September 27, 2015
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Being embodied is a strange experience. Oh, wait a minute – I guess I mean “being alive.” How could I be alive without my body? All right, then, being alive is a strange experience. It’s a kind of user illusion, isn’t it? I locate my “self” up “here,” in my “head” — notice how I have to use these scare-quotes constantly, since none of it is really “true” — and this “self” seems to experience all kinds of freedom and independence – I can think anything, imagine whatever I please – while the body, “down below,” politely gets out of the way. Better yet, my “self” can start giving orders to that body at a moment’s notice, and lo and behold, the body obeys! or at least it tries to.
I don’t mean to mock this picture, really. It’s basic to my experience. No wonder that theologians and philosophers over the centuries clung so tightly to the idea that “self” and “body,” “soul” and “matter,” were two separable entities. For a large part of our daily experience, that is precisely what it feels like.
But not all. The body will have its say, will make it very clear that there is no “self” without embodiment, and that our precious “freedom” is a gift given to us by a healthy, cooperative body.
For the past several years, I’ve gotten increasingly into running. Up till a few months ago, I was running 5 or 6 miles three times a week. Aside from the obvious health benefits, I love running for two other reasons: it produces interesting chemicals in my brain which make me feel elated, and it seems to satisfy a basic desire I have to be able to flee. Fight or flight: our core responses to danger. I guess it’s too late for me to take up boxing, or karate, but at least I’ve got the flight part down. Like King Arthur’s knights in the Monty Python movie, I am prepared at a moment’s notice to RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!
Or I was, up until I hurt my right gluteal tendon. This literal pain in the ass sidelined my running for several weeks, and when I went back out, I promptly injured the plantar fascia – a group of connective tissues – in my right foot. First my chiropractor, then a physical therapist, and then a podiatrist, all told me versions of the same thing: stop running until it heals. So I have. I haven’t done a real run since May, and am feeling very gloomy about it.
This minor glitch in my body’s normally efficient working has resulted in a rather major change in my life. Anyone who does regular exercise, especially if it’s a sport they love, knows what I’m talking about. I miss running terribly. I miss the person I am, trudging mile after mile, getting “in the zone,” feeling my physical self first center, and then disappear. For this is one of the familiar paradoxes of embodiment: the best way to forget the body, to experience a kind of purity of spirit, is to put the body front and center, to make it do stuff. Runners don’t have too much to forget, since running isn’t much of a skill, but imagine the degree of mindedness, of sheer thoughtless embodiment, it must take to play championship tennis, or NBA-level basketball. Great athletes must not become like the centipede in the poem:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
This was going to be my introduction to a few thoughts about the body, and how Jesus seemed to regard our physical embodiment. But in the past few weeks, two much more serious glitches, if you will, have surfaced in the lives of two people who are dear to me, and these remind me, all the more forcefully, of the perils of our embodiment. Katie’s sister Martha is struggling to understand and heal from a baffling series of symptoms – dizziness, deafness, occasional blindness and speech impairment – that have made a wreck of her normal life. And Marjory, thanks to my unruly cat, suffered a bite on her hand so serious that she had to be hospitalized, and the wound operated upon to ensure that the infection would be healed.
The body is not a silent partner, an obliging companion to the adventures of our spirit. What happens to the body – and it can happen at a moment’s notice – demands the spirit’s attention. Injury or illness can and does change how I think and feel. It changes my relationship to myself, and my relationship to God. Am I my body? No. But am I, without my body? I can’t even imagine what that would mean, when I look deeper, beyond the simple everyday picture of “mind as inhabitant of the body.” A disembodied, spiritual existence, in a heavenly afterlife that is mysteriously unphysical? It’s a lovely picture – until you actually try to picture it. And then it makes no sense. So guess what? The Christians got it right: No resurrection without the resurrection of the body. That ancient, much-misunderstood doctrine seems so much more in harmony with 21st-century science, and my own experience of being alive in a body, than any spooky “souls” floating around in the soup of incorporeality.
Jesus took the body seriously. Our Gospel reading today is typical of the kind of thing he said. His example of doing something in his name is not some abstract good deed, but rather the giving of a cup of water: a physical act meant to minister to a simple need of the body. And the metaphors he chooses (at least I hope they’re metaphors; if they’re not, then I might be in the wrong religion) to illustrate the dangers of sin are also basic, tough, physical images: a millstone around the neck, a hand or a foot or an eye that must be torn out rather than cause me to suffer the pain of fire. There’s an old cartoon, I think from the National Lampoon, that shows some medieval sinners writhing in the agonies of hell, surrounded by serpents and flames, and one of them is saying, “Ah, but even worse than these torments is the knowledge that I shall forever be denied the Beatific Vision.” I think Jesus would have found this funny too. Much as I may miss the Beatific Vision, the idea of being tortured in Hell for all eternity – a plain old bodily punishment – is considerably worse, at least for this sinner.
On a less gruesome note: So much of what we know about Jesus are the stories of his many healings. Some of the “demons” he drove out might today be considered mental illnesses, but even mental illness has a physical base, and as for the rest of his healings – deafness, lameness, blindness, death itself – they are all bodily defects, plain and unspiritual. We are so used to thinking of Jesus as “the healer” that we sometimes forget that he could have taken a different path. To those who came to him in physical distress, bringing not spiritual laments but the everyday groanings of a body in pain, he could have said, “Go away from me. What is the body to me, and to God? Your spirit is what matters. Love God, do not sin, and all will be well. Stop worrying about whether or not you can walk.” That is not an absurd stance to take – but it is not the stance of Jesus. Rather, we know he felt compassion for the physically sick, and if the Gospels are to be believed, he healed them by the thousands.
By the way, I know there are some Christians, probably some at Seekers, who don’t think Jesus really healed anyone, or really raised anyone from the dead, or really worked any miracles. I myself hardly know how to read the Gospels if all those reports of healings are untrue, but even if the skeptics are right, and the healings are metaphors or parables: the point still stands. The Gospel writers, presumably trying to capture Jesus’ teachings, chose physical healing as their key metaphor. The body counts, the body is important. Don’t pretend to love Jesus if you aren’t willing to give a cup of water to a thirsty person. And if your body hurts, ask God to heal you. It’s okay, in fact it’s blessed.
The other thing we see constantly in the Gospels, and in the teachings of the New Testament, is this: My spiritual condition is intertwined with the physical. As my body is, so is my spirit. We all know this from our own lives: If I wake up feeling good physically, full of energy and well-being, then I’m much more likely to treat others with generosity, and to willingly praise God for his gifts. On the other hand (notice the body metaphor), if I wake up aching, my foot sore, my stomach upset – well, watch out, world! It takes a mindful, prayerful effort not to stay grumpy, ungrateful, and generally self-centered the entire day. The line between physical and spiritual healing is almost invisible, likewise the line between metaphor versus plain truth.
Look at our reading from James. Without segue or explanation, James goes from instruction about physical healing to instruction about forgiveness of sins. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” The early Christians saw little difference, it would seem, between prayers for physical and spiritual healing. Probably there is no one right way to understand this complex subject. My own belief is that, like Jesus, they took the body seriously. They regarded prayers for physical healing as on a par with prayers for salvation – equally important, equally deserving of God’s attention.
One last thought about embodiment: I am 61 years old, and my body is aging with every day I remain alive. It is, you might say, constantly disappointing me. It can no longer achieve the (not all that impressive) physical peaks it used to; it takes forever to heal from injury (my foot being a great example); and, one way or another, it will continue to stop working, in ways known only to God, if God knows the future. This is a grim realization of age: Something is about to go wrong, and after that, something else, and then something else, and the process will never stop until you stop. Oh yes, right, that’s the other dicey thing about embodiment: I’m going to die. It’s the body’s final assertion of supremacy. The mind, the spirit, can think what it pleases, can venture far and wide in the boundless world of eternal ideas . . . but when my heart stops beating, all that is over.
Our religion has very little to say about aging, and I’m not the first person to note that Christ never had the experience of being old, or even middle aged. So I consider myself extremely fortunate to be part of the Seekers community, which is full of role models for me as I get older. All my friends here in your seventies and eighties and nineties — you may not know it, but I’ve got my eye on you. I’m learning from you. I want to see how you do it. And so I will close with the two main things I have learned so far, about embodiment and what the poet Philip Larkin called “the only end of age”: First, laugh! Have a sense of humor about this ridiculous situation in which we find ourselves, giving our organ recitals and bemoaning the not-very-glorious glories of our youth. Second: nevertheless, respect the body. Be yourself. Be alive.