One of the best and most radical exercises in my yoga classes involves a tennis ball and gravity. Marianne tells us during every class that people in our culture sit too much which means that our hamstrings are continually tight. In the hamstring and tennis ball exercise, after "unhooving" our feet (manipulating them with our hands, breaking up the tissue by massage, and using the tennis ball to stretch our feet in new and interesting ways), we sit on our yoga mats and place the tennis ball at the point where our buttock and thigh meet. We press down upon the tennis ball, roll our leg left and right with the tennis ball still in place, and cross the opposite leg over and press down. When we are done, we remove the tennis ball. It's amazing that EVERY TIME we do this, the back of the thigh we have just worked on attains noticeably more contact with the mat than the one we have not yet addressed. It never fails to amaze everyone that, after the tennis ball is removed, we are all sitting at a slant. The difference is that stark. In the same way, after an hour or so of yoga, of paying attention to where and how our bodies operate in space, all of us notice that our feet make more contact with the floor, that we stand with our feet parallel, that we walk with more surety upon the earth. And, at the end of class, during Savasana (corpse pose) our entire bodies are touching the floor, melting into the floor. When we rise into sitting position and place our hands in the prayer position we allow, as Marianne says, our hands to "touch and be touched."
Recently, on Facebook, I saw a quote from Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and I'm having trouble with it. In The Phenomenon of Man, Tielhard de Chardin says, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." I'm not entirely sure I agree with this. I think it's because, in my memory (and this is the temptation to Gnosticism), it had become something like: We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience." When I went back to look up the exact quote (thank you, Al Gore (never thought I'd say that in print)), I found that Teilhard de Chardin's thinking is a little more sophisticated than that, but I'm still not sure what he means. And I'm still not sure I agree with what I think he means.
In Christianity (and particularly in Catholicism) matter, stuff, the givenness of things is really important. A sacrament, for example, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality -- the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The holy water and oil used at baptism actually effect a change in the person being baptized. The words and motions of the priest in the confessional actually confer the grace of God's forgiveness onto the penitent, and the penitent's carrying out of the penance given are outward signs of that grace.
A thought experiment: If a priest reads the Eucharstic Prayer over "gifts" of soda pop and Twinkies, and then distributes them, is this Holy Communion? If he says the words of the baptismal rite over a person, but doesn't use water to baptize, did the baptism take place? If I stop into the rectory to talk to the priest, and I say the very same words to tell him my faults as I would have in the confessional, but he doesn't say the words of absolution and doesn't give me a penance that I then carry out, have I participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
The Catholic Church emphatically says NO in all these scenarios. It says no because of its unapologetic insistence that THINGS are important. It's not just our souls that are having an experience of God. It's our bodies too. It's the physical, material world as well. The Creation and its creatures reflect the nature of the Creator and, that Creator being all-good, they participate in some way in his goodness.
Funny that a blog ostensibly about losing weight should have morphed into a somewhat incoherent exploration of the body, and especially, of incarnateness. Hmmmm. What is God trying to tell me here?
Well, for one thing, the whole point of losing weight is to have less stuff, less matter, attached to our beings, isn't it? The message is: lose weight and be more of your "true self" because who you are is not this body you have. But what if that is wrong? What if who you are IS the body you have? And the intellect. And the soul. What if they are all equally important?
When I was in college at the University of Dallas (see 3324. Literary Study I: Lyric), I spent a semester studying the poems of W.B. Yeats for my Junior Poet Project. In addition to a comprehensive annotated bibliography of critical resources on the poet, I was responsible for knowing Yeats' entire poetic and dramatic oevre. Y'all, Yeats' first published in 1886 and continuing publishing until 1939 -- I was like a kamikaze poetry student in those days!. I remember studying with another student who had also chosen Yeats as "his" poet and asking him which of Yeats's poems were his favorite. The response I got, "A Stick of Incense" was probably calculated to shock prudish and innocent li'l ole me. But that response, and later, my study of the Crazy Jane poems, especially "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" started me on a path of thinking. Now, twenty-five years later (gulp), I'm still thinking about the body, about incarnateness, carnality, and The Incarnation. I haven't reached any conclusions, but I'm still thinking about it and still so grateful that God, since he knows so well how screwed up we would always be as we struggled with both spirit and matter, became incarnate to show us that the created world is good. We, in our bodies, are good. This acknowledgement of and teaching about the goodness of our bodies, however, leads to some conclusions that we do not like at all. More on that later.