Sunday, December 16, 2007

Incarnate As We Are

This is a piece written number of years ago for
presentaion at a retreat for women during
the Advent Season.
Hope it strikes as responsive chord.

When freed to express such things within the understanding company of women of 'a certain age', I have been heard to say (quite frequently of late) "Our bodies betray us." The knowing ‘company of women’ all nod in agreement. They are acknowledging the assault of unwanted weight, the fortyish failure of the eyes, the sag of breast and jowl, the increased frequency of check-ups and medical tests which the magazines advise us to have, not to mention deliberations over drugs for hypertension, high cholesterol, and hormone replacement therapy.

The sense of body as enemy is not limited to older women. Adolescent girls seem to hate their bodies - either too developed or not developed enough - and always too fat. What could it possibly mean that girls and young women are so ready to tattoo, pierce, and in the extreme, mutilate bodies once lavished with adoring parental kisses?

This common feeling of alienation from the body which encases our minds and souls is sadly at odds with the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery which lies at the heart of jubilee celebration at the millennium. As Christians our spiritual jubilee arises from the utter joy of knowing that our God became incarnated, I in fleshed in the very same human body as our own in the person of Jesus. He became our brother in the human fleshy experience. This choice of God is the finally exclamation point added to the words of the creation story - "And God saw that it was very good." God entered into unity with all of creation and particularly the human creation because God so loved the world that Jesus, the Christ, took on human flesh so that all might become fully alive in God.

What interferes with our full appreciation of the wonder of creation and particularly our creation as incarnate beings? What interferes with a healthy, spiritual sense of our nature as soul and body?

Within our church we have inherited the effects of a long-held philosophy of dualism, the split between body and soul, and the resulting conflict between the evil and good that they separately represent. The effects are inherited in the emphasis on sexual sins of birth control, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, abortion. Do you remember from ancient times those teenage questions about petting and how far you could go before ......well you know.

Our culture too has cast the body as enemy. Too fat, too thin, too freckled, to hippy, too bosomy, not bosomy enough. It is difficult news, particularly for women, who from puberty on are uniquely and repeatedly reminded of their bodiliness. As a teenager I found my mother's assurance that my period was my best friend to be of little comfort. And now that they tell me I am peri-menopausal I feel that I am about to mourn that friend. As women, how our bodies work is critical to the survival of the species. Yet the very process of childbearing leaves those scorned tell-tale signs of stretch marks, the ever present belly, and spider veins marring once whistled at legs. On one hand we are idealized, and on the other we are loathed and in the extreme subjected to sexual abuse, battering, and rape. What is a woman to do?

Then, last but not least, comes the aging process, a time when we begin to feel that our bodies are letting us down; menstruation leaving us with the final punch of hot flashes and night sweats, a figure of changing proportions, faces that Joan Rivers tell us to do something about, and the inability to do many things that once were easy. And every bit of it flying in the face of the feminine ideal supported by our culture, a culture which finds it difficult to even imagine us as still sexual. Religious and cultural taboos have rendered female sexuality problematic throughout life, but even more so when women pass the age bearing children.

Yet the bells of jubilee, the bells declaring the entry of the divine into our human bodily milieu, must be calling us to a celebration of both that Incarnation and our own. What would flying in the face of ancient church influence, of culturally engrained negative body images mean for us as women, for our spirituality? What would it mean for our understanding and experience of these mysteries?

"A spirituality that celebrates the great web of connectedness among all created beings shows us how to honor both that earth and our own bodies." Our monthly cycles connect us to the moon and the tides of the earth. We describe our lives as metaphorically resembling the seasons of the year. "Our sense of this connection is fundamental to our sense of the sacred." Realizing we are made of the same stuff of the cosmos we cannot play the old game that separates us from nature and from our own bodies. We know that we are part of a living system, participants in a cosmic dance. Who of us has not experienced a touch of the transcendent when we have stopped and taken the time to allow our body to become a window, a doorway through which we experience the wonder of nature; to sit by the river; to observe a herd of deer graze their way through a meadow; to be transfixed by an awesome star studded night sky is to have an experience of nature that is sacramental.

The Christian dualism mentioned earlier combined with the trust in our time of the mind of man to solve every problem create the shadow under which we try to embrace our bodiliness. The mind has been considered a higher source of knowing reality. "However, the incarnation affirms the value of our bodies. Jesus connects God to the world for all time. Far from separating us from the divine, human bodies engage us in the human adventure in the way God chose to become physically connected to all that is human. In the incarnation the bodily becomes the sacramental bearer of the divine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for publishing this. At 45, I am starting to struggle with a sense of alienation from/betrayal by my body. As a woman priest, it shames me. Am I supposed to be "above" concerns such as youth and beauty? I wish I could be. This time of life is a challenge to my faith. I don't want to mourn the loss of my youth but I can't help it. It's so hard to overcome the depression I feel when I look in the mirror; when I notice that I have to take my glasses off in order to read; when I realize that, in just a few short years, my choice to remain childless will become irrevocable...
I'm supposed to be wise and masterful now, but there are days (many days) when I feel merely tired and washed-up.
Thank you for celebrating me even when I can't celebrate myself.
Thank you for acknoweging that faith doesn not grant immunity.
Thank you for making me feel less alone.