In my Spirituality and the Body class we have been reading theologies written from an embodied perspective. We are now attempting to write our own. Over the second half of the semester we will add sections on sexuality and healing. Here is my attempt at a beginning:
I stand in the bathroom, naked. I look down and see my feet, my legs, my belly, my breasts. I look in the mirror and I see my face. I hold my hand up to my face and run my fingers over my bones, my eye sockets, my cheeks, my jaw. I hold my hand out in front of my face and examine my palm closely. I can see my palm directly and the reflection of the top of my hand in the mirror. I again hold my hand to my face. I look at the reflection of my eyes and lips, my nose. I realize, I will never gaze directly upon my face. I will only know it through reflection. I will live my entire life without the ability to actually see my own face.
I look out and see the world. I see the faces of others. I gaze upon the face of my beloved and my beloved gazes upon my face. I am known by my face. In so many ways I am my face. Yet, I will never truly see my face. This inability—this lack—is disturbing. It is an irresolvable unknowing akin only to the perpetual unknowing I feel in relation to God. Unlike Hagar who asked, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?” (Gen 16:13) or Jacob who said, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen 32:30) or Moses who’s face used to shine after speaking face to face with God (Ex 33 and Ex 34)—I have not seen God. I feel more truth in the contradictory verse, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20). I cannot see God or I will die. I cannot see my face because it’s a physical impossibility. My lack is amplified. I am unable to fully know myself. I am unable to fully know God. This unknowing leads to disbelief. Because I am unable to see God, to fully know God, I am unable to fully believe in God. I must, however, believe in myself even without the benefit of being able to see myself in full. I cannot see my face, yet I look out from my face. I live my life—my embodied life—able to see the face of another, able to see in them, what they will never see in themselves. This is how I know that all of life is connected. We must help fill the lack for each other. We must help each other make the irresolvable unknowing more bearable. We must gaze upon each other’s faces and help to fill in the unknowable gaps, even though we will never succeed. We must spend our lives doing something we will never be able to do. We must try and help the Other see their own face. We must try to see our own face with the help of an Other.
This attempt to help each other bear what we cannot know is what it means to be faithful. Life itself is an unknowing. Why do we live? What do our lives mean? Why must we die? These are the unanswerable questions that humanity has struggled with since the first life was mysteriously, miraculously lived. The hugeness of this unknowing reminds me that my life—my existence—is but one small piece in the fantastically large story of humanity. My body is but one small unit in a vast cosmos. This smallness, my smallness, serves as a constant reminder that I can only know what my body can see, feel, smell, touch, and hear . The story of my life is the story of my body. I only know life through my body. My life began when my body was born and it will end when my body dies. If I lose my leg, I won’t be able to walk. If I lose my hand, I won’t be able to grab. If my heart stops beating, my life ends. I am my body—I will only ever know an embodied life.
The Christian church teaches that there is more, that life will continue after my body dies. I’ve tried in vain to believe this. Like so many people I don’t want to accept my own mortality. Death—the death of my body, of myself—is terrifying. I don’t understand it and I want to stop it from happening. I’ve seen the bodies of my great-grandparents grow small and weak. I’ve seen them lose control over their basic bodily functions. I’ve witnessed their minds slip away from them. I gazed upon their lifeless bodies once death had overtaken them. I don’t know what death means or what happens to people as they die. What do our bodies feel in the exact moment of death—are we even aware of it? St. Paul struggled desperately with these same questions in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. He realized something about embodiment. He knew that life is embodied and he could not imagine it any other way: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor 15:50-51). He continues, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:52-53). Once this change—the putting of imperishability and immortality onto our bodies—is accomplished, Paul can ask triumphantly, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He then reminds us that because of the victory over death given through Christ, our labor is not in vain. Paul believed that we could beat death.
I applaud Paul’s wrestling; I adore Paul’s poetry. I appreciate that he recognized that we are flesh and blood and that he imagined victory over death to mean that we would somehow remain embodied. But I cannot see what he saw. I cannot believe what he believed. I have not witnessed any human ability to beat death. I do, however, agree with Paul that our labor is not in vain. We disagree on why this is so, but we agree that it is. Because I can’t know that there is anything more to life than my current, relatively short-lived embodied existence, I value every last minute. This is all that I have, all that I can be positive of ever having. Therefore, I must do my best to make sure my life is well lived. And I must work hard in this lifetime to ensure that everyone else around me—who I see in the faces of others—are also able to live their embodied lives well. I follow the request of Paul to the Philippians:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8-9)
This one embodied life matters. It should by this point be clear that I am somewhat of a pragmatist, a realist. Like doubting Thomas, I doubt. I need to touch; I need to stick my hands in incarnation in order to know what is real. But if I ended this description of myself here, I would be guilty of flattening reality. For while I desperately need to see and feel and hear and smell and taste, I believe this need for tangible reality only masks the root of a painful irresolvable lack deep within myself. My embodiment reminds me every day that I am weak. Because my body is fragile, my life is fragile—I am fragile. And I admit that I, like Paul, desperately want more. I too want strength; I too want life everlasting.
And so I create. I use my body to enlarge myself and my small place within the universe through the act of creation. I paint pictures and grow tomatoes. I paint in order to pay attention. The physical act of putting paint on a canvas requires the physical act of looking. In order to know what to paint, I must constantly pay attention to the world around me—both its ugliness and its beauty. I grow tomatoes, as well as tulips, to better comprehend the cyclical aspect of my existence. The metaphor is overused and obvious, but real. Watching seeds and bulbs transform into vegetables and flowers that will both thrive and die teaches me the cycle of my own life. I too want life everlasting, and so I horde. I fill my memory banks with images, sounds and sensations. I desperately try to gain more and more knowledge of what it means to be alive, to breath and to think. I use my nose to smell the saltiness of the ocean. I use my hands to feel the skin of my beloved. I use my mind to memorize important places and events. I remember what life has meant before I came into existence and I dream about what life will mean after I am gone. I too want life everlasting, and so I make sure that I am real. I need the attention and validation of others. I need people in my life who can do what I will never be able to do—actually see my face. I impose my life on them and take of their lives. In other words, I need to know that my life matters in the life of an Other. I need to share words with them; I need to give to them and receive from them touch, protection and support. I need to share with them what we all experience, the perpetual lack caused by irresolvable unknowing. I too want life everlasting, and so I remember to never let the mysterious, miraculous fact of existence—with all its ambiguity and unknowing—move too far from my daily awareness. I practice the spiritual disciplines of paying attention and being grateful. I work at focusing not on death, but on life.
The limited knowledge I am allowed as an embodied person makes me a practical doubter—yes. But it also constantly reminds me of the miracle that I am. Exodus 3:14 reads, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Read in the light of the mystery of existence, this verse answers so many questions. I AM—I AM. This is True. I have no choice but to reconcile with the fact of my weakness and death. But I must equally learn to reconcile the fact of my actuality. I am real, my body is real. My body is mortal and mysterious, I am mortal and mysterious. I am a miracle, my body is a miracle. I am a real, mysterious, dying miracle. I AM.