Flesh, Blood, Breath, Bones and Stories
“Messenger,” by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird——
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over; how it is
that we live forever.
The Gospel of John 1:1-5, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, . . . full of grace and truth.
We meet and know each other as bodies: tall, lanky, short, squat, round, lean, and average (whatever average is) bodies; bodies with tattoos and piercings, with scars or sciatica, and with acne or arthritis; stooped and aging bodies, svelte and athletic bodies, sick and dying bodies; bodies in remission and recovery; worn and weary bodies; and—a few—rested and energized bodies.
We don’t just have bodies; we are bodies—more than bodies, of course, but never less. We are bodies and spirits—not either, but both. Marcus Aurelius said too little for the body when he wrote: “You are a soul carrying around a corpse.” We’re not pearls waiting to be freed from our uncomfortable oysters or ghosts trapped in irrelevant machines or souls imprisoned in oppressive bodies.
We can’t neatly separate our bodies and spirits; they are not divisible without remainder. They are seamlessly woven together, which is why it’s difficult to do so-called “spiritual” things—like being patient, compassionate and centered—when our stomachs growl, our feet hurt, our heads throb, we haven’t slept enough, haven’t eaten well, or haven’t had our morning coffee. When we’re weary, hungry and thirsty, it’s harder to love well, to think clearly, and to feel truly.
Humans are body and spirit, brains and minds, hearts and love. We need respiration and crave inspiration. We can’t exist without the circulation of blood, and we can’t live without the connection of relationships. We are biology and biography; what people see is our skin and what we want them to know are our stories.
We’re embodied spirits. Emotional or spiritual experiences are somehow and always physical: they fire across the synapses of our brains and register somewhere in our bodies. Anxiety shallows our breathing and speeds up our hearts. Fear churns in our stomachs. Loss sends tears running down our cheeks. Wonder widens our eyes. Desire burns and twitches in our loins. Joy lightens our steps. Confidence straightens our spines. Hope lifts our heads.
The great gifts of laughter and song are magic conjured from body and spirit. We giggle, snicker, chuckle, and guffaw; and, when we do, our shoulders dance and our faces open up. Sometimes the laughter erupts from the middle of who we are—a “belly laugh,” we call it—and the delight can be so great and uncontrollable that we find ourselves down on the floor, slapping the ground. Norman Cousins called laughter “internal jogging,” and it surely is one of the healthiest things we do.
Singing blends poetry and breath, doxology and diaphragm, thanks and throat, praise and vocal chords, lament and lungs, longing and larynx. Singing embraces and involves the whole person: thinking and feeling, the brain and the body. Literary critic George Steiner considered music to be evidence for God, a sign of the divine among us. It gives voice—physical and psychic voice—to life’s deepest, highest, darkest, brightest, and holiest dimensions.
One of today’s readings is from the majestic prologue to the Gospel of John. It’s a song, a hymn, about Jesus which offers us a powerful metaphor for perceiving the extraordinary in the ordinary, the mysterious in the mundane, and the divine in the daily: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, a glory filled with grace and truth.”
Sometimes this metaphor is called “the incarnation,” which is what my grandfather called a “high-dollar word” for a startling claim. Incarnation comes from the Latin words in carne and means “in meat.” The claim is that in the meat and the muscle, the blood and the bones, of a human body, the body of Jesus of Nazareth, we may perceive the grace and truth of God.
I don’t think of the incarnation as something which happened once and exclusively in Jesus; instead, I am sure that incarnation keeps happening to everyone, everywhere, and “every-when.” Feminist theologian Wendy Farley wrote, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, “The incarnation manifests the power of the human body to bear the divine” (106).
Like all the other great teachers to whom we look for guidance and hope, Jesus lived within the limits and possibilities of a fully human—that is, an irreducibly physical—life. Mary cuddled away the night-chill by holding him in her tender embrace. When Joseph held him close to his cheek, Jesus felt the comfort of a father’s rough, soft beard. Jesus cried when he was hungry or thirsty or wet. He laughed when Mary tickled his feet and shouted with glee when Joseph tossed him in the air. He fell and skinned his knees when he was learning to walk. He hit his thumb with a hammer in Joseph’s carpenter shop, and it really hurt. When he became a teenager, he felt stabs of desire. He had headaches and stomachaches, caught colds, and sweated through the heat of fevers; and in his death, he knew excruciating, torturing pain.
One truth among many that the incarnation offers us is this: what happens to us, to our bodies, matters—matters to us and, I believe, to God.
In many ways, ethics is about how we treat bodies, our own and the bodies of others. Catholic priest and controversial activist Daniel Berrigan was exactly right when he said, at the height of the Vietnam war: “It all comes down to this: Whose flesh are you touching and why? Whose flesh are you recoiling from and why? Whose flesh are you burning and why?” (in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 45)
Food matters: Who has enough to eat and who doesn’t? Why are there food deserts in poor urban areas—places where there are more liquor stores, payday loan centers, and fast food restaurants than there are grocery stores?
The condition of the soil from which food grows matters, as do the welfare of the farmers who grow it and of the migrant workers who harvest it.
It matters that people struggle with food: some substitute it for love and can’t get enough of it, even when they’ve had far-too-much, and others obsessively control how much food they consume because they feel consumed by emotions which they cannot control.
It matters when our bodies become broken and we struggle with disease and injury, and it matters that everyone has good and affordable healthcare (By the way, we all have a preexisting condition; it is called mortality.
It matters how the homeless are sheltered and that we work for decent and affordable permanent housing.
It matters that we create jobs which don’t demean human dignity and don’t treat the bodies of laborers as disposable cogs in a sweatshop machine.
It matters how police and prison officials treat all bodies, including black and brown bodies.
It also matters, and these are signs of grace: when we relax beside a warm fire on a cold night, when strong and tender hands massage away the knotted tension of stress from our shoulders, and when a welcoming embrace assures that we belong.
It matters that we find joy in a dancer’s flowing beauty, in a painter’s luminous canvas, in the three-point shot that ties a game at the buzzer and sends it into overtime, in the perfect spiral pass to a sprinting split-end, in the powerful strokes and swiftly gliding body of a swimmer, and in the bursting speed of a runner. I often think of the well-known words of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, “God made me fast and, when I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”
Bodies matter; they are where we meet glory, feel grace, and encounter truth. And, our bodies tell stories: lines and furrows of worry in our faces, downcast gazes, slumped shoulders, springing steps, shuffling feet, clenched fists, and out-stretched arms. Journalist Dana Jennings (New York Times) wrote:
“Our scars tell stories . . . [I]n their railroad-track-like appearance, my scars remind me of the startling journeys that my body has taken — often enough to the hospital or the emergency room.
Jennings said that he’s most intrigued by childhood scars that he can’t remember how he got:
The one on my right eyebrow, for example, and a couple of ancient pockmarks and starbursts on my knees. I’m not shocked by them. To be honest, I wonder why there aren’t more. I had a full and active boyhood, one that raged with scabs and scrapes, mashed and bloody knees, bumps and lumps, gashes and slashes, cats’ claws and dogs’ teeth, jagged glass, ragged steel, knots, knobs and shiners. Which raises this question: How do any of us get out of childhood alive?
There are acne scars from his teenage years and surgical scars, too: to repair a blown-out knee, to remove most of his colon, and to treat prostate cancer. “. . . [M]y scars. . . are what they are, born of accident and necessity. . . . More than anything, I relish the stories they tell (“Cases: Our Scars Tell the Stories of our Lives” July 20, 2009, NY Times).
Your body is holy and a gift of the divine. Cherish it and care for it. And let your scars tell their stories.
Though its wounds are mostly invisible, for the last three years, I’ve been dealing with Multiple Myeloma, a treatable but incurable cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
I’ve sustained many losses. I’ve had to surrender my illusions of independence and to relinquish a vocation which had been central to my identity for more than three decades.
I’ve experienced “chemo-brain” which caused me to be occasionally disoriented and confused, to have difficulty remembering the names of people whom I know well, and to put dirty socks in the recycle bin instead of the clothes hamper. From time to time, I’ve dealt with searing pain, endured fearfully sleepless nights, had a severely compromised immune system, and, twice, have come to the edge of death.
I’ve never been good at accepting limits, but now it has become necessary for me to learn. There are things I’ve always done which I can no longer reliably do. I know what it means to feel that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In ways I have not experienced since I was a child, I have had to learn to accept help—and not just to accept it, but to ask for it.
Until lately, I’ve known next to nothing about how to care for myself—or to let myself be cared for—when my strength wanes. I haven’t known much about compassion for my own weaknesses. When I say, “I can’t,” I feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Illness is revising the story my life tells; it is teaching me what I’ve been clever enough, resourceful enough, and prideful enough to ignore before now: I am not God. I’m not even an exceptional human being, since there are no exceptions to, or exemptions from, limitation, including the final limit of death.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that
Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning (An Altar in the World, 38)
Our bodies are always giving birth; my body’s story has conceived and delivered unexpected wonder. Wonder shares a common root with wound. A wound is an opening in the body: to be wounded is to be cut, pierced, or torn open. Wonder is an opening in perception: something cuts away our customary assumptions, pierces our illusions, and tears open our minds and hearts.
To call something wonderful—full of wonder—is to say that it has opened us in ways we’ve not been open before and given us the opportunity to be filled with unexpected awareness and unimagined grace. This is, as Mary Oliver said, gratitude,
to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy