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Having Bodies (Days 9 & 10)

“Having a body is a lot of work.”

Yep, it’s right there on page 37, in case this is news to anyone. Just a body’s maintenance is a lot of work, to say nothing of those times when it doesn’t function the way we’ve grown to expect.

It’s no wonder, then, that much religion and spirituality—strands of Christianity included—seek fulfillment apart from the inconveniences of having a body. Saving souls and purifying beliefs, for example, may seem attractive alternatives to the hard work of tending to bodies.

Then add the reality that a good portion of our negative experiences are directly related to having bodies. There’s pain, of course, but even more (unpleasant) there’s “the inevitable experience of shame” (40).

Embodiment, while often a source of pleasure and joy, can be embarrassing. There is something that feels undignified about having a body. (40)

And yet,

At root, Christianity is a thoroughly embodied faith. (38)
We were made to be embodied—to experience life, pleasure, and limits in our bodies. (39)

Made to experience limits, yes, but not made to experience shame over our thoroughly embodied reality. Here’s the biblical good news:

The shame of embodiment . . . is resolved, permanently, in Christ himself. (40)
Christians believe in a God who, by becoming human, embraced human embodiment in fullness, right down to the toenails. (41)

I couldn’t agree more, and this is, along with the related practice of Sabbath, my favorite aspect of Adventist faith. From our convictions about what happens when we die to our focus on health, healing, and wellness, Adventists take bodies seriously.

And yet even we body-loving Sabbath-keepers are prone to a couple of traps, both of which Tish mentions in this chapter (so maybe we’re not so special in our flaws after all):

  1. Our focus on the body can morph into a one-sided obsession with all the bad stuff bodies might do—“focusing all our attention on policing sexual conduct and denigrating the body as a dirty source of evil” (38)—or maybe elevating healthy best practices to markers of moral superiority.

  2. In spite of our focus on the body, we may still “imagine the Christian life primarily as a quest to get the right ideas in [our] heads” (41). Well. Even good ideas about the body can serve as an escape from from the genuine experience of an embodied faith.

Why does it matter? In part I think it goes back to the theme of the last several posts. Compassion (among other desirable virtues) isn’t an idea we need to get drilled into our minds—likely it’s already in the “good ideas” category in most of our heads! Compassion, we’ve said, needs to get into our gut, our whole being—really, our bodies. Fortunately, postures of openness and softheartedness, gestures of kindness, are things we really can practice with our bodies. And as music teachers have told their students for thousands of years, “Practice makes perfect-ish.”

A question worth considering is, What are some small, tangible, body-centered actions you might try practicing that lean more toward openness and compassion than judgment and shame?

Tish’s own story has stuck with me. During a particularly painful time in her life, she lost the words to pray. She couldn’t figure out what she wanted to say to God. But, she could still kneel. And she could still lift up her hands, as if to offer God her pain. And eventually, with time, the words returned.

I’ve noticed times when I couldn’t muster the words to apologize, or to show empathy, and no amount of mental coaxing could bring them. But for whatever reason, I could coax my hand to touch a shoulder, or an arm, and I could will my eyes to look with a softer gaze. And then eventually, the words follow.

Having a body is a lot of work. To a certain extent, I think I wouldn’t want it any other way.

If you’re reading along, and you would like to contribute a reflection to the blog, we’d love to include your voice. Email for details.

Dungeon or Temple? (Days 11 & 12)

Brushing Teeth (Days 7 & 8)