My next series of essays is called “Rehab of the Senses.” It explores how our bodies can be bridges rather than barriers to a profound relationship with God and others in everyday life.
What if the body is not something to escape or idolize but a gift from God to cherish? What if our senses of seeing, hearing, and touching can remind us that we live in a world created, loved, and promised everlasting life by God? What if the physical body is also a spiritual organ, a sacrament that opens and connects us to God?
Living in our bodies with rehabbed senses can change how we relate to others and experience the world. It can also deliver us from a part-time spirituality that only really functions when we’re in church or doing things we’ve defined as “spiritual” like Bible reading, praying, and sharing our faith.
“Rehab of the Senses” seeks a life of incessant devotion to God in every, physical experience of our lives – an embodied spirituality without gaps or breaks. It’s a fresh way to practice the presence of God in all things. Jean Vanier, the philosopher and founder of L’Arche, expressed the passion of this series well:
“It is essential for all of us to find the nourishment we need in daily life itself… Daily life is only nourishing when we have discovered the wisdom of the present moment and the presence of God in small things. It is only nourishing when we have given up fighting reality and accept it, discovering the message and gift of the moment… Each of these can be an occasion for wonder and awe, a moment of the presence of God.”
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth
The Body, Ancient and Modern
In the ancient world, the human body was often seen as a curse, something to punish and escape. For example, Plato famously described the body as a tomb and prison for the soul (Giorgias 493a; Phaedo 82e). Plato’s earthier student Aristotle still envisioned the highest good as a life of pure intellectual contemplation in which the body is ultimately left behind (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X).
These images of the body have cast long shadows across Western history. They have contributed to our sense that the body is a punishment, burden, or tool to be abandoned for a perfectly “spiritual” life in a nonphysical world.
To the other extreme, much of our materialistic culture today is obsessed with the body. The body is idolized for its sexy appearance and capacity to sell almost anything in our consumer economy addicted to triggering desire. Or, on the shadow side of this obsession, the body is resented and despised for its divergence from the popular ideal and cloaked in shame for its weakness and brokenness.
It sometimes seems the body is nothing or everything, a throwaway tool or entrancing god for us.
What is certain is that we inhabit our bodies twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for our entire lives. Our body is the most intimate thing that we have and are. It is also the most immediately practical aspect of our lives: We go nowhere and do nothing without our bodies. None of us has a part-time body.
The Christian Body
With Christianity growing out of its ancient Jewish roots, a radically new vision and experience of the body was born – we could say a revolutionary history of the body as gift and temple of God.
In the past, Christians picture God fashioning our bodies from the dust, inbreathing them with God’s life, and endowing us with God’s image (Genesis 1-2). There is a profound wordplay in the Hebrew: humans (adam) are the fusion of soil (adama) and the living breath that God exhales into us – the marriage of earth and heaven in our inspired bodies (Genesis 2:7). Here the body is God’s brilliant design and blessing, enabling us to move, work, and share our lives with one another in a world seen as God’s temple.
Thus, in the prologue to the Bible, if you want to see God, you shouldn’t stare at idols or close your eyes to contemplate ideas. The ancient pagan and philosophical options are rejected. You should look at your neighbor in their fragile but beloved physicality. That is how God is “imaged” or represented and made personally present in the world that God celebrates as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Humans are the icons of God.
Turning to the future, the Bible doesn’t imagine us flying away from our bodies after death, like a ghost abandoning its sheet to the wind. Instead, the New Testament promises us a resurrected body, a body set free from decay to live forever in God’s “new creation” – eating, working, singing, and doing other things that only bodies can do (Revelation 21-22).
This is why, in one of the most powerful sections of Paul’s writings, he affirms,
“He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.” (Romans 8:11).
For Paul, the Christian hope is nothing less than “the redemption of our bodies” – not simply our souls or spirits (Romans 8:23).
And in the now time, Christians believe that our bodies are made of the same flesh that Jesus himself embraced as “the fullness of God in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus’s beloved disciple John insisted that, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), a shocking reversal of the expected movement from “flesh” to “Word” and away from the world. To quote Vanier again,
“All Christians are perhaps called to make the passage from the light and beauty of the Word to the poverty and littleness of the body… God became visible in the poverty of the body of a little child needing to be held, nourished, and loved.”
Vanier, Community and Growth
In the wake of God’s incarnation in Jesus, Paul wrote these audacious lines about the bodies of Jesus’s followers:
“Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God… You are the body of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 6:19; 12:27 see John 2:22)
Here Paul forever revolutionizes how the body could be imagined and experienced – as something holy, precious, and united with others in love to form a sacred home for God in the world.
This body-embracing theology – this embodied way of seeing and talking about God – makes sense of the “Eucharist,” the holiest practice in Christian spirituality, which means “good gift” or “celebration.” Every time we gather, Jesus invites us into a “love feast,” which memorializes Jesus’s death and resurrection and reminds us of our hope for new life. This feast begins with Jesus’s remarkable words:
“This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19; see 1 Corinthians 11:24).
In the Eucharist, the church is the community of Christ’s body, and our bodies together with his are given as gifts and gateways to eternity.
Stop and think about this radical breakthrough in culture. With Christ, we have moved from the body as an imprisoning tomb or enslaving idol to the body as the holy temple of God to be celebrated and shared with others as a sacrament, a physical touch-point with God.
Rehab of the Senses
Now, take a deep, slow breath. Rub your hands together and feel the sensation on your skin. Blink your eyes and focus on an object near you. Listen briefly for the sound or silence around you. Perhaps give a kiss to your partner or child.
Rather than a barrier to God, Christian spirituality welcomes the body and its senses as a meeting place for heaven and earth – the living marriage of worldly soil and divine breath that God loves and promises to resurrect. Vanier beautifully calls this a “betrothal with the universe,” “a sense of belonging to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.” In the Christian imagination, the body is invited to be God’s dwelling place, a sacred gift to be embraced with gratitude, hope, and a sense of God’s personal presence – here and now, deep into the past, and stretching forever into the future.
No wonder Paul wrote to his counter-cultural communities and encouraged them to take their bodies seriously. To Corinth, he wrote, “Therefore, honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19). To Rome, he wrote, “I urge you to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Paul often concluded his letters by saying, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” – a physical expression of friendship and affection (Romans 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thes. 5:26).
For Paul, the body has a divine vocation, a sacred dignity and possibility to be cultivated. It is not to be left behind or abused (Colossians 2:23). Instead, Paul speaks of “training” his body and the hope that “Christ will be exalted in my body” – indeed, that “the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (1 Corinthians 10:24-27; Philippians 1:20; 2 Corinthians 4:10). In one of his most thought-provoking paragraphs, Paul writes,
“The body…is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” (1 Corinthians 6:13-15)
Paul’s language is puzzling and profound, his question incredible. He seems to see our physical bodies as joined together with the divine life of “Christ himself.” This sacramental sense led Paul to a tremendous respect and tenderness toward the body’s fragility: “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (1 Corinthians 12:23).
Again, this is worlds away from the Platonic escape from the body as tomb or the hedonistic idolization of the body as god. Here the body is a sacred meeting place, a bridge between heaven and earth, a “jar of clay” that houses the “treasure” of God’s “all-surpassing power” in all of its fragility and glory (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is something to be kissed with a sense of God’s holy presence and inhabited with expectation.
Surrounding and infusing our bodies, Paul envisions humanity living in a God-saturated world. It’s almost as if we could reach out and touch God or take a breath and inhale the primal oxygen of our Creator. To the philosophers in Athens, Paul says,
“God himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else… God [designed humanity and history] so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ [Epimenides]. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’ [Aratus]. (Acts 17:24-27)
God is not far away from anyone. Everything we are and have comes from God. If we are fish, God is the ocean. Paul sums up this vision in one of his letters from prison: “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5).
Paul’s letters are drenched with a mystical consciousness that does not abandon our bodies but embraces, encompasses, and energizes them. Paul states that God’s final purpose in history is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” and thus that Christ’s mission was to “fill the whole universe” (Ephesians 1:10; 4:10; also Colossians 1:20; see Matthew 6:10). And Paul sees this ultimate union anticipated and joined together in human bodies and their fellowship in Christ’s body:
“The Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:23).
“God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23)
C.S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people.” From this perspective, we might say, “There are no ordinary bodies.”
Our bodies together are Christ’s body, and this opens us toward the fullness of God’s filling of all things in every way possible. (If this is stretching your mind and imagination, you’re not alone!) Paul thinks the body – at least the body when it is set free to be with and for others in Christ’s love – is sacramental, a site of God’s presence, the marrying of immanence and transcendence, time and eternity, the finite and the infinite, the tangible and invisible.
This is so much larger and better than the body as a prison to escape or an idol to worship and dread. In biblical rehab, the body is simultaneously embraced as small, fragile, and dying, while also created, loved, and promised redemption by God. As Paul wrote, “The life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
So, what if our bodies are God’s temple, and what if we inhabited our bodies with this sacred attunement? What if our senses – seeing, hearing, and touching – are bodily organs for welcoming, serving, and experiencing God in the world with others whose bodies are also sacred gifts to be cherished? What if the way to God is not leaving our bodily senses behind or punishing them or obsessing over them but coming home to them and rehabilitating them as gifted openings that lead us with others to God?
These are the questions and passionate search that animate my next few essays.
Before signing off, take another slow breath. Rub your hands together. Listen carefully for a moment. Look out the window or into your neighbor’s face. What if God is waiting to be found and welcomed in these senses when they are rehabilitated?
Stop and think with me, and let’s see if we can transform our part-time spirituality into an embodied way of life filled with God’s presence. The body has been created by God to perform sacramental activity simply by being itself. I long for this way of life and will describe glimpses of it in the weeks to come.
“When love is given and received, a trust and peace enter the heart, which the face and the whole body radiate… If the body is truly the dwelling place of God, a holy ground, then all our relationships are transformed. When we meet and touch others, we do so with even more respect as we realize their life is holy. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and asks us to do the same, is he not showing us the importance of meeting each other, touching each other, with simplicity, gentleness, and great respect, because each person is precious?”
Jean Vanier, Essential Writings