I've thought a good deal about the spirit and the body, this divide we often talk about or perceive, and concluded that our identity is a unity of both, not simply one or the other. I've written journal entries about how the Christian church thinks about this, and how the Western post-modern culture around me (the Hollywood culture in particular) thinks about it. There are many views on what we really are, and our relationship to matter: materialism, spiritualism, gnosticism, Christianity. . . .
Christianity, it seems, has put an emphasis on the spiritual over the physical. Many of you have attended or heard stories about churches where drinking and dancing were not allowed, where fasting was considered more holy than indulging in one's blessings, or where the ability to sit in meditation and prayer for hours at a time, removed from the world, was a mark of spiritual maturity.
As a teenager, I studied books on prayer and “knowing God.” I questioned every adult or experienced Christian who would listen to me in an attempt to discovering how one can get closer to God. Most answers distilled into: pray more, read the Bible more, serve others more. Others pointed me to spiritual disciplines such as fasting, or specific types of prayer.
None of it seemed entirely reliable. But then, when talking about a relationship between Creator and creature, that might be expected. I persevered in what I could discover, and found that God was there to be sought.
Then, this past weekend, I had a bit of an epiphany.
A friend of mine, whom I correspond with online, wrote the words I put at the beginning in a comment to my last Lenten post. One piece stood out in breathtaking relief:
we cannot know God in a purely spiritual, unbodied way
I wish so much that someone had said that, in exactly those words, to my teenage self.
Of course, I would have immediately asked the question I am about to ask here, and perhaps not found answers right away. However, it would still have cast an entirely different light on my search to know God.
Instead of thinking of the physical world as something to be destroyed and replaced by God's new creation (a thought which upset me deeply), I might have settled more firmly on how much He loves the world, past and present and future. Instead of thinking of our bodies and our interaction with the world as irrevocably tainted by sin, at least until the coming of Christ in power, I might have sought out more ways to honor those connections as deeply holy. Instead of trying to quiet all physical noise, I might have tried to turn it into a metaphorical choir of praise.
I have tried those things, occasionally and piecemeal. Writing it out, understanding what I'm trying to do and why--that's very new. (And I find I am trembling. I'm afraid that this realization won't lead anywhere, and yet at the same time so excited that this entire dimension of life is more real and true and valuable than I have dared to think.)
So if seeking to know God requires not only our spirits but also our bodies, how does that work?
God reached down to us in physical form. He lived as a fellow human being to show us love in the ways we could best understand it. And I know not everyone thinks about what that was like, but it's always captivated me. Jesus was human. He had nightmares, got exhausted when he used up his physical energy, got hungry and thirsty, enjoyed food and drink (including wine), loved being with people. He touched people no one else would touch. He got angry and wasn't afraid to speak true words violently; he wept at a friend's death just like everyone else.
We have the sacraments. Even if you don't believe that the Real Presence of Christ is in the bread and wine of Communion, it's still a physical connection between ourselves and God. An opportunity not just to be reminded of the Incarnation, but to re-enact it and to re-enact our acceptance of His love in it. Or even small things, such as crossing oneself, or actually kneeling to pray (or lifting your hands, or singing).
Other sacraments, from baptism to marriage to anointing of the sick, also incorporate the spiritual and physical aspects of our being, through immersion in water, laying on of hands, or anointing with oil.
The most obvious—and sometimes the least obvious—is that we can experience God through our fellow human beings. When someone gives us an unexpected hug, or a gift, or makes us laugh, or think, or does anything to show us love . . . that is in some sense God, reaching through them to us. And he reaches through us to others, as well.
(I know this is a tough one, though, because we are also most hurt by our fellow humans.)
Nature is another way through which we can find and experience God. The visual brilliance of a clear night sky, stars burning into the depths of space; the smooth slip of a leaf between my fingers; the varied trills of the bird outside my window; the heady scent of star jasmine in the yard next door. Every deep engagement of our bodily senses can open us up to joy, to love, to peace, to hope.
Art combines (when it is well done) humanity and nature: the world given new shapes and meanings by the hearts and hands of human beings. God in art? Oh, yes. Even in art made by artists who don't believe that there is any such Being.
I'm not saying that we can experience God through the entire physical world-- although, you know, maybe that's actually true.
I want to ask you a question. In honor of my last actual Lenten post for this year, and because this concept is so new to me, I wonder:
Have you sought God through and in the physical world? How? What was it like?
What other ways might there be to seek God, to worship and discover him through our physical bodies?
Go nuts, get creative; I'm intrigued to see what you come up with. Dance? Communal meals? Indulgence (instead of or after a fast)? Sign language? Sex? (Someone just told me about a couple's devotional based on the Song of Songs, which has both a study/prayer portion, and an . . . experiential portion. I find I like that idea a lot.)
May you be blessed this week with an experience of the love of God which involves your body and your senses as well as you spirit.