Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Body (Touch and Be Touched -- Part II)

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. 


  1. Such a thoughtful post. I so feel like a very human being who feels blessed when my dishes-and-laundry physical existence turns spiritual. However, my spirituality (when I can find it) helps me to appreciate my physicality more. If I am too caught up in the world and things, I disparage my body, which *is* God's creation, and therefore a spiritual thing indeed. Round and round!!

  2. I liked your post once again Col! There is a lot of fruit for thought. To me it's clear, we are first spiritual beings in a physical body that will decompose or be burned when our spirits leave it. Are our bodies important and should they be respected by us and by others, of course. We should love them and take care of them, they are our vehicle after all in this existence.
    Take for example those who are born deformed, crippled, sick etc. To me, their spirits or souls are much more important than their physical bodies. It's their souls that are learning something in the existence of their not perfect bodies and what they are learning is very valuable to themselves and to all. Their bodies won't last but their souls will live on and will be richer for their experience good or bad.
    I believe that God created us, I believe that God is pure energy, I don't believe God has a body unless God wants one. I believe in evolution, that our planet, the universe is all a part of God's plan and that in this physical reality on earth evolution is a fact as much as the sun rises.

    I guess I'm not a strict Catholic in my views, but I don't believe that Catholicism is the only "right" religion. I believe that Christ was from God and tried to explain these things to us in a way we could understand at the time. I really love these passages from John - 3:12; 16:12-13; 16:25.
    I believe that there were others that God spoke through also. God doesn't care if we are Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish...He wants us to love one another to grow and live and give back.

    I hope that you don't mind me sharing my beliefs. If you prefer that I share them just with you and not on the blog just let me know.

    I love you Col

  3. Hey Col,
    Of course you know the passage in the Bible Corinthians 6:19 "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;"
    To me this means that we are one with God and one with all of his creation. So in our physical bodies we are actually housing God. "Love your neighbor as yourself" "Love each other as I have loved you" "Whatsoever you do for the LEAST Of my brothers so you do unto me" This, because our neighbors are part of us and part of God. There are many more, but these are the ones that came to mind first... All of these teachings from Jesus tell us over and over again how we all come from God are one with God and each other. I pray that more and more people become enlightened and start living their lives this way. Imagine if we all really loved and cared for one another, people wouldn't do such horrible things to one another. So many have forgotten this and are so attached to all that is "physical". Spirituality is so very important to remember how we were meant to live here on earth.

    Sorry, I guess I wasn't done there.