In this chapter we consider practices of Honoring The Body. How can our bodies help our spiritual lives?
Western cultures since, oh, Plato has created a dichotomy between body and spirit, separating the two in an artificial way that makes the body evil and the spirit good, or the body “base” and the spirit elevated, or secular and sacred, etc. We’ve all experienced this in various ways, whether we’ve been taught (or somehow absorbed) the idea that the body is repugnant, ugly, scandalous, or sinful. The false dichotomy has created all kinds of problems for us, as we seek then to subjugate our bodies, to keep them under control, and often see them as sources of temptation and evil. But God created these bodies, and called them ‘very good.’ God took on a body in what we consider to be the most important act…if bodies were bad, why would God become flesh to share our lives with us? So it’s possible, and even good, to find ways to experience our Selves as an integrated whole–not a body that houses what’s really important (the spirit), and not a spirit that just happens to have a body, but a body-spirit created in the image of God and designed to bring glory to God, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (which implies loving ourselves), to work for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven…with our bodies and minds and spirits.
A few of the practices Stephanie Paulsell writes about are: bathing, dressing, and touching.
She begins with a story about being present for a birth, and that leading to her contemplation of bodies as vulnerable things. It’s easy to abuse with the same practices that honor, so finding ways to love ourselves and others that are appropriate, honoring, and sacred is important. We can learn and practice these things on ourselves and our loved ones, and ultimately we will find that these practices help us consider the justice issues of the world as well–because we cannot honor our own bodies while at the same time degrading the bodies of others, and we cannot be aware of the sacredness of the body God created and simultaneously ignore or be apathetic about the created bodies who suffer.
Thinking of bathing as a spiritual practice may seem odd, but Paulsell describes it as a time of vulnerability, of intimacy with our selves, and of opportunity to “bless and honor the body and to perceive the sacredness at the heart of its vulnerability.” She reminds us of the story of the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. It’s embarrassing for the host of the dinner, but important for both Jesus and the woman. And again there is the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet–a shocking moment for everyone, disciple and reader alike. There is also the ritual of baptism, a form of “bathing.” Bathing is a way of taking part in well being, whether of ourselves or of another. Martin Luther used to remember his baptism in the bath, placing a hand on his forehead and repeating to himself under the cascade of water, “I am a child of God, baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and I belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ forever.” What would happen if we reminded ourselves of that every morning in the shower?
Clothing as a spiritual practice is even stranger than bath time, but there it is! Clothes have often been used in the wrong ways–either to hide a body we deemed sinful or imperfect, or to create an image contrary to that God made us to be. But it is possible to think of the ways we dress ourselves as a spiritual practice. First, the obvious–special occasions (Paulsell mentions weddings and graduation–special occasions requiring special clothes). The practice of wearing “church clothes” comes from this same idea–of wanting to dress in a way that honors the occasion of meeting God in a particular place. While that may not be the experience of many of us on Sunday morning (at least in terms of clothes), we can ask ourselves: does our clothing honor our bodies as made in the image of God? Does it honor our creator? How might our clothes or accessories shape our identity as children of God, or heighten our experience of worshipping God? Paulsell talks about families where the children choose an item that reminds them of who they are, or an item that makes them feel particularly good, and they wear that each Sunday as a way of “dressing up” for church. The practice of adornment is not about having the right appearance or about being fashionable, it’s not about taking attention away from the gospel–which is why one special item might be more important to getting “dressed for worship” than whether the outfit is “dressy enough” (whatever that means!). Part of this is about resisting the consumer culture, the drive to always look perfect and acquire more. Instead we seek to express who God calls us to be.
Practices of touching can be so important–we are created for relationship, and one of the difficult things in our modern world is how isolated we often are, bodily. Sometimes the only time we might encounter the touch of another person is during the passing of the peace at church! Learning to touch with love and care, and not in exploitative or abusive ways, is difficult. Rituals like passing the peace and foot washing provide a framework in which to practice. Paulsell also talks about how often those who are most vulnerable–people who are ill, or homeless, etc–are the most touch-isolated. People whose bodies are ill often feel betrayed by their very being, and the touch they experience is usually invasive, at the hands of medical professionals. Having someone to hold hands, or rub arms and legs, can be a life-giving experience for the receiver and the giver. Even just a handshake or a hug can remind a homeless person that they have bodies that can be seen–they are not invisible, and they are worthwhile beings created by God.
The practice of touch also extends into our sexuality, of course. When we honor our own and our partner’s body, we also remind ourselves and others of healthy, loving, and life-giving touch. And that offers an alternative to a world where, for many, their bodies are not their own. To remind teens that they do not have to participate in the over-sexualized culture is a part of honoring their bodies. To offer an alternative form of touch to those who have been abused by a partner is a part of honoring the body. To model reverence and delight in our bodies helps those who struggle with their bodies. Even just to acknowledge the changes in our bodies as we age can be a way of modeling this practice.
Once we have learned to honor our own bodies and those of the people we love, we will not be able to help ourselves–we’ll need to honor the bodies of others created in the image of God. We’ll be more aware of practices that exploit the bodies of others–of children working in factories, of slaves processing cocoa, of AIDS victims, of rape victims, of bodies ravaged by war and famine and disease. How do we honor their bodies as well as our own?
What do you think of these practices of honoring the body? What other ways might you imagine you can nurture your relationship with God through your physical body?