The body that is corrupted presses down the soul. The earthly tabernacle weighs
down the mind that muses upon many things. - Augustine, Confessions
I was re-reading Confessions when I came across the above quote. I don’t understand why people speak as if the mind is pure and the body is corrupt. To be sure, in Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul sets up the flesh (meaning the desires of the world, not our physical bodies) against the spirit (meaning the life aligned with God’s word, not our ethereal souls). And yet despite the age-old and ever-popular heresy of gnosticism (just as prevalent now as during Augustine’s time or the time of the Greeks,) the Bible is clear about the fact that we are both body and mind, and neither is more corrupt or holy than the other.
Far from understanding my spirit as pure and my body as corrupt, it always seems to be through my body, and not my soul, that grace shines most clearly, and I am grateful for the ways this has manifested over the years.
It was my body that taught me, as a senior in college, that standing in a room and breathing back to back with another human being can heal. That looking into the eyes of a man doesn’t have to be sexual, that holding hands can simply be a symbol of common humanity. That having a safe way to touch someone not only brings connection but also elevation of my own person as well as theirs. I can say something to myself in my mind over and over, but if instead I learn it through my fingers and my hands, it will go straight to my core and become a part of who I am, instead of who I want to be.
It is not my body that compares itself to others, but rather my spirit. While my mind reaches for any opportunity to praise or condemn my own skin--and the skins of those around me--my body moves on, digesting, stretching, sleeping, enjoying, hurting, resting. My thighs are pleased to be mine, though I am not pleased with them. My toes and ankles do their jobs, even when I reject them. My chin doesn’t care if it looks fat in photos; it wants to laugh all the same.
It is my body that calms me, when my mind is racing or my spirits depressed. My legs that carry me on long walks when energy builds up in my soul, propelling me to leave, and those same legs always bring me back. It is my eyes that fill with sight, trying to remind my thoughts that what is tangible and what I feel are not the same thing. It’s my breath that calms me when I lie awake in the night, anxiety thrumming through my veins, panic seeping around the edges of my mind. In and out, in and out. The breath, at least, is constant and dependable. It does not waver.
It is my mind that distrusts my body, as time goes forward and my bones and skin change; my mind that seeks to find something wrong, something corrupted, something to fixate on in worry, and my body that steadily hums; healing, thriving, slowly decaying. It’s through my body that I have learned most poignantly how fearful I am, how little I can control the world around me, how to be present in the moment I exist in. To blame the body for the corruption of the soul is like a human blaming a beloved dog for her own sin; it is the flesh that carries on and performs its duties faithfully while the spirit rails against the state of everything it touches.
It is my body that forgives, touching my husband’s face, when my mind resists, and my fingers that remind me of love when my spirit stubbornly holds up the platter of wrongs that have been done to me. It’s my breath that sidles up to the platter and knocks it askew, tipping it so that the wrongs come crashing off, one by one, and once more our bodies can be quiet, unweighted and unburdened. Finally: the spirit silent, our flesh alone and at peace.
It is the body that has shown me, in a darkened theater or a crowded circus tent, that some things can only be communicated through the physical--there are truths that rise up from the depths of who God made us to be, and words can’t cover or touch them. Some things live so deep, run so far below the surface, that the only way to understand them is to see and feel them physically recreated; sacred, soft, steady, and dense.
It was the body, of course, that Christ required to bring redemption and healing; not the body that he suffered, but the body that he gladly took and fully became. The physical presence that God had pointed to from the very beginning, blood and lambs and sacrifice because it’s who we are, not something to seek to avoid. He took a body not just so that we could be elevated, but because the physical is part of the very fabric of existence; when our bodies die we will not cease to be material, we will become even more fully embodied and truly enfleshed for the first time.
These breaking bodies that are so faithful, that enforce our limits and our reality, that serve as the scapegoats of our mind’s desires--these bodies point constantly to our need for restoration and our union in blood with the body of Christ our God whose healing power rippled across not just the intangible idea of salvation we carry in our minds, but through the very tendons and muscles of our bodies. That is why we eat real bread and drink real wine as an act of communion; it’s through the physical mechanics of chewing and swallowing that God meets us and sustains us.
She is faithful, this body of mine; she is far more faithful to me than I am to her. She is me, and I am honored to be her.
Artwork by Bruce Buescher
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