When it comes to deepening my spiritual practices, asking the right questions matters; that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on honoring the body—the first of the 12 overarching Christian practices detailed in the book Practicing Our Faith. And the question I’ve deliberately asked myself day after day, many times each day is: “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?”
Like the afternoon sun streaming through my window reveals dust particles dancing on air, my question has illuminated thoughts about how God made us and what that ought to mean for my life.
In all my years of seeking to follow Jesus, I’m sure that I’ve never deliberately thought as much about bodies as I have in recent weeks, except maybe when I was pregnant with—or nursing—each of my three children. Growing a new body within one’s own, nurturing a little body that is completely and entirely dependent on yours, has a way of heightening your awareness of all things physical. And when I was a young mother, I was highly motivated to honor my body as a way of honoring and respecting the little bodies that were relying on mine. It was a physical practice motivated by the intellectual and emotional desire to grow healthy children.
But honoring the body is, for Christians, also a spiritual practice writes Stephanie Paulsell in the book’s second chapter. It is a practice “born of the confidence that our bodies are made in the image of God’s own goodness.” And, she points out, even such simple, everyday actions as bathing and dressing are a part of how we honor our bodies.
I know I can do a better job of honoring mine; a recent bout of pneumonia, and a number on my bathroom scale that’s risen to dizzying new heights tells me as much. Still, I was heartened by Paulsell’s words because even I shower and dress most days. So that’s not a bad baseline. And if the practices are truly not a set of goals to be mastered but of gifts to be received, then my body could do with a boon.
It’s no secret that caring about the human body is deeply embedded in Christian theology. The body matters, Christians believe, because God made it. And, as Paulsell points out, He made it in His image and He called it “good.” In Jesus Christ, God honored the human body even further by taking on a body of His own. Jesus demonstrated His love for human bodies by feeding, touching, healing, and resurrecting them. And then, when Jesus’ own body was pulverized, crucified, and laid in a tomb, God raised it to life, thereafter giving all Christians hope that one day He will do the same for our bodies. Finally, God seals His love for our bodies by inhabiting them with His own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, whom, the Bible tells us, comes to take up residence within the bodies of those who welcome Him.
Yes, Christian belief has a lot to say about the beauty, worth, and goodness of the body. It can be heady stuff to think about. But what impact should all of that have on me, now, a Canadian woman living in 2019 who’s on the downward slope of middle-age? (Who am I kidding? Unless I live to 120, it would be more accurate to say that I’m on the slippery slope to old age.)
Coincidentally, I happened to read the chapter on “Honoring the Body” the night before my first “annual” physical exam in more than three years. (Sitting in a doctor’s office, talking about bodily concerns is one of my least favourite pastimes, and it’s been easy to find excuses to keep putting off my long overdue checkup.)
So, the next morning, as I sat in my doctor’s examination room, I asked myself, “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?” And when my doctor asked if I had any concerns, I decided the answer to my own question in that moment meant summoning the courage to answer hers—truthfully—mentioning every concern, no matter how embarrassing, or for how long they might have gone unspoken.
The desire to honor my body continued beyond my doctor’s office and resulted in renewed motivation for everything from packing healthy snacks for work, to flossing my teeth nightly before bed, even when I didn’t want to. Asking my “what does it mean” question provoked me to live more in the present moment. I tend to be a highly task-oriented person, always racing from one thing to the next. But reflecting on my question literally slowed me down at times; rather than racing across the icy parking lot at the train station, or up and down wet subway stairs, I found myself treading more carefully to avoid the potential for slips and falls.
Bodies, bodies everywhere
It wasn’t just my body that I started to think about either, but other people’s bodies too. “Honoring the body is a shared practice,” explains Paulsell, “one that requires the participation of all. … When we honor the bodies of others, we are also drawn into God’s work.”
I’ve thought about that each time I’ve visited my 102-year-old mother-in-law in the hospital (recovering from a broken hip). I’ve tried to honor her enfeebled body with kisses, by brushing her hair, filing her nails, massaging lotion into her papery skin. I’ve thought about the fact that human bodies do not live forever.
“All bodies are reflections of God’s good creation, deserving of reverence and care,” Paulsell writes, and it struck me that my husband and I reverence and care for each other’s bodies when we prioritize intimate time. I thought about the fact that the brain is also a part of the body. And so, I realized, I can honor both my body and the bodies of others when I refuse to watch that Netflix show with gratuitous nudity—no matter how entertaining or well-written it might be.
My professor, Dr. Wendy Porter, says it is important to remain attentive to our lives, making small adjustments as we discern the necessity for them so that we’ll be equipped to discern and respond to the need for more sweeping changes when those needs arise.
In a column published in 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks observed that, “The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells.”
My recent efforts towards thinking more intentionally about the human body, and the fact that it is indeed sacred, resulted in small but significant adjustments in my thinking and practice.
What about you? It’s time for me to ask you some questions: What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you agree that the human body is sacred? If not, why not? What does it mean to you—in your life and context—to honor the body? I look forward to hearing from you!
Practicing My Faith, Part 3 – This post is third in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.