I was talking about the body last week at a Halloween party. A friend had asked me, “If God is transcendent, how are our bodies important for connecting to God? Can’t we just use our reason? Maybe even emotion? What’s the body got do with it?” I was surprised by my reaction. My gut instinct was to aggressively defend the sacred nature of the body–I’m a feminist! Feminists care about bodies! I must salvage the body! Instead of simply pouncing on this genuine friend with my feminist enthusiasm, I began to explore the origin of his question. “Haven’t you experienced God through physical ritual and practice? Through spiritual disciplines of fasting or feasting? Maybe through sexual desire even?”
“No. Not really.”
Hmmph. For some reason, instead of charging back with those pent up imperatives, I began to think about how I came to take for granted the seemingly obvious role of the body in my spirituality. Was this rooted in my Catholicity–in my belonging to a faith characterized by the standing, kneeling, eating, drinking, singing, and moving around of the Sunday liturgy? Or was it simply a personal reaction to all the body-bashing I find in Catholic sexual ethics? Was it an outgrowth of the Church’s social teachings about the goodness of creation and our affirmation of embodied life?
I brought these questions with me as the school week started. On Tuesday nights, I gather with a few other first year students at the Harvard Div School to discuss primary texts written by Christian mystics. While a number of tangental topics arose, as usual–prayer, scripture, liturgy–the mystics kept bringing me back to these questions of the body.
Many of the church’s famous mystics practiced asceticism, ways of disciplining their bodies for the sake of achieving religious aims. While this practice has taken dramatically different forms throughout history, it is often an expression of a basic shared mentality: our bodies–especially their weaknesses, desires, and pleasures–get in the way of our connection with the divine (a non-physical Being). Therefore, we must train the body to be rid of its inhibiting characteristics. As you may know or assume, asceticism has often lead to extremely negative perceptions of the body, and consequently, extreme and bizarre means of disciplining it (think starvation, self-flagellation, isolation, etc.).
It seems to me that there is a major contradiction in the ascetic mentality with regard to the body. On one hand, the body is an obstacle to God that is to be pushed aside, so to speak. Yet, on the other hand, ascetics use the bodily discipline to get to God. Is the body dismissible, condemnable? Or is the body a tool? Perhaps even a vital means for connecting with God? It strikes me that these questions, conjured by the ancient mystics of our tradition, could conceivably arise from considerations of contemporary Catholic notions of the body too. Are the natural desires of my body an obstacle in my relationship with God and the Christian church? Or are they a means for getting to God and connecting with others in profound ways? This tension lies beneath the lives of our Church’s ancient mystics, and the tension persists in my life today.
What’s the body got to do with God? Is it really a hinderance for apprehending our transcendent God–or is it simply arbitrary–or is it essential? How does your embodiment connect you with the Divine?
Jessica Coblentz is a student at Harvard Divinity School where she is studies Catholic theology, gender, and sexuality–and the occasional mystic or two. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.