Honor Thy Body

Last December,

Last December, I boarded a plane to fly home for the holidays and plopped down in my seat, already exhausted from pre-Christmas activities and preparation. I thought to myself, "Next year, I have to get more sleep and take better care of my body. I can’t survive at this pace!"

As I sat and began to read Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality, I realized it couldn’t have come at a better time. Like so many other Americans (even Christian Americans), the Christmas season exaggerates the sense of busyness, exhaustion, and excess consumption in my life. This book challenges us to re-examine that tendency by providing thoughtful reflection on the history of the body in spiritual practices and by exploring the role of the body in Christian theology. Examples of ordinary people’s experiences gently invite readers to a deeper and more holistic understanding of Christian theology and practice, one that recognizes the centrality of the body in each.

In the early chapters of this collection, Thomas Ryan and James Wiseman argue convincingly that Christian theology honors the body, perhaps to a higher degree than other world religions. They remind us of a basic and unique tenet of Christianity - the incarnation of God himself in Jesus Christ. Ryan then provides examples of the ways that Christian denominations already incorporate the body into worship and prayer. He also shares inspiration from other world religions.

Throughout his two chapters, Ryan weaves examples of personal rituals that illustrate how we can take better care of our bodies and give them due credit in our spiritual lives. He tells a heartwarming story of a woman washing her face while lifting up the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a reminder of her beauty in God, and recalls a summer vacation during which he said his morning prayers "in the water, belly-up, facing the rising sun." Ryan suggests that basic prayerful activities that incorporate the body can take our Christian spirituality to a new and deeper level.

In "Voices from the Mat," Casey Rock, a certified yoga instructor with a master’s degree in divinity, continues the book’s theme of the human body as a "sacred text within the larger text of creation." Sharing honestly about her personal struggles with the church, Rock explores the reasoning behind the current rise in popularity of yoga, especially among younger people, with the simultaneous occurrence of dwindling church attendance. Rock believes the power of yoga lies in its basic, primitive message: "You exist." By encouraging understanding of our uniqueness, fostering tranquility, cultivating forgiveness, and promoting the feminine, Rock argues that yoga helps us satisfy our natural, human thirst for contact with God. She concludes with a powerful testimony of the leadership role women play in the field of yoga instruction, a ministerial role that in many ways has been denied to women throughout Christianity’s history.

JAMES DICKERSON’S chapter on the political and social dimensions of embodied prayer continues the editors’ plea for a more holistic Christian spirituality. Earlier in the book Rabbi Abraham Heschel is quoted as having said of his experience marching with Martin Luther King Jr. that his "feet were praying." Dickerson powerfully illustrates this type of religious experience - which connects prayer and public activities - through his discussion of the politics of Jesus’ spirituality and the moving examples of the ways in which Dickerson’s faith community in inner-city Washington, D.C., faithfully integrates efforts for social change into their spiritual disciplines. Basing his work solidly on scripture and theology, Dickerson issues a stirring call to take seriously the political and social implications of Jesus’ teaching.

The concluding chapter, "Reclaiming the Body of the Earth" by James Hall, is rich in scripture, theology, and personal narratives. Hall encourages us to wonder at the creation of the world so that with the faith of little children we may receive and enter the reign of God. He reminds us that creation reveals God, but it should not be our god. Similarly, the overall theme of reclaiming the body in Christian spirituality does not suggest that the human body should be worshipped or idolized. Rather, it’s a simple reminder that our bodies are indeed a temple of the Holy Spirit and that we should therefore glorify God with our bodies - a simple message of which many of us need to be reminded.

Christa Mazzone is field organizer with Call to Renewal in Washington, D.C.

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