Embodiment: The Body as a Blessing
Each morning I read a prayer by Marianne Williamson which includes the line, “help me to stay focused on things of the Spirit.” This prayer uplifts my tired body and motivates my studies. That being said, while focused on the world of Spirit, it can be easy to diminish and forget about the value of our physical selves. Christianity has a history of leaving the body out of sanctity. In my teenage years, I indoctrinated myself as an Evangelical. I believed the messages that were conveyed to me about my own body: that the “heart is deceitful” (Jer 17:9 ). That the “flesh” is inherently evil (Romans 8:8). I believed that two-piece swimsuits signified sin and was taught in Youth Group to “flee” from any desires of the body. With my mother being a yoga and dance teacher, these messages never set well with me. I had grown up seeing the body as a home for my spirit. I knew movement as a way of honoring ourselves and our souls. I was stuck between two doctrines: Is the body inherently good or inherently sinful? Can we trust our bodies? Can I trust myself?
I eventually grew to understand that these anti-body narratives are tightly wrapped in purity culture and modesty culture: both of which are damaging. Jamie Lee Finch, author of You Are Your Own, brought me the term “embodiment.” Embodiment is the act of reconciling the body and spirit. Jamie Lee Finch was taught through her Evangelical upbringing that her body was the opposite of spirit. That they can not coexist, but rather the body should be silenced and the spirit elevated above all. While I understand the desire to fixate on the spiritual, this perspective leads to trauma, illness, and a harmful relationship to one's own body. Her religious upbringing was rooted in Christian extremism. She spent each day as a child terrified that her non-Christian friends would spend eternity being tortured. And that her own salvation balanced on a thin wire. She explains this as a form of PTSD as she writes, “people raised under Evangelical doctrines are forced to wage war with their flesh, and their personalities, in order to be considered Holy.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this manifests as physical and mental illness. It expresses itself in the body: gastrointestinal issues, weakened immune systems, chronic pain, depression. This isn’t just a matter of academic theology. It’s a matter of healing theology versus harmful theology. And a religion based on love should never inflict pain. Jamie Lee Finch teaches people that it is okay to trust your body. It is okay to live in your body. She brings to light what Jesus expressed simply by coming to Earth: God is okay with us being human.
As people who believe God is our creator, we must understand that God wants us to be human. The physical, mental, and spiritual can and should be integrated. We are divine beings having a human experience, a notion that has been phrased hundreds of times in different ways. Our bodies are not to be feared, they are to be embraced. They are to be invited into the divine dance. They should be a part of our spiritual practice, as yoga so clearly exemplifies. Christianity has a reputation for being a bit static, or stuffy, or silent. Contemplation has its place, and sometimes silence is the best way to hear God. At the same time, worship can be movement and even dance. Liturgical dance, or contemplative movement, is a growing field that succeeds in engaging the body in spiritual practice. In her vibrant article, Brianna Lantz promotes embodiment as she writes, “I think of spirituality not as this thing that makes us leave our lived reality, but actually something that draws us deeper into it.” Furthermore, the definition of a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with outward appearance and everything to do with a relationship to Christ. Evangelical Christianity likes to compartmentalize our bodies from our spirits, but it's necessary to accept and bless our bodies just as they are.
A link to Jamie's website: Jamie Lee Finch