The Body as Bridge to God
In Rehab of the Senses, I have been exploring the body as a bridge rather than a barrier to a profound relationship with God in everyday life. My goal has been to describe an embodied spirituality without gaps that welcomes the presence of God at all times, in all places, with all people in the temple of creation. Rather than accepting a divide between spiritual and secular, church and world, our physical senses of sight, touch, and listening can become sacred organs for experiencing and sharing God in our God-created, God-loved, God-inhabited bodies.
This is why the Bible’s original and ultimate vision has no temple. The world, the human body, and our bodies in community are seen as God’s temple. Genesis pictures our embodied humanity as the marriage of earth and heaven, physical dust and divine breath inseparably woven together. Paul asks,
“Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?”
and calls us to see the sacred significance of our bodies by “honoring God” with them.” The body is God’s gift and our most intimate platform for a profound relationship with God and others.
In Seeing, I looked at how our sense of sight can serve as a lens that opens our eyes to God’s presence in all visible reality.
Looking into the face of another person retrains this sacred gaze. I can both see you and not see you, because there is always more to you than I can behold. Intimacy and transcendence meet in our eyes. The face is both a window and a wall, joining together the mystery of personal encounter and the demand not to violate one another.
Like the face, the visible world is what it is in its physical immediacy, and yet it is also embodies the depth-dimension of God’s creativity and care. Augustine beholds the world and hears a voice that cries, “He made us!” Calvin opens his eyes and sees a “mirror” that reveals “the sparks of God’s glory.” With a similar vision, Hopkins declares, “Christ plays in ten-thousand places.”
When our sense of sight is rehabbed, we do not need to close our eyes to see God. We can open our eyes and behold the invisible God in all things, starting with the faces of our neighbors and stretching to the depth and vastness of all things. Like Gabriel sang,
“In your eyes, I see the doorway to a thousand churches.”
I sketched a similar coming together of intimacy and transcendence in our sense of touch that can remind us of God and awaken our reverence.
With our bodies, we can both touch one another and not feel the other being felt, literally because we cannot get in one another’s skin. Again, there is a physically incarnated meeting of presence and transcendence, intimacy and mystery in our nervous system. We encounter a depth-dimension in our most basic sensation of being with one another that calls for a prayerful openness and refusal to invade one another’s lives.
And thus touch – shaking hands, sharing a hug, or knowing when not to touch – calls for a tender intimacy, a respectful contact attuned to mystery. We can touch but never grasp, make contact but never possess, come together but never inhabit one another.
The brilliant sensibility of our bodies thus reminds us of the nearness and vastness of our Creator, the insideness and beyondness of God in all things. Whether the breeze on our faces or another’s hand on our hand, sensation can inflesh God’s mysterious love for us from before our birth to after our death, while always remaining intangible to our grasp for control.
When our sense of touch is rehabbed, we do not need to numb our bodies or hanker after ecstatic “out-of-body” experiences to meet God. We need simply to pay attention and awaken our flesh to the intangible God in all sensation, from a hospital bed to a homeless stranger’s hug. Touch itself becomes an embodied form of prayer that welcomes God’s presence in the world.
Listening is similar to seeing and touching, joining together intimacy with mystery.
I can hear your voice, understand (some of) your meaning, and thus experience the miracle of interpersonal encounter. But I cannot force you to speak, predict what you will say, or exhaust your meaning. As the face and skin are both windows and walls, so is the voice and the ears that hear it. They open a depth-dimension in which there is always more, an invitation to continue listening with attention and reverence so the other can reveal their self.
As such, every act of listening is an act of faith. We don’t know in advance what we will hear and how it will change our lives when we ask a simple question like, “How are you?” and truly listen to the other’s revelation. Our listening takes us beyond ourselves and into relationship that implicates our responsibility to care and serve. It embodies openness and agency, vulnerability and responsibility, contact without control.
In the Bible, listening is the beginning of the divine life. Rather than constructing idols that echo our own voices or building camps around what we think we already know, true religion is a listening life of self-transcendence that is ready for surprising revelation and new responsibility before God. And thus every act of listening can be a spiritual practice that retrains our attentiveness and readiness for God. The ear opens to the voice at the origin of the universe and resonates throughout reality.
Rehab of the Senses
From our eyes to our skin to our ears, Rehab of the Senses is making the audacious but deeply biblical claim that our bodies are bridges rather than barriers to God in our world. Our bodies are alive with God.
More than an idea to contemplate, this series is an invitation to experience. It calls for a new practice of ordinary life in which sight opens our eyes to the invisible God, touch puts us in touch with the intangible God, and listening attunes our ears to the inaudible voice of God. The body itself becomes an organic, mnemonic platform that reminds us we live in a God-created, God-saturated, God-loved world that cries out for our attention and embrace.
From this perspective, we do not need to overcome our bodies or go to a church building to experience God (although the latter may help energize this spirituality if it doesn’t try to monopolize God). Experience itself is already spiritual, because our bodies themselves arealready God’s gifts, and the world itself is already God’s temple. “In him we live and move and exist,” Paul said. The key is noticing and retraining our senses to welcome God in all things, at all times, in all places, with all people, without gaps or breaks – in the sights and sounds and touches of everyday life.
Rather than rejecting or worshiping our bodies, like ancient and modern cultures, Christian spirituality invites us to receive and celebrate our fragile bodies as sacred organs. With profound mystery, Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper, “This is my body given for you.” At the climax of his ministry, Jesus presents his body as his greatest gift and the way to God.
What if we could receive our bodies in everyday life as God’s gift and God’s way to himself? Moreover, what if we could live like Jesus did, making our bodies gifts for one another, such that each coming together becomes a worldly sacrament?
This is my body, your body, our bodies – gifts, temples, bridges to God and one another in God’s beloved world.
I invite you to join me in rehabbing our senses and pursuing a spirituality in everyday life that welcomes God, loves others, and renews the world.
“God is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” Genesis 28:16
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes… And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations