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Trusting Our Bodies

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Human Bodies: Week 1

Trusting Our Bodies
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Capable Flesh

The tender flesh itself
          will be found one day
—quite surprisingly—
          to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full
          capable of embracing
the searing energies of God.
         Go figure. Fear not.
For even at its beginning
          the humble clay received
God’s art, whereby
          one part became the eye,
another the ear, and yet
          another this impetuous hand.
Therefore, the flesh
          is not to be excluded
from the wisdom and the power
          that now and ever animates
all things. His life-giving
          agency is made perfect,
we are told, in weakness—
          made perfect in the flesh.

 —Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (c.130-c.202) [1]

God knew that only humble vulnerability could be entrusted with spiritual power—and so God hid it like a treasure in the simple, largely anonymous body of Jesus. “God’s power is at its best in weakness,” Paul tells us. “For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Unfortunately, much of Christianity has been negatively and uselessly trapped in guilt about being “flesh,” while the great messages of the Gospel—grace, healing, and restorative justice—have largely gone unheeded. Obsessive guilt about our embodiment has too often kept us “from the greater matters of the law: justice, mercy, and good faith,” as Jesus says to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23).

We must begin by trusting what God has done in Jesus. We cannot return to a healthy view of our own bodies until we accept that God has forever made human flesh the privileged place of the divine encounter. We have had enough of dualism, enough of the separation of body and spirit, enough over-emphasis on the body’s excesses and addictions. We must reclaim the incarnation as the beginning point of the Christian experience of God. We are not followers of Plato, but must return to the Hebrew respect for this world and for all the wisdom and goodness of the body. The embodied self is the only self we have ever known. Our bodies are God’s dwelling place and even God’s temple (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

In some ways it may seem simpler to obey usually arbitrary rules about diet or sex than to truly honor the living incarnation we are. Show me a single ascetical or anti-body statement from Jesus. Yet, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) said, “Avoiding the risk of a transgression has become more important to us than carrying a difficult position for God.” [2]

I believe God has given us permission to learn wisdom and humility from our bodies and not just to repress them out of fear. Remember, the steps to maturity are necessarily going to be immature. God is an expert at working with mistakes and failure. In fact, that is about all God does. Mistakes do not seem to be a problem for God; they are only a problem for our ego that wants to be pure spirit. We first tend to do things wrong before we even know what right feels like. I am not sure there is any other way.

[1] Adapted and translated by Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life (Paraclete Press: 2007), 5-6.

[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Evolution of Chastity,” Toward the Future, trans. René Hague (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1975), 75.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 22, 23-24.

Image credit: The Banjo Lesson (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893. Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Deep knowing and presence do not happen with our thinking minds. To truly know something, our whole being must be open, awake, and present. —Richard Rohr
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