The Body As Sign

The following is an excerpt from Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone, and kicks off the virtual blog tour this week. I offer you this part of the book as a look into why I believe our bodies are so important, and so deeply necessary to life with God—not only for ourselves, but for bringing of the Kingdom of God here and now.

If you’d like to get a copy of Embracing the Body, you can buy it here.




In his pioneering teachings titled The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II wrote that “he body, in fact, and only the body is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”It is only in our bodies that we experience God at all, without them, we cease to exist. When we focus only on our “spiritual lives”—the interior realm of thought and feeling—we lack a foundational understanding and attentiveness to that which is at the center of our very lives, the only vehicle through which God reaches us and we reach others: our incarnate, bound in time, utterly beloved bodies.

When we try to split ourselves in two, to separate our bodies from our souls, we do violence and make difficult the healing of our bodies. This is something that modern medicine is only recently beginning to realize, as more and more hospitals encourage practices of prayer, meditations and silence as ways of facilitating physical healing. Hospitals have historically been places where worship or faith have no place, especially in the lives of the doctors bringing the healing work, and the split between body and soul is rigid, painful. So often, doctors and nurses burn out because they are not allowed to experience themselves as fully human—body and soul—even as they try to bring holistic healing to those they tend.

So, too, do we feel this fissure in the Church. This time from the other side, the Church insists through silence that we focus on the soul instead of the body, as if the two could be fully separated. In the Church, we insist that the body is somehow separate, not something to be brought into the life of the community, and in so doing we watch clergy and those in ministry run ragged with fatigue, living unhealthy lifestyles that lead to the slew of moral and ethical failures that grab headlines today. Whether it’s the body without soul (hospital) or soul without body (the modern Church), we’re living in part, not in full, and at the depths of us, we know it.

Sadly, we have lived with this schizophrenia of self for a long time. Bound by our bodies but told to ignore or castigate them, the lives of the faithful—mine included—have been marked by a set of false dichotomies that categorize actions into “sacred” or “secular”, “spiritual” or “physical”, as if the two are not ineluctably intertwined. We live our bodily lives—eating, sleeping, touching, weeping—with a whispering sense that we are experiencing the sacred in these mundane moments, in the way the soup tastes on our tongue or the tender touch of a friend to comfort. We intuitively feel that the aches in our joints are communicating something larger of God’s presence to us, but we are told (explicitly and implicitly) to ignore these murmurs in favor of something more spiritual, more holy.

In the midst of this brokenness, the exile from our bodies in which we find ourselves, Isaiah stands in bold proclamation:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:1-4, NRSV)

God is about the work of redemption, he proclaims. He is about binding up the broken pieces of ourselves. Every piece reclaimed from our hearts and souls and minds all the way through our maligned and misappropriated bodies. God is about the work of liberation from the yokes of oppression, and it is in our very bodies that we are to be free, whole, restored. These bodies of ours have been treated as ruined, lost, devastated and unable to be redeemed. And yet the Lord of all creation is coming for them, indeed, has given to each of us the work of rebuilding these ancient ruins, reclaiming the very fortress of our selves, our blood and bones and skin and muscle, from the devastations of the fall and of our mishandled attempts at holiness. God is about this work, and we are called to see it and to receive it.