Monday, February 4, 2008

What My Body Learned: Transfiguration to Lent

During Advent, a dear friend set me the task of learning to love my body. I was not to do this as a matter of physical fitness, or of staying “young,” both of which I could easily resist. I was given the task of loving my body as a spiritual practice. I was to pray the body with the goal of finding unity where the early Christians had perceived a split. I was to try and transcend the categories of “flesh” and “spirit” and to be in my body as if this body, no less than the spirit which gave it life, were essential to the journey home to God. I have already said that the ancient Church, for its own reasons, chose to mortify the flesh in its search for spiritual enlightenment. We're still doing it today, though we've given the division a different set of names. Today, flesh and spirit are expressed as “science” and “religion,” as “evolution” and “intelligent design,” as “physical” and “psycho-somatic.” All of this distracts from the teaching stated most succinctly by the rabbis, that God created humanity so that we could be co-creators with God. To be a co-creator is to think less upon “product” (which is what an intelligent designer produces), and more upon relationship, which is the foundation of all collaborations. Therefore, to pray the body, at least for me, turns out to be less about physical substance or flesh and more about deepening the collaboration between all the parts of me as a way of deepening my relationship to the Divine. It is less about discovering the nature of the physical world and more about finding its meaning.

Because I am an otherworldly intuitive who learns from dreams, the physical is probably the least developed of my senses. Of course, this makes it the most important sense for me to befriend on my way to becoming whole. Nor will you be surprised to hear then that after a mere six weeks of body prayer, I stand in a state of amazement. My body is actually interesting! She has waited patiently for me to discover that her cells, her sinews, her tiny shoulders, are all possessed of intelligence. I hurt less. I can carry my heavy backpack without sore shoulders and when I’m tired, I know to gently rest. I have discovered an unexpected delight in the dailiness of the material world, a delight rare and fine in one who, as I said, is mostly an otherworldly intuitive. I have been surprised by the sheer joy of being alive. The story of God being born as a baby and being one of us has achieved new meaning. On the eve of Lent, I feel better than I have in years. I sit in the mystery of God’s spirit made flesh. I sit in the mystery of my own spirit fused with the cells of my body. At the age of fifty-seven, I am aquiver with life.

I have ceased, at least for the moment, to be a survivor. Thinking of Rilke and Tsvetaeva, and my own culture where warfare is seen as the natural condition of man, I have ceased to be a survivor. I don’t want to be defined by those who beat me up and rob me of my soul, leaving me lost and shell-shocked on some distant shore. I want to be alive.

But even to say the word “survivor” makes me realize, yet again, that I live in a culture that is still driven by the fear of death, by a physicality that pits one body against the other, a nature “red in tooth and claw.” To be physical is indeed to understand that the death of the body is real. How can I give up life’s sweetness? Suddenly, the old divisions snap back into place. My spirit seeks to take flight and return to its dance in the cosmos. My flesh won’t let her go. It makes my body sad that the spirit will continue to swoop and play, leaving inert matter behind. returned to the random chance of dirt, earth and rock, the dangers of chemical poisons, the boredom of nothing.

And then, one evening, I am sitting aboard the Ferry praying my body. And as I pray, I feel my cells speaking and saying, "But that is why you are here, dear one! You are here to give life. You are here to love the material world into life and if you do that you will never die. And not only you, but everyone, riding home in the night, sleeping, listening to their iPods, playing Tetris on their cell phones, reading financial reports and novels, drinking a beer. You are all a little universe that is part of the great task of the whole: all the rest of the bodies that breathe on earth, human, animal, insect, tree, fungus are engaged in this great work of bringing the physical world to life. Our bodies are homes for the wind that blows. A partnership, this body and this soul, just as God and Creation is a partnership. As our souls grow whole and strong, we can bring even more life, even more partnership, even more love." And I was very, very, happy.

I also know, from the depths of my happiness that our species has reached a moment of very great crisis. So many of us have lost our mystical God who is with us always. We understand the physical world far too well and far too mechanistically and we are afraid. We are very afraid. The controlling men who bristle with guns, germs and steel tell us that only force can prevail. We respond not with love, but fear, disesase, defensiveness. We use our knowledge of the physical for individual gain and in so doing, we murder the beautiful creation that we were meant to bring to consciousness. We are murdering creation because we have forgotten why were are here. Domination and laziness and solipsism have blinded too many of us to the great cosmic dance.

God is not the scientific or materialistic explanation of anything. God is the meaning of all that we know. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me. Your rod and your staff you comfort me. In discipline to God comes my joy.

1 comment:

Este Gardner Cantor said...

This is a beautiful post. Yes we are all alive to bring life, and yes death is part of it all, and it is possible to have joy even in this apparent eve of ecological distruction. I saw you up on that mountaintop, glowing with love for all those glowing cells and sinews. Glory be.