It is a quiet Sunday morning. I awoke early today, not by choice, and after a few restless minutes spent tossing and turning in my bed, I arose and commenced my morning routine. I picked out a purple dress, and I put it on. I exercised my creativity through the artistry of makeup. I made coffee, and I picked out a few pastries from a spread that a kind friend left outside my door yesterday. I carried my computer and my books to the little nook on the third floor of Doane where I love to study, and I sat down beside the red and golden leaves that reach all the way up to the window, intending to write about T.S. Eliot’s formalism. And here I am, writing about something else entirely.
The leaves are distracting me. They always do, but this morning, their magnetic force is particularly strong. They beckon me to gaze, and to gaze long and hard; to receive the colors they offer, and to enter into the mystery that is their material existence. As I gaze, a far-off church bell rings, and it is as if the leaves themselves are part of the song of worship, the rhythm that the church bell announces and that I know that I myself am a part of.
It strikes me that everything I did this morning, I did with my body, and everything I’ve noticed, I’ve noticed with my eyes. Everything I’ve felt, I’ve felt in that strange place that is neither heart nor gut, but somehow both, and everything I’ve thought, I’ve thought not only with my mind, but somehow with my whole stomach as well, and with my chest. All that is to say, I am thoroughly embodied.
Growing up, I was conditioned into the semi-Gnostic theology that dominates so much of Christianity today. My task was to save souls here on earth, so that we could all live together in heaven. I was to evangelize, to salvage the eternal spirit embedded within each person I encountered. If I did my job, someday when we all shuffle off this mortal coil, our souls will all go to paradise, and our disembodied spirits will sing the Lord’s praises forevermore. Our bodies? Oh, those were always meant for decay.
But this sort of understanding was wholly contradictory to everything I intuited as a child, everything I learned through books; namely, that what we do here on earth matters, and that our stories are not simply of the state of our immortal soul, but are a mystical intermingling of souls and bodies. The intimate encounters with the other, the transcendent beauty of the natural world, the knowing another by leveling a gaze at their eyes. Not only did I intuit that these things matter a great deal, but that they matter not only here on earth. Somehow, their ripples and echoes resound to the darkest recesses, the furthest corners of existence, and God hears and knows. I sensed that God takes great delight in the truth that our bodies are ourselves, and that God intended all along to resurrect us, that we might live embodied, world without end. When I first heard that medieval theologian John Duns Scotus posited that even if humans had not fallen to sin, God’s intention all along was that Christ would walk among us in the flesh, I nearly wept.
This semester, I am taking an independent study on religion and literature with a dear professor of mine, and a topic that comes up almost every week is the mystery of the material. All of us eat, drink, walk, run, dress, touch, make love, gaze, take in scents, and have a physical reaction to music because these things matter. They are not mere shadows of things to come; they are themselves that which is to come. A few weeks ago, a beloved friend visited Eastern, and we discussed that every material thing we see and touch and know with our bodies is both wholly itself, wholly self-contained, and also wholly transcendent, speaking to realms we know not of. Perhaps this is the sort of thing Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Duns Scotus spoke of in their theories of the thisness of things, the inscape of each living thing that emanates forth its own unique song of praise.
I don’t know what it all means. But I know that it matters because we love God not only with our souls, but with our bodies. We love and worship God through the breaking of bread, through taking God’s body into our bodies, through taking in the millions of atoms of air and expelling them into the world in a bursting call of praise. We love God because Christ healed that which he assumed, and he assumed a body that wept, laughed, rejoiced, slept, ate bread, drank wine, and was nailed to a cross.
What do I love when I love my God?…There is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is a sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.
-St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
Henri Matisse. The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8’6″ by 12’10”. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.