed you, asked something of you?
Jesus too lived in the liminality of body and spirit, of humanity and divine nature. But He understood it differently, not as a binary either/or, but in terms of both and. In Jewish tradition, and indeed in Eastern paradigms of thinking, body and spirit were two sides of the same coin, as was language and reality. In the Scriptures, when Christ is described as the Word, the Greek term Logos refers to language, but also to the highest principle of order and logic present in the universe, and it’s an astonishing meaning that gives us new dimension to our often-impoverished understanding of language. However, in Aramaic, Jesus the Word is Miltha, which means consciousness, instance, manifestation, matter. God as matter, God as event, God as spirit, God as expression. I feel overwhelmed as I write these words. I had been taught that Jesus lowered Himself to become human, and as I have no doubts that He did enter deep limitation, something about the value judgement ascribed to the word “lowering” implied for me a loss of dignity and worth, as if becoming embodied was a humiliation. And that fit in with my paradigm of the body being “less than.” I understand that very differently now. Yes, it was humbling, but not a humiliation. Limiting, but not a lowering. In fact, the Incarnation is the climactic moment where the human body is yet again ascribed deep beauty, value, dignity, and glory. It is a vision that the Garden remains within us always and that it is where we have to return to be whole. Not a place in a physical sense, but a coming home to our deepest selves, the face of God within us.
As I read the Gospels, Jesus strikes me as someone at home in His body. He ate well, he drank, and I imagine he danced because there is no Jewish wedding or festivity without dancing. He wept, laughed, embraced, held, allowed himself to be held, felt pain, longed for a home, was thirsty. He lived in the liminality of His nature and identity, in the tension of body and spirit as an integrated being. He did not engage them as opposing forces or realities, but as one, as His identity. If you wonder about that, Scripture tells us that He continues embodied even now and this is how we will experience Him in the new kingdom.
As Advent unfurls, I am struck with how our culture makes such limited space for our bodies. We run ourselves ragged shopping, decorating, doing, and as a way to cope with the stress, it’s sugar overload and Netflix binging at the end of the day (or maybe that’s just me). I am not condemning these activities—they hold a great deal of beauty and meaning, but what I notice is that we can put such a premium on the things that disconnect us from our bodies. Your body has a story to tell you and that will only come if you prepare a place for it by giving her space, rest, silence, beauty, so that she can begin to speak.
What might it look like for us to take one step toward being at home in our bodies? To befriend that part of ourselves? I begin again and again by listening, practicing awareness, and scanning for a few minutes. Some days she tells me to move and other days to stop. Some days I am invited to listen to the ache of my lower back or neck, and let myself remember the repetitive motions and positions that have contributed to those aches. Some of these aches are born of playing “horsey” with my daughter or dancing wildly with her throughout the house. Others from grading papers or writing well into the night. Others are deeper aches, stories that emerge when I’ve created a little place for myself, maybe on my yoga mat, and I lie in shavasana and let the tears come for the years of thinking and living as if she, my body, was the betrayer, when all along it was me (I say this with deep kindness and grief) who had betrayed her. So today, I choose a different name. Something beautiful, and glorious, and true.
* The oversimplified “the soul is good, the body is bad” is one of the ghosts of our Western paradigms, a legacy from ancient Greek philosophy dating back to Plato. In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr speaks of a seminary professor that after the years of teaching and mentoring his students would end his final class with the statement that Christianity has been most shaped by Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment, rather than Hebrew tradition. I would agree. In fact, I think the value binary of soul and body is the ghost that the Church just won’t give up.
** In my relationship with the Holy Spirit (who by the way is referred to in the Scriptures in the feminine case approximately 88 out of 90+ occurrences, Ruach (n. fem.) = breath of life, wind, creative force) I learned not to call my body it because she is part of my person. It’s been a conscious practice, but in the Celtic Christian stream as well as Jewish thinking there is an understanding that the soul is not in the body, but rather that the body is in the soul, i.e. part of the soul, one with the soul. Therefore, who we are includes our bodies.
*** Eastern paradigms of thinking do not function in terms of duality, but on a holistic understanding of reality. For example, light and dark compose the passing of a whole day. Or, good and evil are not strictly internal or external forces, but manifest in both realms as we could probably all recognize in our engagement with the world and ourselves daily. For more in-depth material on this, Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Everything Belongs or Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, Love and Living, and The Seven Story Mountain are excellent resources.