During this time of year I am especially aware of what it means to be embodied. As I meditate on the mystery and horror of a God who became flesh—with all the humiliation and pain it involved—I am ultimately brought back to its glory. Eventually, despite the flesh’s embarrassing weakness and, worse than that, its debilitating plainness, this time of year brings me close to the reality of the veiled beauty and utter mystery of the union between body and soul.
My ninety year old grandmother, who is frail and bedridden, asks me to cut her fingernails almost every time I go over to visit. She has been asking me to do this for her for close to eight years now, and I have to admit that my willingness has gone through many stages. It’s not always easy or pleasant to cut her nails. For many years, I almost dreaded the task. But recently, I have developed a new willingness, and even eagerness to do this for her. Her mind is often very distant, and as her conversation skills have diminished, it’s become harder to connect with her on an intellectual or emotional level. But there is something that remains in the simple act of physical touch. Something that I can’t identify or exploit, but remains constant nonetheless.
As I crouched next to her today, breathing with her, that constant came unbidden. Holding her papery hands in mine I felt the brush of her trembles, and my own body felt young and strong beside hers. The aroma of the room and the slow clip of the nails framed us. I was closer to her in that moment—her brittle nail clippings falling into my skirt—than I’ve been for a long time. We said nothing, and we needed nothing said. The reality of the body is that quite often, it is capable of bearing that communication even better than the words I might form, especially with a grandmother whom I love but don’t know how to talk to anymore.
So much of my world is intangible—speaking with my parents and siblings over the phone or by text, watching friends’ photos slide by, entering the virtual world of a movie. I forget how my physical self hungers for nearness until I am reunited with those I love most, and then I want only to be in their presence. Just to look at them and watch their lips move fills the lost part of me that I often set aside. I know there is no real magic encircling our physical bodies, but it feels like magic sometimes to listen to my mother’s heartbeat or touch the shiny softness of my cousins’ hair. To sit beside my brothers or beg a friend for a back massage.
I think often about the distance I place between myself and those I long to be near. I treat the distance like it is inconsequential, and content myself with the fact that I have the capacity to stay in touch over long distances. But it’s not the same. It’s the difference between the way it feels to watch a good movie and to move in a room full of actors who are listening. One is the best kind of voyeurism; the other is life itself.
I have not lived very long, but I’ve lived long enough now to know that God will take me wherever he wants, and my work is to find those close by, as well as far off, who will make up this winding adventure. The balance on my hands is not just one of work and pleasure or joy and grief, it is also one of body and soul, intellect and instinct. The longer I live and the more I long for the physical presence of those I am no longer near, the more I take comfort in the promise not just of soul but of body as well.
Because how could we be if not for the frail and embarrassing reality of this union? Only the divine could come up with something so simple and paradoxical. Connected by something as inconsequential as nail clippings—what grace is found in that.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele