By the Rev. Mary Earle
I suppose it started with my grandfather’s stethoscope. My mother’s father was a physician, the kind of doctor who always carried his black medical bag with him. When my sister and I were young, Pawpaw Joe would let us play with his medical bag, under his supervision. He taught us how to find the heart. He would put the ends of the stethoscope in his ears and quietly listen to our hearts. Then, it would be our turn. Susie and I would each have an opportunity to imitate Pawpaw’s actions and discover anew that distinctive “lub-dub” within our own chests, each other’s, and my grandfather’s.
From a young age, the human body has been a miracle to me. The sheer wonder of a heart that beats steadily for a lifetime. The mystery of blood carrying nutrients and oxygen throughout the stunning array of capillaries. The quiet, miraculous work of the liver, cleansing and clearing toxins from the body. Bones growing and lengthening in an adolescent child’s body. Scratches on the skin healing over, as if there had never been a wound.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I became acutely aware that within our bodies, God’s own Spirit is present at every moment, creating new cells, sustaining life, healing and making organs new. I was working as a counselor for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. The physicians in the department, particularly the woman infertility specialist, would stop me and ask how I was feeling, and how far along the pregnancy was. Often something along these lines would follow: “So, this week the eyes are forming.” Or, “About now, that baby’s lungs are getting stronger.”
I realized that I was housing a life, a life I could support with nutrition, exercise and rest. Yet in no way was I making the baby who would later be Bryan Earle. I was cooperating. However, I was not the Author of this work. Those organs, eyes, fingers, toes, ears, eyelashes, and mouth were all being brought forth and shaped by Life working within life.
All of these primary experiences of God’s presence within the sanctuary of the body had led me to sense the sacredness of the body. Then I started going to a young mothers’ Bible study and reading theology. Lo and behold, at the heart of our Christian faith is the astounding confession that in Jesus, the life of God is revealed in and through a real human body. As a friend of mine used to say, “God loves bodies so much that God just had to have one.”
Years ago when I was serving as an examining chaplain in theology for this diocese, seminarians hoping to be ordained were often asked questions along these lines: “Did Jesus ever have a belly ache?” “Did Jesus need diapers?” “Could Jesus have had a migraine?” The purpose of the questions was to point toward the scandal of the Incarnation. Jesus, truly human, truly in a body, lived human life from the inside out. One of the many contemplative dimensions of salvation history is this: Jesus reminds us that our bodies are creations of the living Trinity. Our bodies, even when they don’t work the way we want them to, especially when they don’t work the way we want them to, are creative expressions of God’s own eternal life, here and now.
Of course, what is true for my body is true for yours, and for all bodies in the world. The scandal of receiving the good news of our bodies as sacred space is that we begin to see the implications for how we treat one another, other creatures, and the earth itself. If our bodies are so cherished by God, then abuse and self-abuse, rape, and violence are horrific to the point of desecration. Our culture has forgotten this completely. We who call ourselves Christians walk in a Way that remembers that God loves matter. “The Word of God, who is God, wills at all places and at all times to work the mystery of his embodiment.” So wrote Maximus the Confessor in the 7th century as he articulated the faith anew.
How to begin to receive the sacredness of your own body? Start by giving thanks in a specific way: “Thank you for my heart that beats. Thank you for the teeth I still have. Thank you for this skin. Thank you for my eyelashes and for my eyes.” Keep thanking. Keep adding to the list. And, when you fall ill, or someone you love does, name the illness as you intercede, and keep on thanking the living God, deep at work in the sub-atomic particles of the molecules of your cells. Keep on thanking the God who deigns to dwell within your body and the bodies of the whole human family. Then remember to pray for all bodies, for those who suffer from a malady such as yours, for those who have no recourse to medical care.
Most importantly, rejoice in the fact of your breathing, digesting, moving, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Allow yourself to receive the grace extended to you through this primary habitat of the body.
For you yourself created my inmost parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
Your works are wonderful, and I know it well. (Ps. 139:12-13).
The Rev. Mary Earle is a writer, teacher, retreat leader and author-in-residence at The Work+Shop, a ministry of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San AntonioTX. Reach her at email@example.com.