At our Tuesday theology group, one of us asked, “Why were the early Christians so hard on their bodies? It feels somehow off to me. I’m glad we don’t have that problem anymore.”
“I wonder,” I answered, perhaps too quickly. “When I look around me, I see a culture that’s hard on our bodies, too. It’s just different. The modeling industry. The American health care establishment. The international trafficking in children. Drugs. Obesity.”
“But that is only some of us. It is not all of us. I had a massage today. My body said ‘thank you.’”
And so did we. The question remained, but a wise questioner had turned it into a friend.
That our bodies get us into trouble continues to be a deep assumption within the Christian church. In our age of medical miracles, death as “giving up,” physical fitness, dieting, medications and relaxed sex, we don’t want to think that the body sets limits. Modern conservatives ignore the hungry and the ill and dwell upon homosexuality and abortion, the two “safe sins” of the white, straight male. I remember reading of life in a Jesuit seminary that sounded like a 1950’s boys locker room, a cold shower the antidote to the temptations of sex. How different from my friends who are Buddhist monks and nuns who simply say that a life of pure meditation is a better way. The boyish West fights with the body, the more contemplative East shapes it into an instrument of prayer.
When I look at my body, I do not see sin. I see skin and hair. I feel breath and moisture. I touch clothes touched by the wet noses of my two dogs. I know that the body I call “mine,” is in fact a great collaboration of cells and organs, nourished by my blood like earth nourished by “the early and late rains.” It is my consciousness that imposes a narrative upon this flesh and calls this community “Carol.”
In my heart I know that if I loved that community that gives me life, I would care for it better. It is the industrial world’s depredation of our body, the collaboration of cells we call “Earth,” that tells me what my culture’s real attitude is. In the deep night of winter I wonder whether our culture’s horror of asceticism may not also be an unvoiced horror at our own excess.